I look asleep. But I’m not. Sure, my eyes are closed, my lashes are fluttering, and my breath is slight leavening in my chest. It means nothing.
Look closer. I’m a little nerd. Woody Allen in an eleven-year-old girl’s body. Coke bottle glasses. Buck teeth. Greasy braids. Chicken legs. My pj’s consist of an orange Flyers t-shirt and hole-y pale pink bottoms with the feet cut off.
The nightlight burns bright on the bedside table. Somewhere in the swells of blankets, there’s a book. I’ve fallen asleep with my glasses on. But I’m not really asleep.
Inside I feel awake. I can see my room around me, but I can’t move. I lie stuck inside a pocket, halted on the path to sleep. It’s as if I’m lying in a clear casket, cut to the exact perimeters of my body. The blue walls of my room look crinkly, as if awash with static from Channel four. The grainy air hums like a million little mouths. I get the feeling that I’m not alone. Something stirs in my bed.
I look down at my body. Many hands have sprouted from my sides. I look like a spider girl or the Hindu goddess Kali. Only I have no control over the hands. They don’t lie dormant or paralyzed with the rest of my body. They turn on me. They tickle me in my most secret places—behind my knees, the small of my back, the arches of my feet. They stroke the crooks of me, not in a way that makes me explode with laughter, but in a way that makes me squirm and wince. They pick at my torso, my belly, and my legs. They pluck me like a guitar.
The humming air begins to chuckle. It itches the insides of my ears. It feels like something is holding me down in my bed. If I struggle, it will smother me.
It’s not just a dream. It’s sleep paralysis and it’s been happening since I was four.
SP is a condition where a person, either falling asleep or waking, feels unable to move or speak. It happens when a sleeper moves through the stages of sleep too fast. The result is death-like paralysis, coupled with intense fear, and sometimes hallucinations.
I call the episodes, trances. I’ve never told anybody about the trances—partly because I don’t think they are that dangerous, just a little scary and weird, and partly because I don’t know what to tell, or who to tell.
Who will believe me? There’s so much about me that’s wrong. Each of the hands that sprout from my sides is another thing about me that I don’t like. My glasses. My smile that’s like a retard’s. My nose dripping snot. My throat making me cough until I puke. My head that’s so tired. My body that can’t sleep. My brain that won’t shut up. My mouth that always says the wrong things.
If my body is a garden from where these hands grow, then I’m the gardener, fertilizing it with hate. Self-hate, when done right, becomes part of everything I do and don’t do. This is why instead of telling my parents or a doctor what’s up with me, or researching sleep disorders, I stay quiet and still, suffering through the nights of my childhood.
There’s only one way to get out of sleep paralysis, and it’s painful. I have to wake myself up.
It’s like I’m in a little shell, with just enough room to wiggle. I start rocking forward. I tell myself: Wake up, wake up, wake up. I focus all of my energy on these words and where they are coming from, the very center of my forehead. I rock once, twice. I grit my teeth and wrench up, pulling through what feels like twelve feet of water.
I sit up. I feel like I’ve been pelted with bricks. If I stay in bed, I’ll conk out again, and slip right back into paralysis. The rest of the night will be a cycle of strangulation until dawn. I jump out of bed and go to the window.
It’s around four in the morning, I judge by the royal color of the sky. Not much longer until daytime. I place my hands on the windowsill, and rest my chin on my hands.
I live in God’s Country, the suburbs of Philadelphia. Behind our house is a rolling acre of grass and a farm. At this hour, not even the horses are awake. The silence is so loud that it bangs in my ears. The stillness wraps me like a blanket. I feel like I’m the only person alive on earth. And it’s lovely.
I stare at the line of trees at the edge of my backyard. The branches have grown in such a way that they look like a portrait. Their shadows make faces, kinda like how clouds look like different shapes and faces in the springtime. This morning, the trees look like Gone with the Wind, Rhett dipping Scarlett back for a kiss, saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I’ve never seen the movie, but I want so badly to fall into someone’s arms, and have someone fall in love with me.
I am eleven. I think that everything that happens to me means something. I think that this picture in the trees is a sign.
I sigh, wish into the screen: Someday, someone will take care of me.
The wind picks up. A bird lifts off Scarlett’s shoulder. It flaps into the dying sky. For a moment, I watch it fly. Its body catches the dawning light; its muscles throb and flex beneath its threadbare coat.
Flying is hard. Often, I’ve wondered: Do birds even enjoy it?
If not, what a shame. Although sometimes when the body is hardest at work, it feels the most calm, we feel the most alive. This is something I’ve yet to learn, that lying around, doing nothing, and waiting for change only makes a person go more insane.
I circle my room for a while. I flip through teen magazines. I organize my closet. I read my favorite Baby-sitter’s Club book for the 88 millionth time.
Two hours, and the sky begins to change. It turns a deep Navy Atlantic, and grows paler and paler until settling on a crisp salty blue.
Across the hall in my parents’ room, KYW news radio clacks on. Their bed creaks. Mom groans. Dad coughs. I turn and look to the alarm clock on my nightstand. Six. Time to get ready for school. I lay my forehead down on the windowsill and close my eyes. Suddenly, I feel so tired.