Awake and unable to move... when sleep makes life stranger than fiction

Lois' great nephew Amir drew this picture after he heard her story.

by Lois Cooper

I have always had less-than-ideal sleeping habits. As a child, my siblings would taunt me for falling asleep downstairs watching TV rather than going to my bed when I was sleepy. (That practice continues today.) I always fall asleep on the sofa and then wake up and stumble off to my bedroom. There are times I wake up in the wee hours of the morning and watch TV until I fall back to sleep and wake up at about 6AM. These practices do not promote a peaceful and restful sleep. One morning, things got very bizarre and 911 had to be called.

When I opened my door, there were three paramedics outside and two on the way up the stairs with the ram to open my door. It was a call from my neighbor to 911 that helped to bring me out of a very bizarre dimension that was later defined as sleep paralysis

WebMD defines sleep paralysis as "a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Some people may also feel pressure or a sense of choking."

I asked my neighbor what this bizarre episode sounded like from his perspective, and he said, "At first I heard a soft hum. After a minute or two I could clearly hear you calling out for help. You started saying ‘help me’ harder but did not respond to anything I asked you through the walls." That aligns with what I remember during the ordeal.

Then he said, "From the moment I heard you to when you opened your door, some 15 to 20 minutes had elapsed. The police came quick, I took one of the officers to my unit, so he could hear you calling out for help. They were waiting on some approval to kick down the door. Thankfully, it wasn't necessary."

That morning was not much different from any other. I followed the same unusual sleep habits that I normally do. I had awakened in the wee hours, watched television, and fell back to sleep. But this time I wandered into a very strange dimension of sleep/wake. I was awake, but I could not move. Some strange forces had me pinned to my bed. I struggled to move any part of my body, but I couldn't. So, I tried to call out for help. I could see my surroundings and some very strange almost alien like activity going on in my bedroom. Light flashed on the mirror on my wall, facial images rapidly zoom over my bed and I was being held down by something on the side of my bed and then there was smoke in the room.

I cried out for help because wherever I was and whatever was going on was frightening. In the far-off distance I could hear sirens as I prayed that someone could hear me. I could hear the sirens getting closer and there seemed to be some commotion in the distance, but I still could not move. At some point, the smoke seemed to be increasing in my bedroom. I could hear people and I knew they were coming for me. In that very strange moment I thought they would have to knock down my door to get in. I actually thought to myself, what would I do about my door that day?

Soon I heard people at my door, and whatever was holding me released me. I scrambled from my bed choking from the smoke, slumped over, and dragged myself to the door.

Once the paramedics were inside and I calmed down, they took my vitals. I said I didn't want to go to the hospital because I had to go to work. They asked what happened, and I said, “You’re not going to believe this” and then told them my story.

DC Fire & EMS and MPD officers who came to the author's rescue.

Immediately one of the paramedics said, “I don't want to diagnose you because I'm not a doctor,” he said, “But it sounds like sleep paralysis.” He said it happened to him a couple of times and he read up on it. He said it was like he had gargoyles sitting on his chest. He said if you haven't been through it you wouldn't understand. An article in the Atlantic states that, "People all over the world experience this terror. In fact, it’s as old as sleep itself."

Since that day I have a certain kind of apprehension as I think about sleep. I had a similar experience at 13 years old when my father passed away, and that time there was a white vapor-kind-of-spirit in the room.

I have begun to move things around and out of my bedroom to create better Feng Shui. I'm praying, burning sage, and plan to redecorate my space to create more harmony, promote better peace, and ultimately better sleep.

The author with her neighbor, Hild E, who called 911.

I'd like to say heroes don't always ride horses … my hero happens to ride a motorcycle.
Thanks, Hild E.

Be Well! ...& Sleep Well!

Lois Cooper

Lois is a native Washingtonian and proud parent of two daughters who recently graduated from college. She is the founder and Director of the District of Columbia African American Legacy Foundation (DCAALF), a grassroots organization that helps underserved populations.

Lois is also the creator and producer of the “The Pride and Promise of Petworth” documentary. Ms. Cooper credits Petworth with helping her to develop into the person she is today. You can email Lois with questions or suggestions on articles about social issues.

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