Wide Awake and Dreaming

by julie on April 2, 2010

With 16 days until the Marathon, I’ve decided to discuss an aspect of narcolepsy I’ve never discussed here on this blog. 

One evening in June of 2007, while sleeping overnight at my dad’s house, I awoke in the middle of the night to the repeated ringing of the doorbell.  Hours earlier, I’d fallen asleep on the living room couch.  From here, I was closest to the front door – which I guess explained why I was the only one that had woken up to the ruckus. Perhaps my dad couldn’t hear the doorbell from his bedroom. Yet the ringing was aggressive – an incessant punching at the glowing rectangular box on the other side of the front door.

Wide awake now, I thought I better get up to see what was going on. However, when I attempted to sit up, I found that I couldn’t move. I was strapped into the couch, like an astronaut at take-off. I tried to fight the heaviness but it was unforgiving – and the doorbell kept ringing and ringing  – spirals of high-pitched synthesized ding-dongs. Enough already! I’m coming… Well, I’m trying…

After a little while (a period of time which felt long but may have only been a few seconds), I broke free of the strange restraint and lifted myself to a seated position on the couch. Now, sitting upright  – something seemed strange. The house was absolutely silent. I looked out across the living room towards the front door. Everything seemed completely normal but not normal at the same time. What had happened to the doorbell? Why had the person stopped ringing it now? Was anyone still out there?

I looked down and noticed our dog, Sox, by my feet. Sox, a beautiful white fluff-ball Wheaton Terrier, was curled up and conked out. It was picture-perfect really, something contrived for a cheesy dog-lovers calendar.

Wait a minute – why hadn’t Sox responded to the doorbell? She’s a lively pup, always up for an adventure. If someone rang the bell, Sox would’ve dashed up to report to her usual look-out post – standing on her hind-legs to see out the front window. Yet here she lay, like dead weight by my feet. Did she sleep through the doorbell-ringing marathon? Impossible.

Then, it occurred to me that perhaps when I thought I’d heard the doorbell ringing – I actually hadn’t. Maybe it was just a dream… a dream up until what point? I had no clue – the series of noises and actions were hard to separate into an exact chronology.

Also, if the doorbell was just a dream, how could I have heard it so clearly that I could still hear it right there in my memory, like the last song on the radio or an annoying TV commercial stuck in my head? It wasn’t a faint memory of an innocuous doorbell – it was an exact “ding-dong” sound, with a particular pitch, volume and rhythm. Which should I believe – my clear memory of the past moment or my clear mind in the present moment? Both experiences felt equally real, yet for one to be true, the other had to be false.

Of course, on this evening in June of 2007, I was perfectly happy to reach the conclusion that my ears were lying to me and that no one had been outside ringing the doorbell in the middle of the night. I was also very comforted by Sox’s presence, as she helped me reach this conclusion quickly before I had the chance to panic about the possibility of an intruder or an emergency. I could fall back asleep with ease, knowing all was well. And that’s exactly what I did.

I was fast to accept the inconsistencies in my experience – that I was both so sure that I heard the doorbell and yet simultaneously so sure that I hadn’t. How could I, a smart and competent young-adult at the age of 22, not be able to distinguish the edges of dreams from the tips of reality? How had the picture gone so horribly blurry that I looked to a dog to regain my bearings?

At the time, I didn’t ask myself these questions. Come morning, I didn’t share this experience with anyone. There was no need to – nothing had happened.

I know now that this experience is part of narcolepsy. Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations and sleep paralysis are major symptoms of narcolepsy, but it is important to note that normal people can experience these as well (they just tend to affect people with narcolepsy much more frequently).

This is another example of REM sleep triggering at inappropriate times. In this case, part of my brain is still “dreaming” while another part of my brain experiences these dreams on a very conscious level, and I’m unable to move my muscles – still in the paralysis of REM sleep. 

Although my nighttime medication has greatly reduced the frequency of these experiences at night, I still have these during naps. Sometimes its a scary dream about an intruder, sometimes it’s as innocuous as a dream about my roommate coming home. Now, I discount almost everything I experience around my sleep-time, because, more often than not, it didn’t actually happen. I like to think of this as a special talent, that I’m able to be both wide awake and dreaming.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue D April 3, 2010 at 10:08 am

What an engaging and accurate description of what it's like to live in a world between sleep/dreaming and being awake!

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tflygare April 3, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Great description.

Sox was excited to see her picture on the internet.

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duff8 April 3, 2010 at 10:09 pm

So brave of you to share this story. I can relate all to well and really appreciate your honesty.

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Amelia Swabb April 5, 2010 at 10:16 am

great description julie. that has happened to me before too the sleep paralysis and hearing a ringing noise! usually when i'm exhausted and napping mid-day…it's such a scary feeling, like you're trapped in both worlds.

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Kelly March 13, 2013 at 6:14 pm

I had the same problem minus the not being able to move part. My entire life I would awaken to my dreams in my room. I would also sit up and have full conversations with people and not remember them. I called it crazy brain because they came when my stress level was high. Thank you for posting this blog. It has helped me deside that I need to let my network of friend and family on the secrets of Narcolepsy.

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julie March 13, 2013 at 6:17 pm

Hi Kelly, Thank you so much for reading my blog and commenting! I’m sorry you’ve experienced this so much too. Thank you for sharing with your friends and family about narcolepsy! Big smiles, Julie

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Sylvia April 19, 2013 at 5:08 am

This was great, again not being alone is such a good feeling. I don’t usually mistake dreams as real, what usually happens with me is I know what’s going on, I can hear the tv and know exactly what they’re saying (which may turn into a dream if I don’t wake up when it happens). I will hear and feel whoever is trying to wake me up. I know they’re there, I know I should be awake, I want to answer them, move, anything to get them to stop trying to wake me, and I can’t do it. It will take several minutes if at all until I can finally respond to them, and of course, when I tell them yeah I heard that, I knew what was going on, they just get mad because I “didn’t want to get up”, or “ignored” them. I just found your site tonight and started reading stories, I still haven’t stopped crying, thank you.

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julie April 21, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Sylvia, Thanks for checking out my site! I’m so sorry you expereince prolonged sleep paralysis upon waking too. It’s so uncomfortable and you deserve support from those around you upon waking from this challenging experience. Please consider sharing my blog and book with your supporters so they may understand better. Many thanks, Julie

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Allison August 1, 2013 at 5:39 pm

I’ve had sleep paralysis since college. I’ve been fortunate that none of mine are frightening, or at least I’ve had them so long that I no longer see them as frightening. I hated that limbo period where I knew i wasn’t awake and wasn’t asleep.

I once had a hallucination that included an olfactory component. I clearly smelled a man’s cologne in my room. There was no one in my room or house and the smell disappeared as I finally woke up. I won’t be sad if that never occurs again.

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Rebecca February 11, 2014 at 4:44 am

Hi, I was doing research on narcolepsy for a psychology presentation, and your book caught my attention, which led me to this site. I’ve had narcolepsy for a few years now and finally decided it’s about time I started being open about it, hence my presentation I’m working on. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve truly researched the topic in detail, so I was amazed to see how much support its received. I’ll have to pick up your book one day.

Now about your post. I’m happy to find that I’m not the only one experiencing this, the hallucinating/paralysis. I never know how to describe these events to my doctors. The best I can come up with is that coming out of them is like you’re underwater and pushing up to the surface, but the water keeps pushing you down. It’s the worst feeling, being unable to move. What makes it even worst is that my hallucinations tend to be the things from nightmares. It’s terrifying, having a floating black cloaked figure resembling the reaper hovering over you as you struggle against invisible chains. What’s weird though, is that when this happens during the day my dreams are good, and I can experience the sensation of flying, and even, I’m quite embarrassed to say, sex.

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish the dream from reality. One thing I’ve noticed when I wake from a hallucination/dream at night, is that after I come out of it, I’m still kinda hallucinating. I’ll sit up in bed, pulling myself out of the dream, and then I’ll notice that my closet door is magically sliding open and shut all by itself.

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