Do Not Disturb

I kicked off my slippers and melted onto the queen-size bed in a pool of new-mother exhaustion. It was mid-afternoon, and I had just laid down my six-week-old after nursing him for the fourth time since dawn.

Or was it the fifth time?

The only thing I tracked accurately without pencil and paper in those early weeks was the number of hours until my husband would return from work. I longed desperately for some time to myself, adult conversation and, more than anything, undisturbed sleep.

I’ll just lie down for a few minutes while he naps.

I had never been very good at napping, but the more experienced moms I knew told me to try to sleep when the baby slept. The chores can wait, they said.

As I sprawled out guiltily on top of the peach-flowered comforter, I thought of all the things I should be doing: scrubbing dishes, folding laundry, writing thank-you notes.

This is a waste of time. I should get up and accomplish something while he sleeps…

But the whir of the air-conditioning unit in the window was a soothing lullaby, even for a Type A mother with countless chores to cross off her list. I drifted into a deep sleep, bobbing in and out of consciousness with the occasional sighs and rustlings coming from the nearby baby monitor. Upon each brief awakening, my head felt heavier, the room seemed darker.

Is it dusk already? How long have I been asleep?

I looked for the clock on the bedside table, but it wasn’t there. I lay there in my haze, searching the room for a buoy of wakefulness. I needed to get myself together and check on the baby. The pale mocha walls seemed fuzzy as I watched the ceiling fan spin round and round overhead. Suddenly, a large shadow in the doorway appeared in my peripheral vision. My eyes darted in its direction, but it was gone.

What the hell was that? Is someone in the house?

Panicking, I tried to sit up. But something was holding me down, a weight so heavy I struggled for breath. The dark, giant mass covered my entire body, and I was completely immobile. I could see nothing through the blackness that enveloped me, gripping me with terror. I felt the insurmountable pressure of it bearing down on me, pushing me further into the pillow-top mattress. This thing, whatever it was, was trying to suffocate me.

I screamed again and again, but my constricted throat couldn’t expel the sound. I strained to move my limbs, to push the thing off me. My breath grew shallow; my body felt limp.

And then, as abruptly as it had appeared, it was gone; the weight, the darkness, lifted.

I rolled slowly onto my side, panting with fear, my muscles still flaccid and weak. I looked through the doorway and down the hall to my son’s room.

Nothing was there.

As I dragged my sluggish body from the bed, I noticed bright light streaming through the cracks of the blinds. I scanned the bedside table for the missing clock and found it right next to the baby monitor, where it always was. It was 3:02 p.m., just 20 or so minutes after I had put the baby in his crib, and nowhere near dusk.

I crept into my son’s room and found him fast asleep. I shut his door and wandered foggily through the house checking the doors and windows. They remained locked, the house quiet and untouched.

I didn’t sleep well that night. And it wasn’t because of the baby.

"The Nightmare" by John Henry Fuseli


53 thoughts on “Do Not Disturb

  1. I have also had this. As you may know it is the supposed interruption of REM sleep. But it is so realistic and over whelming . I also like the The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli being the depiction of the cause of the paralysis. I have had this happen numerous times thinking it was a visit from the other side.

    • Wow! Really? I haven’t encountered many people who’ve had it happen, let alone a family member. I think we’re all a little bit psychic in our family, don’t you? Or at least a little bit psycho. 🙂

      I do know a bit about sleep paralysis now, but at the time I thought I was losing my mind. It was so terrifying! Especially since it was just the baby and me at home.

      • Gah!!! This happens to me!!
        I have only met one other person that has had it happen to them…it is more like we subconsciously see something very small move during sleep paralysis and then it get magnified in our dreams some how…
        Really nicely written, great use of italics. Captivating from the start…a great slice of microfiction 🙂 (I also love the painting!)

        • Thanks so much for the great comments. It is really comforting (and at the same time discomforting) to know you’re not alone in this.

          Wishing us all a peaceful night’s rest.

  2. My brother has this problem regularly! He says it’s like being fully awake but completely paralyzed. He is terrified by it and has actually had trouble allowing himself to fall asleep out of fear it will happen. Love the picture you chose for the post!

    • Thanks, Jennifer. Does your brother suffer from sleep apnea or narcolepsy, by any chance? As Gordon mentioned in a previous comment, sleep paralysis happens when your REM sleep is interrupted.

      I don’t blame him one bit for being afraid to go to sleep. It was truly one of the most frightening experiences of my life.

    • I hear ya! I had trouble sleeping for a long while after that. Not that it made much of a difference, since I was up with the baby pretty much all the time anyway.

  3. Scary & real!! Sleep paralysis is very frightening, I know! I love your descriptive writing. I always catch the little things, like the peach-flowered comforter. I picture the scene as I read. Keep it up, Mama P!!

  4. Well written post. Great intensity, and I love the picture you chose to accompany it. We discussed that painting in a grad course I took last summer on Gothic Literature.

  5. Yes! I’ve had this sleep paralysis happen too, but not since I was a teenager. It’s absolutely terrifying. It’s no wonder with a new baby and your mind fighting your body for sleep that this stuff happens. Shitty timing though – the last thing you need is something other than your newborn keeping you up. Great post though!

    • Thanks, Kim. It must have been even more terrifying as a teenager. At least as a new mom, I had something else to obsess over (i.e., the baby) and keep my mind occupied after it happened.

  6. Great story, Kathleen, and wow, the way you wrote it! I’ve never experienced anything like it, and to see so many who have is fascinating. I’ve never heard of sleep paralysis. I thought you might go in the direction of a cat sitting on your chest, but what happened is all the more frightening. Well told!

    • Thanks so much, Stephanie. It made feel at least a little less crazy to hear how many others have experienced it.

      I do have a funny (to me) and terrifying (to my husband) sleep story involving a cat. Hmmm…perhaps another post.

  7. Well good lord, you had me on the edge of my seat. I feel like that could have happened to me. Maybe it did. Who the hell can remember anything about that first few months. So well written, as per the usual from you.

    • Thanks, Christie. It means a lot to me coming from you.

      I hear you about the first few months. I wish I could say that was my only weird sleep deprivation story during that time.

    • This thing wasn’t trying to seduce me; it was trying to suffocate me.

      What an insane experience! I’m glad I can at least blame it on sleep deprivation.

    • Thanks so much, Mary. I was a little leery about sharing this one; it’s been haunting me for 13 years now. I must say it was a relief to know I’m not the only one who’s been through it.

  8. Ok, first reaction I am asking myself is- So were you thinking back to Nana and what she taught us if ever in an, erm. ‘situation’ such as this? Also, wow this is very scary indeed- very well written AND I had a quasi sort of thing happen back when I was sleeping in Gram’s living room around when I was 14-15 ish. My story though was that I was floating over myself and couldn’t get back into my body. It’s still a really weird feeling as I remember tying to control my body which I could not. I chalked it up to our ‘special vibes’ in the family.

    • Do you mean the old, “Tell ’em you’re afraid and that you want them to leave you alone, and they will go” line? I’ve used that one before when I felt a presence.

      In this case, I couldn’t speak. Plus, I was so out of it that I didn’t even know I was dreaming, which is odd for me. I’ve always been able to pull myself out of a dream when it became too disturbing.

      Your out-of-body experience can also be a part of what’s known as “lucid dreaming,” or realizing that you’re in a dream state.

      The rational side of me chalks it all up to sleep deprivation. But you never know…

  9. Wow! I’m sorry this happened to you. As a new mom, I can relate to the fear that something has gone horribly wrong. If it makes you feel any better, your writing here was so captivating. It was like you were writing a mystery novel. Hopefully what happened will simply remain a terrible nightmare!

    • Thanks so much for reading, Erin, and for the wonderful comments. I’ve never had a dream as terrifying as this one since then, thankfully. I have to admit that I was pretty creeped out when I tried to go to sleep last night after writing this post.

  10. Great post, so chilling in a way that’s not so far out. What heightened the drama for me is that you had the new mom/baby dynamic which only ups the ante on what’s at stake Reading this post brought me back to those early days when I really thought I was crazy and sometimes didn’t know whether I was nuts or sleep deprived. Never had this happen though; the most I got was drool on my pillow.

    • Thanks for the reading and commenting, Becca.

      Who can forget the insanity of the newborn days? It’s actually a little frightening that deranged, sleep-deprived parents are allowed to care for such helpless creatures, isn’t it?

      P.S. Drool on my pillow sounds almost good compared with sleep paralysis.

  11. Oh, man, who knows what side is up when your baby is that young. I’d have flipped out, too. I do this thing when I’m beyond exhausted — I can’t fall into a deep sleep no matter what I try. I jump at every sound. Especially if I’m alone with the kids. Bad, bad feeling it is to fear sleep…

    • Yes, indeed. I was up till about 1 a.m. after I wrote this post. I freaked out all over again when I relived it.

      I can relate to the jumpiness thing too. When I doze on the couch watching TV and something startles me, I jump and gasp a little. My kids think it’s hilarious and love to make fun of me.

  12. Your post is chillingly accurate. I’ve had these episodes too. I’ve managed to verbalize some during an “attack.” It’s a little funny now. I yelled, “Get out bitch.” To the ghost that was smothering me.
    I haven’t had one in a while, though. Thank goodness. I enjoyed your writing.

  13. This was such a well-told, and scary story! This also happens to me, nearly every time I lay down to take a nap, but strangely, never at night. It got so scary at one point, that I pretty much swore off naps forever.

    • Thanks, Samantha. I’m glad to know I’m not alone but also sorry it was so bad for you. Was it during a time when you were particularly sleep deprived?

  14. Very creepy! I was reading on the edge of my stool here. I remember that haze and such deep, needed sleep that was only moments but felt like a day. Very discombobulating! Wonderfully worded.

    • Thanks, Gina. A baby would be nice, I sometimes think — especially when my teen and tween give me attitude — but I sure wouldn’t want to go back to those insane days of sleep deprivation.

  15. You captured that waking nightmare so perfectly. I have them sometimes, especially when I’m overtired and trying to stay alert as you were here. But I remember one from when I was a kid. I was probably five. We stayed with my grandparents in Florida, and the room my sister, Mom, and I shared had its own sliding glass door. Mom always left the curtains open to the walkway for a nightlight.

    I woke up one night because people were talking on the way into their apartments. They were standing right in front of OUR apartment. And I remember clearly one of them said, “Goddamn it. Are you going to do it Jim?” And that phrase, for reasons incomprehensible, terrified me. I tried to tell Mom, but I couldn’t move. I tried to yell, but I didn’t have control of my body, and the harder I fought, the more paralyzed I became. It felt like it lasted hours, but then suddenly it was morning, Jim and his friend were gone, and Mom absolutely didn’t understand.

    • Oh, that’s so scary, Jessie! It’s wild that you remember it so vividly when it happened at such a young age. It must have truly terrified you. When you think about it, that sentence with no context could be read in a zillion different horrifying ways.

  16. I have had these nightmares and your description fit them to a T. Excellent writing. The thing I have noticed is that extreme stress (Like taking care of a young baby!) brings them on. Hope you get some good rest!

    • Thanks so much, Bill. I sure hope the teenage years, which I’m about to hit full throttle (and you’re already in, right?), don’t spark a new era of sleep deprivation craziness. I’m so not ready for that.

  17. Oh man! I loved the telling of this. So real. I was like get off of her, you scary thing! It was probably the weight of the world on a tired (over guilted) mother. I’ve been there.

    Oh and I love the picture. So perfectly perfect.

    This post rocks!

    • Thanks, Pippi! I think you summed it up perfectly: “the weight of the world on a tired (over guilted) mother.” Ugh. I never, ever want to go back there, although it would be lovely to have a baby. Wait. Did I say that out loud? 🙂

  18. Oooh, chills! This definitely had me on edge. What a scary experience. I loved that picture at the end…it was a perfect addition!

  19. Oh my god. I have had that exact same thing happen to me! I wanted to write about it this week, but it kept coming out all wrong and it wasn’t building or flowing the way I wanted it to, so I gave up on it. But seriously. Same exact thing. That is so creepy.

    • That’s pretty wild. If you check out some of the other comments here, you’ll find that we are not alone. Before writing this post, I hadn’t really told many people because I thought it sounded too crazy. It’s reassuring to know others have been through it, isn’t it?

  20. That kind of dream is terrifying!! I’ve suffered from nightmares all my life and those ones where you feel like you’ve been asleep forever but it’s only been a few minutes are so disorienting. So scary. Great post!

    • Thanks, Michelle. I find it interesting that so many of our fellow Yeah Write folks have experienced this. I wonder if left-brained, creative folks are more prone to it…hmmm….

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