I see things that aren’t there.
The writer in me realizes that, at first blush, this sounds like the opening line of a young adult novel. Take, for example, Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Raven Boys,” which opens with, “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as true love in this story. Just a whole lot of terror.
I realized at a young age that I had, on occasion, really vivid dreams. They’re not just nightmares, though. They’re hallucinations. They’re bloodcurdling, did-no-one-hear-the-floor-creak-in-the-hall audiovisual experiences, and they feel real. I know I’m hallucinating — as opposed to dreaming — because my eyes are open and my brain is working overtime to disprove whatever I’m looking at.
I mostly hallucinate spiders. Creatures big and small, horrifically intent on eating me. My mother with a rifle. But sometimes it’s mundane: my dad in my room, staring at me from his place by the door. He says nothing. I blink furiously, trying to make sense of what I’m seeing. Did something happen? Is it time to get up? Why is he just standing there? Then I realize. I blink again, and my dad is gone, as though he were never there.
Years ago, at the height of my Star Wars: Battlefront 2 obsession, I hallucinated a stormtrooper. I called my dad into my room, pointed at the wall, and said, “Don’t you see it? There’s a little white soldier!”
I didn’t understand why he was laughing so hard.
Sometime in college, I came across a term that perfectly described my “curse.” Sleep hallucinations are a kind of parasomnia and occur as you are falling asleep (hypnagogic) or waking up (hypnopompic). According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, hypnagogic hallucinations are primarily visual, but can also involve your sense of sound, taste, touch, and smell. You know you are awake, but the hallucinations feel real, and inspire genuine fear.
I was so happy to have a condition that I scheduled a consultation with a sleep specialist. I’d lived with hypnagogic hallucinations my entire life, but they were getting worse, to the point where I woke up screaming every night. I was hoping for, if not a cure, a treatment of some kind. More than anything, I wanted to sleep in peace.
When I mentioned hypnagogic hallucinations to the specialist, he looked at me like I was, in fact, hallucinating. To this day, I still don’t know why — maybe he wasn’t expecting me to use the official, psychology-certified term. However, his recommendation was simple: a nightly dose of melatonin.
It felt too easy. I’ve been screaming myself awake for years. Was a cheap, over-the-counter, natural treatment really the answer?
Years later, I can say with confidence that it was. Every night, I pop my three melatonin pills, for a total of 9 milligrams. And then I sleep like a baby.
For the most part.
I still hallucinate on occasion — my dad giving me the creepy eyes, or a spider descending from the ceiling. Sometimes I scream. Most times I talk to myself: “It’s not real. There is no spider the size of a cat crawling up your body. You’re hallucinating.”
Once or twice a year, I’m so shaken that I call for my dad. I know I’m hallucinating. I know my brain is playing tricks on me, and I’m not actually in danger of being eaten by an arachnid. But SMA keeps me bedbound, at the mercy of my elaborate visions. I need the reassurance of something outside myself.
In the dark of night, my dad strokes my hair. I laugh, embarrassed, because I’m 25 years old, and shouldn’t I be immune to nightmares by now? But terror is terror, no matter how you cut it.
Eventually — mercifully — the melatonin returns me to the dark.
Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.
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