Screaming Willies

After all these years, I’m surprised that the police have never been called to my house. Not even the night I screamed myself hoarse. No, you didn’t accidentally click on a Frisky Feminist post, I’m talking about something completely different ““ hypnagogic hallucinations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning. When I was little, I would often see things, scary things, in my room, which would cause me to scream at the top of my lungs. I would then wake up, not realizing I had actually been asleep. I never really thought much about it until I was older, and started sleeping over at friends houses. That’s when I realized that no one else saw these scary things, no one else screamed themselves awake. These were not nightmares, they went beyond nightmares, but I was afraid to say anything to anyone about them because I was afraid of looking like a weirdo, a freak. As I got older, I had another, larger fear: schizophrenia. As I moved into my pre-teen and teenage years, my health classes superficially covered schizophrenia, and so I had myself convinced that since I was seeing things that were not there, I must be developing schizophrenia. I couldn’t go to my parents and tell them about my fear, because my parents had always treated anything that could be wrong with me as a secret shame (You are NOT depressed! You are JUST FINE!!!) so I certainly wasn’t going to say anything to them about it.

I went off to college, not sure what to tell my roommate. How do you tell someone you’ve never met that sometimes, for no apparent reason, you scream at the top of your lungs? Luckily, I managed not to do it, for the three years I lived in the dorm. By this point, I realized that I likely didn’t have schizophrenia, but I was still convinced that I was “crazy” somehow. It wasn’t until I was having trouble sleeping, and my doctor sent me for a sleep study, that I found out what was going on.

The funny thing is, I didn’t experience my hallucinations during the study. In fact, the study was completely normal. I met with the neurologist afterward, and it was when he asked me if I had any other questions that I decided to ask him about the thing that had been bothering me for so many years. I described what I saw and the screaming, and he told me that they were nothing to be concerned about, they were just hypnagogic hallucinations. When I asked about treating them, he laughed and said there was no treatment, you just live with them. Once I got home, I Googled hypnagogic hallucinations and saw that they were, in fact, quite common, that there were a ton of people who were experiencing the exact same thing I was! There were a ton of people out there who were secretly afraid that there was something wrong with them. At this point you must be wondering exactly what hypnagogic hallucinations are.  They are dream-like auditory or visual hallucinations that occur while falling asleep. Hypnagogic hallucinations are in the same family of sleep disorders as narcolepsy and sleep paralysis, but they are different from those things. The best way to explain what hypnagogic hallucinations are is to use my own experience, which is typical but not the only way that they can manifest.

What happens, in layman’s terms, is that your body is asleep, but your mind is awake. You begin to dream, but instead of being fully unconscious, you have an awareness of them. This is not the same thing as lucid dreaming, where you can control and direct your dreams, because you are not aware that you have fallen asleep. Generally, the hallucinations incorporate whatever physical surrounding you’re in at the time. If you fall asleep in your bedroom, it will happen in your bedroom, as opposed to Paris, or on the moon. The hallucinations also commonly feature “seeing” or sensing someone or something in the room, accompanied with the feeling of extreme fear. For me, this fear ends in screaming at the top of my lungs and sometimes jumping out of bed and running away, which is what wakes me up. The best way I can explain what a hallucination is like is to give examples of my hallucinations. A few of my most common ones:

  • When I was a child, I would see my bedroom, with all of the lights on. An arm, with a hand holding a gun would come through the window next to my bed.
  • As I got older, the arm changed to various intruders. I would be in my bedroom, with the lights off, and suddenly a person was in the room. Sometimes I would hear things, like the sound of the front door opening, or voices downstairs.
  • Later they changed to spiders and other insects dropping from the ceiling, or nanobots or other unearthly creatures flying at me or shooting things at me.
  • Currently, I switch back and forth between intruders who now talk to me, usually threatening me in some way, and some sort of flying object. This is the first time I have seen and intruder and heard sound at the same time in my hallucinations.

There’s no way to treat hypnagogic hallucinations. This is partly due to the fact that it is not really understood why these hallucinations happen. Sleep deprivation, stress, and “having things on your mind” are what usually blamed. The usual advice is to get enough sleep, relieve stress, and everything should be okay. So, once you move to Utopia, everything should be great! Until then, some people (including yours truly) have found some success in learning to recognize that a hallucination is occurring and stop the reaction before it has a chance to happen.

4 replies on “Screaming Willies”

Oh my goodness! Thank you! I totally have this too, and I have been wondering if I was a little crazy. Things come at me when I am falling asleep, since I was little. Monsters come out of the walls, I think someone is standing over me, I think a burglar is in the house, or I think the house is on fire. Rarely I will leap up out of bed, but usually it just jolts me awake and freaks me out for a while and I have trouble falling back asleep. One thing that helped a little is wearing a sleep mask. It tends to stop things coming out of the walls, though not things standing over me.

Anyway, thanks so much for sharing.

This is incredibly timely and I’m glad that you wrote it, since it explains what’s been happening to me. A few years ago I started having on and off waking nightmares, usually involving seeing snakes at the foot of my bed. I would inevitably scream, sometimes jump out of bed, and often it would take me several minutes just to calm down, convince myself it wasn’t real and get back in bed. The hallucinations escalated three months ago to where I was having them every night. This was shortly after I moved into a new place. They lasted every night for about a month and then just stopped. I haven’t had one in two months, and I chalked them up to stress about moving and fear of being in a new, unfamiliar place.

Weeeeiiiiird. Best of luck to you; I hope your hallucinations eventually stop completely, like mine have (for the time being, fingers crossed, etc.).

Glad to hear that yours have gone away! Mine come and go (probably having to do with stress and lack of sleep), and while I’m hopeful that there will be a day that I won’t have them anymore, I’m not holding my breath. Glad I could help!

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