My parents had not been married for very long when my mother decided they could no longer share a bed. It was unheard of at the time in holy catlick Ireland, where it was expected of a married woman that she lie down with her husband every night and be prepared to close her eyes and think of the Vatican, should he decide to take his pleasure of her. It was her married duty, no less.
I doubt if my mother had any intention of flouting the church. The problem was that my father physically acted out his dreams every night. Most mornings, she found bruises on her legs and arms and, on one memorable occasion, he actually gave her a black eye.
Usually, when we are in REM sleep and dreaming, the body is largely disconnected from the brain, leaving it paralyzed. It’s a mechanism designed to prevent us from harming ourselves or our bed partners. In my father’s case, for some reason, this did not happen and he would flail around all night, with my mother clinging to the edge of their bed, hoping he wouldn’t hurt her. Since my dad was fairly active, hunting, fishing, sailing and playing rugby in his spare time and then reliving them in his dreams, her nights were pretty fraught.
Eventually, she decided she’d had enough. The marriage bed was turfed and replaced by twin beds – greatly to the shock and horror of the old biddies in the neighbourhood, I might add. When word got out that they were sleeping separately, there was much tut-tutting and sucking of teeth, visits from the parish priest and predictions of trouble ahead. Since they stayed married for 50 years and produced five children, the neighbourhood prognostications were confounded.Â I suspect the old Playboy definition of Lovers’ Leap as the distance between twin beds was pretty much the order of the day, although they were eventually to sleep in separate rooms. But by then the neighbourhood had changed, most of the houses on the square where we lived had been transformed into apartments, and nobody gave a damn.
As a child, I suffered from the exact opposite of my father’s problem, and would frequently wake in the middle of nightmares, unable to move a muscle. If you have never had this happen to you, believe me – it is really terrifying.Â The wisps of the nightmare are still flitting around in your consciousness, but you’re fully awake and totally paralyzed. I don’t know whether it is part of the dream state, or the way sufferers interpret their own breathing, but invariably you’re convinced there is a malevolent presence in the room. You try desperately to scream for help, but it feels as though there is a boulder lying on your chest, and no sound comes out. The whole experience probably lasts mere seconds, but can feel like an eternity.
To the impressionable child that I was, my head chock full of the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson, these episodes were truly frightening. As soon as the spell broke and I could move, I would fly out of my bed and take the stairs three at a time down to my parents’ room, where I would slip under the blankets at the foot of my mother’s bed and curl up until the panic had passed and I could fall asleep again. Even in my state of terror, I knew better than to risk life and limb with my father and, because I had these nightmares so often, my mother had stipulated that I was not to wake her.
As with my childhood nose bleeds, the REM paralysis episodes gradually disappeared as I grew up. But every so often, over the many years since, I have experienced them again and they are no less terrifying for all that I’m an adult now and understand the mechanics of the process.
I was reminded of such episodes by an article I found in the most recent edition of The Walrus, a lovely thought-provoking Canadian magazine. From Nightmare on George Street by Pasha Malla, I learned of the Newfoundland superstition about a witch they call the Hag, who comes a-visiting in the night and sits on her sleeping victim’s chests.
Although it’s been a few years since I was last hagged, if I never had a visit from the auld besom again, it would be too soon. I shall be placing my shoes to face the same way by my bed from now on, and I need no urging to avoid Kraft Singles.