“Is this how I die?”

This thought ran through my mind in a constant loop. My eyes were wide open, but I couldn’t move. I had stopped breathing. Not because something was stopping me, but because it seemed like I had forgotten how to. I tried and failed to lift a hand. My neck wouldn’t turn. Even my eyes wouldn’t shut. It lasted about a minute, but it felt like hours.

Suddenly, I scrambled up clutching at my throat, gasping for air. The clock was still ticking but my world had stopped. It was 2 am. At 5 am I was to pray the rosary with my family, as I did every morning. Maybe it was a dream, I thought. But it wasn’t and I knew it. If I closed my eyes I could relive every moment of it. I’d read about angels and demons from as early as I could remember. Angels were good and brought happiness and light. Demons were bad and brought destruction and strife. Was that what it was? Demons? I hadn’t prayed the night before. Was this my punishment? I knew I should go back to bed, but I couldn’t. If I did, maybe what possessed me would come back. I fingered my rosary beads until I heard my family stir.  

At 4:30 am I snuck into my mother’s room. She was up as she always was at 4:30 am, saying her personal morning prayers. It was hard to explain what had happened. I told her I never wanted to sleep again.

She promised me it was only a bad dream. I told her it wasn’t. Something in my voice stopped her mid-placation. She called in my father and they whispered amongst themselves in hushed and urgenttones. Then they turned and said it was time to pray the rosary. That morning we started a novena to Saint Michael for protection against evil.

It was 3 p.m. and my mother had been out of the house for 46 minutes. I knew this because I hadn’t left her side all day and had stared at the clock until she came home. She came home at 3:16 p.m. with my aunt and a pot-bellied middle-aged man in tow. The pot-bellied man was my aunt’s spiritual guide. My mother had told her about my encounter and my aunt insisted they call her spiritual guide, who assured her an evil force was at play.

He offered to pray a special kind of prayer. Unlike any we had ever heard. A type we couldn’t understand unless we had been ordained by the higher power he was fortified with it. He placed a hand upon my forehead. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate. But it’s hard to concentrate on words you do not understand. I snuck a peek at him through one half-open eye. He was sweating and his voice went an octave higher with each garbled sentence. His body trembled like he had a high fever and for some reason I found that funny. A giggle slipped through my mouth, but I hid it behind a cough. He continued to pray for an hour and it got harder to hide my sniggers behind my hand, so I faked a sniffle. He prayed even more vigorously. Before he left, as he assured my parents he had succeeded in freeing me of my demons, he encouraged them to make a donation to his ministry. They did.

As the door closed behind him, my father turned and asked “anyone else hear some French in that?” We all burst out laughing. My father suggested a trip to the ice cream store to take my mind off my worries. It was nothing but a bad dream, he assured me. And it worked until bedtime came. I tried my hardest to stay awake, so I could keep the demons at bay. But sleep came as it always did. This time no demons came with it. No demons came the next night either, or the next week or the next month. Night after night, as I counted at my rosary beads and prayed with a renewed fervency, I’d dread going to sleep. But months passed and still, no demons came. By then, I was convinced it was nothing but a dream.  

Years later, in a conversation with my mum I brought up my childhood incident. I told her of an article I stumbled on where people had shared similar stories. There was the girl who had also heard frightening whispers and the young man who had seen the shadow of a figure at the corner of his vision. But each time it was the same pattern. Waking up into a temporary paralysis accompanied by feelings of fright and helplessness. I told her it could all be explained by a fairly common scientific phenomenon called sleep paralysis, in which your mind wakes up but your body doesn’t. It was brought on by anything from lack of sleep to taking certain medication.

She nodded along patiently as I went on about my newfound knowledge, then simply informed me that the incident had been spiritual, regardless of how many articles I had read. And while I sought out the science behind everything, I should never let go of my spirituality.

But I never let go. Every night before I sleep I say a little prayer to Saint Michael. Till date, I’m yet to have another encounter with sleep paralysis