The hazy surreality of sleep paralysis mirrors the dysphoria of self-recognition under precarity
THE last time it happened, I landed up in a corn field. It was all such a cliché. I can remember the scene just prior: I was walking down the commercial strip of a twee, folksy village—an amalgam of the neighborhoods that I used to haunt near my old college. I was carrying bags, walking alone at lamplit night through a throng of faceless apparitions to some unknown destination. I felt as if I was being followed, by whom or what I wasn’t sure.
Scene change. Suddenly, gracelessly, the village street fell away and an enormous cornfield manifested before me. I hear him now, low and childlike. I can feel him; he’s right behind me. I’m trapped in a sea of puke-colored husks. I turn to face him. He’s reaching out to me and I know that even if I run, I’m totally boxed in. I try to scream, and nothing comes out but dust.
Scene change. I’m in my room. I can’t move. I mean, I’m trying, but I can only just breathe. It’s like there’s an invisible 10-ton weight holding me down. This has happened enough that I know if I let myself sink any further, I’ll go back to the field, back into the nightmare. The first time this happened to me I was scared because I didn’t understand what was happening. Now, I’m scared because I know exactly what’s happening.
Sleep paralysis is, according to the American Sleep Association, “a state in which the subject is physically immobile, but fully conscious.” When our bodies begin to enter REM sleep, our muscles become inactive—this is called atonia, and it keeps the dreaming individual from moving around too much at night. (There are sleep disorders in which muscle atonia does not occur, such as sleepwalking.) Sometimes, however, when drifting in or out of REM sleep, the sleeper awakes, but only mentally. The body is still atonic, and as much as the sleeper tries to free themselves, all they can do is wait out the seconds or minutes it takes for them to fully wake up or drift back to sleep.
It’s apparently different for everyone and can happen to anyone. Some describe it as feeling like they’ve woken up dead. I would agree with that. It’s hard to know in those moments whether or not things are real, if it’s all being imagined. It’s difficult to relate the exact feeling of being a consciousness trapped inside a motionless body. I’m not even sure if my eyes are open, if the shapes I can vaguely make out in the darkness of my room are there, or just hyperreal visualizations of my overactive brain.
You know that feeling where you’re not sure if you dreamed something or if it really happened? This happens to me a lot, but sleep paralysis in particular makes me doubt the reality of my most intimate sanctuary. If only I could reach out and touch something solid, but I can’t. Sleep paralysis is boring in that way, and very quiet. It’s what I imagine it feels like to be an AI trapped inside a piece of hardware, with nowhere to wander. It’s alienating; everything is just images. Abstract, lacking dimension. Even though I know what to expect at this point, every time it happens I get a little bit more afraid that, eventually, I’ll become stuck that way.
There’s no known cause for sleep paralysis, but some evidence suggests that it can be triggered by stress and a general lack of sleep. Good thing then that each episode triggers a little insomnia-inducing fear, sometimes for weeks, that it’ll happen again. Good thing also that I chose a line of work reputed for its extreme instability in an age where the arts go underfunded, the journalism industry flounders to find a reliable profit model, and the class of “content creators” find their labor routinely devalued. I don’t know if my circadian rhythm can keep a beat without the help of caffeine and melatonin pills. As I write this, it’s almost 5 a.m.
Much of the stress comes from weeks of burnout and writer’s block followed by successive all-nighters. It comes from not being able to turn on or off the wheels of my brain when I need to, and from trying to reconcile that with the material need to do work and get paid. There’s the anxiety of debt, the anxiety of making sure I’m getting enough out of crowdsourcing and contracts, the anxiety of working in a niche like games (I moonlight as an independent game developer), where the culture is hyper-solidified and all the same neoliberal problems that workers face today are hyper-accelerated. I find myself starting and stopping, slipping in and out of creative spells and moments of absolute defeatism and dejection. I find myself vacillating between impostor syndrome and feeling underappreciated. I find myself wondering where anyone concerned with the arts as a public good fits in to such a commercialized environment. I find myself lethargic, nearly atonic, fighting against my own body to continue on with work that I’m hoping, at some point, will lead to an awakening of some kind.
Anyone working in service, content creation, or any of the other strains of the “immaterial labor force” (which continues to render invisible the very material forms of labor still reserved for the poor or outsourced to nations with lower wage rates)—knows what this alienation feels like. As Leigh Alexander writes in “The New Intimacy Economy,”
Pretending at closeness is really the only way forward for anyone who wants to make money on the internet. As such, watch as organizations pretend, with increasing intensity, that they are individuals. Start counting how many times platforms, services and websites entreat you in human voices, with awkward humor, for money. Watch as the things we expect to be invisible, utilitarian, start oozing emojis and winky-smileys…
Your inbox is going to fill up with requests for professional favors from strangers who tell you they love you. They are not remotely your peers, but they’ll expect you to work for them anyway for exposure, for credit, for kudos, for “the community.” They add emojis for effect, too. Your feelings are now professional currency.
I’m not enough of a curmudgeon to suggest that online communication is inherently without value, or that our online interactions aren’t authentic, “real” expressions of human bonding. I think we find real meaning and affirmation in that—I know I do. I think humans can and will find ways to intimately connect under just about any circumstances, much like we will always find ways to create.
But I give little credit to the systems through which we’re now made to work, live and communicate for that. Capitalism requires a landless working class dependent upon labor markets; accelerated late capitalism moves our placelessness to the domain of the virtual, the disembodied. Increasingly, there is no distinction between leisure and labor. Some of that is due to the gamification of our behavior and habits—Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” stand as direct examples of this. (Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig De Peuter refer to this as the “playbor force” in their book, Games of Empire.) But that’s merely a symptom of labor devaluation in the 21st century. Yes, we have access to incredible commodities, but often at the expense of more fundamental necessities like purchasing power, a well-funded social safety net, and the audacious desire not to be crushed by debt.
Alexander rightly points out that our dystopian science-fiction future is not a cold technocracy. Rather, it’s one that exploits our very needs as humans to emote, to communicate, to feel our existences validated and solidified. It’s one which takes advantage of emotional labor—a notably feminized form of work which hasn’t been particularly well-compensated as far back as anyone can remember—and makes it compulsory. As we see our rights to privacy quickly disintegrating, we also watch ourselves performing versions of our identity as a means of survival. We cannot look away for long. We become trapped in the version of ourselves we expect others to like, to consume.
I know all the times I fixed a smile upon my face while a clenched mouth suffocated my words. Agency becomes limited by the versions of ourselves we are allowed to show, that we are safe in showing (depending on what social advantages our identities afford us). Movement becomes stiff, often involuntary, determined by forces which are not totally outside ourselves yet we feel unable to get under our control. There’s an ongoing internal fight we wage to be our true selves, but a lot of it is also about staving off boredom. This constant, enforced mandate to “be ourselves” and “speak our minds” can make a person’s innermost self feel like public property, and the idea of an “innermost self” even existing becomes suspect. It gets distorted after so much performance. If we allow ourselves not to comment but only observe, we let the silence creep in. Everyone seems to want so badly to escape their bodies, to not have to be stuck with themselves.
Both this fundamental, artistic desire to create and a compulsive requirement to capitalize on my own experience and creativity is why, despite condemning myself to an engagement with one of my own worst fears, I decided to begin work on a hypertext game about what it’s like to experience sleep paralysis.
The self-destructively opportunistic part of me seized on my latest sleep-paralysis episode as fodder for a Halloween game. I began jotting down notes in a felt notebook. It would be called Atonia. It would be made in Twine, a text-based development tool that’s free to download and requires very little programming foreknowledge. With a simple bit of syntax, the developer can create complex pieces of interactive fiction. Theoretically, any web design kit can do this: Net art pieces, like Olia Lialina’s 1996 My boyfriend came back from the war, obviously precede the advent of Twine.
But Twine gives me the basic shape. It’s easily customizable. I can remove the default menu buttons the program applies to each new project, so what I’m left with is a solid black background. I can import images, so maybe in the darkness, I’ll include blurry, vague shapes. The kinds of vague shapes I see when I start to wake and I find my gaze is fixed on whatever direction my head got stuck.Maybe there’s a hyperlink that goes nowhere. You click it and it just goes nowhere. I can take advantage of glitches that way, like Michael Lutz did in The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo. And maybe there’s an invisible system timer, so that the player sinks in and out of consciousness while trying to escape their nightmare.
There are lots of little considerations to make—little details that have changed and will change. But the constant will be the inescapability of it. That’s the key. I want the player to feel the anxiety not just of what might happen when they finally get to sleep, but of what might happen if they never wake up.
It’s all written down. To loop, or not to loop? To send the player to random passages, or to fixed ones? The scribbles and lines get more erratic each time I look at my notes, but I’m stuck in a creative deadlock. Even the notes I have yet to jot down are all in a tangle, tying down an idea, suffocating it.
It’s too late for a Halloween release, now. I look at the bright blank page of an empty Twine passage and feel a weight upon me. I try to put it out of my head because there was too much “real work” to get done. There’s a lot of starting and stopping. There’s a lot of hectic movement, followed by boglike inaction. For this to work I need Atonia to relate what it means to become aware of being trapped in one’s own body, and to be robbed of agency in a moment of vulnerability and refuge from those fitful starts and stops of daily life.
When I was a little kid, my grandmother suggested to me that all of life was one long dream. How would any of us really know the difference? “I just, do!”, I kept insisting. I think, therefore I am, or something. “But how do you know that?” she kept asking. I got flustered. Because I know when I’m awake and when I’m not! I just do! I just do!
Sometimes, when I drift back into my continuous nightmares, they restart with me waking up in my bed. In that moment, I’m sure I’m awake. I’m moving through my world, except I start to intuit that something isn’t quite right. Someone’s scrambled the wires. The places are wrong; windows and doors are not where they should be. Rooms flow into each other like some Lynchian labyrinth. Language is unintelligible, numbers are portentous and unknowable glyphs. People look and sound wrong, menacing, cruel. It’s like my brain shows me distorted apparitions of people I trust just to mess with me. In those moments, I’m perfectly lucid. I become aware I’m dreaming, and I fight against myself to wake up. And then, eventually, I do. I’m in my bed. Everything seems right, and everything moves. And then it doesn’t. And then I wake up in my bed again. Sometimes, I remember what my grandmother said, and I worry that my entire existence is just a constant stream of this. How would I really know?
I have so many little considerations to make about Atonia. I have to worry about how the scenes will change. I have to think about how things will have to have continuity, yet be slightly different each time. Things have to blend in a way that feels uncanny, at once overwhelmingly expansive and claustrophobically constrictive. The setting itself has to feel like a deformed monster which is intractably large, which makes the player feel infinitesimally small. But the real balancing act is in showing what it means to feel both aware and dead at the same time, vainly pushing against the cement in their veins, and hoping against hope that they can will themselves awake.