Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations: Shadow People and Demon Bunnies
Leading up to and after my diagnosis of narcolepsy with cataplexy, excessive daytime sleepiness most interfered with my quality of life. The sleepiness preoccupied my daily thinking, but that was only part of my reality.
The partial and full-body cataplexy were consistent frustrations as well. While the daytime symptoms were the most obvious, some of the sleep-related symptoms were terrifying and equally impactful.
These days, I understand the profound impact of hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations. Although that was not the case at first.
What are hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations?
Hypnagogic hallucinations are visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations that take place between being awake and sleep. Hypnopompic hallucinations are visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations that take place between sleep and awake.
Many times, these symptoms are also associated with sleep paralysis, the inability to move the head and body, or to properly breathe.1 As I have learned to identify these symptoms as they are occurring, I have found them to be less distressing and overwhelming, but they are always disconcerting.
Shadow people and the man in the hat
The shadow people are a common experience for many people with narcolepsy. These dark, shadowy figures appear in the bedroom, can be intruders that are breaking in, or are ominous frightening presences.
My first time experiencing/recalling the shadow people was in adolescence. For me, the “man in the hat” would appear at the foot of my bed and scare the wits out of me. It would happen just as I was dozing off to sleep or upon awakening.
It’s important to note that this “man in the hat” was there, I could see him. It wasn’t a dream, I was awake, I was aware. As a pre-teen guy, I didn’t know how to articulate the experience to my parents, nor did I want to. What would they think? Logically, after the fact, I knew there wasn’t anyone there, but I saw what I saw.
Frightening woman in my hypnopompic hallucination
The most frightening hallucination was the deceased elderly woman who would fall on my chest and inhibit my breathing. It happened as a hypnopompic hallucination, during a blur from dream to awake. This combination of visual and tactile hallucinations would scare the “willies” out of me (willies is a medical term).
I would erupt from sleep paralysis with an indescribable bellow of horror that would echo through the house. No way was I telling anyone about my lady visitor.
She has tormented others
After my diagnosis and some research, I realized that what I was experiencing had historical context. With references as early as the middle ages and throughout different parts of the globe, from Newfoundland to Nigeria, people had hallucinations that precipitated sleep paralysis during a visit from an “Old Hag.”2
There was some sense of comfort knowing I wasn’t alone having this lady torment my sleep, but that didn’t take much away from the experience. As the years have gone by, my awareness of what was happening has lessened the terrifying impact of these experiences. The Old Hag though, she is never welcome.
Demon bunny in my hypnagogic hallucination
My other recurring visual hallucination is more of the hypnagogic variety. The visual tormentor of my wake to dream moments is none other than an albino demon bunny with red eyes.
This agent of Satan scurries across the room as I am drifting off inciting a fear response. A small, white fluffy bunny causes me, a grown man, quite the fright. It’s taken me a while to admit that to others, but the purpose of this blog is to share my truths no matter how embarrassing.
In addition to the demon bunny, I also experience auditory hallucinations as I am drifting off to sleep. I have often hollered for my daughters to keep it down because I’m trying to sleep, only to realize that my kids are with their mom.
I will hear people outside my window mumbling indecipherably, only to peer out my window and discover no one is there. As with the visual and tactile varieties, I’ve gotten to a place where these auditory hallucinations don’t cause me much distress. It’s the new normal I have adjusted to.
Raising awareness and reducing stigma
When I am describing my symptoms to those without narcolepsy, these hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations usually elicit the “you serious” furrowed eyebrow. These hallucinations have been misinterpreted by many medical professionals and led to more than a few misdiagnoses of schizophrenia or other psychiatric condition.
Talking about these symptoms helps to reduce stigma, it helps to raise awareness. That’s what the World’s Strongest Person having narcolepsy with cataplexy is all about.
Do you feel that your doctor understands narcolepsy?