‘I’ve been hallucinating. Seeing things. (And no, I’m not on drugs)’
Laura Kennedy: Night-time visions of monsters in my room seem normal – at the time
For the past couple of months, I’ve returned to childhood every night before bed, anticipating visits from monsters and other freakish creatures, and feeling reluctant to switch off the light to settle into sleep.
No, it isn’t that I’m in the grips of late Stalinesque paranoia, or that my admittedly generous cranial girth has collided too many times with the shelf in the bathroom (though it has). Nor is it that I am taking too many hallucinogens, because I have never taken any, or that I’m having a particularly extravagant reaction to a bad culinary experience at a fish restaurant.
Actually, I am just hallucinating, in the classic sense of the word. We have all heard some dismissive yob level an accusation of “seeing things” at some point in an argument (you might be related to said yob), but no, I am actually seeing things. Things that are not there. Or at least, things that are not there in the world outside of me.
I awoke to see a very large cobra dancing merrily upright on its tail next to my bed
Before you run for the priest or write to the editor of The Irish Times to have me removed on grounds of being psychically discombobulated, remember two things. First, this paper’s Patrick Freyne wrote an article entitled “The Meaning of Poldark Striding Topless Out of the Sea” (it was vastly enjoyable), so being a touch unsettling clearly isn’t grounds for sacking.
Second, sleep hallucinations are not that uncommon. Apparently, they can occur in as many as 25 per cent of people. Their frequency usually decreases with age, and they are more common in women than men. There are two types of garden variety, sleep-related hallucinations – hypnogogic, which occur just before sleep, and hypnopompic, which occur as you wake. Both can be accompanied by sleep paralysis, in which you are technically awake and conscious but unable to move at all. Mine occur as I groggily shift out of sleep, often in the middle of the night.
The hallucinations can be sensory misrepresentations of external stimuli or they can occur without an external stimulus, and they can be visual, like seeing a person, animal or creature in the room; auditory, like scratching or whispering sounds; or sensory, where you feel like something – or someone – is brushing against you.
The first hallucination I had occurred during the summer, when moths kept besieging the bedroom in a kamikaze attempt to join conjugally with my reading lamp. When I awoke deep in the night to see an abnormally large blue moth soundlessly flying around my side of the bed, I presumed it was real. The next day, I decided I had imagined its colour, and wondered how it hadn’t woken himself beside me, but it didn’t seem as though there was no moth.
As the weeks went on, I awoke to see a very large cobra (again soundless) dancing merrily upright on its tail next to my bed; a spider made of fairy lights which dissolved into the air; and a mouse with malign sentience. Since cobras are not native to Dublin, and sparkle spiders have yet to be invented, and though they might not mind, mice don’t actively wish for my death, I went looking for an explanation.
Thankfully, I don’t experience sleep paralysis, but recall feebly flailing my arms at these creatures in a kind of “feck off, ye tick” motion that suggests more annoyance than fear. That seems bizarre. However, in the midst of the hallucination you are immersed in the experience, not because you believe the hallucination you see is really there, or because you fail to disbelieve it. Rather, your conscious awareness is really only operating at half mast, and there’s just about enough wind in your mental sails to propel you through the experience itself. The faculty to question what is happening seems, at least after you wake up and think about what you saw, to be some higher order brain function to which you had no access at the time.
Thankfully, I’m more unsettled in retrospect by these weird night visitors than I am in the moment, but they give a sense of how mysterious our brains are, and how much about them we presume. At least in semi-consciousness. It is clear I am not captaining my own ship.