20 Aug I Can’t Breathe
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"I Can't Breathe"Written by
Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
I never know when it will hit me, but it is the scariest experience I ever go through. The feeling is akin to a giant rock suddenly falling on top of me, and I am completely helpless, unable to move, or even speak. I want to cry out and scream for help, but it’s like my lips have been sealed shut with glue. The only movement I’m allotted is with my eyes, as they dart around the room, looking for whoever is holding me down, or what.
But the worst of it is, for the first few moments, I can’t breathe.
I have had episodes like this on and off again for as far back as my early teenage years. Part of me even believes I used to have them when I was younger, but my developing mind simply blocked out those times they occurred so as not to cause me traumatic damage as I grew older. Either way, they still give me trouble to this day, even at twenty-six years of age.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like this happens every night, or once a week, or even once a month. In any given year, I can count on one hand the number of times I have this living nightmare. They happen so rarely, in fact, that I often go weeks without even thinking about it. Only when it does happen to me am I stuck for weeks at a time, worried that I’ll lock up in my sleep again.
Or have another instance that had occurred two years ago, which I consider to be the scariest night of my life. That night, I wasn’t sure if I was simply having an episode, or if someone, or something, was trying to kill me.
About two years ago, I found myself in a sort of limbo when it came to any sense of direction I wanted to go in my life. I had dropped out of college that spring, unsure of whether I wanted to return to finish my degree or not. I had just started a new job after walking away from a company I had poured three and a half years of my life into, so I was on shaky ground as I attempted to prove my worth. On top of that, my boyfriend and I had just broken up with each other, but we had chosen to remain as friends and roommates. Those first few weeks of sleeping in a bed alone were some of the most depressing nights of my life.
Shortly after I had moved out of sharing a room with my ex and into my own room in the house, I had an episode that startled me awake at exactly 2:47 AM. I knew this because when my eyes shot open, the alarm clock that I set up across the room so I had to get out of bed to turn it off shone brightly the time in bright-red LED light. Once again, I was unable to move, speak, or breathe. It only lasted for about fifteen to twenty seconds, on the short end of the spectrum compared to ones I’ve had before. This one was terrifying to me, however, because I hadn’t had an occurrence like this alone for quite some time.
I never told my ex-boyfriend about what I went through since it happened very rarely, while he was dead asleep at night. And since I’m unable to speak or move when it occurs, there would be no point in giving him ways to tell if I was having a spell or not. It was something I internally went through when they happened, but having someone else in bed with me gave me a sense of comfort when the attacks struck. Now, alone in a futon with nothing but an alarm clock to keep me company, I suddenly felt the weight of loneliness drop on top of me, weighing me down much like the psychological rock crushing me that night.
I had decided the next day to seek help from my doctor. I had signed up for insurance through my employer, and part of the benefits included free diagnostic checks. I scheduled an appointment and saw him later that afternoon after I clocked out from work.
We went through the usual steps, from checking my tongue to hearing my heart beat. Once everything was said and done, he wrapped his stethoscope around his neck and asked if there was anything I wished to discuss with him. Normally, there was never anything I needed to discuss at all. I was a young man in excellent health, save for me being overweight. This time, however, I nodded, and the doctor gave a concerned look.
I went into detail of everything I go through when the attacks strike, from feeling like tons of weight has been dropped onto me to the inability to breathe when it first flares up. Once I finished, he nodded, tapping his pen against his clipboard as he set it aside. He clasped his hands together and looked at me with understanding and a tinge of concern.
He explained to me that what I was experiencing was a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. It occurs whenever a person is falling asleep or waking up, but the individual becomes locked in a paralyzed state, unable to move, speak, or react in any sort of way. He did say, however, that being unable to breathe for a short period was something he had never heard of before. When asked how long I would be paralyzed for, I responded anywhere from ten to fifteen seconds to sometimes more than a minute. He sighed in relief. Although the breathing made him hesitant, it seemed the episodes were brief, and few and far between. He had heard instances of people who would be paralyzed for over an hour. I hesitantly chuckled, saying I had never had an episode last that long.
Sadly, although it was nice to know these occurrences not only had a name to them, but that I wasn’t suffering from them alone, the doctor simply said that there is no current treatment to prevent sleep paralysis from happening. When asked about my sleep patterns, I did reply that it was usually difficult for me to fall asleep at night. Oftentimes, sleep paralysis affects individuals with insomnia, sleep deprivation, or someone with bad sleep habits. He asked that we first try going to bed sooner and turn off all electronics an hour before bed to better stimulate sleep. I agreed, and left.
Over the next few weeks, I went about my life as I normally did. I went to work on the weekdays, chatted with my ex for a few hours before retreating to my room to play video games before bed, and hung out with friends or rested at home on the weekends. However, during some of my spare time, I decided to look further into sleep paralysis. Now that I had a name for what was going on with me, I wanted to find more about it.
I ended up stumbling upon a few websites that hosted forums for people to gather and provide information and support to those who sought others that had similar attacks. Most of these groups were rather small, but I did find a rather sizable group in the most unlikely of places. This particular website tailored to more supernatural theories of sleep paralysis.
Many in the group believed the attacks came about from the body’s natural reaction to traumatizing events that had occurred in one’s past. It was simply the sub conscience retreating to a fight-or-flight instinct from the exposure to unexplained paranormal activity. Some believed their bodies locked up when they relived their encounters with beings from outer space. Others still theorized that demons forced them into paralysis while they did torturous things to their minds and souls. One user on the site felt whenever he was attacked, he could hear voices telling him to give in to evil and let his soul descend to the depths of Hell.
I was intrigued, but I found the idea to be somewhat absurd. I was never much to believe in superstition or urban legends. I simply passed off their theories and “true stories” as people putting answers into their own minds. I favored the more logical explanation from medical science. That theory had facts to it, research, and was, for lack of a better term, natural.
Then, one night, almost two months from when I visited the doctor, I had gone to bed somewhat early since I was quite tired from the yard work and my ex’s side project of enclosing part of the back porch into a larger laundry room. I was exhausted, and I collapsed on my back onto the futon. It didn’t take me long to fall asleep.
I’m not exactly sure how long I had been out, but at around two in the morning, my eyes darted open. I looked around and attempted to move, but once again, my muscles were locked in place, and my mouth was clenched shut. I knew in my head that I was going through another episode, but even though I finally had a name to these attacks, it did not erase the sense of dread that washed over me when I awoke in this state. I attempted to adjust my vision as best I could to see what time it was on the alarm clock. Since I was still on my back, the angle made it hard to get a clear picture. I decided I would check the time once I broke free.
I started my normal ritual of beginning to free myself from the paralysis. I put all of my strength into attempting to free my fingers and toes from the locked position first. By now, I had gone about ten seconds with no air. I knew it wouldn’t be long until my breathing would return, so I wasn’t entirely too worried.
Then, ten seconds became twenty. Then thirty. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I was still unable to breathe, which I should have been able to long before now.
I started to panic. I should have been able to breathe a long time ago. I have, in the past, been paralyzed for thirty seconds, and even longer, but never had I ever gone without breathing for this long when it happened. Something was very wrong.
Only then did I notice a sharp constriction around my neck.
Since I could not move my arms to check what was on my neck, I started darting my eyes around frantically to see if I could notice if anything had actually fallen on top of me. As my pupils attempted to adjust to the dark of the room, I happened to glance directly in front of me. I noticed something…odd, like something was out of focus. I then realized that I should have been looking at the large window that faced me from the other side of my bed. Although it was always dark in my room, since most sources of light would keep me wide awake, I would still be able to see light from the outside streetlights of my neighborhood shine through the blinds. This time, I saw nothing but pitch black. Had the power been shut off?
Then I looked further left and right, and I noticed a soft gleam off to the sides. This rather faint glow seemed to have about the same shade of the lights that were supposed to be on outside. I realized that the street lights were, in fact, on. But something was in the way of them, something that was blocking most of the light from my vision.
Something that was right in front of me. Right…on top of me. The weight was crushing, unbearable. The glow from the lights outside illuminated the form of a tall figure that was directly over me. And connected to this frame were two long objects that seemed to extend down in my direction.
They were…arms. Someone had their hands on me. Someone was choking me!
My breathing was completely cut off. How long had he been on top of me? I frantically tried to move, but nothing seemed to let me break free from his hold, like my entire body was tied down and crushed under the weight of a hundred rocks. I wanted to push him off of me. I wanted to break free. Hell, I just wanted to take in a breath. Things were starting to get fuzzy. I wanted to break free of this nightmare. I wanted to break free!
Then, a waft of warm air blew across my face. It smelled foul, like rotten eggs. I felt a drop of liquid hit my cheek. My eyes darted up, and I suddenly felt what true terror was. His face was right in front of me. He was breathing on me. He was drooling on me.
He was killing me!
Without thought or care, I shot forward, screaming at the top of my lungs a loud, blood-curdling scream that echoed through the entire house. My arms shot forward, attempting to grab hold of the man and pry him off of me. Would I escape? Would I be able to run? Would he come after me? Would…
My hands simply flew through the cool night air in my room, and my mind was jarred back to here and now. In that moment, I realized that I could move. I was able to break free of whatever was holding me.
Most of all, I could breathe again.
He…it was gone.
I was startled by my door slamming open, and my head quickly turned in its direction. There, at the doorway, was my ex, a look of fear across his face and a small revolver in his hand. I must have startled him awake with my screaming, and he came prepared to fight off whatever was attacking me.
When he saw I was alone, but sweating, panting heavily, and looking quite disheveled, he asked me what the hell had happened to me. In that moment, the sudden adrenaline rush I went through evaporated, and I began to sob uncontrollably, bringing my hands to my face. I then felt my ex sit next to me, putting his arms around me in an attempt to calm me down.
I told him everything that night, from the fact that I suffered from sleep paralysis to the strange nightmare I had gone through just moments before. He sat there, bewildered at what I had gone through, but feeling terrible that he could never do anything to help me. I shook my head, telling him there’s nothing anyone can do. I was simply glad I made it through what was no doubt the worst form of sleep paralysis I had ever experienced.
We moved to the bed in his room, where I slept for the rest of the night. It felt wonderful to sleep in a large, comfortable bed, and to have company through the night. Even if that person was my ex, that didn’t matter then. He was what allowed me to calm down and drift off to sleep once more.
I woke up alone in his bed the next day. I knew he had an early shift at 4 that morning, but I didn’t expect to sleep through him getting out of bed, getting dressed, and driving off. I suppose the whole ordeal had been quite taxing on my body and mind, and I was just too tired to react to any sort of movement.
I looked at the clock on his wall. 9:37 AM. Still early enough in the morning to enjoy what I suddenly realized was Saturday, the first day of my weekend. I inhaled deeply, reaching my arms out in a long stretch before exhaling loudly and climbing out of bed.
Whatever my mind had created last night, it was no doubt the scariest thing I had ever gone through. Part of my thoughts drifted to that website dealing with demons and spirits. Part of me wondered if that was what I had experienced, some supernatural being attempting to choke the very life from me. I scoffed loudly, pushing those thoughts aside. It was sleep paralysis, no doubt, and I somehow became frantic and paranoid since my breathing hadn’t returned as soon as I had hoped, and thus conjured up an explanation to my prolonged paralyzed state. It was over now, and there was no need to worry about it anymore than I needed to.
I walked to the bathroom to relieve myself, then checked my reflection in the mirror. I would soon walk to the kitchen, fix me a bowl of cereal, and spend the rest of the day relaxing, putting the events of last night behind me and starting what would be a lazy, game-fueled weekend.
But…something in the mirror caught my attention. Something about me was different. Then, when it dawned on me what it was, all the color drained from my face and my skin went cold.
Around my neck were deep, dark blue bruises…in the shape of two massive hands.
Credit: Brandon Harris
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