When sleep attacks! How nocturnal hallucinations helped me bust some ghosts

Darren having a snooze, Portsmouth, 1995A few nights ago, not long after going to bed, I opened my eyes to see a man in a gorilla suit standing by my wardrobe.

I’ve had a fair few strange nocturnal experiences, going right back to childhood. I remember, as a toddler, suddenly being woken up by a rooster on the inside of my windowsill. It wasn’t there, of course – I lived on a suburban street and none of the neighbours kept chickens – but I saw and heard it very clearly. Then there was the time – I guess I must have been five or six years old – that I shut my eyes in pitch darkness, only to open them a few seconds later to find my room bathed in daylight. Thoroughly confused, I got out of bed, found my mum and asked her: “Is it morning?” She laughed. Of course it was morning. “I haven’t been to sleep,” I said. “I’ve only just got into bed.”

My most intense slices of post-bedtime weirdness, though, are those from around three years ago. I’d recently started taking the anti-depressant citalopram, and my GP had started me off on 20mg – a pretty standard dose, which at first did its job very well. However, I experienced a few side effects, one of which was that I’d often wake in the night confused about where I was. My bedroom didn’t look like my bedroom – I didn’t recognise it – and then, as I stared intently at the walls, curtains or door, it would suddenly all make sense again.

After about four months on 20mg, the medication didn’t seem to be working quite so well any more, so on the okay from my GP I took my dose up to 40mg. And this was when the hallucinations started. Most nights, a couple of hours after falling asleep, I’d wake and see odd, and sometimes scary, things for 10 seconds or so. A recurring favourite was smoke near the ceiling, though the most impressive was probably the dark figure who leant over me, accompanied by a fairy hovering near the door.

One night, I felt my wife Tara climbing over me to get out of bed. I stirred and opened my eyes to see her facing the wall but walking on the spot, as if she was trying to leave the room but couldn’t find the door. ‘Bit weird,’ I thought, and glanced to her side of the bed, where I saw her still wrapped in the duvet and fast asleep. When I looked back at the figure near the wall, it turned towards me, rose up a few feet and leered at me, its facial features turning demonic. And then, thankfully, it frazzled at the edges, almost disappearing into itself, and vanished.

Long before I experienced any of this, I was aware of the concepts of hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, so even though the figures and creatures looked as real to me as you would if you were here with me now, I could rationalise them as hallucinations and so I wasn’t unnerved by most of them. In fact, I quickly trained my mind to say, ‘oh, sod off’, and the images would disappear – sometimes frazzling at the edges and vanishing to a centre point, as with Tara’s demonic doppelganger.

It also gave me first-hand insight into a certain type of ghost or extraterrestrial experience. Having that demon looming over me in the middle of the night made me appreciate just how real this stuff looks and feels. If someone isn’t aware of the rational explanation, it must feel to them like a supernatural or alien encounter. In fact, my sister once told me about a night-time visitation that she’d had. The way she described it, it sounded to me like a textbook case of sleep paralysis. Nothing to fear here. In the words of the great Zelda Rubinstein from Poltergeist, “this house is clean”.

Darren dressed in a gorilla suit, 2005The most frightening experience I had during my ’40mg period’ was waking up in the night thinking that the bed was in my garage, and that there was a man sitting on the side of the bed, facing away from me. My ‘sod off’ technique didn’t work this time. I propped myself up on my arms and stared at this guy, who just wouldn’t disappear, so I started to think that he might be real (yes, even though my bed was in the garage).

I wondered how I was going to wake Tara, alert her to the fact that we had an intruder, and get the heck out of there – all without letting the man know that I was awake. I glanced away from him for a split second, and when I looked back he was gone – but I still thought he might have been real, so I started looking around on the floor for him, thinking he could have just ducked down.

That one did unnerve me for a while afterwards.

I’ve not taken citalopram for about a year and a half, so I was surprised to see that guy in the gorilla suit the other night. On the one hand, it’s annoying – I hope it doesn’t signify the start of a fresh run of hallucinatory horrors. On the other, it’s hilarious – if you have to see something weird in your room in the middle of the night, it might as well be a background extra from Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.

On that note, night night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite – nor, for that matter, demonic lookalikes of your loved ones…

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