When I was in my 20s, I spent four years teaching English in Japan. For the first two years, I lived in an apartment complex in a small town surrounded by rice paddies. It was a four-story concrete building with outdoor stairwells that anyone could access, and each apartment had a heavy metal door that opened onto a stairwell and was the only way in or out. I lived on the top floor.
One early Sunday morning, after staying up way too late writing the night before, I was startled awake by the sound of the big metal door to my apartment being flung open with such force that it hit the wall with a clang. As I lay there trying to figure out what was happening, I heard loud footsteps come marching down the short hallway and into my bedroom, where they paused at the end of my bed.
I was too terrified to move. I couldn’t even open my eyes. I was lying on my back with my arms out-flung – which was unusual, normally I sleep curled up in fetal position – and felt horribly unprotected and exposed. My heart was jackhammering in my chest and it was all I could do not to whimper or cry out.
I could hear the intruder’s loud breathing as he stood there, looking down at me. I kept telling myself I was imagining things, and it was all a dream, but I could hear… him… breathing. And I could feel his dark presence enjoying my fear.
Despite my terror, I was deeply ashamed that I wasn’t doing anything to protect myself – that my first instinct when a stranger burst into my room was to lie there pretending to sleep and hope he would go away.
This is insane, I told myself. You have to protect yourself! HE’S STANDING RIGHT THERE!
So I worked up the courage to open my eyes. Except I couldn’t. I couldn’t open my eyes. I couldn’t move my arms. I couldn’t move anything.
All I could do was lie there helplessly, listening to him breathe.
I don’t know how long he stood there – it felt like hours – and in the terror of waiting and wondering what he was going to do to me, I lost all semblance of coherent thought. But eventually, after who knows how long, I came back to myself and realized the room had fallen silent.
I lay there for many minutes, wondering if he was still there or not, before I attempted to move my fingers. It worked. I had control over my body again. It was many more minutes before I summoned the courage to open my eyes. Heart pounding, I stared at the ceiling and listened to the silence for a long time before finally lifting my head to look at the end of the bed. There was nothing there.
Trembling, I got out of bed and checked out the other rooms in my apartment. They were empty. I was alone.
I started locking my door after that.
Years after I came home from Japan, I learned about sleep paralysis and realized that my experience was a textbook example of this phenomenon. Intellectually, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened that morning, because it makes a lot more sense than some intruder bursting into my room at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning to stare at me as I lay paralyzed, unable to move.
But every time I remember my experience that morning, I can still hear his breathing. And I wonder.