I Wrote an Essay on Sleep Paralysis to Finally Talk About Men’s Ugliest Urges
Once it happens, sleep paralysis tends to recur. It’s as if a spirit has marked your bed, like the first coming has irreversibly altered you.
It’s a coincidence, probably, that the year I first experienced these violent intrusions was also the year I was first sexually assaulted.
But I’m still not writing about the thing I planned to.
It’s hard to know what qualifies as an assault, what’s worthy of being classified a trauma. I’ve found them both to be less linear than you might think, more akin to hundreds of interconnected paper cuts, each new wound tearing a fresh break in all of them.
Over time, the things that hardly registered in the beginning, the subway gropings and catcalls, the leers and under-table knee brushes, began to chafe at me in the same way as the bigger ones. They promised: I, too, house this animal.
Eventually, I learned to spot that dormant darkness, one drawn more to the taking than the having, from a mile away. But first, I had to grow a sharp spine of my own, honing my protective instincts bit by painful bit.
Before I did, I felt only fear and shame when a married friend said in a low voice while driving, You might have to wipe my mouth for me. As if he weren’t a grown man, as if it weren’t possible to drive and eat a slice of pizza at the same time. Later, when he quite literally grabbed me by the pussy and chased me up the stairs of the lake house where a group of us were staying—before the Trump tape came out, before it was a cliché—I turned the violence inward, where it quietly ate away at me. I felt only fear and heat and shame.
But when I woke up the next morning and the sun glinted off the snow, everyone acting normally, everything in its place, I couldn’t square my own mind. I told myself that what I felt under his hands and his hunger was actually a thrill, that it was a game and I could win.
After the first time, men looked at me knowingly. Men at the top of their fields, middle-aged colleagues with families, pressed their knees into my thigh under the table at meetings, fixated on me at happy hours, grabbed my ass when no one was looking and murmured suggestive comments just quietly enough so only I could hear. Men who’d known me since I was a child hugged me too long and too tight and looked me up and down with X-ray eyes that made me squirm. Men in bars and on bike paths and at parties—men my own age—kissed me without invitation, took photos up my skirt, called me a bitch when I didn’t smile back.
They could have asked me out, and many did, but whether I said yes or not never seemed to make a difference. They tugged at my body casually, and when I protested they only ducked their heads and peered up at me with doe eyes, bashful as if they’d been caught sneaking a forbidden cookie.
I’m too used to it now. Most days, I forget to mention that it’s hard to carry. I forget to factor it into my equation of exhaustion. But it wears me out all the same, and it feels easier to assume the worst than to expose what little soft skin is left unbruised.
In Portuguese, the word for nightmare is pesadelo. It derives from peso or pesado. Heavy.
There’s still so much more I need to say.
On that spontaneous first date with Ryan the week after Ida, we drank gin and tonics at a little bar on Bedford. It was one of the perfect post-hurricane nights, lazy and long and warm even after sunset. Everything was right. He was cute and just my type and my palm hummed as he traced patterns across it with his fingers.
I wanted to be there with him, but something I couldn’t name hooked my insides and scooped me out of my body. I was no longer in Brooklyn; I was in Chicago, years prior, and in this memory, a stranger who’d just catcalled me pinned my shoulders to a brick wall and forced my lips apart to make room for himself. I woke up in my own bed the next morning, but the dark bruises lining the softest part of my thighs remained, proof that it had really happened.
I slipped farther from my body as the night went on—further into the memory of that night. Do you mind? Ryan slid closer in the wooden booth we were sharing until he was covering my arms and legs with his own.
Yes, I said when he asked if he could kiss me. I wanted him to. But as he did, I felt my stomach caving in on itself like a piece of rotting stone fruit collapsing under the weight of decay, wicking everything alive in me until I could no longer feel my fingers or cheeks or bones.
I tried for lightness, for ease, as I told him, I should probably head home, I have a lot of writing to do tomorrow. He walked with me, his bike beside him. When we stopped outside my apartment door, he kissed me again, his tongue clumsily and relentlessly pushing into my mouth. The same spot, the same motion, no reprieve. I tried to guide it into the rhythm of a good kiss, equal parts soft and hard. I let my lips wander across his mouth and the smallest bit of teeth drag his lower lip, teasing his tongue with mine. But every time I handed some control back, he resumed the same repetitive motion with increasing urgency.
I recognized this brute-force hunger, and I couldn’t stay with it a second longer.
I should say goodnight, I said, flashing him a smile, covering my rising discomfort even though I knew I shouldn’t have to.
His back to my front door, he pulled me close again, trapping my arms against my sides and pulling the breath from my lungs. I thought that’s what we were doing, he said.
The Greeks also had a name for sleep paralysis: ephialtes, which translates to something like “to pounce upon.”
Now, my queerness sometimes feels like an act of rebellion.
We’re getting closer to what I’m trying to say, but there is still so much more.
The next day, when my pulse returned to my body and I remembered how to breathe again, a fresh wave of grief knocked me sideways. I ached for the last person I loved, a man I’d met a few years after the divorce who had felt different from all the rest.
He was the only cis man I’d fucked since Mark, a friend of a friend who didn’t take I want to go slower, let’s not do that yet as the No that it was meant to be. Naively, I’d assumed that because I was mostly scar tissue by then, that particular incident hadn’t really changed me.
It was easy, at first, to avoid facing the reality of what Mark did. I had a whole other part of myself to escape into, and I let myself retreat into it.
I came out as bi at nineteen, five years before any of this started. The first time I kissed a woman, it was winter in Chicago and we were doing everything in our power to keep our teeth from chattering mid make out. It didn’t matter; my always-cold body crackled with heat and sureness and for once the shock of frigid air I sucked into my lungs only made me giddy. Ines leaned back against the whitewashed brick wall of the chicken-and-fish joint where we’d just downed Negroni slushies in spite of the twenty-degree weather. She was a good six inches taller, but I was the one who wrapped her jacket tight around her shoulders, who pulled her in close and warmed her hands between my own. I’d never done this before, but every bone in my body was at home.
Now, my queerness sometimes feels like an act of rebellion, the one part of me none of those men could ever touch.
After Mark, I avoided straight men so completely that I barely noticed the fear response that filled my body every time one of them touched me. It’s true the LGBTQ community, like any other, is not immune to violence. But in so many ways, it’s been my refuge.
Over time, though, shutting off the part of myself that loves men cleaved me in two just as cleanly as denying myself women had. It didn’t feel good to cut out an entire gender in fear. It left me small and half-starved.
When I finally found a way to love a man again—the one I felt safe with, the one I broke up with in June—I mistakenly chose to believe he could wipe away the destruction of the ones who came before him. When we were together, I felt, briefly, like I could stand to let a man look directly at me.
But there’s too much pressure in that, in asking someone to fix you like a broken thing that needs to be put back together and protected.
Still, I couldn’t help myself. On a hot, sticky July day, I rode the A train ten stops south to see him, sweat folding into every crease of my skin and my clenched hands. This time he could not, or would not, look me in the eye.
In Latin, nightmare is calcare: “to press or to push.”
These are the most recent things, but I haven’t told you everything yet.
What I was going to write about was this: When I was twenty-eight, buckling under dissociation and numbness, caught in a cycle of depression and shame, I decided to move in with roommates to save enough money to pay for therapy.
For months, we lived as near strangers under the same roof, only stopping to make brief small talk. I liked the couple I shared the massive two-story attic apartment with well enough, a man and woman and their tiny dachshund, though we never connected on any level deeper than I made too many edibles, do you want one?
At this point, it had been four years since I first started awake in the night to a bang and a pressure on my chest. So when I heard the crash, I talked myself through it: This is not real; your brain is playing tricks on you.
I didn’t realize anything was off until I noticed my fingers flexing against my thigh. No paralysis.
Someone screamed again anyway. She screamed my name.
This is what I planned to write about, but it’s a hard thing, talking about someone else’s horror. In many ways, it feels wrong to even try. But what I saw that night—his hands around her neck, her naked body ripped from the shower—haunts me all the same. It’s a shared violence. It’s a notch on the spectrum of toxic masculinity, and while it lives on the very far end, it’s the same spectrum that houses objectification and leers, sexist norms and incel culture.
My roommates were a fuzzy blur when I dove straight into the mess of their limbs that night. I hadn’t stopped to put my contacts in, and so it took me a minute to realize who it was. He wasn’t an intruder. This was his home too.
My body didn’t wait for my mind to catch up. Maybe this was by design, was some animal instinct finally coming loose. With the force of all my adrenaline and the element of surprise, I pried his fingers from her throat and began to talk him down. My voice was calmer and more soothing than it had any right to be, and it distracted him long enough that she threw a robe around her shoulders and ran out the door. Still, I didn’t unclench my muscles, which twinged under the wide stance I’d taken, arms and legs windmilled out to block the door by making myself as big as possible. I stayed that way until I was sure she had a good start, until I was sure she would have made it to her car safely. If you can ever call living with that memory safe, that is.
I will not make myself carry the burden of fear and absolution for men.
I let him hug me because he asked, and the painful awareness that we were alone gripped me like a phantom.
The word monster is a cognate; it’s the same in English, Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian. Now we define it as “a strange or horrible imaginary creature,” but originally it was monēre: to warn.
Not long afterward, a friend casually scolded me for having my earbuds in while I walked to the train after a happy hour.
You shouldn’t do that, he said, it’s not safe, especially at night.
I lost my absolute shit on him.
I made him listen to every act of sexual violence I’d lived through, even the ones that didn’t merit mentions here. The ones that, if I’d listed them, would have tipped the scale too far into victimhood, would have made this feel gratuitous. I told him about the dates that turned sour, about the friends who turned cruel. I made sure he knew there was no such thing as a safe place or a safe person, not when you live in a body that’s up for grabs. It’s a special kind of irony that the only way to prove our scars are real is to scrape a nail clean across them until they bleed all over again.
My friend was quiet as I laid these things at his feet one by one. I’m sure my response seemed outsize to him, but it felt just fucking right to me.
I will not make myself carry the burden of fear and absolution for men who give themselves over to their ugliest urges. It’s already unfair that on so many days, I exist at one of two extremes. I’m a walking, gaping wound where the smallest brush churns with salt, or I’m a trampoline of scar tissue, briefly inviting but wholly repellant.
It’s already unfair that even as a broke grad student, I pay a hundred dollars a week to spend an hour in therapy undoing the defense mechanisms that my brain (probably correctly) refuses to give up. It’s especially unfair, especially painful, that the cost of survival is losing the ability to be loved when that is also the thing you want the most.
It’s enough to carry the burden I’m still working to rid myself of: How some days I can’t feel my own body. How painful things are the memories I’m most drawn to writing because when I try to avoid them, they find their way into my work in messier, murkier ways. How I wish people could see the weight of all this so I didn’t have to name it over and over again. And equally, how I want nothing more than to be seen for who I am, free from any of it.
None of this is to say that we’re helpless, or that all we are is the sum of our traumas. If anything, many people I know have carried the impossible and come out the other side incredibly compassionate, perceptive, and empathetic. It’s hard to attempt normal life under such a crushing weight without leaving room for the possibility that everyone around you also bears untold scars.
These are almost all of the things I had to tell you.
Here’s what I’ve been trying to write—what I needed to lay at your feet.
A strange thing happened recently. I was walking down a stretch of Greene I love for its elaborate brownstones and steady supply of curbside Anaïs Nin erotica, free VHS tapes, and homemade abstract art. At some point as I walked, I realized I could breathe.
I’ve lived in New York for nearly a year, and in that time something has shifted. It’s not that there are no catcalls or sexual assaults here, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But the places I frequent have more community and accountability to keep them in check. People watch out for one another in a way that’s new to me. Once, when a guy at the end of my block started coming on to me, his friend cut him off: Just let her walk home in peace, dude.
The morning after Hurricane Ida, my roommate and I sat on a sunny patch of stoop across from our downstairs neighbor. She rolled up her jeans to show him the angry bumps covering her skin where the floodwater had soaked through the night before. We took turns recounting our nights and surveying the damage. It was brutal. But it was a brutality we shared. We were awake and alive and facing the destruction head-on.
Anni Glissman is a Brooklyn-based writer. Currently, she is a Randall Jarrell Nonfiction Fellow and MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. Before moving to New York, she worked in Communications at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where she was lucky enough to write about everything from Antarctic dinosaurs to pre-solar stardust.