Do I need a therapist, an MD, or an exorcist?
December 14, 2010 8:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm a normal, rational person who doesn't subscribe to the paranormal. But I've been having terrible dreams/wakings for the last few months. Help me figure out what's really going on.

I moved into a 100 year old house this summer. On and off since then, I've had some terrible nightmares/wakings that are totally creeping me out.

Here's some stuff I've experienced lately:

-Waking in the middle of the night to see a black miasma gathering at the side of the bed; it disperses when I see it. Last night I was so sure it was there that I turned on a light.

-Waking to see weird bumps, perhaps a face, in the wall next to the bed

-Waking in the night to see a round hole in the wall where some dark miasma was trying to get in or out

-Waking in the night to see a black shadow looming in the doorway, which retreats when I see it

-Lots of other nighttime noises and shadows--sometimes I am totally sure there are people in the house.

Some relevant pieces of information: I've lived in lots of houses old and new, all of which had creaks and such, and never experienced this before. Usually I am a pretty solid sleeper, and I'm not generally scared in the house or elsewhere.

I have two kids and a small dog who could be moving around at night (though I have never noticed the dog not being in bed with me when I've woken in the middle of the night). My dog is a ratter, so I don't think we have mice or rats or raccoons in the house. Also I often wake up when my kids come into my room, so I don't think it's them (they are young).

I've been on anti-anxiety medicine for a few years, though I dropped the dosage this fall.

I read this question and this question so I will be getting a carbon monoxide detector. I'm also reading about infrasound and sleep paralysis.

So, what should I do if this isn't carbon monoxide? Make an appointment with my doctor? Find a therapist? While I don't believe in paranormal stuff, I do get creeped out easily by it, and I don't watch creepy movies. Also, I've managed to totally creep out my husband talking about this stuff (though my kids haven't heard a word of it).

So what's going on in my head?
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (36 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If I were you, I'd have a sleep study done. For as long as I can remember, since I was a child, I've had occasional visual hallucinations right after waking up, especially if I've been having a scary dream. It has been explained to me as a sleep cycle issue. Something about your the tail end of your dreams carrying over even while/after you wake up.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:22 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not big on paranormal stuff, but ... how would you feel if it WERE a ghost? Would you find this horrifying, or be OK with it? I've heard of some people who just accepted hey, my house is haunted, and found it sort of comforting.
posted by cyndigo at 8:23 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're most likely having hypnagogic hallucinations. Perfectly common, perfectly normal (if terrifying while they happen). I got these for several months while I was a student living at home, but they went away eventually and never came back.

What worked for me was turning the light on and sitting right up. Sometimes I read or turned the radio on. Once I felt calm again, I turned off the light and settled back to sleep.
posted by maudlin at 8:24 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Possibly an ultra-low frequency soundwave effect? I believe I first read about this on MeFi, though I was never able to track down where (eeeeEEEErieeee). But here are some other links I dredged up:

Infrasound the True Cause of Ghost-Like Sensations?
physics of ghosts
Geomancy Student Resource - Ghost in the Machine - Vic Tandy
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 8:28 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

(Just wanted to add that I also have seen faces, heard music/talking -- and have confused some bed-partners by telling them they were keeping me awake with their music/talking in a totally silent room -- and just felt something that could only be described as a freaky presence. It's all just part of the sleep stuff.)
posted by Ashley801 at 8:33 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Since you're waking up rather than falling sleep, you may find more information under hypnopompic hallucinations, but they're pretty well the same thing, just happening at different times.

You may have some sleep cycle problems that a doctor can help you with, but as I said above, this just sometimes happens, especially if you've been under some stress. If you're curious, look at these AskMe search results and you'll see a lot of people here have had similar experiences.

Hypnopompic hallucinations.

Hypnagogic hallucinations.
posted by maudlin at 8:34 PM on December 14, 2010

Do you also occasionally suffer from sleep paralysis? That makes the hypnagogic hallucinations more likely.

Also, order a strand of black or snowflake obsidian beads off eBay (less than $5) and make a bracelet or necklace out of them. It's said to repel the undead. Even if ghosts aren't real, this was enough to help my 15-year-old neighbor girl not be afraid to go ghost hunting with her science club.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:37 PM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

What kind of heating does the house have? You may be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:37 PM on December 14, 2010

oh duh, i see now you are already investigating "infrasound" ... anyhoo hope the links help!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 8:40 PM on December 14, 2010

Sure, get a Carbon Monoxide detector, from Kidde.
They're advertising heavily lately.

But I trust in Dog,
who is a ratter,
who isn't barking.
Not to worry.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:01 PM on December 14, 2010 [15 favorites]

>>Waking in the middle of the night to see a black miasma gathering at the side of the bed

This type of thing has happened to me when taking Ambien. Like, the exact same thing... looming black shadows and distortions like crazy, and super disconcerting even though at the same time I was consciously aware that hallucinations are a common side effect.

Are you on anything other than anti-anxiety meds? Which anti-anxiety meds? Benzodiazepines work in a chemically similar way to Ambien, so my non-physician guess is that the same thing should be possible for some kinds of anti-anxiety meds.

Talk to your M.D. -- do you have a family doctor or general practitioner? Start there. Maybe you need a therapist, maybe you need a sleep specialist, maybe it's something your regular doctor can solve by himself, but in any event he should be able to point you in the right direction.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:06 PM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

While I for one am not a big believer in ghosts, maybe do some research on your house at the town library (or ask a librarian how to find out more) in order to see if anything grisly ever HAS happened there.

(If I were in a thriller movie, this is definitely what I would do, with some tense micofilm-montage music in the background.)

But seriously-- it might put your mind at ease to know that nothing bad ever happened there, that it's not built over an Indian burial ground, etc.
posted by egeanin at 9:11 PM on December 14, 2010

This one is a long shot, but are you taking any vitamins? I've noticed when I take too many B vitamins I have terrible nightmares and strange, vivid awakenings, as well as anxiety that makes me paranoid and frightened.
posted by unannihilated at 9:12 PM on December 14, 2010

Similar things happen to me when I take melatonin to help me sleep.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 9:35 PM on December 14, 2010

IANAD, but have you been taking an anti-anxiety medication like Xanax or another benzodiazepine? Sometimes dropping a dosage of those can trigger sleep problems that seem seriously weird.

If you've been on any anxiety medication for a few years like you said or dropped the dosage faster than your doctor would, you run a pretty good chance of having some withdrawal symptoms. Some of those can last for a longer time than you would expect.

It's not unreasonable to think that increased anxiety or decreased sleep quality could lead to something like sleep paralysis, night terrors or just plain old false awakening dreams. Insomnia and miscellaneous sleep problems are a totally normal part of withdrawal.

Benzodiazepines have particularly nasty withdrawal symptoms, but even if you're not on them specifically, you should ask a doctor for help getting off psychiatric meds. So many have weird withdrawal effects that a good taper schedule for your dosage level could help.
posted by zxcvz at 9:51 PM on December 14, 2010

I had to read this book for a college course entirely about Sleep. The hypnopompic/hypnogogic hallucinations sound about right. Just in case, though, you should also get the carbon monoxide levels in your home checked. Yay! No ghosts and you're not crazy.
posted by mrdmsy at 9:56 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm about 90% neurologically normal and live in a climate where I can leave the windows open and the fans running most of the time, and I've had wacky stuff like that happen when I'm stressed or have radically altered my sleep schedule.

I figure it's hypnogogic hallucination-- it often keys off stuff you've been thinking about, so if you've been thinking about creepy/ haunted house things, your brain's probably just spitting it back at you. I got the full-on Avatar-style tunnel of light 3-D out-of-body thing a couple weeks after the film came out. (Last time *I* ever go back to bed after being up and around for about two hours in the morning. That seems to reliably cause that sort of crap.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:23 PM on December 14, 2010

I had things coming into my room and waking me up, terrified, just about every day, until I started taking anti anxiety meds. Then it stopped. It sounds related.
posted by slightlybewildered at 10:28 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

During my final semester of college I was VERY stressed out, drank a lot to cope, slept poorly, and started waking during the night and seeing "shadow people" on a regular basis.

After the stress died down, so did the weird stuff at night.
posted by adamk at 11:39 PM on December 14, 2010

I experience this. Perhaps oddly, it's never frightened me. When I take ZMA supplements, these midnight visitors are replaced by vivid, interesting and nonsensical dreams of a non-threatening nature, as well as uninterrupted sleep. Perhaps this might work for you.
posted by Sternmeyer at 11:55 PM on December 14, 2010

I have sleep paralysis and see stuff like this quite often. Once I woke up and there was a garden gnome sitting in the corner of my room smirking at me. Took years off my life. Usually I see faces and heads floating in the air but it really depends. My hallucinations are solid enough that I can often sit up or get out of bed and pass my hand through them a few times before they fade. Creepy stuff!

It comes in waves and is definitely worse in some houses/ hotels than in others though I've never really been ably to figure out the connection. Sleeping pills, sleeping too long, sleeping on my back, being cold while I'm sleeping, restless sleep or sleeping alone after not doing that for a while all make it worse. Its also related to watching scary movies or books right before bed. Just reading this thread might be enough to trigger one in fact.
posted by fshgrl at 12:55 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do you think you're having different sleeping patterns, maybe not sleeping as well in your new bed, in your new place? Or do you have any new stresses going on in your life? I've noticed that when I have a really busy few weeks I start to have super weird dreams, paranormal stuff like you've described, and sleep paralysis. Once I get back on schedule they go away.
posted by vanitas at 1:00 AM on December 15, 2010

I suffer from night terrors and once or twice a week I see shadowy forms coming through my window, the door, sitting on the bed or looming over me. My husband reports that I sit up, scream, shake him, and then after he's thoroughly awake and terrified I drop straight back into sleep.

I vaguely recall the sense of fright and danger I feel but I only occasionally remember the details of the hallucination. (Once it was that my husband had no face. That was awful.)

I suffer from more episodes in unfamiliar locations and during stressful periods, or when I don't get enough sleep or exercise.

I don't know if this is what you have but it sounds very similar - especially if you've recently changed your routine or medication.
posted by jasperella at 1:29 AM on December 15, 2010

You should tell this to your doctor. It could be a reaction to dropping the dosage on anxiety medication. It could be some sort of hypnagogic hallucination, the sudden onset of which your doctor might be able to help with. It might be a weird result of some stressor in your life, which your doctor might be able to help with.

One thing I'm sure it is not is ghosts. I also strongly suspect that ultrawhatever soundwaves are Art Bell level bunk, but I am slightly less certain of that. But it ain't ghosts.
posted by Justinian at 2:13 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

If your dog isn't reacting, ypu can rest assured it's nothing supernatural.
posted by tel3path at 2:30 AM on December 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

Ever used psychedelic drugs? If not, try some. Once you've experienced what a few micrograms of LSD can do to your perception of the world, you will never again worry that seeing or feeling something weird might be anything more than a little brain fart, especially if you are in fact regularly using something psychoactive for some valid medical reason.

Do check for CO leaks, though.
posted by flabdablet at 4:39 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suspect what you're seeing when you wake up is actually your eyelashes. I was having similar issues with seeing black clouds everywhere and jerking awake in terror at something hovering right next to me or in my line of sight. I finally figured out that I was opening my eyes so slightly that I was looking through a haze of my own eyelashes. Now that I know what I'm seeing, I can shrug it off much more easily.

Please disregard if you're seeing these black clouds when your eyes are fully open, of course :)
posted by Mouse Army at 5:49 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just to check off ALL the little boxes here, you can always have a local pastor come pray through the house. That would be the first thing I would do, but I understand you may not share my worldview.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:01 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been on anti-anxiety medicine for a few years, though I dropped the dosage this fall.

About a year ago, I sharply dropped my dosage of Celexa. What do you know, I saw a man walk into my bedroom and right up to the side of my bed. I woke up for real screaming my head off in the kitchen so loudly that my neighbor called the cops. Turns out a side effect of withdrawal is hallucination. Did you drop your dose under the advisement of your doctor? I got my dosage and supply sorted out and no more bogeymen.

However, I also smudged my apartment. I knew there had been a suicide there by the previous tenant, so just to make myself feel better I smudged it and asked said out loud that it was OK for him to leave. I felt a little silly. Can't say it worked or didn't, but I felt better and that's the point, right?
posted by motsque at 6:46 AM on December 15, 2010

There are a lot of good suggestions above as to actual cause - I think it's probably a combination of medication change and having it in your head that you will see these things/some things.

I'm not a non-believer in the supernatural, but I'd bet you most anything that it's not something that's actually there - I don't know the breed, but it's probably very close to my dog, and I am certain that she would react to something, even something that was just a presence. She commonly reacts to things before I see or smell them (usually just an animal or a human that's approaching from a far distance). If there were a presence that *you* could see, your dog would be all over it.
posted by mrs. taters at 7:38 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try rearranging the furniture/lighting. I was waking up to shadowy figures looming over me, which turned out to be my dumb brain misinterpreting the shadows cast by a bookcase near my bed. After I moved a lamp so it didn't cast a shadow onto me, it went away.
posted by electroboy at 7:57 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree that it could be hypnogogic/hypnopompic hallucinations. I have them, they're terrifyingly real and are always something that I personally am afraid of (usually intruders or spiders). They're more likely to occur in times of stress, so that might be related to your anxiety medication, worry about paranormal activity in your house, normal stress, etc. There isn't a ton of information available online, but I found it very reassuring to read up on it and realize that I wasn't actually crazy! I recently had a sleep study for it, but haven't gotten the results back yet, so I can't tell you what the treatment options are. You can see a sleep specialist if you're worried about it, they're very familiar with them and other "parasomnias" like sleep walking, sleep talking, etc.
posted by Safiya at 9:19 AM on December 15, 2010

Like everyone else is saying, a lot of this sounds like hypnogogic hallucinations. Maybe the change in medications has something to do with it, maybe not. If it will make you feel better get a sleep study done, check your CO detectors and all that.

That general sense of fear though? That could just be the place creeping you out. If you get scared enough in the dark its not to hard to start convincing your self the darkness is creeping at you and that noise the pipe made is probably something more sinister. Anecdote: When I was growing up I scared the shit out of myself on an almost nightly basis, it continued until the day I moved out of my parent's house and then immediately stopped. No more night fears, unless I go back to the parent's overnight for the holidays at which point, boom, instantly scared again. There is just something intangibly creepy about the place, but it's subtle, I didn't realize this phenomenon was happening until I thought back on it years later.

So in short, it could be your brain chemistry, it could be the house, it probably isn't ghosts. You are already doing the right thing by reading about parasomnias and infrasound.
posted by cirrostratus at 9:40 AM on December 15, 2010

I think cirrostratus and Safiya have a pretty good summary of the likely culprits: hypnagogic/hypnopompic hallucinations, stress and meds could play into it, talking to your doctor and/or a sleep specialist couldn't hurt, a CO detector couldn't hurt. (And you can definitely have a series of hypnogogic hallucinations with no history of it; I did last year or so and was on the verge of going to to the doctor when they finally stopped. Phew! Deprived of my chance to say "Night terrors, ma'am!" to the doctor, though. Darnit.)

Good luck--this can be really stressful. I hope it goes away soon.
posted by wintersweet at 11:27 AM on December 15, 2010

You could also set up a video camera or two in your room, and leave them running all night long. You don't necessarily have to review the entire night. Just keep recording over the camera's memory, until the next time you wake up and see a creepy. Then immediately check the camera to see if it saw it, too.

Your husband may think you're crazy for doing this. Be sure to point out to him that if the cameras show nothing - as he's sure they will - then he can be as smug as he likes!
posted by ErikaB at 11:30 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could also set up a video camera or two in your room, and leave them running all night long.

This would be the traditional method, e.g. films such as Paranormal Activity. Personally, I wouldn't recommend anything which could play into feeding anxiety or irrational fears, including but not limited to: Cameras, tape recorders, mediums, psychics, priests, shamans, or witch doctors of various sorts. Really, just talk to your doctor. That's the answer.
posted by Justinian at 1:17 PM on December 15, 2010

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