Pillow Horrors

Life Lessons Travel

I learnt a big lesson about the importance of sleep and the role that mattresses and pillows play in ensuring sound sleep when I experienced Sleep Paralysis, a sleep disorder in which the body is temporarily immobilized at the moment of waking or the moment of falling asleep. While it may be a minor, common experience, it can be terrifying. It is estimated that upwards of 50% of the population has experienced it at least once in their lifetime. Sleep Paralysis is frequently caused by sleep deprivation and/or sleeping the wrong way that hinders your normal breathing. 

The most common environmental elements affecting sleep are the surface on which you sleep and the pillows that you use. Uncomfortable mattresses and pillows may change your breathing pattern causing disruptions on your mind and result in nightmares. This happens most often when you are travelling overseas due to jet lags, dehydration and sleep deprivation, as I found out the hard way during my business trips to Europe in late 2006. 

I began travelling at 1:30 in the morning for a business trip to Switzerland and Italy in late November 2006 to renew annual contracts, and didn’t arrive in Milan until 4 in the afternoon. Needless to say, I was exhausted. I checked in, washed up and went out for a quick and delicious dinner of tomato and basil pasta, tiramisu and a fiasco of table wine. After I ate, I went straight back to my hotel, ready for a full night’s sleep so that I would be prepared for my meeting in the morning. I went right to sleep, but after only a couple of hours, I heard loud banging on my door. With difficulty, I opened my eyes but could not move an inch. I tossed around, thinking that I was having a nightmare and tried to ignore the noise.  The banging increased and using every ounce of energy that was left. I yelled out “Who is it?” But no one answered, and the intensity of the pounding increased.

I was so exhausted and had no physical stamina that I felt as if I was had immobilized.  I just could not get up to answer the door. The pounding got still louder until the noise became unbearable. This compelled me to fight through my immobilization, and I finally sat up with just as I was about to stand up, the banging stopped. I collapsed back onto the bed and had fallen back into a deep slumber the knocking started up again. Again, I couldn’t move my body no matter how hard I tried for a few minutes. When I managed to get up, I swayed as I walked to the door. The knocking had stopped. I opened the door, but no one was there. I looked up and down the hallway, but there was no one there either. Angry and shaken, I went back to sleep. 

After fifteen minutes, I woke up because I was choking and gasping for breath. I was deeply thirsty and was sweating profusely despite the winter chill outside. I drank three full glasses of water from the bathroom tap, then went back to sleep.  Another series of heavy banging woke me up. I called out, “Who is it?” from my bed. The banging, again, increased in intensity. I got myself upright, and again, the banging stopped just as I sat up. I could no longer sleep. I tried calling the front desk to inform them about the disturbance, but one answered. I lay there in the dark, wondering what the hell was going on. 

Not too much later, just as I was falling back to sleep, the phone started ringing, but before I could reach out to it to answer, it stopped. I called the front desk. No one answered. In the haziness of my fatigued and disoriented mind, I wondered if I was awake or in a vivid nightmare that appeared real. I became paranoid. Was I truly fully awake? Was I still in a dream? I had to know. There was only one way to find out.  I called up Mamatha, my wife in India, and told her to call me back immediately. 

“Why what is wrong? Are you all right?” she asked. 

“Just call me back,” I said and hung up. 

The phone rang right after a minute.  Mamatha called me back right away, I exhaled a big sigh of relief that I was awake and told her what had been happening. I never went back to sleep that night, and the following five hours were the longest that I had experienced in my life.

I headed to the breakfast room for my espresso at precisely 6:30 am and returned to my room for my shave and shower.

At 8, I went back down for breakfast before checking out. As I handed over the heavy metal keys at the front desk, I complained about the previous night’s door banging. The lady at the counter shrugged her shoulders and told me that the hotel is always locked from inside at 10 pm.

The meeting with my customer was disappointing since the three samples from different batches sent by me had not yet received approval from their Quality Control department. They needed three more weeks since they were closed for Christmas and new year.

A month later, I returned to Milano to try my chances again with the Italian customer. I have no idea why I reserved at the same hotel after my previous experience, but I did. I arrived after a full night of flying, checked in, showered, went out to eat and returned to sleep at 9 pm. 

Again, I slept well for a couple of hours and then at around midnight, I heard the first round of thuds with the same feeling of being helplessly immobilized Just as I had on my previous trip, I struggled mightily to get up, went to the door and found no one there. This time, instead of going back to sleep, I sat on my bed and thought through all possibilities, immediately ruling out the idea of any entity or supernatural phenomena. I narrowed down the experience to something in my body and mind that was triggering a surge of scary perceptions while I slept. As I continued probing for answers, I remembered an article that I had read about how tight turtleneck collars could restrict blood flow to the brain and cause nightmares and poor sleep. That’s it, I thought, realizing how soft the mattress was. I pressed on it, and my hands sunk into it. I picked up the pillows and squeezed them between my hands. They were so thin and delicate that I could feel my two palms against each other. Since the pillows became flat when I laid on them, my head would gradually sink into the mattress, creating an awkward angle between my head and my neck. The pillow would tighten my neck, causing nightmares and probably hallucinations.

I went to the bathroom and rolled the two bathroom towels into a pillow form, folded the bed cover into a thin mattress and laid it on the floor. I put the two towel pillows on top and went to sleep. I am not exaggerating when I say this: Never have I had such a deep sleep in my life since that night that I slept on the floor with my rolled-towel pillows. I slept like an angel for the next nine hours. In fact, I overslept so much that my worried customer had to call up housekeeping to open the door when I did not respond to her multiple calls from the lobby. 

Luckily, she had time to wait for me, and we had a brunch meeting instead of a breakfast meeting. Happily, I got a big contract from her for two full years of 2007 and 2008.


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