I’ve been in therapy for years, dealing with this problem or the other. It’s really helped me over time, and I’m glad I’ve utilized the option. However, my last experience wasn’t a particularly good one.
I’m kind of afraid of…a lot. I have a phobia for most things. I won’t go through the list, just know that it’s led to me having a very closed-off life. I recently started seeing a new therapist who works in experimental therapy, more specifically, what’s called ”immersion therapy”. This, as I’m sure you could guess, is where you essentially confront your fears head-on.
This therapist, Dr. Stephens, however, does a different type of immersion therapy, using a method that actually made it appealing to me in the first place. His way is gone about by inducing lucid dreaming, and using suggestive methods to control the contents of the dream. This all takes place in a laboratory used for sleep studies, in a designated spaced called the Directed Phobia Engagement Area, colloquially referred to as ”The Nightmare Room”. I’m going to describe what happened to me during this new type of therapy.
After weeks of preparation, a multitude of forms, and much second guessing, my appointment for the Nightmare Room came. As I said, there was a clinical studies lab where the Nightmare Room is located. The place is state of the art, and the Nightmare Room is located in the basement. My therapist was especially excited for my experimental session because we’d be dealing with multiple fears, and before, they had only done one at a time.
After the waiting room and all the preparation, I stripped down to nothing but my underwear, went into the room and was hooked up to monitors. I was also hooked up to an IV, which I found strange, but I trusted the team. I was told to close my eyes and focus on the sound of a clicking metronome. I did this for about 5 minutes, and I must have fallen asleep, because I suddenly heard a woman’s voice say ”Open your eyes”. And I did.
I was laying in the same position I was in when I closed my eyes, but I couldn’t move. It felt like I was paralyzed, which is exactly as it had been described as feeling. I was told that there would be things going on I wasn’t aware of, such as the commands for the fears I was overcoming. What I would hear, in my case, were the different phases we were entering. And sure enough, after a short while of laying there in silence, I heard the woman’s voice over a speaker ”Phase 1”.
It was at that moment that I realized I had no idea which phase represented which fear. Anxiety swept over me. I knew the fears I’d be dealing with were claustrophobia (a fear of small spaces or feeling crowded), arachnophobia (a fear of spiders), trypanophobia (a fear of needles), and coulrophobia (a fear of clowns). I closed my eyes and braced myself for what might be coming. The familiar voice came over the speaker again. ”Open your eyes”. I obeyed. If I was going to endure this, I wanted it to work.
With my eyes open, I waited for what felt like an eternity. After however long it was, I felt something on my foot. I tried to look down, but I couldn’t move my head. I strained my eyes downwards and saw the tips of my toes above my torso. I kept feeling something, first on my feet, then my legs. Finally, I saw what it was. Tarantulas. Large, hairy tarantulas crawling in me from some unknown location at the foot of the bed.
I seized up with fear. I was breathing heavily, and I felt myself sweating. 5 tarantulas crawled up my body, and I felt two of them bite me on my stomach and chest, respectively. I began hyperventilating, praying this would all be over. Every time I squeezed my eyes shut, the voice would come back over the speakers, telling me to open them back up. I almost passed out when two of them crawled up my neck and onto my face. One burrowed its way into my mouth, inspected around a bit, then crawled away. It was without a doubt the most horrifying 5 minutes of my entire life.
Someone came in after the 5 minutes, dressed head to toe in white, complete with a surgical mask and a white cap. They removed all of the spiders and left the room. The voice came over the speaker. ”Phase 2”
Phase 2 was much different than the first. In my dream state, it was as if I was being wheeled out of the room by a team of people all in white, and Dr. Stephens. We went in the elevator and up a floor. We went to an area that was sort of like a closed in patio, as far as I could tell in my sleep paralysis. I felt a warm breeze against my skin, and strained my eyes to take note of my surroundings. But before I could make a note of anything, my bed was lifted and then lowered into a box of some sort, that was just wider and longer than the surface of the bed itself.
It then clicked in my mind. This was going to be claustrophobia. Sure enough, a lid was placed over the box, with a space for all the wires connected to me to run out, and a few air holes above my face. It was pitch dark inside the box, save for the holes. I then felt the box being lowered into something. Then, something hit the top of the box. Then again. And again. And it continued, until something began coming through the holes.
It was dirt. I felt cold dirt hit my face, and tasted it on my lips. I was being buried alive. Again, my heart began to race faster than a speeding bullet. I felt my stomach somehow drop, like we had just descended the first drop of a roller coaster, and I felt nauseous.I don’t know how long I was down there, but eventually I heard the dirt on top of the casket being removed. It felt like I was down there, hyperventilating, for at least an hour. In reality, it was probably just 5 minutes of me being in that phase of my dream. At one point, I reminded myself that I was just asleep in a room, and everything I was feeling wasn’t real, but it did little to calm me down.
After a while, I was brought back up from where I was lowered, and wheeled back to the room where this whole experiment started. The voice came back after a few minutes. ”PHASE 3”
I knew ahead of time this one was going to be either clowns or needles, and I did as much as I could to mentally prepare myself. Still being in this state of sleep paralysis was beginning to affect me mentally, as far as the stress of not being able to move went. I wanted to wake myself up. I wanted to jolt myself awake, and for this all to be over. But I knew I couldn’t. No matter how much I wanted it to be done, it was up to the doctor to wake up me up. This nightmare would continue until it had seen its way through.
Then Phase 3 began. One of the assistants in all white propped up the back of the bed, putting me in a sitting position. Finally, I was able to see more than just the top of my torso and my toes. I actually thought for a second that that was a good thing. What happened next made me wish that they weren’t basically forcing me to keep my eyes open.
A door that blended in with the wall I was facing opened, and in walked 3 of the most horrifying clowns I have ever seen. Scratch that. They were the 3 most horrifying clowns I have ever seen. And on top of that, they each had a bag of syringes in both hands, like a large ziplock bag filled to the brim with hypodermic needles.
If I were capable of screaming, I would have been. At the absolute top of my lungs. The clowns danced around for a few minutes, each projecting a distinct, familiar, yet unique version of the traditional clown laughter. The lights in the Nightmare Room changed to a colorful array and carnival music played over the speaker. This was crafted to literally be my absolute worst nightmare.
After prancing around and getting all in my face, licking my cheeks, rubbing their faces against mine and generally just intruding on my personal space, the clowns began part 2 of Phase 3. They each took turns brandishing needles. They rubbed them all over the front of my body, traced my veins with the tips of the needles, and occasionally stuck them into my skin in various spots, and followed it up by placing small circular bandages over the puncture wound.
Phase 3 lasted the longest of the phases, and I was ready to jump out of my skin. I was poked and prodded so many times that I became used to the pain of having needles slide into my skin. All the while, the carnival song played. The clowns continued dancing and hopping around while teasing me with the syringes. They brought them close to my eyes, and I fought every instinct I had to not close them, because as I said, I wanted this therapy to work. I kept reasoning with myself that this was all a dream. I was still just laying on the bed in an empty room, nearing the completion of this horrific ordeal.
Just when I thought it was about to be over, one of the clowns dumped a box full of spiders on me. Big, small, hairy, you name it. There were even centipedes thrown in for good measure. They crawled all over me for what seemed like an eternity. I felt the bites from the spiders mixed in with another wave of being poked with needles, all while I was surrounded, and feeling very claustrophobic by the personal-space-invading group of clowns. This was the finale. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t ask them to stop. I couldn’t do anything. I just had to remind myself that this wasn’t real. It was all I could do. Spiders crawled over my open eyes, clowns laughed hysterically in my face, and I was feeling so claustrophobic that I was barely breathing.
Suddenly, the bed tipped back. An anesthetic mask was put over my face, and the woman’s voice on the speaker told me to ”count backwards from 100”. I obliged, figuring this was the process through which I’d be released from my sleep paralysis. I got to about 92 when I drifted off. Everything became blurry, and the last thing I saw was 3 terrifying, smiling clowns holding spiders and syringes. I thought in my head, “when I wake up, I will be perfectly fine and untouched, in the same room this all began in, and hopefully, this ordeal will have been worth it and I will no longer have these fears.”
Well, I woke up. I was in my apartment. I got up from my bed, confused. I didn’t remember anything after the end of the sleep paralysis. I didn’t remember my talk with Dr. Stephens, I didn’t remember my post-therapy session, and I didn’t remember being discharged from the facility. I walked into my bathroom and looked in the mirror.
My face was covered in dried dirt and what looked like small bite marks, in addition to what I’m guessing were flakes of various-colored paints that had been transferred to my face from some other surface. My arms, torso and legs were riddled with small, circular bandages, underneath which were countless tiny, needle-sized holes.
Only now has my memory of the therapy come back.