Saturday, February 16, 2008

Dark Matter

I haven't been sleeping well. Again. If asked, I tell people it's because I'm pre-occupied with work but, truthfully, it's because I've been having a lot of nightmares.
Often, they're so realistic that I wake up feeling exhausted, battered, anxious, even afraid. Sometimes they're explicit and brutal, other times they're surreal and symbolic. Mostly, they're just plain bad and it takes me a while to get over them, to banish their memory. It's not easy. Deep in sleep, my mind and body still react as if each experience was real.
Upon waking, it can be hard to distinguish dream from reality.
A few months ago,
I read in a Thai newspaper that police were investigating the death of a Thai worker in Taiwan. He had passed away mysteriously in his sleep. The Taiwanese police suspected it might be a case of Nightmare Death Syndrome. According to the article, Nightmare Death Syndrome is recognised as the leading cause of death in young men in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Japan. The largest number of such deaths occur in north-east Thailand and Laos. In the Philippines, the syndrome is known as banungut – which is also the word for 'nightmare' – and in Japan, pokkuri disease. The Thais call it laitai.
Many Thais believe that young men can be the victims of 'widow ghosts' that claim their lives to ease the widows' loneliness. The Hmong people (many of whom live in Loas and north-east Thailand) ascribe the deaths to a malign spirit, dab tsong, who is said to take the form of a jealous woman. Apparently, Hmong men might sleep dressed as a women to avoid the female spirit's attentions.
The syndrome is also recognised in the USA, where it's referred to as Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome, as being specific to immigrants from Southeast Asia. There are various western studies attributing the deaths to tropical seasons and location but all fail to explain why so many immigrants died of the complication after they had left those situations.
I'm not afraid of dying in my sleep. My nightmares have simply sharpened my empathy with Southeast Asian superstitions and beliefs. In the developed world, having acutely realistic dreams is, according to my psychiatrist, one of the the symptoms of a mental illness. However, other cultures are not so quick to dismiss the possibility Рand taxing effect Рof heightened sensitivity, visions, and metaphysics. The link between art and madness is a popular Western clich̩ but only in Asia is the step from art (and madness) to an alternative reality a common element of the everyday.


ananglei said...

Your work is daring, I was at your virtual gallery and was surprised of yoru artistic hoensty. I like the light colors that pervade your paintings.

Anonymous said...

Hi Hazel,

Just a kinda quick note about your recent post about nightmares/night terrors, etc.

For two very loooonnnggggg years I was security on the two detention centres that Johnny Howard put in Nauru. In the largest of the two camps, the single Afghani males were all housed in boarding style accommodation - 2 to a room - in portable rooming. In typical fashion these young men would sleep up to 6 to a room because they were very socially orientated. Anyway, one night, a young Afghani was on the top bunk and just sat up with a scream (without opening his eyes) and then fell back...then slowly rolled to the side and fell off the bunk onto the other guys who had just woken with a start on the floor. They all claim he hit the floor dead. No more than a minute later one of us was giving him mouth to mouth and CPR but he showed no response. The local doctor declared him dead at the scene.

As you can imagine, EVERYONE was super curious as to what the cause of death was. He was a fit and healthy young man of about 21 years. Zero drug use amongst these guys with occasional alcohol. I guess that the Australian Fed Government did not want to be blamed so he received a full autopsy from some guy flown in specially from Oz.

Natural Causes.

That was the finding. All of the Australians there (security, catering and the Federal Police) found it too hard to believe. The most unsettling thing though was the way the Afghanis took the news. They accepted it without ANY accusations, protests, spiteful actions. Every time I spoke to a different Afghani after this, they all said the same thing. That this shit happens. ALOT. They claim that it has to do with their extensively mixed bloodlines, esp the Mongol blood. It never seems to be the women, only ever the young men who let out a scream while sleeping, then die. It freaked most of us whites out but the Afghans were like" happens."

Oh, and twice now I have woken up with the feeling someone was sitting on my chest, someone small and unfriendly. Not coming to from a dream. Waking up like something was touching my body from the real world like a morning wake-up-call with a shake. The second time this happened about a year ago the room was way too fucking cold for comfort and I just felt all wrong like some evil little prick was on my chest trying to peer inside my mouth or something fucked up like that..maybe something worse. It gave me the heebie-jeebies for a couple of days.

And now I feel antsy about going to bed now. :p Fuck your shrink, what would he know about this stuff? It's good to hear you are treating it seriously, but not TOO seriously.


Anonymous said...

It's a little disturbing to hear that realistic dreams mean I'm nuts! I dream a LOT. My dreams are very interesting and not usually scarey...often wierd, however!

I enjoy my dreams and I think your doctor is wrong. Regarding your nightmares, maybe change something you do before you go to bed. Try some herbal tea that promotes sleep, or warm milk. Just change something to break the routine and they will probably go away.

I had recurring bad dreams when I was a little child. Who knows why, but it certainly wasn't because of mental illness. Probably stress related.

Jodie said...

Sean, that's so eerie! Fascinating, though.

I think/write/paint a lot about things like death, consciousness during and after, and dreams. I don't know for sure, obviously, but I've often wondered if the dream world isn't just as real and legitimate (if not more so, even) as the waking one. The parallels and recurring motifs seem to go beyond the conceptual. There is a sense of being steeped in hyper-reality while dreaming, I find.

People think that our dreamlife is influenced by our waking one, but what if it's the other way around?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, Hazel, Sean, et al.
Although night terrors and nightmares are different things, and what Sean and Hazel describe is perhaps something else altogether... I used to have pretty awful night terrors, and I empathize with you. Being afraid to sleep is not fun.

Meditation (and occasionally a natural medicine called 5htp) has helped me a lot. After practicing for just a year, even if I had night terrors, I wasn't traumatized by them; I could observe them happening, observe the fear I felt until it passed. Now I don't have them at all...

Detlef said...

Art is war and war is madness. Dreams are our way to deal with reality. Madness is reality.

Anonymous said...

Incredible posts regarding dreams, what a fascinating subject.

I'm interested in this method of determining 'madness' or at least listing dreaming / nightmares as a possible indicator. Recently I've been thinking about whether or not our definitions of mental illness are useful or accurate.

As has been pointed out by Sean's interaction with Afghani detention centre inmates, the idea of mental illness can vary between cultures.

In animistic cultures, such as traditional Filipino culture, dreams serve a vital social purpose which may deal with a range of issues such as grief, social order or feeling of connectedness.

If someone presented with an issue of seeing spirits in their dreams and wanting to act out certain rituals in response to them, in this culture we might deem that person as having mental health issues. But is this really the right way to look at dreams and behaviours?

I don't have any answers, just more questions!

Toddy said...

Hi Hazel,

My nightmares have taken a lot of getting used to! I've had recurring ones that leave me in a cold sweat. Having to handle the aftermath on my own also tends to isolate me even further.

Mine involve going through doors which I think will lead me to light and life but which always take me down into darkness and isolation and every time I try to backtrack, I always end up on a track that takes me further into the darkness. No matter what I do, even if I crawl up into a little ball determined not to move, I always find some reason, some hope, to keep moving and then when I resume the journey, it always takes me into a deeper darkness - and soon the darkness becomes so thick and squalid it takes on a persona all of its own, and there is never an end to how dark the darkness can get no matter how dark the darkness seems at the time. Sounds stupid, but when I'm in it I've got no substance, no sense of self that enables me to combat it; I'm always just a speck in an overwhelming cosmic hell. Then when I wake I think I'm going insane so I try to alter my life to prevent the insanity from encroaching any further and by day I feel like I've gained some semblance of normality but then I go and have the same dream again and I'm left without any logical reason for experiencing the nightmare so I make up illogical reasons, usually based around some fucked up spirituality, for why they occur but that scares me even more because when I go down that path, it doesn't take long to realise I'm way out of my depth and way out of control. And I do all this without anyone having a clue it's all going on under the surface.

Funny though, you can describe a nightmare in words, but the words will never match the terrifying experience. Perhaps not so unlike what Conrad once wrote "The horror! The horror!"

Thanks for the opportunity to share. Not sure if you realise, but when you broach a taboo subject, as you often do, it opens the door for others to do the same.