‘Jiminy is not dead! I heard him chirping!’
June 25, 2010 6:02 PM   Subscribe

Parasomnia Pseudo-Suicide? Family and friends of designer Tobias Wong speculate that his suicide may have been linked to a severe sleepwalking disorder. Parasomnias can result in weight gain, severe injury or criminal charges*. The theorized phenomenon of parasomnia pseudo-suicide adds new terror to an old myth. *previously
posted by availablelight (36 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
This American Life had a piece by Mike Birbiglia about his intense parasomnia, which nearly killed him.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 6:21 PM on June 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

Tobias Wong dead? Why? And more to the point, why now? This was no tortured artist, locked in a downward spiral, friends and family said. Complex, mercurial, mischievous — he was all those things. But he was not miserable.

How do they really know? Not all depressed people wear a neon sign advertising their plight.
posted by belvidere at 6:27 PM on June 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

The Birbiglia piece is simultaneously one of the funniest and scariest things I've ever heard. It also caused the expression "I'm the Hulk...I'm the Hulk...I'm the Hulk" to enter the popular lexicon in our house.
posted by jquinby at 6:29 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


It was very weird, coz right from day one the police were saying "Sleepwalking. Move along. Nothing to see here."

I've never seen such a high profile case wrapped up so quickly. Add to that the strangeness of it all. None of this "We can't comment. We'll wait for the autopsy." which I thought was standard.

/I posted this in the wrong thread a second ago
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:32 PM on June 25, 2010

Ah, nice to be reminded that our brains are just complicated computers that sometimes decide to break or go buggy. Free will is an illusion.

Carry on.
posted by eugenen at 6:41 PM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

A girl I was friends with slept-walked out of a third-floor window, luckily into a bush, but she broke her leg and cracked her hip. She thought the whole thing was as strange as anyone else did, she wasn't suicidal, she was jovial. She had done some sleep walking and talking before. She couldn't remember the exact context of the dream, but she knew she was going somewhere normal, not scary or dangerous. Then she woke up in a bush.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:44 PM on June 25, 2010

Sleepwalking is the Overlords' way of testing out their control software on us.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:48 PM on June 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Huh. First I've heard of him (not surprising) but I think his stuff is really good. Condolences to his family and partner.
posted by neuromodulator at 7:10 PM on June 25, 2010

On a canoe trip, my friend, a youngster still, awoke in the middle of the night up to his chest in river water. After that, he would tie his ankle to a canoe before going to sleep.
posted by kozad at 7:28 PM on June 25, 2010

If you can sleep-murder, I see no reason why suicide is less likely.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:30 PM on June 25, 2010

Our son had the night terrors numerous times when he was small. Scary stuff.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:36 PM on June 25, 2010

Did you declare a war on terror?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:01 PM on June 25, 2010

My father walked in his sleep his whole life. As a boy, he'd sometimes wake up in strange parts of the city. Right after my younger brother was born, he grabbed him out of his crib and almost threw him out of a second-story window. I was able to stop, but not wake him (I was only four at the time!) and my very altered-seeming father told me that the raft was on fire, get out, get out.

I've inherited it, but I'm nowhere near as bad. Mostly I just say strange things.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 8:03 PM on June 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Thanks for posting this follow-up. As strange as the details are, I feel more at peace knowing that he may not have been fully conscious at the time.

That's cold comfort for his partner and family though, I'm sure.
posted by hermitosis at 8:14 PM on June 25, 2010

...Free will is an illusion

An interesting question comes from this situation. Is the "free will" of the sub-conscious less or more of an illusion than the conscious self? One could say the drives are more 'true' than the conscious self, since they are not as regulated by the conscious mind, although the subconscious perception of reality is obviously different than the conscious mind.

Once we get the technology to record images that someone is thinking about, which is now only in the earliest, embryonic, stages of development, it will be fascinating to 'get to know' your own unconscious self through your own dreams.
posted by chambers at 8:44 PM on June 25, 2010

it will be fascinating to 'get to know' your own unconscious self through your own dreams.

I expect flat-out rejection of this technology to far out-pace the acceptance of ourselves and others required to accept its results.
posted by hermitosis at 8:47 PM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

You're probably right. I could see this languishing for years as a carnival side-show attraction as some narcissistic fetish-toy.

"Step up, Step up right here and meet the most terrifying beast in the known universe: Yourself!"

"SEE - your most base of desires projected in the screen for your own chep thrill!

MEET - that demon inside who takes what it wants, free from the shackles if the conscious mind!

TREMBLE - and the shocking knowledge of the enemy within!"

"Afterwards, stop by the concession stand for some funnel cake and free psychiatric consultaion to help you recover from your ordeal."

And then, governments buy them and then we wake up and we're in an episode of The Prisoner
posted by chambers at 9:41 PM on June 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

One off the reasons I never married or had children is because there is a history of manic-depression in my family. My father definitely had full-blown bi-polar disorder,and sleep-walking was one of the many symptoms. My younger sister manifested this same nocturnal ambulation pattern when we were in our teens. I thought then that this might be a precursor to a later development of this affliction, which sadly turned out to be the case. Trust me when I say that no behavior-set is impossible for these completely unaware, and totally different, personalities. Strange universe we live in, for sure.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 10:08 PM on June 25, 2010

I've been a sleepwalker for as long as anyone in my family can remember.

I talk in my sleep, sometimes at length, and usually in a sort of slow-motion narrative or series of questions posited to a sleepy bed-mate who'd almost certainly rather not be up, answering stupid questions, at three in the morning.

My old window unit air conditioner used to make a little buzzing sound, so subtle you'd almost miss it, but in my sleep, I'd hear it and get up, get out my toolbox, clear a space, and carefully dismantle the unit, laying out the pieces one by one as I dug down into the guts of the machine.

"Joe, come back to bed."

"I need to get this opened up. There's another bird caught in the air conditioner."

"There's not another bird in the air conditioner, Joe."

"Yeah, there is. Don't you hear it? I don't want it to get hurt."

"I think I heard it fly back out again. Come back to bed."

"Are you sure?"


"That's good. I don't want that bird to get hurt."

That air conditioner finally wore out after twenty years of interrupted service. By the end, it was all held together with duct tape and drywall screws, where the original parts had fallen apart from being unscrewed and screwed back in. The new one is nice, and does not have a bird in it, as far as I can tell. I've left this one alone for two years now.

I spent years, in the nineties, back when I had my last ongoing serious relationship, waking up, shaking my partner awake, and telling him my pet ground squirrel, Alice, was in bed with us, running around in the bed linens, and that I had to get her out so we wouldn't roll over and crush her. He'd sigh and follow the drill, climbing out of bed with a pillow, to watch me while I meticulously unfurled each sheet and blanket, shaking them out and smoothing them over with my hands. At some time in this process, Alice would always look over, sitting in her tank, and would then start running on her wheel, which made a long, whining squeak that never failed to alert me to her true status.

"Alice isn't even in the bed. She's in her cage."

"Yes, Joe, I know."

"Was she in there all along?"

"Yes, Joe. She is always in there."

"Really? That's a hell of a thing. Well, at least the bed's all tidy now."

"Get back in bed, please."

Most of what happens is sort of standard obsessive-compulsive cleaning, tidying, and preparation, but sometimes, I get up and assemble things into strange tableaus—spice jars in circles and little pyramids in the kitchen, the shower curtain folded into inexplicable origami. Sometimes, I leave myself useful signs and symbols. Mostly, I am the ghost haunting my own house.

I've been lucky, I guess, in that the Sleeper is benign and helpful, albeit in odd ways. Back in college, I'd get stressed out over tests, studying until the wee hours and keeling over, surrounded by books and papers, sideways on the bed, and then I'd wake up to find that I'd tidied up, packed my knapsack for the morning, showered, shaved, and dressed. As satisfying as the time savings were back then, I could not help but feel somewhat alarmed that I could stand in a shower and not wake myself up.

You wonder, I suppose, about what could happen. It's like the fear I used to have about going on school field trips to Washington, D.C., where we'd all get off the bus and pile onto the Metro. I'd stand there at the platform, looking down at the third rail, and worry that I'd get some wild, uncontrollable impulse, just as the train was coming in, and jump onto the tracks. I've since learned that that's a pretty common fear, and has a name, which escapes me at the moment, but you wonder about those things, about if you have the capacity of doing something sudden and destructive for no obvious reason.

I think, in a way, I'm lucky in that my Sleeper has had a patient series of trainers, from my family to my two ex-partners, all of whom, once over the obnoxious novelty of finding me wandering around at night, managed to respond in ways that cultivated more self-regulation and introspection. It's all conjecture, of course—I barely know the guy, even though he's bathed me and made me breakfast and made sure all my squirrels and birds are okay—but I suspect we have a good working relationship. If the Sleeper represents some sort of inner aspiration or ambition, I have to be glad that my secret desire is to have OCD and take care of animals and spice jars and not go on a bloodcurdling hacking spree or something worse.

The doubt, though, is why I so often follow the old gay seventies motto—in bed by midnight, home by two. It's just easier than explaining to some strange person, or to someone I'd dated a time or two, exactly why I'm taking their air conditioner apart in the middle of the night.

"Did you hear a bird in there?"

"Holy shit! GET OUT!"
posted by sonascope at 4:53 AM on June 26, 2010 [371 favorites]

wow sonascope; that is a helluva story, well told.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:22 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

There were no tearful eulogies. Rather, it resembled a stylish store opening downtown, with people in blocky horn-rim eyeglasses and loafers without socks sipping prosecco and mingling amid displays of Mr. Wong’s work

ugh. even funerals are see and be seen events in the new york design world, another convention for Art, Inc.

posted by Lutoslawski at 10:31 AM on June 26, 2010

When I was a kid at camp, they had 4-5 tepees that campers would be allowed to stay in overnight, with a couple of counselors for supervision. The other campers were in the main house, not too far away.

No one told them that I was a sleepwalker, though - and the counselor staying in my tent woke up just as I disappeared out the tent flap. After struggling to get out of their sleeping bag, they followed me outside - only to discover that I had wandered onto the nearby train tracks.

Luckily, it was still early - the train came through about 3am or so. Apparently it took quite a bit of coercion to convince me to come back inside the tepee and lay down.

Of course, I was not suicidal - I was ecstatic to be at camp, and a pretty happy kid in general. I do wonder what the news stories would have said if I had ended up wandering out a bit later on that night.
posted by HopperFan at 10:56 AM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Of course, I was not suicidal - I was ecstatic to be at camp, and a pretty happy kid in general. I do wonder what the news stories would have said if I had ended up wandering out a bit later on that night.

HopperFan, check out the last comment posted on the article linked at "severe injury" on the FPP.
posted by availablelight at 11:44 AM on June 26, 2010

Sonascope,wow. Thanks for sharing. "Imp of he Perverse" is, I think, the name that escaped you. Good luck with your Sleeper. May he always be kind to you, your spice jars and your squirrels.
posted by Jezebella at 2:47 PM on June 26, 2010

Sonascope, how clear is your memory of these episodes? I'm wondering if you actually inadvertently hit on a possible source of peoples' "paranormal" experiences with your ghost metaphor, there.
posted by neuromodulator at 4:12 PM on June 26, 2010

Cripes. There I was wondering if I was being too personal with my own comment, and then sonascope calmly lays that gleaming gem on the page. We might bicker and snipe, but the level of trust we enjoy here which generates such personal revelations truly does make this place the best of the web. Thanks for that, sonascope.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 7:25 PM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

You had a pet ground squirrel???
posted by granted at 5:32 AM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am fairly convinced my father was -- and probably is -- a sleepwalker. Sometimes, when I was a boy, I would hear him call out my brother's name at night, and I would wake to see him walking down the hall in his underwear to my brother's room and stare in for a while, and then go back to bed. And for a long time I was in the habit of waking myself up after midnight to watch late-night movies, which were verboten, and would look up at 2am to see him looking in at me from the next room, again in his underwear. "Don't stay up too late," he would say, and then amble off. Every so often, at very early hours in the morning, I would hear him go to the garage, get in the car, and drive off for a half-hour or so, and the come back. And I would wonder -- where did he do? What did he do? Was he in his underwear?

I only had this experience once in my own life. I woke one morning to discover that sometime in the evening I had written a 22-page teleplay. For The Addams Family. Which hadn't been on the air since 1966. It was pretty funny, too. I've been cannibalizing jokes from the script ever since.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:32 AM on June 27, 2010 [10 favorites]

I find this whole thing to be so strange. Even if Wong was asleep when he killed himself, it's not like he just walked off a balcony or wandered into a river. He hung himself. So if you buy all that stuff that your subconscious controls your dream state, somewhere in his mind was the idea that he wanted to end his life.
posted by bluefly at 12:44 PM on June 27, 2010

So if you buy all that stuff that your subconscious controls your dream state, somewhere in his mind was the idea that he wanted to end his life.

Well I don't think that's very uncommon. It's just that few of us ever encounter these feelings at a time when we are fully physically active but only very dimly conscious.
posted by hermitosis at 5:27 PM on June 27, 2010

This post is particularly interesting to me because I've had a complicated, but mostly positive, experience with somnambulism.

I do have a background worry about the imp of the perverse (thanks Jezebella for filling in where memory failed me), which is one of those little troubling thought patterns even now. I work managing a historic 300 foot clock tower, and about once a week, I'm standing on the very top of the thing, checking everything out to make sure the place is okay, and I have this thought that I hope I don't suddenly climb the rails and vault over the parapet. I know I won't do it, but when I've got a part of myself that goes roaming on its own, I just have to hope that he doesn't have the same idea, but without my restraint.

It's one of those things, though, and something that's always good to keep in mind. At the wheel, a millimeter off on the wheel could put you head-to-head with a semi on the other side of the road. The difference between being alive and being not-alive is pretty slim, and we're all Schrödinger's cats, in a strange way, and that state of otherness of being asleep makes it all the more mysterious.

I have these momentary bleak flashes, from time to time, where I suddenly feel like everything I'm doing, and everything I desire, need, or feel, is completely meaningless and immaterial to the nature of the world. It is a sudden, grey flutter that says it's all just stuff, among all the other stuff in the world—just tiny and empty and hopeless. These flashes are just that, just the briefest thoughts that rush by, as quickly as the imp of the perverse on roller skates, but I wonder, sometimes if people like Tobias Wong get seized by them, and get lost in the grim depth of those fleeting thoughts, just long enough for the Sleeper to take action.

Mine has almost always worked as a sort of numb and slightly alien repairman, taking in my frustrations, my stresses, and my fears and undertaking nocturnal projects that I think are meant to solve problems and to tell me about things I need to know. I don't have any certainty about this, of course, but about twenty years ago, after one particularly vivid and relevant dream that I remembered (and still remember) in absolute, meticulous, emotional detail, I started letting myself follow the advice, or at least letting myself entertain the possibility that it all meant something.

It's ironic, perhaps, that I don't have any serious belief in the supernatural, or in prescience, godheads, or paranormal activity, per se, and yet, I use a lot of the myths and metaphors of such things. I have a guardian angel, as it happens, who is a loopier, occasionally inexplicable part of myself. It's annoying when he answers the phone (my friends all know that any conversation they have with me after ten or so may be nonsensical and will rarely be remembered), or goes out roaming, but I've got 42 years of essentially innocuous experiences with sleeping Me under my belt and I'm starting to understand him, or at least to trust the value of things that lie a little below the surface.

That's the neat part—where being a sleepwalker was once a problem for me, back when it made scout camp extra weird and turned dating into an occasion for long explanations, it's since become a wellspring of trust. I have a faith in my unconscious that's more profound than I've ever had, and less of that meddlesome, intrusive doubt that always wants to explain everything, and question everything, and take away the exquisite lightness of just doing. It's shaped my writing and my music, and let me feel okay about doing things that I love, and reminded me how often I have been my own worst enemy, imposing structures and values that undermine what I do best.

I go back over what I've worked on over the years, in my writing, music, and performances, and how much of what I was making that was, to forgo humility for a second, was just extraordinary, but which I abandoned for one reason or another, all of which came from the critical conscious brain, telling me that no one would ever want to hear that weird music, or that it wasn't virtuoso enough, or that it just wasn't any good, even though the sensation of presence I had while making it should have told me otherwise. The sounds I coaxed out of unwieldy, unlikely instruments, the odd narrative connections, and the crazy carousel organ cantankerousness of what I was doing...and it all ended up in boxes, tucked away in the basement, because I didn't trust that what I was doing was of any value.

Just—well, fuck.

And yet, Wong is someone who knew how to listen to his unconscious, and produced great and not-so-great results, depending on your artistic temperament, by being light and responsive to those whims. I recognize a kindred spirit, in a lot of ways, in his work, and envy his seeming lack of doubt. There's that fear, too, that fear of the imp of the perverse again, in seeing what happened to him. Could I do something like that? Barricading the doors doesn't work, or hiding the sharp knives, because what I know, my Sleeper knows. People think you're less capable in your sleep, but I know this not to be true. I've done some pretty complex, intricate things in my sleep over the years. I have to hope that Wong was just more prone to the bleak flashes, and more inclined to act on those moments of terrifying disconnection, when any consequence is just meaningless, but it's okay to be a little afraid, too.

We're all Schrödinger's cats, even if physicists hate when artists latch onto concepts for the nefarious purposes of cosmological poetry. There's always that millimeter of difference between being a live motorist and a dead motorist, and times when that millimeter of angle on the steering wheel is in our hands, and times when it is in someone else's hands. There's a wildness and danger to our lives that's just subject to random connections, and the best we can do is to carry on, paying attention where it's due to the messages that come to us by whatever means.

For me, over the last few years, it's meant giving up on luxuries like doubt and self-disgust, and returning to the responsibilities of joy and curiosity. The peak of my sleepwalking, when it was at its most uncontrollable, and inexplicable, was in the stretch of time when I lost my father and grandmother in one week, and lost my home a year later, when I'd stopped writing and stopped making music, just hunkering down into a professional career to try and pay off my mounting debts. I barely spent a night in bed in 1998, but things are better now.

Over the last five or six years, I just opened up again, writing and writing and writing, and I returned to making music, giving up on any pretense of ever finding a way to make any money off of the slow-moving, drowsy, late-night music I make that makes so many people roll their eyes. I no longer aspire to quitting my day job, because I'm just not that market-friendly, I suppose, but that's immaterial. The more I write, and the more music I make, the more I get to live my life, with the Sleeper in the background, showing up on those occasional nights to make bewildering phone calls to old friends, or to play with the dog, or to take all of my brown shoes out of the closet, line them up in order of how much I like them, and carefully shine each one up until it's glossy and new.

Still, I have to wonder—could the Sleeper kill me? The thing is, that intelligence, and that part of the brain, isn't really human. It's so much older, and has a logic and drives that aren't anthropomorphic, and it always could do something I'd never do, but I hope that what I think and feel, and what I communicate down the wires of my nerves and neurons, create some kind of nonagression pact. Did Wong know his Sleeper well? Did he talk back, and go to sleep thinking of his nocturnal self, and was he lucky, like I was, in having patient people around to talk to the Sleeper, letting him know what he needed to know?

Why are some of us cats alive, and some of us dead?

I get one of those cosmological headaches thinking of these things, and these big existential questions, but I do what I can.
posted by sonascope at 9:16 PM on June 27, 2010 [13 favorites]

As an aside, I've always heard that wild momentary urge to jump onto the tracks* as Thanatos.
posted by VeritableSaintOfBrevity at 4:22 AM on June 28, 2010

I've since learned that that's a pretty common fear, and has a name, which escapes me at the moment

Not necessarily a suicidal/self-harm thing. Previously on AskMe. (more votes for imp of the perverse, and some amusing regionalisms)
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:32 AM on June 28, 2010

>hermitosis: Well I don't think that's very uncommon.

And now after reading that linked thread, I'm totally freaked out. Is it part of the human condition to ponder suicide? I'm an occasional sleeptalker; I can only hope I don't progress to sleepwalking.
posted by bluefly at 6:48 PM on June 28, 2010

Oh my god. I talked with Tobias Wong at a cocktail party earlier this year. He was doing such cool work. I was really looking forward to seeing what he did next.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:55 PM on June 29, 2010

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