Sleeping Beauties (Documentary Review: “Life Overtakes Me”)

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A bizarre medical phenomenon hitting children of immigrant refugee families in Sweden (and beyond), in which they slowly detach from the world to the point of a slumber from which they cannot awaken.

SnapShot Plot

Life Overtakes Me is a short and unsettling Swedish/English language documentary about a socio-political ‘sleeping sickness’ in which young and adolescent children literally will themselves into a coma-like state from which they cannot be awakened for months and sometimes years. It’s called ‘Resignation Syndrome’, or in Swedish, Uppgivenhetssyndrom. And no, this is not a political joke although it took some convincing before I believed it to be real and not some mass hysterical hoax.

To put it bluntly, starting in the early 2000’s in Sweden and coinciding with newly restricted grants of asylum to refugee families fleeing war-torn and dangerous Balkan states, hundreds of children manifested the effects of their families’ traumas by sinking into what soon came to be called Resignation Syndrome. The children themselves were referred to as ‘the apathetic’. It seemed to occur mostly among kids who had experienced or witnessed first-hand a violent or terrorist act inflicted on either parent in their home country, only to be ‘saved’ upon the family’s escape to Sweden. The child then was reported to have thrived in their new ‘foster’ country while the family awaited permission for residency. If that permission was denied – and the child was aware of this – the uncertainty and feeling of dread in the household was attributed as the differential causal element to the strange and awful coma-like state in which the child seemingly wills him/herself.

This very short film focuses on a handful of families, each dealing with the syndrome, as they explain their particular circumstances and work tirelessly to keep their children – now like literal rag dolls – healthy and fed. A pediatrician specializing in the disorder makes regular house calls, taking vital signs and encouraging parents not to lose hope and to include their sleeping children in all the normal routines of family life. The anxiety and exhaustion surrounding their own tenuous futures in Sweden, mixed with the terrible burden of the day-to-day care of these lifeless children, is palpable and overwhelming.

Bizarre as it seems, and the reason many wondered if this was some kind of terrible ploy, the children were reported to recover completely (over a period of weeks) if and when their families were finally granted permission to reside in Sweden. This dramatic recovery was so documented that it became part of a 76-page guide for treating Uppgivenhetssyndrom, published in 2013 by the Swedish Board of Health and Welfare, who advised that permission to stay in the country was inherently associated with a patient’s full recovery.

 

 

Parting Shot

Once you realize this is not some deliberate, concocted scheme by hundreds of refugee families to obtain residency status, the story takes on dire proportions, especially when we learn that healthy siblings have occasionally fallen ill with the syndrome at the same time as their ‘sick’ sibling. Resignation Syndrome seems to hail predominantly from Sweden, although cases have been reported in other parts of the world in which refugee populations have seen a massive diaspora in recent years. Of course, this couldn’t be a more timely story. And no matter on which end of the political spectrum one’s attitudes and allegiances reside, there is no questioning the dangerous and tragic effects of sociological upheaval on a child’s psyche. Insecurity is not only sad, it can be tragic.

Sleeping Beauty and Snow White references aside, unlike the fairy tales, it’s not a kiss from a handsome prince that wakens these innocent children. In recent years, we’ve attributed the name ‘Snowflakes’ to refer to young adults whose need to be sheltered from the harsh realities of life has made them self-absorbed and delicate. Be that as it may. But to parents of young children the message seems to be this: your little ones absorb so much more than you can imagine. Fear, anxiety and dread can filter through a family as fluidly as water through the taps. Strange as it sounds – or perhaps profoundly simple – the kiss that awakens them is the parents’ kiss with the assurance that all is well, and that their future as a family is one of safety and security in their new home, their new country. We take it for granted, but we really shouldn’t.

Life Overtakes Me is presently streaming on Netflix.

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YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZ9K5KXJDzQ

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