I think a major problem today–one that looms behind other problems, such as sexual immorality and identity confusions–is that people are often dissociated from their bodies. We see this in the gender dysphoria that gives us transgenderism, the sense that some people have that they are really a different sex than that of their bodies. Then there is bodily integrity disorder, which gives us the “transabled,” the conviction that some people have that they should have been born with a disability. Now we learn of Cotard’s syndrome in which some people believe that they are dead.
On Nov. 5, 2013, Esmé Weijun Wang came to the remarkable conclusion that she was dead.
In the weeks prior to this, she had begun to feel increasingly fractured — like being scatterbrained, but to such an extreme that she felt her sense of reality was fraying at the edges. She had started to lose her grip on who she was and on the world around her. Desperate to fend off what appeared to be early signs of psychosis, Wang went into a soul-searching and organizational frenzy. She read a self-help book that was supposed to help people discover their core beliefs and desires; she ordered and scribbled in five 2014 datebook planners, reorganized her work space and found herself questioning her role as a writer.
Then one morning, Wang woke her husband before sunrise with an incredible sense of wonder and tears of joy to tell him it all made sense to her now: She had actually died a month before, although at the time she had been told she merely fainted. (During a flight home to San Francisco from London, Wang had drifted into and out of consciousness for four hours. Afterward, doctors were unable to find a cause for this episode.)“I was convinced that I had died on that flight, and I was in the afterlife and hadn’t realized it until that moment,” said Wang, now 32, who was convinced her husband and their dog Daphne were dead as well. “That was the beginning of when I was convinced that I was dead. But I wasn’t upset about it, because I thought that I could do things [in my life] over and do them better.”
Her husband assured her that she — and he — were very much alive, an assertion she dismissed. But as the days passed, her bliss turned into total despair. She lost all desire to work, talk or eat — because what’s the point when you’re already dead?
For almost two months, Wang suffered from Cotard’s syndrome, in which patients think they are dead or somehow nonexistent. Any attempts to point out evidence to the contrary — they are talking, walking around, using the bathroom — are explained away. French neurologist Jules Cotard first described the syndrome in the 1800s as a type of depression characterized by anxious melancholia and delusions about one’s own body. In a case report published in 1880, Cotard wrote of a 43-year-old woman who “affirms she has no brain, no nerves, no chest, no stomach, no intestines . . . only skin and bones of a decomposing body.”
Although the condition is not classified as a separate disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there have been plenty of anecdotal accounts of what has been sensationalized as “walking corpse syndrome” and “life as a zombie.” Doctors who treat the condition say Cotard’s syndrome is a real illness, with patients believing they are dead and, like Wang, feeling extremely depressed, anxious and suicidal.