Cotard disease makes people think they are dead and makes them feel disconnected with the world and their own bodies. It is a rare mental illness named after the French neurologist who first discovered it and diagnosed it in a patient, doctor Jules Cotard.
The Cotard syndrome makes sufferers live in a zombie-like state, where they feel like nothing they are experiencing is real because they believe themselves to already be dead.
It is a rare mental delusion that was first discovered in a female patient by Jules Cotard back in the 1880, when one of the doctor’s patients revealed that she was convinced she had died and was now experiencing the afterlife, while convinced she had no brain, nerves, stomach or intestines, only decomposing skin and bones.
The doctor described the illness at the time as being a sort of depression characterized by anxiety, melancholia and a disturbed perception of the patient’s body.
Although it is what inspired many zombie-based movies and tv series, the condition is real and difficult to understand. In the essay “The perdition days” writer Esme Weijun Wang describes her own experience with the rare syndrome which she was afflicted with, having believed for more than two months that she was dead.
The author explains the events that occurred after weeks of feeling increasingly more fractured and losing touch with both herself and reality more and more often. She initially considered these incidents early symptoms of psychosis and sought to help herself by reorganizing her work space and focusing on her status as a writer.
But she then describes a specific episode when her perception of reality changed, during an airplane flight from London to San Francisco, when she kept falling in and out of consciousness for approximately four hours. After the incident she was convinced she had died during the flight, that her husband and dog were also dead and that she was experiencing the afterlife.
Describing the experience as a version of hell, during which she felt like she was on fire inside, the author describes her thoughts at the time: she thought she was doomed to walk the earth forever, through a world that seemed similar to the one she had lived in but to which she no longer belonged. Her body did not feel like her own, and the world she was living in only contained “so-called people” that resembled her loved ones.
Also known as the walking corpse syndrome, the Cotard syndrome does not appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders but doctors consider it a very real disease with very serious consequences. A person’s belief that they are dead can lead them to severe depression and anxiety as well as suicidal thoughts and behavior.
There is no specific treatment for the illness and it can last from a few days or weeks to even months or, in chronic cases, years.
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