A San Francisco woman came to a bizarre conclusion a few years ago: After weeks of feeling out of sorts, she decided that she was dead. Yup, dead.
In 2013, EsmÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© Weijun Wang informed her husband that she had died a month before, when she had drifted in and out of consciousness for hours during an international flight.
“I was convinced that I had died on that flight and I was in the afterlife and hadn’t realized it until that moment,” EsmÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© tells The Washington Post. “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.”
EsmÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©, now 32, wrote an essay about her experience in 2014, detailing how she went through the paces of her life for weeks but felt no emotion. She also had periods of time where she couldn’t move, a condition that’s called catatonic psychosis.
“I began to believe I was in perdition, or some kind of hell,” EsmÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© tells The Washington Post. “I was trying to figure out what I had done wrong, what had condemned me to this afterlife that looked like my real life before I died but wasn’t real—that was the torment of it. I kind of described it once as feeling like I was on fire inside.”
What the what?
EsmÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© suffered from a condition known as Cotard’s syndrome, a rare mental illness that makes a person think they’re dead. She’s the not the first person to experience it—there are several case studies of people who have similar stories.
"I was trying to figure out what I had done wrong, what had condemned me to this afterlife that looked like my real life before I died but wasn’t real."
Pedro Morgado, M.D., Ph.D., a psychiatrist at Portugal’s Hospital de Braga and a professor at the University of Minho School of Medicine who has studied Cotard’s syndrome, tells WomensHealthMag.com that the syndrome is rare and occurs in less than one percent of severely depressed people.
Doctors don’t know what causes it, he says, but there seems to be a link between people who experience Cotard’s syndrome and neuropsychiatric disorders like depression and schizophrenia, as well as those who experience a traumatic brain injury. (EsmÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© had been diagnosed with a bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder earlier that same year.)
People suffering from Cotard’s syndrome don’t know that something is off—they genuinely believe that they’re dead, says Morgado.
Luckily, there’s a cure: If doctors treat the disorder or injury a person is suffering from, Cotard’s syndrome disappears as well, says Morgado.
EsmÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©’s condition eventually went away, seemingly on its own. Less than two months after she decided she was dead, EsmÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© realized she was alive after all.
“[The delusion] lifted completely without fanfare,” she tells The Washington Post. “There was no beam of light from the heavens; I was just going along, and somebody pointed out that I was acting different. I realized I thought I was alive.”