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Cotard’s Syndrome: Living As the Walking Dead

There are people that have a condition that says they are already dead and it is called Cotard's syndrome / Photo by: alphaspirit via 123RF

 

They are dead inside, at least, that’s what the patients with Cotard’s Syndrome (CS) believe. Due to the illusion that they had previously experienced death, they feel that as someone who had died, they are not confined by the usual needs of living humans. As a result, they have the tendency to neglect their bodies and live a zombie-like existence where nothing excites them anymore.

In the 1880s, one of the rarest and most peculiar of mental disorders was first recorded by a French neurologist by the name of Jules Cotard. This condition that leads the person to believe that they are dead, non-existent, do not have any organs, or that some of their body parts had become deceased. This is what characterizes the Cotard’s Syndrome which was formerly called the Delirium of Negation.

The first documented case of Cotard’s Syndrome involved a female patient who was dubbed as Madame X, who claimed that she had “no brain, no nerves, no chest, no stomach, no intestines…  only skin and bones of a decomposing body.” Eventually, she staved herself to death because did not deem it necessary to eat. She also had the belief that she was cursed to eternal damnation and that she could not have a normal death.  

What Is Cotard’s Syndrome?

As defined by Independent, Cotard’s Syndrome is a mental health condition in which patients “believe they are dead, parts of their body are dead or that they do not exist.”  When another person points out some proof that they are still alive it will just be “explained away”. This is also considered as a delusion connected to the denial of self-existence.

Cotard’s Syndrome is also known by the names Cotard’s Delusion, Nihilistic Delusion, and Walking Corpse Syndrome. According to a spokesperson of Mind, this mental health condition is associated with schizophrenia, clinical depression, and psychosis. It is also said to be similar neurologically to Capgras Syndrome, a disorder that causes an individual to think that someone they know is an impostor.

Although it is not officially listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), it is acknowledged by the International Classification of Diseases as a “disease of human health”.

Examples of People With Cotard’s Syndrome

Some cases of people with Cotard’s Syndrome who were mentioned in the Washington Post and Medical Daily are:

Esme Weijun Wang

When Esme Weijun Wang rode a plane on the way home to San Francisco, she passed out for four hours. The doctors who examined her were unable to find out why she had fainted. After regaining her consciousness, she felt that she was slowly losing her grip on reality. She became confused about her identity and the world she was part of.  Desperate to combat the seemingly early manifestations of psychosis, she tried to make sense of everything by reading self-help books for soul-searching and by engrossing herself with organizing. She tried rearranging her workstation and writing in five 2014 planners, but she still could not understand what was going on with her.

One early morning, a realization dawned on her. She woke her husband up to tell him about her epiphany. She told him that she finally knew why everything did not feel right. It was because a month ago, during her flight, she was already dead. She believed that she had entered the afterlife together with her husband and her dog. Her husband countered that she was alive but she kept on insisting otherwise.

Initially, this realization made her glad because she thought of it as a chance to start over. Eventually, as the days dragged on, this gladness became despair. Doing things such as eating, talking and working became pointless since she was dead anyway.

Now cured, Wang narrates her experience in her essay Perdition Days. In it, she describes that she found herself in a place that resembles her former life. However, that life did not make her feel any emotions, so it spiraled into fear, anxiety, and agitation.

There are records of people having Cotard's Syndrome like Esme Weijun Wang who got the syndrome after she passed out whle walking on the street / Photo by: Bogdan Mircea Hoda via 123rf

 

Graham

After suffering from depression, Graham later came to develop Cotard’s Syndrome. He began feeling as if he was a walking corpse after trying to kill himself in the bathtub by bringing an electrical appliance with him. He reported to the doctors eight months later that he was lacking a brain and that he was dead.

Then, gradually he no longer ate, smoked and spoke because he felt that it was meaningless. It reached a point where his family had to take care of him and he began searching for his own grave in a nearby cemetery. He said that he no longer found pleasure in the things he used to enjoy and that he did not even come near his most treasured possession which was his car.

After undergoing intensive therapy and treatment, he was finally able to recover and felt more alive than before.​​


What Causes Cotard Syndrome?

Since it is an extremely rare mental disorder, studies on Cotard’s Syndrome are scarce and there is no information as to what particularly causes it. Some experts theorize that it is induced by a defect in the fusiform gyrus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for facial recognition. They also suspect that the malfunction of the amygdala, the almond-shaped region of the brain in charge of handling emotions, plays a role in the development of Cotard’s Syndrome.

Symptoms

People who are affected by Cotard’s Syndrome, as stated by The Sun, would describe themselves as feeling lifeless or like they in the process of rotting and becoming a corpse. They may also report the loss of some of their internal organs and that they have no blood circulating in their body. A few who have this disorder may also have the belief that they are immortal.

Someone who suffers from this disorder thinks it is not necessary for them to engage in activities that will ensure their survival such as eating, drinking and practicing basic hygiene. In addition, Psychology Today says they may feel hopeless and experience self-loathing as well as chronic depression.

Treatment

Currently, with the limited available information on Cotard’s Syndrome, mental health professionals have not identified a cure the disorder. However, it may be treated with the same treatment methods used on schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression, The Odyssey says. The treatment options of patients with Cotard’s Syndrome include taking medication and therapy. Some of the medicines that doctors may prescribe to them are mood-stabilizing drugs, antipsychotics, and anti-depressants. Therapies they may try are psychotherapy and electroconvulsive therapy.

For now, the only available treatment for Cotard's Syndrome are therapies and antidepressant drugs / Photo by: Chatree Petjan via 123RF

 

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