What Life Is Like When You're Perfectly Alive, But Swear You're Dead

One morning, Esmé Weijun Wang woke up dead.

Sep 24 2014, 2:25pm

Photo: Kristin Cofer 

One morning, Esmé Weijun Wang woke up dead. Esmé, a California-based writer, shook her husband and shared the news.

"I'm dead," she said. "And you're dead, and Daphne is dead, but now I get to do it over again. Don't you see? I have a second chance. I can do better now."

Esmé was suffering from Cotard's Delusion, a rare psychosis in which she believed that she was dead. Her delusion persisted for months and, throughout the ordeal, she remained more or less convinced that she and her loved ones had died. Her beating heart and her thinking mind felt like illusions—Esmé swore that she was in heaven or, some days, in hell.

And then she wrote about it. In Perdition Days, she describes her delusion while she is still suffering from it, and the result is a haunting, touching (and sometimes humorous) take on mental illness. I caught up with Esmé about what it's like to be perfectly alive but swear you're dead, and how you ever find the time to write about it.

MOTHERBOARD: So last summer you thought you were dead.
Esmé: Just to clarify, it was last winter that I thought I was dead.

Ah, right. How did it come on?
I think it began back in November 2013, when I went to my husband and started telling him about how I had died and that I was in heaven, but that it was OK because I was getting a second chance to do everything over again.

An interesting thing about delusions is their ability to be very logical in some ways. I'd worked out this whole scenario, based on a time when I had actually fainted in an airplane on a flight from England. In my delusion, I believed that I had died on that plane, and so I was in heaven.

That was one phase of the delusion. But then it turned pretty hellish.

Photo courtesy Esmé Weijun Wang

What happened?
I started believing that I was in hell.

At times, when my level of insight was relatively high, I would believe that I was dead and in hell, but that there was still a small chance that I was not—so I should go to the doctor and take my pills. But the worst of it was when I had pretty much no insight and just found it absolutely torturous. It's interesting, looking back, that I never considered suicide during that time. And there's a reason for that: there's no reason to commit suicide if you're already dead.

There's no reason to commit suicide if you're already dead.

And while you were experiencing this, you were writing an essay?
Yes. At the time, I was having symptoms of catatonic psychosis, which often meant that I couldn't do much except lie in bed. But there were times when I was able to use my iPad. I have this distinct memory of opening up EverNote, and tapping in the words that ended up basically being my essay, Perdition Days.

The experience of writing this story was actually helpful to me because storytelling and words are really the way I keep things together.

Perdition Days was not the first time you've written about your personal struggles with mental health. Is it difficult to write about something so personal?
It's funny that you ask that, because I just published  a very short piece on my website a couple of hours ago, and I have been feeling very vulnerable about it

In general, I feel pretty comfortable writing about mental health issues; at least since I decided to publicly write about my mental health struggles in around 2012. I think it helps people. I really appreciate the emails and letters that I've gotten from people who have read things that I've written. It encourages me to write more and help other people.

Photo courtesy Esmé Weijun Wang

And you have. You actually wrote a book, Light Gets In, about living with schizoaffective disorder.
I self-published that book when I was at a writing residency earlier this year. It is composed of short pieces that are essentially embellished blog posts. I am also working on a much bigger project, which is a book of essays about schizophrenia.

In Perdition Days, one reader commented that you, "write wonderfully about the horror." Are you worried that some readers will turn to your work out of morbid curiosity, rather than focusing on the plight of those struggling with very real mental health challenges?
Well, I must point out that there are several incredibly awful articles already out there on the internet about Cotard's Delusion, with titles like, "real life reverse zombie disorder". If my essay somehow glamorizes Cotard's, I hope it's to a lesser degree than those articles.

I think when I approach writing about mental health struggles, especially when it's something inherently fascinating like Cotard's, I try to be honest and include both the funny things that can happen and the really awful things that can happen.

The way that the delusion ended is so incredibly boring.

The funny things that can happen?
Sure! For people who haven't read the essay, there's a moment where I'm watching an Adam Sandler movie and James Taylor has a cameo. And when James Taylor comes out I have this very clear, uninhibited thought: I can't believe that I'm dead and James Taylor is still alive. I was quite horrified about this for a while.

And now, you're free of Cotard's. How did it all end? 
The way that the delusion ended is so incredibly boring. I don't even know exactly when it ended. One day, I was singing a song about my dog, Daphne—as I am wont to do—and the song was about how I believed in my dog. My husband turned to me and asked, "Do you? Do you really believe in Daphne?"

And I realized that I did.