A Tracker reader wrote me recently to say she had read a “haunting, beautifully crafted piece” by a woman describing her experience with a type of psychosis called Cotard’s delusion–meaning the essayist believed she was dead.
Cotard’s delusion, or syndrome, is “a relatively rare condition that was first described by Dr. Jules Cotard in 1882. Cotard’s syndrome comprises any one of a series of delusions that range from a belief that one has lost organs, blood, or body parts to insisting that one has lost one’s soul or is dead.”
The essay’s author, Esmé Weijun Wang, begins by noting that much of the essay was written while she was suffering from that psychosis. She writes:
In the beginning of my own experience with Cotard’s delusion, I woke my husband before sunup. Daphne, our dog, stirred, began thumping her papillon-mutt tail against the bedsheets. I’d been in my studio, but now I was shaking my husband, and I was crying with joy.
“I’m dead,” I said, “and you’re dead, and Daphne is dead, but now I get to do it over. Don’t you see? I have a second chance. I can do better now.”
Chris said, gently, “I think you’re alive.”
She goes on to recount her exploration of the delusion, from the inside. For a variety of reasons, medication did not offer a good solution for her, she writes, so her doctor recommended therapy. “Any kind of therapy, in fact, felt to me like suggesting that I sit down and meditate in a burning building,” she writes.
Wang’s writing brings us inside with her in a way that not much writing about psychiatry does.
The essay drew rapturous comments from readers. “I hope it doesn’t feel diminishing to the author if I describe this as ‘riveting,'” one wrote. “Reading this has made it hard to breathe,” wrote another. “You write wonderfully about the horror,” wrote a third.
This piece gave me as good an insight into psychosis as anything I’ve read. While it is life affirming, as many of the commenters wrote, it is also terrifying. Her experience, she writes, was of “awful suffering” that “ stands apart from loss, injury, or perhaps even grief, all of which are terrible, and yet are still beautiful to the dead woman, who sees them as remarkably human, and alive.“
It is, indeed, a haunting, beautifully crafted essay.