Haley Smith, 17, suffered from the ultra-rare illness Cotard’s Syndrome.
Cotard’s Syndrome (Walking Corpse Syndrome), is a rare mental illness in which a person holds the belief that they are dead, do not exist, or have lost their blood or internal organs.
Miss Smith spent three years of her life convinced she was dead. She eventually overcame the condition with help from her therapist and Disney films, because they made her ‘feel alive’.
Sufferers such as Miss Smith often die from starvation because they feel they no longer have to eat. Cases of Cotard’s Syndrome date back to 1788 but it was formally identified by French neurologist Jules Cotard in 1880. This distorted reality is caused by a malfunction in an area of the brain called the fusiform gyrus, which recognizes faces, and also in the amygdala, which processes emotions.
Victims will often visit local graveyards to feel happy or more at home.
A PET scan of a person with Cotard’s Syndrome showed low metabolic activity across large areas of the frontal and parietal brain regions similar to that of someone in a vegetative state. These parts of the mind form what is known as the “default mode network” – a complex system of activity thought to be vital to core consciousness, our ability to recollect the past and to create a sense of self.
In her own words:
“My parents had just divorced and I didn’t cope with it well. Then one day when I was sitting in an English class I had this really weird sensation that I was dead and I couldn’t shake it. As I walked home I thought about visiting a graveyard, just to be close to others who were also dead. But because there wasn’t one nearby I went straight back to my house and tried to sleep it off. It seemed to work but a few days later, the macabre sense struck again. I was out shopping when the sudden feeling returned. My whole body went numb and I dropped all the dresses I was holding and ran out of the shop. I felt like I was going mad. This time, the feeling did not go away.”