For most of us, the idea of the walking dead is the stuff of horror movies and video games. But for Haley Smith, the nightmare became all too real when she spent three years convinced she had died.
Haley, 17, suffered from the ultra-rare Cotard’s syndrome, otherwise known as Walking Corpse Syndrome, a terrifying condition that makes people genuinely believe that they are dead.
Previously, only one Cotard’s sufferer has spoken publically, and he did not give his full name. But Haley, of Alabama, USA, has bravely decided to step out from under the veil of anonymity and come forward to support others.
Her petrifying plight began on an ordinary school day.
“My parents had just divorced and I didn’t cope with it well but 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,” she says.
Panicking, she visited the school nurse who could not find anything wrong with her.
“As I walked home I thought about visiting a graveyard, just to be close to others who were like me – dead – but there were none nearby so I went straight back to my house and tried to sleep it off,” she recalls.
On the surface, sleeping seemed to do the trick – but a few days later, the macabre sensation stirred once again.
“I was out shopping when the sudden feeling returned,” she remembers.
“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.
Haley quickly descended into a spiral of staying awake all night and skipping school to sleep during the day.
“I’d fantasise about having picnics in graveyards and I’d spend a lot of time watching horror films because seeing the zombies made me feel relaxed, like I was with family,” she says.
As time went by, Haley decided to embrace her ‘new’ life.
“I decided to eat whatever I wanted because I couldn’t put on weight if I was dead,” she explains.
She even stopped talking to her friends, who had begun to grow concerned about her behaviour.
Eventually, she confided in one.
She said: “I thought he’d think I was a freak but he just nodded and listened. It gave me the confidence to tell my dad.”
Her father, Floyd, urged her to see a psychiatrist, but it was two years until Haley finally plucked up the courage.
Immediately, she was diagnosed with Cotard’s syndrome.
“It’s a rare condition where sufferers believe they or parts of their body no longer exist,” Haley explains.
“It was so amazing to find out it was a real illness.”
And research showed that, however rare the condition may be, she was far from alone.
“I went online and found stories of other people who suffered from it. They wanted to spend time in graveyards too. It made me feel so much better that I wasn’t the only one.”
Talking with the therapist set Haley on the road to recovery – with a little helping hand from Uncle Walt.
“Watching Disney films gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, Bambi – I watched them all.
“I asked my boyfriend Jeremy: ‘How can I be dead when Disney makes me feel this good?’.”
Gradually, through the magic of the movies, Haley came back to life.
“Jeremy helped me so much – as did Disney – and we’re hoping to get married soon and then
get jobs in Disney World,” she said.
“Being a corpse was the most bizarre experience, but I’m so glad I managed to get out alive.”
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