Wang’s ‘Schizophrenias’ urges us to reappraise our thoughts
on mental illness
By Lou Fancher
In San Francisco-based writer Esmé Weijun Wang’s new nonfiction book, “The Collected Schizophrenias” (Graywolf Press, $16, 224 pages),13 essays, blends of brilliant research and her own personal experience, open and close much like a daylily, casting some light on mental illness and inviting readers to reconsider their thoughts about it.
“It’s not a book where I present the reader with a bunch of answers to a series of questions. It’s a bouquet of questions that I’m gifting, so that I might instigate conversations and discussions,” says Wang, 35, in a phone interview.
Wang’s 2016 debut novel, “The Border of Paradise,” followed the tortured paths of the Nowak family and included themes involving paranoia, suicide, isolation and mental illness. Featured on several notable best book lists, the novel won numerous awards – the 2018 Whiting Award and the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, among others. Wang, a Stanford University alumna, has a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan. Until poor mental health dictated she resign in 2013, she was a lab manager at Stanford’s Department of Psychology. In addition to writing, Wang consults and speaks publicly on mental health issues and provides online courses and resources for people experiencing difficult or disabling life events.
In “Schizophrenias,” Wang turns her journalistic attention to her own experiences with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder, complex PTSD, chronic Lyme disease and Cotard’s delusion, a condition in which people believe they are dead. Arranged in nonchronological order, the essays dispense up-to-date, fact-based information aimed at disrupting stigmas and stereotypes. The frank, heartfelt accounts invite compassion without sentimentality. Among the narratives are a harrowing stay in a Louisiana mental hospital and the story of a man with schizophrenia whose younger sister was so desperate to escape the environment of his illness that she shot and killed him. Wang also writes about her efforts to “pass” as a high-functioning individual, about society treating the mentally ill as pariahs and about the difficulty those who suffer have in deciding about whether to have children.
“It starts with the bare bones, an introduction to the history and the schizophrenias,” says Wang. “By the end, we’re opening up, with a lot more questions than we started with. What I write is me arguing with myself within each essay. The choice of children is one I go through in phases: both wanting and feeling conflicted about having children. Does having a serious mental illness affect that? I leave that with a loose end.”
Wang turns down the volume while describing her most volatile, emotional psychotic episodes, and applies reserved, clinical language or uses an outsider’s observational approach to avoid melodrama. In writing about schizophrenics’ families and their “burden of care,” about which she admits to having intensely strong reactions, she says, “I didn’t want to whack the reader over the head with my opinion. I think it’s brutal to be considered a burden. Considering how much of a burden I’ve been to my husband, how much I wasn’t able to be the same partner I was before I was sick, that phrase and research that uses the word ‘burden,’ it really hits me.”
Ironically, part of Wang’s evolution into self-understanding and meeting the challenges of delusional episodes that have ranged from hours to months and include “gray as soot” thoughts about mortality, self-worth and identity has come through her use of social media. Bed-bound at one time, she kept up an active presence on Twitter and other platforms that continued to connect her to the outside world. Self-imposed solitude, she says, is vital to her deepest writing habits, but other-imposed isolation is a poisonous trap, especially when it involves ostracism and judgment.
Misunderstandings about the schizophrenias, she notes, are rampant. “People every day use the term ‘psycho,’ or think it means having a split personality or being a murderer. As with many things, understanding and hearing stories about schizophrenia is part of decreasing stigma.”
Although conversations about mental health are becoming more open when it comes to depression, anxiety, bereavement, panic attacks and therapy, Wang says, “It’s more difficult for people to think of an experience they’ve had that’s similar to a psychotic episode or break.”
The author plans, after tours and speaking engagements related to the book are over, to work on her next novel. “It’s a psychological thriller,” she says, “that has a murder, a lodge and, perhaps, a ghost.”