In 2014, Esmé Weijun Wang saw the movie Lucy— a film about a woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who is able to use 100 percent of her brain rather than the measly 10 the rest of us do (this is mostly a myth). The powerful narrative of a person transforming into a kind of superhuman made a big impact on Wang, who has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and she found herself in danger of slipping into an episode of psychosis. She writes about it in her new book of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, as an example of when an everyday activity like going to the movies can have a dramatic effect on someone's mental state. While watching the film, she was being pulled out of her own reality, she writes, and into that of the movie.
"Before the psychosis properly begins, as I experienced during Lucy, I experience an agitated sense of something being wrong," she writes. "The wrongness isn't limited to the grotesqueries mutating inside, but is also true of the world at large: how did it get this way, and what am I supposed to do with it?"
Wang was diagnosed first with major depressive and bipolar disorder when she was younger, and then diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Her book chronicles her lifetime of mental health symptoms, and what it means personally, culturally, and socially to carry a schizophrenia diagnosis.
In one essay, Wang describes how it feels to be considered "high-functioning," in another she tells about her forced hospitalizations and being denied re-admittance as a student to Yale, and the failures college campuses have when it comes to mental health treatment. Overall, the collection grapples with issues that many with mental illness will find camaraderie in: questions of stigma, treatment, and identity. Over email, Wang and I spoke more about these topics.
Can you share what your mental health diagnosis is and how it’s changed over time? What relationship do you have with your official diagnosis—does it inform or change the symptoms that you feel?
My mental health diagnosis is currently schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, as well as complex post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. In the past, my primary diagnoses have been, first, major depressive disorder and then bipolar disorder (both I and II, at different times in my life).
I've generally felt relieved after being bestowed an official diagnosis, though there's usually been a period of grappling with the stigma of the diagnosis, too. I like to know that I'm not having an inexplicable experience that no one else has ever had; it's also hard to bear the weight of a label that carries with it so much stigma, especially one like schizoaffective disorder. I talk about this in the book—the stigma is, I think, part of why it took so long for my doctors to officially diagnose me with schizoaffective disorder, even though I was exhibiting clear signs for eight years.
Schizophrenia is one of the most stigmatized mental disorders. Do you find that carries through to the way that it’s treated by professionals? What experiences in college and in hospitals have you had that were, in your eyes, problematic?
While I've had some good doctors, I've also had some difficult experiences with institutions. I was involuntarily hospitalized three times, which I write about in the book, and none of those experiences were positive; I found all of them traumatic. That essay, called "On the Ward," explores history and state law, as well as pop culture depictions of hospitals and asylums. I was also not allowed to return to university, and I wrote about higher education and their treatment of mentally ill students in an essay called "Yale Will Not Save You," which was excerpted in the run-up to publication, and inspired an article in the New Haven Tribune, which stated that Yale recently received an F for how they treat students with mental health issues, and an article in Psychology Today about similar topics.
Tell me about what an experience of psychosis feels like. Recognizing that it’s different for everyone, do your experiences challenge some misconceptions people might have about psychosis?
I don't know if I can adequately describe an experience of psychosis, particularly because there are so many different forms—delusions and hallucinations, and the abstract feeling, too, of entering a psychotic episode that is so much like stepping off of a cliff. I try to describe these things in the book, but it takes a lot of space to even try to do that there.
Where I think those descriptions might help to challenge misconceptions is that they start to create language for experiences that many people don't know anything about. So many people toss around the word "psycho" or "psychotic" without understanding what psychosis is; they think that psychosis is wildness, or general bad behavior, perhaps violence. Hopefully my book can provide the foundation, and even the building blocks, for understanding otherwise.
You wrote that you’re proud of your education and ability to hold down a job. Why do you think that even people with mental illness desire to separate off into two groups: the high- and low-functioning?
There's an intense desire that many people with mental illness, including myself, often have to be called "high-functioning." I think it happens because, particularly within marginalized groups, you're already being stigmatized, and so there can often be the tendency to grab at any privilege you can. With the schizophrenias, for example, you're starting off with a fairly heavy burden—the diagnosis carries with it so much social, cultural, and historical stigma, and one way to self-protect from the weight of that burden can be to try and associate with characteristics that are typically seen as positive.
How have you used fashion to influence the way you present to others? Do you think people who are able to “pass” as “normal”—emphasis on quotations here—should do so? Or should we try instead to act as we feel, despite making others uncomfortable?
A lot of my writing about fashion and schizoaffective disorder has been about costuming, or "fashioning normal"; I am trying to influence the way I present to others by, as writer Chaédria LaBouvier so beautifully puts it, "weaponizing glamour." That's my decision, and I reserve the right to change that decision.
I would not presume to tell people what they should and shouldn't do when it comes to "passing." Not only do I feel that it's their choice, but we are also all existing under different conditions of safety.
Does being a woman, or person of color, influence your desire to present as high-functioning? I’m curious, since I’m also Chinese, if that cultural background made it more difficult to be so honest and open about mental health—since mental health isn’t something regularly discussed.
I've never not been those things, so I'm not sure how they've influenced that particular desire—though I can guess. However, I'd need to do a lot more thinking to speak confidently about that.
What I can say is that being Chinese, and particularly the child of immigrants, did make it more difficult to have conversations about mental health. I talk about this in the book: my family's cultural stigma against discussing mental illness, even with doctors, got in the way of my treatment at times as I was growing up.
You wrote that you’re still trying to figure out if mental illness is a fundamental part of you, inseparable from your personality and mind, or if there is an “impeccable self” underneath a mental disorder. I’ve experienced both approaches in therapy before—being asked to think of my mental disorder as something “other” to be fought, or something that’s part of me, to learn to accept. Given these are diametrically opposed concepts; is there one you think is more helpful?
I've thought of my disorders as a part of me for a while now, rather than something that's come along and fucked up the "impeccable self." This way of thinking, for me, is less because I find it helpful or not helpful, and more because it has been too long since I've glimpsed that self, if it ever existed. I've been who I am, with oscillations and fluctuations, since I was eleven, or even younger. My attempts to be well enough in this world are also a part of that self, and continue to be.
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