It took eight years after she first began having hallucinations for Esmé Weijun Wang to receive her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. Her diagnosis, while laden with its own orbit of stigma and baggage, is a source of comfort. “I like to know that I’m not pioneering an inexplicable condition,” she writes in the first essay of her new book, The Collected Schizophrenias.
The intervening years—those of misdiagnosis, hospitalization, and variably effective treatment—are in part the subject of The Collected Schizophrenias, which was released in February of this year after winning the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize in 2016. But the personal history woven throughout Wang’s essays is only a piece of the story. In each essay, Wang peels back the layers of mystery and cultural meaning associated with mental illness, through her own narrative as well as a thorough exploration of current research and expert perspectives. The result is a haunting read, one that elucidates the experience of psychosis in stunning personal detail.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you see TCS as having a primary audience among fellow mentally ill people? Are there challenges that come from having to explain what emotional states like psychosis are like to those who have never experienced it?
I think of TCS as having an audience among whoever is interested in reading it, really—people with mental health diagnoses, people who love people with such diagnoses, clinicians, researchers—anyone who’s curious about the topic. Within TCS I tried to describe, with visceral specificity, what psychosis is like, and what pre-psychosis is like. That kind of challenge is one of my primary motivations for writing in the first place; before I ever thought I’d write nonfiction, I wrote The Border of Paradise, my debut novel, which also deals with visceral descriptions of mental illness, in part because I wasn’t seeing those kinds of descriptions in other books.
In the essay “Towards a Pathology of the Possessed,” you explore the moral ambiguity surrounding forced hospitalization, and your empathy toward the family members who seek it despite the trauma and loss of autonomy that comes with involuntary commitment. How do we, as a culture, misunderstand people with severe mental illnesses’ ability to make their own choices surrounding treatment?
I really don’t know, to be honest. You’ve presented the various arguments that I introduce in that essay here, which is one example of how I don’t see this book’s particular job as one of giving answers to complex questions. Instead, I see it as an opportunity to introduce readers to different facets of such questions—and depending on the reader, they may or may not come away from the essay with an opinion. I’m constantly arguing with myself in this book, and one consequence of that ambiguity is that I don’t have easy answers.
You talk about having gone to Yale as a signifier of value (“I went to Yale is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I’m not worthless.”) What is it like to navigate institutions that are structurally exclusive toward those living with mental illnesses?
Well, it’s not very fun. It’s not easy. After that essay went mildly viral when it was excerpted in the Sewanee Review, the New Haven Register wrote an article that was, in part, inspired by that essay and the issues that it grapples with, and it referred to the fact that in a study of Ivy League schools and how they treat students with mental illness, Yale had received an F. That’s 16 years after I left. Something needs to change, not just in the Ivy League schools, but in all institutions of higher learning so that students can learn in a supportive environment.
Do you think that the “person living with [illness]” language you describe at the beginning “Perdition Days” is destigmatizing, or does it give people less room to describe their experiences with mental illness as being fundamentally a part of them?
I think the person living with the illness (and I realize I’m reflexively using person-first language) should be allowed to make that decision for themselves. At this point in my life, it’s less exhausting for me to think of myself as my illnesses as part of me. This is who I am. Sometimes I am less or more well, but this is me, and the schizophrenias are a part of me. But if that form of identification is disturbing for someone else with the diagnosis, they should feel free to discard it. I think we should be allowed to relate to the schizophrenias, or any form of mental health disorder, however we feel most comfortable. v