The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
Graywolf Press, February 2019
224 pages / Amazon
“Schizophrenia terrifies.” So starts Esmé Wang’s stunning essay collection – by exposing the fear of the misunderstood. In The Collected Schizophrenias, Wang recounts her journey with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, delving into both, the technicalities of her condition and the human experience behind it. In this way she provides a well-rounded view of the mental illness, and sheds light on the previously unknown. Drawing from her time as lab manager, as an involuntarily committed patient, and camp counselor for kids with mental health issues, among other experiences, Wang not only explores the different sides of mental illness, but also gives a face to it. It is the face of an intelligent student, a fashion blogger, a wife. It is my face too.
My first obvious manic episode started one April night in 2012 at a Hoboken bar, when, becoming overwhelmed with cabin fever, I hitched a ride with a stranger to JFK and bought a one way ticket to California. I didn’t tell anyone that I was leaving, concerned only with having an adventure. I reappeared after a week of no communication, a week that saw my parents fly to my precinct in New York to report me as missing. This was the first time I was impulsive to the point of consequence. But, for at least three years leading up to this, I had frequently hallucinated the voices of two men that harassed me, and had often seen fuzzy orbs of light floating atop people’s heads with the corner of my eyes. I didn’t realize other people didn’t experience things like this. In her book, Wang takes it upon herself to help us understand her symptoms of hallucination and delusion. Guiding us through her treatment and recurring episodes of madness, I was struck by how the author had internalized her diagnosis, how she had come to understand the condition as its own entity. I was an expert in my mental illness by virtue of being a patient, but that was my only point of reference.
When I received my diagnosis of bipolar in May 2012, I read everything I could get my hands on, taking book recommendations from my doctor and internet lists. Knowledge was the only power I could yield, the only thing that helped me feel like I was in control, even when I was not. Throughout the collection, Wang refers to her psychiatric records, at times quoting them for reference or comparison. We are made privy to the things that professionals assigned to her care noted, including a statement that I would come to find in my own records, “Patient shows lack of insight.” I’d kept a copy of my file from what I call my period of recovery, when my parents moved me to my hometown of San Juan and I entered treatment. However, I’d never read it. Part of me was terrified of discovering a horrid darkness that had been kept from me for safety, but that I knew had been there all along. But in reading The Collected Schizophrenias, I quickly realized that the task had to be done, now. I deserved to know as much about my psychology as I could. I quickly shut the book and retrieved two thick envelopes from my desk. I spread out the contained documents on my bed – treatment plans, session notes, and every survey I had ever completed. There was paperwork from 2012 to 2015, at which point I had packed up the few things I still owned and moved back to New York for a graduate degree, declared “stable.” I organized my materials in chronological order, made a fresh pot of coffee and began to read.
As Wang explores and exposes the different angles of her diagnosis, she elegantly weaves herself into a broad narrative of mental illness. Be it through the dissection of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), a sort of diagnostic bible that lists each mental illness with its parameters and symptoms, or an analysis of how her mental health and chronic illness interact, we are able to see the various ways in which Wang’s condition interacts with different aspects of reality and culture, and how it interacts with aspects of herself. “When the self has been swallowed by illness, isn’t it cruel to insist on a self that is not illness? Is this why so many people insist on believing in a soul?” Wang maintains a calm throughout her narrative, a serene reflection that shows us how much processing and work she has put in to her health. Her beautifully clear prose took me by the hand and taught me a new way in which to view my own mental illness.
Once I began to read my records, I was quickly fascinated by the language of them, clinical and distant. My doctor’s own questions and concerns populated the notes and my diagnosis was noted in code. Wang explains in her book that the DSM assigns a numerical code to each illness, shorthand for your diagnosis. At first sight, I recognized these numbers as what they were, but upon a second look I realized that there were three codes instead of one. A quick Google search confirmed that the two additional codes represented PTSD and Dissociative Disorder, the latter referring to a set of symptoms that include feeling as if you are floating above your body looking down at yourself, and not recognizing your reflection in the mirror. I had lived with a bipolar diagnosis for seven years, and while I’d been described by my doctor as having dissociative “tendencies,” this had never been communicated to me as a second label. My trauma flashbacks are recorded as starting in 2013. For three hours, I read about myself in third person, watching the patient swing one way or another until she is finally functional. At one point, the patient mourned having lost so much of life to her illness, years she would never get back and also couldn’t shake. I felt bad for her, until I remembered she was me.
Wang discusses her own trajectory to the correct diagnosis at the onset of her book, sharing email exchanges with her original doctor and then exchanges with her current one. As she aptly explains, diagnosing a mental illness is not an exact science and sometimes depends on the judgement of your care provider. The discovery of two additional diagnoses listed on my records did not shock or shake me as much as it angered me. The only way to keep control over myself is to stay educated on my triggers, on the nuances of my condition or conditions, a point that Wang proves over and over again throughout her book. The Collected Schizophrenias makes the case for a diagnosis as a tool. Wang writes, “Some people dislike diagnoses, disagreeably calling them boxes and labels, but I’ve always found comfort in pre-existing conditions; I like to know that I’m not pioneering an inexplicable experience.” It has been my own belief that if you can name it, you can fight it. I hadn’t been made aware that I was fighting three battles instead of one, but now that I know, I wear different armor.
Upon finishing The Collected Schizophrenias, I made an appointment to see my current doctor. I’d been inspired to delve into my mind from a different entry point, and was now equipped with new vocabulary, new codes. Wang’s book provides us with a new lens through which we can understand and internalize mental illness. The author paints a larger picture of what it means to be a patient by taking us to the moments in which reality fractures and the mind begins to fill in its cracks. It is a comfort to have a book like The Collected Schizophrenias. I keep my copy on my nightstand, a perfect bound safety blanket that reminds me that there is science behind the madness, that I will continue to function as long as I continue to learn. As Wang so acutely states, “I tell myself that if I must live with a slippery mind, I want to know how to tether it too.”
Puerto Rican writer Tania Pabón Acosta holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in Gravel, Pigeon Pages, The Acentos Review, among others; is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue, Great River Review, and The Los Angeles Review; and was chosen for AmpLit Fest’s Emerging Writer Showcase.