I was first introduced to Esmé Weijun Wang when she was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts, Forever35. You can listen to that episode here.
Wang was being interviewed about her book, The Collected Schizophrenias, which is a series of essays about her life with schizoaffective disorder and what she's learned about the illness as both a patient and from studying the work of mental health professionals and researchers.
On page 29, Wang describes how she felt when she received her diagnosis, "It is disconcerting for anyone to be told that her brain is being damaged by an uncontrollable illness. It might have been especially disconcerting to me because my brain has been one of my more valuable assets since childhood. I began to read at two; I was the first student, boy or girl, to finish every available math textbook in my elementary school; I went to Yale and Stanford, and graduated from Stanford with a 3.99 GPA, after which I took a job as a lab manager and researcher at one of the university's brain-imaging labs. My anxiety about a loss of gray matter fed a variety of delusions . . ."
I think many of us are guilty of imagining people living with schizophrenia as being wildly unstable. Wang speaks with such vulnerability about being known her whole life for her brain and her intellect, and how this diagnosis called all of that into question.
I was fascinated by her ability to write this book, and about 50 pages in she talks about how being a high-functioning person with mental illness separates you from others with the same diagnosis.
She explains, "A therapist told me in my midtwenties, when my diagnosis was still bipolar disorder, that I was her only client who could hold down a full-time job. Among psychiatric researchers, having a job is considered one of the major characteristics of being a high-functioning person. Most recently, Saks has spearheaded one of the largest extant studies about the nature of high-functioning schizophrenia. In it, employment remains the primary marker of someone who is high-functioning, as having a job is the most reliable sign that you can pass in the world as normal. Most critically, a capitalist society values productivity in its citizens above all else, and those with severe mental illness are much less likely to be productive in ways considered valuable: by adding to the cycle of production and profit."
She continues, "Because I am capable of achievement, I find myself uncomfortable around those who are visibly psychotic and audibly disorganized. I'm uncomfortable because I don't want to be lumped in with the screaming man on the bus, or the woman who claims that she's the reincarnation of God. I'm uncomfortably uncomfortable because I know that these are my people in ways that those who have never experienced psychosis can't understand, and to shun them is to shun a large part of myself."
Wow. That paragraph gives me chills every time I read it.
To an outsider, Wang does lead a very "normal" life. She's married, she's a celebrated author, and she's able to do things like podcast interviews with total ease. But she's also candid about hearing voices, seeing hallucinations, or becoming too immersed in movies and being unable to separate what's on screen from what is happening in real life.
This book is powerful. It helps the reader to better understand schizophrenia as a medical diagnosis, and what it is like for someone living with schizoaffective disorder to navigate the world. I would say the book feels like 50 percent academic textbook and 50 percent diary entry.
If you are interested in learning more about mental illness, definitely add Wang's essay collection to your list.
*Image courtesy of NPR.