The Sunday Magazine

Writer Esmé Weijun Wang on life with the 'collected schizophrenias'

Most of what we hear about schizophrenia comes from clinicians or caregivers struggling to make sense of an experience they cannot share. Writer Esmé Weijun Wang's new essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias gives us a rare, first-person look at life with schizoaffective disorder.
Writer Esmé Weijun Wang spoke with The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong about her new essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias. (Jacquelyn Tierney, Graywolf Press)

When she gives public talks about her condition, Esmé Weijun Wang alway makes sure to dress immaculately. She begins by saying, "It was winter in my sophomore year at a prestigious university."

Her talk is about how she began experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations, and was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder — a condition that combines a mood disorder with symptoms of schizophrenia like hallucinations and delusions. 

Her goal, in pointing to her academic achievements, her career as a novelist or her thriving marriage, is to convince her audience to take her seriously — because schizophrenia terrifies people like few other illnesses, and that terror has profound implications for the way she is perceived. 

The award-winning author's new essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias, is a rare and illuminating first-person portrait of life with schizoaffective disorder. Here is part of her conversation with The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong. 

Why do you think schizophrenia provokes such a kind of existential dread in our culture?

The terror that schizophrenia brings about in people is due to so many factors, one being the immense amount of stigma that it carries. It's almost looked at as a kind of demonic possession. It's like the schizophrenia takes the good person and scoops out the inside, and deposits something very bad in the good person's place.

Did it terrify you when you first began experiencing these hallucinations and began to understand what that would mean? 

The diagnosis itself was something of a relief. I was glad that I had something to explain what was happening to me. I like to know that I'm not pioneering an inexplicable experience. One of the scariest things, though — and this has to do with how other people saw me — was experiencing hallucinations that caused me to behave oddly. If I saw a hallucination darting at my head, I would duck instinctively. And that scared me, because even more than the actual diagnosis or the actual hallucination, I did not want people to know that I was crazy.

How does being diagnosed with one of these collected schizophrenias, as you call them, change the way that people view you and your abilities?

Something that I talk about a lot in the book is all of these defence mechanisms I've developed. One is my academic background, or my so-called intelligence. Another is things I've won, books I've published. I always try to dress well and wear makeup and present myself physically in a way that looks appealing and looks put together. Chaédria LaBouvier came up with the phrase "weaponized glamour." I think that weaponized glamour is a perfect phrase to describe how one can use glamour to defend oneself, when other people see you as part of a minority that is not expected to succeed.

There's also the whole thing related to respectability politics, which is something that extends to a lot of marginalized groups. As long as we look well, and we behave well, and we act properly, we can fit in. And I play into this more than maybe I would, ideally, in a different kind of world. And yet I choose to. And ironically, perhaps if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to write this book and perhaps this book wouldn't be as popular or accepted as it has been.

There's a line that reads, 'Rarely did I experience such a radical and visceral imbalance of power as I did as a psychiatric inpatient amid clinicians who knew me only as an illness in human form.' What was that like? 

When you're in an inpatient situation in a psychiatric hospital, you lack autonomy in a way that I have experienced in few other situations. You're not allowed to have a lot of things, especially things that are of comfort. You're not allowed to have them because they're dangerous, sure — like shoelaces — but you're also not allowed to have them because they don't want you to be distracted by them, such as phones or laptops or iPads. So you're made to follow their schedule.

You're also not allowed to know how long this deprivation is going to last.

That's part of the reason the patients are so eager to talk to the doctor every day, because the doctor is the only person who can who can sign off on you getting out. But sometimes the whole day passes and you have not gotten to talk to the doctor. In the meantime, you're expected to behave in certain ways that are seen as appropriate — like a group activity like colouring, or like making paper snowmen. You can't be pouty about it. Otherwise that's a check against you, and will get you further away from being checked out. So you have to be smiley about it, even though you're a 36-year-old adult and you're expected to make glitter snowmen.

I want to ask you about involuntary hospitalization, because it comes up at several different points in the book. In writing this, in having experienced it, and in having heard all the various arguments for and against, where do you stand on it today?

Mostly my answer is just, 'I don't know.' I know what I personally think for myself, which is that I never want to be involuntarily hospitalized again. I feel like a more productive alternative would have been for my friends and family to take care of me at home, and for me to do an intensive outpatient program, which I have also done. But at the same time, I can't speak for everybody, and I can't speak for all of these people who have very ill and possibly very suicidal family members, who might be on the brink of ending their lives.

At the end of the book you say that it's been years since your last significant hallucination or delusion. What tools have you used to help you get to that place? 

I did have a fairly significant hallucination this year, but that's still mostly true in terms of remaining fairly stable in terms of psychosis. I do take medication. That's been a big cornerstone of my treatment. I am in therapy. I have created this form of restorative journaling that I developed myself, and I teach other people online. I have this set series of routine and ritual. And of course, my dog. I include my husband in the network of support, but my dog is separate. She's really lovely and has seen me through a lot of the worst times.

The line that I think will stay with me the longest from this book is that, 'I'm still trying to figure out what OK is.' And I wonder if I can leave you with that question of: have you figured out what OK is?

I haven't figured out what OK is, but I think the closest thing to OK is what is not actively suffering. Suffering is such a visceral sensation. I remember reading a long time ago, long before I got really sick, that somebody said being healthy is not having to think about how you feel all the time. And I think that there's something about that in being OK. Being OK is not having to think about how much you're suffering all the time.

Q&A edited for clarity and length. Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.