Review: The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang (Graywolf Press 2019)

Reviewed by Claudine Mininni

Esmé Weijun Wang’s illuminating essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias, details her tumultuous relationship with schizoaffective disorder. In her opening essay, “Diagnosis,” Wang writes:

Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy. Craziness scares us because we are creatures who long for structure and sense; we divide the interminable days into years, months and weeks.

Wang takes us on a journey through her psychoses while she struggles to make sense of her life. Her writings reveal a story that has not been told with such willingness, clarity and deftness. Each essay is a little gem in itself that should be read and cherished for the rare insight it offers. One should not underestimate the bravery it took to produce such a frank, in-depth look at schizoaffective disorder.

Schizoaffective disorder shares symptoms of schizophrenia and is most commonly known as one of the most troublesome mental illnesses, affecting 0.3 percent of the population. Wang explains that so many doctors are reluctant to diagnose someone with schizoaffective disorder because of the impact the diagnosis will have on the patient.

Wang is an educated woman, having earned degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the country. She tells us that she worked as a lab manager in the Stanford Department of Psychology, where she conducted clinical interviews for a study. All the while she was aware of her own very intimate experiences with the symptoms of her disease. In the essay “Yale Will Not Save You” she is admitted twice to the Yale Psychiatric Institute during her two years of study.

I’m still trying to figure out what “okay” is, particularly whether there exists a normal version of myself beneath the disorder, in the way a person with cancer is a healthy person first and foremost. In the language of cancer, people describe a thing that “invades” them so that they can “battle” the cancer. No one ever says that a person is cancer, or that they have become cancer, but they do say that a person is manic-depressive or schizophrenic, once those illnesses have taken hold.

With this collection, Wang creates a beautiful series of essays that moves from a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder to one that explores her tenuous relationship with post-traumatic stress disorder. In her essay “John Doe, Psychosis” Wang discusses her experience of rape while in high school, further compounding her symptoms. She includes replies from her psychiatrist, “Dr. M,” within the context of her essays, calling Wang’s experience “chronic PTSD”: “Your case is much more complex because of the schizoaffective disorder, which I don’t believe is secondary to the PTSD but its own additional factor.”

In fact, Wang is the one to diagnose herself with the disease first, contacting her psychiatrist saying, ”I think I may live with some form of PTSD.”  She is well aware of her symptoms:

I’d sit up in bed, shot through with terror, hyperventilating in the dark. Some nights, I could startle from anything—a dog barking down the block; the pronunciation of the word “elegant” in an audiobook. I usually startled up to twenty times a night, the hypervigilance increasing with each jolt until every inch of my body was reduced to raw nerve.

Her symptoms of the schizophrenias increase as she tells her story within this collection. Wang calls her Lyme disease diagnosis yet another undertaking of further beliefs about the cause of her symptoms. Wang is an open book when it comes to her health. She writes:

I continued to be aimlessly, miserably sick until I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease by a new doctor, through an IGeneX test in 2015. … Because the CDC does not officially support a chronic Lyme diagnosis, the world of those who diagnose and treat chronic Lyme and those who are affected by the disease exists outside the parameters of conventional medicine. 

In the later compilation of her collection she explores the mystical and religious. Her intention is to heal and function at her fullest capacity, but she tells us that she will never regain her ability to function like she did before the onset of her disease. In her essay “Chimayó” she takes an excursion with her friend to Chimayó, New Mexico, where a collection of small buildings called El Santuario have on both sides of a path wire fences containing tied or bound rosaries and crosses with twine or yarn. In the back of El Santuario there is a dirt floor that is said to have healing powers within its soil. She makes this trip in good faith so that she may dig up the soil and take it with her; along with its healing powers. She writes:

I experience mild psychosis here and there, but do not consider it possible to ever be completely free of the schizophrenias.They have been with me for too long, I think, to be obliterated, unlike these more recent ailments, which make me feel like part of the wrong narrative, and make me wonder how many different types of sick girl I can be.

 This is a writer who knows her worth. In the last collected essay, called “Beyond the Hedge,” Wang says she takes comfort in the sacred arts not because they provide a new set of beliefs, but because they suggest actions she can take. She writes: 

When a certain kind of psychic detachment occurs, I retrieve my ribbon; I tie it around my ankle. I tell myself that should delusions come to call, or hallucinations crowd my senses again, I might be able to wrangle sense out of the senseless. I tell myself that if I must live with a slippery mind, I want to know how to tether it too.

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