A Speck of Light on Blind Spots

Review of The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang (USA: Graywolf Press, 2019)
by Janelle Tan

In the spring of 2015, I sat with my hands in my lap as my psychiatrist diagnosed me with what I thought was a synonym for “crazy.” The snow was beginning to melt in Western Massachusetts, the light was still white but cast long shadows, and with my fur coat draped across the armchair I thought – there’s no way. I’m not that. I am not the crazy woman crying in aisle four—

That was what it meant to be “crazy.” I had pieced together a mosaic of pop-culture references to chronic mental health conditions—usually wailing women with uncombed hair, or women lying catatonic—and arrived at the image of a woman violently crying in the frozen food aisle over hash browns, facedown and banging on stoic tiles.

For years, I had refused the term associated with those cultural tropes, and the idea of mental disorder so all-consuming that it finds itself not just visible, but on public display. And yet, there I was.

Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias maps, in 13 tightly structured essays, the sprawling territory of her diagnoses—schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type and late-stage Lyme disease. She confronts common tropes about schizophrenia and chronic health conditions with the considered perspectives of both researcher and patient, flipping some misconceptions of mental disorder on their head and laying bare others.

With years of insight and a background in clinical research, Wang covers the major touchstones of living with a chronic mental health condition with fearlessness, vulnerability, clinical acumen, and a sense of humor crucial to a lifelong medical struggle. The book’s magic is in its lucid thought. The essays in The Collected Schizophrenias exhibit one of the most powerful tools of rhetoric: the ability to turn an intensely private question into one that faces outward, into the blank unknown.

Wang begins with diagnosis—what most regard as the beginning of the mental disorder journey, but is really its own map-less adventure. In the opening essay “Diagnosis,” Wang admits: “Craziness scares us because we are creatures who long for structure and sense; we divide the interminable days into years, months, and weeks. We hope for ways to corral and control bad fortune, illness, unhappiness, discomfort, and death—all inevitable outcomes that we pretend are anything but.” Which chronic mental health patient does not begin in terror of what their diagnosis means, because it defies any shape we might have made for our lives?

As Wang puts it in the next essay, “Toward a Pathology of the Possessed,” when discussing the spectrum of possession in schizophrenics: “the mind has been taken over. The mind has lost the ability to make rational decisions. There’s someone in there, but it’s not whoever it is we formerly believed it to be.” One of the first struggles post-diagnosis is the task of pinning down a new self—to discover a new language that necessitates a re-shaping of what has been previously understood. Then, in the case of schizophrenia, this act of possession renders one struggling with a new pathology—catching hold of the new self, or selves, that find themselves in the body. Thus begins the years-long struggle of grasping the self and making a new shape.

Having tackled diagnosis and a kind of overview of what schizophrenia entails, Wang establishes the complications of having to render one’s mental disorder as invisible as possible in order to survive. In “High-Functioning,” she interrogates the common conceptions of visibility in chronic mental conditions: what must we do to render our conditions as invisible as possible? What are the survival skills we use to hide our conditions from medical professionals and the people around us?

In the months after that psychiatric appointment, I kept brushing my diagnosis off as misdiagnosis. To this day, almost five years later, the cultural image of “crazy” means those who don’t know me well don’t believe me. How can someone educated at two prestigious American universities, who is perpetually well-dressed, and by all other regards “high-functioning” be a chronic mental health patient?

In one of the most perceptive insights of the book, Wang’s essay “High-Functioning” discusses using fashion as a survival skill to seem normal. The closing image of the essay is particularly sharp: “The clients, or patients, exhibit their illness in ways that prevent them from seeming like people who can dream, or like people who have others dream for them. When she said this, I was fingering the skirt of my exquisite dress. I’d fooled her, or convinced her. Either way, I knew, was a victory.”

The collection then journeys into the realities of schizophrenia—psychiatric hospitalizations, and psychotic episodes painful in their unflinching mess. The reader gets a sense of what it means to have delusions, and how the mind really behaves in psychosis. Wang’s writing is exceptionally powerful in its ability to make visible what often becomes abstract in discussing the mind. In the essay “Reality, On-Screen,” she does so by making comparisons to movies like Luc Besson’s Lucy. She describes a psychotic episode in which Lucy catapulted her into the reality of the film, making her believe she was transforming into a superhuman entity. Her criticism of Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind becomes an illustration of what schizophrenia is not: “an intensified version of childhood’s imaginary friendships.” Wang makes a piercing revelation about the movie’s depiction of the condition: even after the main character’s recovery, “schizophrenia, the movie implies, is forever.”

Most discussions of the struggle to appear normal in mental health memoirs also talk about one’s own “lack of insight”—a term Wang also uses—where patients with psychotic disorders lack the awareness to fully understand or convey their patterns of behavior. In one of her psychiatric hospitalizations, Wang finds herself insisting to a nurse that she is “doing okay,” and remarks that for psychiatrists, it is this inability to see that makes patients incapable of determining for themselves whether they need treatment. Blind spots function the same way in trucks—they only become visible once you climb out of the vehicle to survey the wreckage.

For a writer, the self is a seemingly bottomless well. Memoir being its own genre presupposes that writers are full of stories to tell about themselves. Wang begins to ask herself this question in “L’Appel du Vide”: “One is more easily prepared with an always-ready model, and what subject is more available for exploration than the self? What better stuff to make art of if one is an ambitious artist… Why not, as a writer, create essays in which I myself appear?”

A page and a half later, she answers her own question: “When commenting on my ability to function, many point to my first novel as evidence of what I’ve managed to do despite being sick. This does not comfort me, because though I was depressed, often suicidally anxious, and periodically psychotic, in hindsight I call the author of The Border of Paradise a woman who was mostly well. I would have disagreed with this evaluation at the time, but back then I wasn’t aware of just how unwell, both mentally and physically, I could possibly be.”

The real craft of this book is how hard-earned every sentence must have been, even if it appears effortless. Even without blind spots, an expositional shape often only comes with self-awareness. In order to give a name or structure for what one is in the throes of experiencing, a writer needs clear insight into themselves and their behaviors. Usually, this comes with distance and time—and often means that the most intimate struggle is the one for which it is hardest to find language. The clarity and insight of Wang’s memoir is surely hard-fought, for it involves years of mining the self to arrive at precise ways of describing her experiences.

Despite the labor of writing, Wang’s metaphors are equal parts organic and surprising, and always executed with a light touch. The prospect of therapy in the midst of a psychotic episode when she believes she is dead is compared to “a suggestion that I sit down and meditate in a burning building.” Each essay is expansive in thought, the synthesis of ideas compact yet unexpected. Every logical development is part of a rich, intricate pattern. In discussing her chronic Lyme diagnosis, she describes her turns from expensive “traditional Western medicine,” to alternative medicine, to considering Catholicism—all in an attempt to answer her questions about her new diagnosis. Her sentences are precise, sonically beautiful, and piercing in their directness. In the book’s final essay, “Beyond the Hedge,” she makes a connection between “working with the liminal and working with faith. One article of faith is This suffering will be of use to you someday.

Wang’s open-hearted honesty about her experiences reaches beyond the clichéd trope of writing as storytelling—this memoir’s unflinching investigation into the self refutes popular conceptions of schizophrenia. The most important work of memoirs about chronic mental health is their articulations of patterns of behavior, and provisions of language for those struggling to find it. In the haze of my blind spots, when I had stopped medication and still swore to everyone around me that I was misdiagnosed, my best friend at the time handed me a memoir that has become—in Wang’s own words—“a lighthouse” for my understanding of my condition.

The Collected Schizophrenias is that—a lighthouse for those who are unable to articulate the realities of their own conditions and the emotionally- and physically-draining episodes. The journey towards and after a diagnosis can feel like navigating waters in the dark without landmarks. Wang’s memoir reaches its hands into the fog and offers a gleaming way forward into clearer understanding, both for people with chronic mental health conditions and the people who love them. It gives me a speck of light to point to and say, “There. Look there.”

Janelle Tan was born in Singapore and lives in Brooklyn. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, Nat. Brut, The Boiler, Bodega, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at New York University and Web Editor for Washington Square Review.