Ever since reading Hidden Valley Road (which I highly recommend), I’ve been wanting to read more about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, to learn more about these mysterious and very challenging states of soul, from as many points of view as possible. I’ve put a number of titles on the TBR, to work through gradually.
The Collected Schizophrenias is a good way to gain a window into the experience of someone living with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type — the diagnosis author Esmé Weijung Wang was eventually given. In the first essay of this collection, she acknowledges that any diagnosis is a human construct and this might change, but also movingly describes the reassurance it gives her just to have some kind of handle on a condition that by its very nature makes reality hard to grasp.
It also makes human relationships incredibly hard to sustain. In her epigraph, Wang quotes Sylvia Nasar: “More than any symptom, the defining characteristic of the illness is the profound feeling of incomprehensibility and inacessibility that sufferers provoke in other people.” (Emphasis mine.) The “schizophrenias” are not a single, easy to pinpoint deficiency, but a kaleidoscope of overlapping symptoms that disrupt the usual line between inner and outer worlds. In that process, they also disrupt the web of human connection that keeps us grounded in a common reality.
I wonder to what extent they are also caused by the disruption of this web, and how much the withdrawal of others through the “feeling of incomprehensibility” they provoke exacerbates the ailment. Wang doesn’t say much about this side of things, but it’s clear the support of her husband, C., has been a key factor in her being able to come to a place of tenuous stability, and that there remain issues with her parents that are too painful even to go into. Would Wang not even have been born, if her mother had been more willing to take responsibility for her own untreated mental illness? It’s hard to face life with the feeling you shouldn’t exist.
Another quote from Andrew Solomon describes the common understanding of schizophrenia as erasing a person and replacing them with someone or something else. Wang helps to challenge that image, as she presents herself to us as honestly as possible, including vivid accounts of what it’s like to start believing things she knows are not true. When someone becomes inaccessible to others through ordinary thought and language, are they really gone? Where do they go? It makes me think about how fragile each of our own images of the “real world” is, how dependent upon factors of which we know nothing. No doubt this is why it is so frightening when that thin line starts to be broken, and why we want to turn away and not look too hard.
Wang, though, unflinchingly brings to our attention the suffering caused by a mental health system that is not about health care in any ongoing sense, but about categorizing people and neutralizing immediate threats. The indignity of losing her autonomy and being involuntarily committed three times, not one of which helped her. The frightening ease with which lies become truth when transmitted by social media, preying on susceptible minds. “For those of us living with severe mental illness, the world is full of cages where we can be locked in,” Wang writes. It’s hard, but necessary, to look at those cages and consider what we are doing to other human beings in order to keep ourselves safe.
Even as her mind has sometimes been her enemy, it’s also been Wang’s greatest strength, and she displays her intelligence, research skills, and artistic gifts to their full extent here. At the same time, she fully acknowledges that “Yale will not save you,” as one of her chapter titles puts it. I also wonder to what extent our high-achieving society that overvalues the intellect and downplays emotional and relational skills contributes to the pain of mental illness. Certainly, institutions of higher education do a poor job of dealing with their mentally ill students — in Wang’s portrayal, their message is “we can’t deal with you, we take no responsibility, please leave.”
That’s a shameful message to be coming from the institutions we most respect, the ones that should be dedicated to exploring and upholding truth, and more is demanded of us if we are to recover our true humanity. As I keep reading more on the topic, I know I’ll remember The Collected Schizophrenias as a uniquely valuable, moving, and confronting piece of work, a voice speaking up for a population that is too often reduced to silence and “incomprehensibility”.
Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias (Graywolf, 2019).
Graywolf Press is an independent, nonprofit publisher founded in Port Townsend, Washington, now located in Minneapolis. Visit the #ReadIndies post at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for more celebration of independent publishers.