This New York Times bestseller is a compendium of essays from American writer Esmé Weijun Wang. She suffers from schizoaffective disorder, her struggles with it date back to circa 2001.
The launch of this work was in February 2019, making it a timely selection of essays. Mental health is very much on the public conscience right now.
Disorders such as anxiety are surging amongst the young. And whilst some from the older generations sneer down and drop the “snowflake” diagnosis, Wang’s book reveals the fresh hell of becoming trapped by your brain.
The Collected Schizophrenias
This is a very candid, intelligent, and engaging work that lays bare the struggles of those with this affliction.
Although Wang is eager to point out every schizophrenic’s experience is different, there’s still a notable set of characteristics:
- Halllucinations (typically frightening ones, as if from a horror film or nightmare).
- Delusions, such as beliefs not set in reality.
- Muddled thoughts and word salad conversations.
- Social isolation.
Contrary to popular belief, schizophrenia doesn’t make someone violent. And it doesn’t mean they have a split personality.
But for sufferers, the condition does make it difficult to be a part of “normal” society.
A section of The Collected Schizophrenias deals with that aspect. Wang’s concerns over appearing like your average human being in a society obsessed with business and productivity.
But she also openly discusses her various, and terrifying, hallucinations. Along with her struggles to fit in with other people. Her mother, having struggled with issues, suggested they should both commit suicide.
And then there’s the case of Malcoum Tate, a 34 year old man murdered by his sister (and complicit mother) for his erratic behaviour.
The latter two were sentenced to life in jail. The sister riddled Malcoum with 13 bullets, telling him she loved him as she fired away.
Their testimonies display a family who did love their son. But were utterly terrified of what he was capable of and the things he saw.
“Scizophrenia terrifies”, as Wang puts it. We think of voices in the head, erratic behaviour, and getting locked up in a mental institute.
She details that experience and the fear it struck into her, unable to tell when she would be released. Attempting to convince doctors she was fine. It’s all reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
This isn’t to suggest the work is relentlessly depressing or designed to invoke sympathy. Quite the opposite, as Wang has managed her various issues and is now a bestselling author.
She’s married and has various business aspirations. There’s a great deal of humour here, too. But the level of intelligence in her depiction of schizophrenia is fascinating.
We picked it up at the Wellcome Collection museum in London on Monday 30/09 and raced through it in two days.
It’s a really quite stunning account of mental health issues. Corny as it is to state it, but it’s rather inspirational and challenging. Highly recommended.
Reality on Screen
One essay, with the above title, concerns Wang’s visits to the movie theatre. A popular pastime for many of us, non?
We highlight this chapter as it’s particularly fascinating. How she struggles to watch certain flamboyant films due to what it does to her state of mind.
In 2014, the sci-fi drama Lucy (with Scarlett Johansson) caused Wang all manner of issues:
"I do know that at some midway point in the ninety-minute film, I pulled out my emergecy medication, intended for encroaching psychosis, and gulped it down with C.'s Cherry Coke. I considered leaving, but wanted to see what would happen to Lucy. I'd taken the emergency dose because I felt myself slipping, and sensed myself hurtling into the reality of the film, leaving my own behind. I could feel my brain twitching with the belief that I, too, was gaining access to more of my brain that that of ordinary mortals, and that if I tried, I could destroy objects with its power. When Lucy ended, I stood and blindly shoved past the other three in the darkness."
She had an even more alarming issue during an episode of Doctor Who. She was so confused by it she didn’t realise it was a TV show.
Her friend C. explained to her how the industry works. Actors, scripts, production crews etc. Only when he put the TV onto a cooking show did Wang calm down.
Such experiences mean she missed big blockbusters such as The Hunger Games as she was too concerned about what would happen to her “addled brain.”
It’s also interesting to consider how mental health is depicted by Hollywood. The 2001 Oscar-winner A Beautiful Mind (with Russell Crowe) had a go at schizophrenia.
Criticised at the time, Wang now notes, “Ron Howard’s use of cinematic figments is less crude when seen as a metaphor for delusions.”
The aforementioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dealt with mental health issues directly. Ken Kesey’s debut novel was adapted from his experiences whilst working in a 1950s mental institute.
We also think of The Madness of King George, a sensitive and intellgent film that examines King George III’s descent into chaos.
It’s still unclear what was wrong with him, but it does display the total incompetence of the doctors of the 18th century.
The King was physically restrained, blistered, and had his stools examined daily in the belief some of these things would cure him.
We can be thankful the world has moved on a tad since then. And that schizophrenics are now able to receive genuine support.