In The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays, Esmé Weijun Wang shares how schizoaffective disorder and, in particular, other people’s reactions to it have affected her life.
The author was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder while attending Stanford University. It took nine years to get a schizoaffective disorder diagnosis, as doctors seemed reluctant to diagnose a primary psychotic disorder.
After having two hospitalizations within the space of a year, Stanford asked her to leave, offering her the non-choice of withdrawing voluntarily or having an involuntary medical level recorded permanently on her file. I suspect that kind of thing happens more than people realize. I’ve heard of multiple instances of the same kind of thing happening after student suicide attempts.
As is the case for far too many of us with serious mental illnesses, involuntary hospitalization was very traumatizing for the author. She wrote:
“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 illness in human form.”
Wang also shared other negative experiences in the context of health care, including relapsing because no one did anything about her mood stabilizer levels being low and having her chronic Lyme disease dismissed by a specialist would couldn’t see beyond her mental illness. She described a “psychiatric hierarchy” around who could be seen as “high functioning”.
I thought she had an interesting take on issues around identity and person-first language. She wrote, “When the self has been swallowed by illness, isn’t it cruel to insist on a self that is not illness?” I would have to agree.
The book is written from a sort of curious observer perspective, offering reflections and insights rather than trying to draw the reader in emotionally to the events as they were described. It’s less about what it’s like to experience schizoaffective disorder internally and more about what it’s like to experience people’s reactions to it. It’s organized as a series of essays focusing on particular issues, although it’s fairly chronological in order.
The book won two awards and was a New York Times bestseller. It’s written in such a way that I can see it being appealing to readers without a mental health background, but people with mental illness will likely identify with many of the issues that she raises. Overall, I thought it was very done.
The Collected Schizophrenias is available from Amazon (affiliate link).