The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang gives insights into her life with schizoaffective disorder and some of the major issues she’s faced as a result.
Wang uses the term schizophrenias to refer to primary psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Her initial diagnosis was bipolar disorder, and it took 9 years to get a schizoaffective disorder diagnosis, as the doctors seemed reluctant to make the schizoaffective diagnosis.
She writes that was diagnosed while in university. She was then asked to leave school after having two hospitalizations in a year. She was offered the non-choice of leaving 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 students getting evicted from residence because of suicide attempts.
The book addresses the issue of involuntary hospitalization, including an overview of some of the various stances on it. 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.
She didn’t think any of her three involuntary hospitalizations had helped her, and explained, “I believe that being held in a psychiatric ward against my will remains among the most scarring of my traumas.”
The book addressed various issues including a “psychiatric hierarchy” around who could be seen as “high functioning”; lack of communication, like decompensating because no one did anything about her mood stabilizer levels being low; dealing with chronic Lyme disease and the dismissive specialist she saw; and making the choice not to have children.
Discussing issues around identity and person-first and illness-first language, Wang wrote, “When the self has been swallowed by illness, isn’t it cruel to insist on a self that is not illness?” I thought that was a very interesting way of putting it, and I’d say that I agree.
The book is written from a sort of curious observer perspective, and offers reflections and insights rather than trying to draw the reader in emotionally to the events as they were described. As a result, 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. The book is fairly chronological, but the chapters focus on particular issues rather than periods of time in the author’s life.
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 literary audiences without a mental health background, but readers with mental illness will likely identify with many of the issues that she raises. Overall, I thought this book was very done.
The Collected Schizophrenias is available from Amazon (affiliate link).