No Impeccable Self to Reach
Esmé Weijun Wang investigates notions of the self and suffering.
BY CATHERINE JOHNSON
“CRAZINESS SCARES US because we are creatures who long for structure and sense,” writes Esmé Weijun Wang in The Collected Schizophrenias, her new essay collection. Over the course of two hundred pages, Wang recounts her decades-long struggle with mental illness while interrogating popular narratives that transform the chaos and mystery of the human mind into easily digestible, stable notions of identity. By recounting her own experience with an often-fractured reality, Wang invites readers to see our collective fear of others’ apparent insanity as really a fear of our own tenuous relationship to reality, and to notions of who we are.
Wang writes, “We hope for ways to corral and control bad fortune, illness, unhappiness, discomfort, and death—all inevitable outcomes that we pretend are anything but. And still, the fight against entropy seems wildly futile in the face of schizophrenia, which shirks reality in favor of its own internal logic.” Regardless of one’s mental health, we are always looking to engineer and manipulate our lives into a narrative that makes sense, that we can control. But in the face of severe mental illness, as Wang points out, that simply isn’t possible, thus revealing the inherent limitations of any such effort.
The Collected Schizophrenias is powerful because even as Wang dismantles and challenges the stories we tell or believe about mental health, reality, and identity, her project is not simply to let the pieces lie. She validates the need for such stories, even as she exposes many of them as harmfully simplistic. Her project is ultimately one of meaning-making: She is looking for an origin story, a way to understand herself and her suffering: “In my illness I became hungry to understand suffering; if I could understand it, I could perhaps suffer less, and even find comfort in the understanding.” This is an ambition that strikes at the heart of all human experience.
Wang begins her project by exploring the process and purpose of diagnosis, which is essentially the story that the medical community applies to a person’s reality. Wang responds to those who dismiss diagnoses as “boxes and labels” by explaining there is also comfort in a diagnosis: “It provides a framework—a community, a lineage—and, if luck is afoot, a treatment or cure.” That said, it also changes how someone views herself and how she is seen by society. Wang was diagnosed with bipolar disorder for twelve years, even after she began experiencing symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations. She assumed her doctor was hesitant to change her diagnosis because she was “wary of officially shifting me from the more common terrain of mood and anxiety disorders to the wilds of schizophrenias, which would subject me to self-censure and stigma from others—including those with access to my diagnostic chart.” It wasn’t until she finally switched to a new psychiatrist that Wang was given the diagnosis she had suspected for years: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.
But the ways in which we draw lines between one condition and another are subject to change and are, Wang acknowledges, “human constructs...to ‘have schizophrenia’ is to fit an assemblage of symptoms, which are listed in a purple book made by humans.” So where there is some relief in diagnosis, the relief is in tension with the perhaps arbitrary way we create categories, and the limits of neurological knowledge.
In order to gain insight into her own experience, Wang analyzes how American culture has come to understand the schizophrenias. She turns to popular stories of possession, like the film The Exorcist, and headline-making news stories, like that of Malcoulm Tate, who was murdered by his sister and mother because they feared for their safety in light of his illness. In both stories, the schizophrenic is portrayed as not only having once been normal, but good, and it was a separate force that invaded and destroyed that previous self. These stories emphasize a clear distinction between the good self and the bad. But, Wang wonders, if Sartre was correct when he claimed, “We are our choices,” then “what has a person become when it’s assumed that said person is innately incapable of choice?” In other words, where does the person end and the illness begin?
While Wang provides sharp criticism of society’s treatment of mental illness, she is just as critical of herself and how she, too, distances herself from its stigma: “I’m uncomfortable because I don’t want to be lumped in with the screaming man on the bus, or the woman who claims that she’s the reincarnation of God. I’m uncomfortably uncomfortable because I know that these are my people in ways that those who have never experienced psychosis can’t understand, and to shun them is to shun a large part of myself.” In doing so, Wang invites the reader to do the same, to question the notion that we all possess some internal self that is pure, untouched by a stripe of lunacy. Wang writes, “There might be something comforting about the notion that there is, deep down, an impeccable self without disorder, and that if I try hard enough, I can reach that unblemished self...But there may be no impeccable self to reach, and if I continue to struggle toward one, I might go mad in the pursuit.” In this way, Wang offers a more complicated, complex, not so easily parsed vision of the self, and one that (though she does not explicitly state this) opens a pathway to empathy. The reader is led to wonder: if we can see our own dark spaces, the ways in which we don’t make sense to ourselves, the mysteriousness of our own decision-making, won’t we be more likely to extend compassion to others?
Ultimately, what’s wrong with our stories about mental illness isn’t that we have stories, but that those stories lack nuance. We are too quick to draw neat lines between sanity and insanity, the rational and irrational. We privilege the former and fear the latter, perhaps because we don’t like where that might take us. Wang is not afraid of exploring what religion or mysticism might offer her in terms of understanding her condition, not as complete, definitive resolutions, but frameworks that could offer their own brief moments of relief from suffering, be it in Tarot cards, or the ritual of lighting a candle—in other words, “to have something to do when it seems that nothing can be done.” Indeed, Wang’s investigation covers a lot of ground: What does mental illness look like and who is capable of “success”? (Wang was an Ivy League student fashion blogger.) What does mental illness mean for having children? (Wang struggles with the risk of passing on her “madness” to a child.) Is involuntary hospitalization a form of incarceration? (Her own forced-hospitalization was a severe trauma.) How does mental illness compound and contribute to other forms of trauma, such as sexual violence? Does psychosis grant psychic powers? Are hallucinations really “spiritual gifts”?
The Collected Schizophrenias challenges the reader not only to participate in recreating how our culture treats and understands mental illness, but to explore, as Wang does, some of our most basic assumptions about identity and suffering, asking: “How did this come to be?...Why did this happen?...What do I do now?”
Catherine Johnson’s work has been published in Oregon Humanities, STORGY, Portland Monthly Magazine, Nowhere Travel Magazine, Elephant Journal, District Lines, and is forthcoming in Scabland Books’ anthology Evergreen: Fairy Tales, Essays & Fables from the Dark Northwest. She blogs at The Bullet and the Butterfly and is a graduate from the MFA program in Nonfiction Creative Writing at Portland State University. Catherine lives and teaches writing in Portland, Oregon.