Esmé Weijun Wang is aware that the typical image of a person with a mental disorder does not apply to her. She holds degrees from Stanford and the University of Michigan, has written a successful book (with a second one in the works), and has been married for nine years to a supportive man.
However, Wang, now 35, has experienced mania, depression, and periods of psychosis, as well as being held in the psych ward three times against her will. She has had schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, since she was in her 20s.
Between the ages of 16 and 30, schizophrenia frequently develops. Although it occasionally runs in families, scientists are unsure of the exact etiology. Even though Wang had heard tales about a great-aunt who had been institutionalized since she was a child, she was nonetheless astonished to discover that her brain was lying to her.
Esmé Weijun Wang doesn’t conceal her disorder, despite her efforts to control it. She speaks with students, medical professionals, and patients about her diagnosis, delusions, and recovery. She also offers arcane yet terrifying experiences in insightful articles from The Collected Schizophrenias. Wang now gives us a peek inside her head.
When did your first notice there was a problem?
When I was taking a shower in my Stanford dorm in 2005, I overheard a loud voice shout, “I hate you!” I initially questioned whether the noise was simply other kids speaking through the pipes. But I had an idea of what might be going on because I was studying psychology and had been seeing a therapist for various problems, and I was worried about what it meant for my mental health.
How has schizophrenia affected your life?
I’ll see things like a corpse covered in maggots in the passenger seat of a parked automobile during a psychotic episode. What are the chances that a body is actually inside that car, I’ll think to myself. That usually allows me to act as though I didn’t see anything. However, if I see demonic shadows darting in my direction, I automatically move to the side. Those hallucinations are much more disturbing to me because they are more difficult to conceal from people.
In one months-long delusion, you believed you were dead. That must have been horrifying.
Actually, at first, I believed that I was living in an afterlife where I could choose to make all of my decisions again and this time, they would be for the better. For instance, I was very polite to the telemarketers I spoke with. However, after a few days, I went through a tormenting stage where I thought I was being punished. Without fanfare, this illusion vanished, but the possibility of its reappearance still exists.
Are you always fully aware of what’s going on when you have delusions?
I went through ten months of psychosis that involved various degrees of hallucinations and delusions. In deeper waters, I would start freaking out that my husband had tainted my tea, or I would call him and tell him that spiders were taking up residence in my head. I wouldn’t be able to see how to escape what was happening. I’d have a hazy awareness that other people wanted me to believe something else during the times when I was closer to the surface of reality.
Have you ever experienced prejudice because of your diagnosis?
I was expecting you to have trouble stringing words together, people have said. But I’ve been fortunate not to actually experience discrimination. Being more high functioning and having the ability to present a positive front are both parts of that. I included my experiences in this book to demonstrate that there is a way to manage this condition. A lot of the writing about “the schizophrenias” is written from the viewpoint of the caregivers. I reasoned that people would benefit from understanding it from my perspective.
It is impossible to treat schizophrenia. How are the symptoms handled?
I take a medication regimen that keeps my psychosis fairly stable. I see a therapist, which can be beneficial if I’m about to have a psychotic episode or even just more stressed than usual because stress can be a major trigger for me.
Writing in a journal has proven to be helpful for me, particularly if I feel a psychotic episode coming on. My family is now a fantastic support system, and I’m fortunate to have a loving partner, wonderful friends, and family. When I do experience hallucinations, they are typically brief in nature. I feel less susceptible now, and I try to never take that for granted.