02.25.2019

Esmé Weijun Wang on Her Series of Essays on Schizophrenia

Alicia Menendez sits down with award-winning author Esmé Weijun Wang, who after being diagnosed with affected-schizophrenia, channeled the news into a bestselling series of essays recounting her journey called “The Collected Schizophrenias.”

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> FOR MOST OF US NOTHING IS SCARIER THAN THE THOUGHT OF LOSING OUR MINDS.

WITH DEMENTIA AND THE FLOOD OF MENTAL ILLNESSES EVERY DAY MILLIONS LIVE WITH WHAT ARE OFTEN CRIPPLING DIFFERENCES AND DISADVANTAGES.YEARS OF STRUGGLIH HER OWN DEPRESSION AND HALLUCINATIONS, AWARD WINNING AUTHOR EZME WANG WAS DIAGNOSED WITH AFFECTIVE SCHIZOPHRENIA.

INSTEAD OF GIVING IN TO THE ILLNESS SHE WROTE ABOUT IT, LIVED IT.

THE RESULT WAS A 'NEW YORK TIMES' BESTSELLING SERIES OF ESSAYS CALLED 'THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIA.'

SHE SAT DOWN TO DISCUSS HER JOURNEY.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR JOINING US.

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

TELL ME, WHEN IS THE FIRST TIME YOU REMEMBER THINKING I AM NOT WELL?

I STARTED TO HAVE SOME FORM OF MENTAL ILLNESS AROUND 5 OF 6 YEARS OLD.

IT WAS UNUSUAL.

I WAS HAVING A LOT OF OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE BEHAVIORS BUT I DIDN'T KNOW THAT'S WHAT THEY WERE AT THE TIME.

IN TERMS OF PSYCHOTIC SYMPTOMS WHICH IS WHAT I PRIMARILY WRITE ABOUT IN THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS THAT WAS DURING MY JUNIOR YEAR AT STANFORD.

I WAS HEARING VOICES FOR THE FIRST TIME.

YOUR DIAGNOSIS EVOLVED OVER TIME.

IN HIGH SCHOOL YOU WERE DIAGNOSED WITH DEPRESSION.

IN COLLEGE THAT DIAGNOSIS BECOME S BIPOLAR DISORDER.

YOUR DOCTORS WERE RESISTANT TO NAME IT AS SCHIZOPHRENIA.

WHY WAS THAT?

IT TOOK ABOUT EIGHT YEARS TO GO FROM A DIAGNOSIS OF BIPOLAR DISORDER TO SCHIZO-AFFECTIVE DISORDER.

BECAUSE I WAS A PSYCHOLOGY UNDERGRAD, THAT WAS MY MAJOR, I KNEW IT WAS UNUSUAL TO EXPERIENCE PSYCHOTIC SYMPTOMS IN BETWEEN MOOD EPISODES.

YOU CAN BE EXPERIENCING PSYCHOSIS DURING MANIA OR THAT'S SOMETHING THAT'S WITHIN THE REALM OF CLINICAL DEPRESSION OR DURING BIPOLAR DISORDER.

SO WHEN I FIRST WENT TO MY PSYCHIATRIST AND SAID I'M EXPERIENCING THESE PSYCHOTIC SYMPTOMS, WE EVEN WERE VERY DELICATE AND CAREFUL ABOUT THE LANGUAGE WE USED.

I THINK WE SAID SOMETHING LIKE SENSORY ODDITIES.

WE DIDN'T USE THE WORDS HALLUCINATIONS AT THE TIME.

PART OF IT WAS THE STIGMA THAT OCCURRED NOT ONLY WITHIN POP CULTURE OR WITHIN CULTURE AT LARGE BUT EVEN WITHIN THE MEDICAL COMMUNITY.

I THINK THE PSYCHIATRIST I HAD AT THE TIME WHEN I FIRST STARTED HAVING THE SYMPTOMS WAS CONCERNED THAT IF I HAD A BIG DIAGNOSIS THAT EXISTED WITHIN THE SCHIZOPHRENIAS THAT SOMETHING WOULD HAPPEN INSIDE OF ME.

TO PUT IT DRAMATICALLY MAYBE SOMETHING WOULD BREAK.

I HAD ALWAYS BEEN REALLY OVERACHIEVING.AT YALE.

THEN I WAS AT STANFORD.

I GRADUATED FROM STANFORD WITH A 3.99 GPA EVEN THOUGH I WAS EXPERIENCING PSYCHOTIC SYMPTOMS.

YOU REALIZE HOW MANY PEOPLE WOULD HEAR THAT AND ASK HOW IT'S POSSIBLE.

I SAY IT AND I'M NOT SURE HOW IT WAS POSSIBLE.

IT WAS REALLY TOUGH.

MAYBE IT WAS RIGHT FOR MY PSYCHIATRIST TO NOT TELL ME.

MAYBE IT WAS RIGHT FOR MY OFFICIAL DIAGNOSIS TO NOT CHANGE TO SCHIZO EFFECTIVE DISORDER AT THAT TIME.

BECAUSE IT DIDN'T OFFICIALLY CHANGE I STILL REMAIN WITHIN THE REALM OF, OKAY, YOU ARE STILL OUTSIDE THE SCHIZOPHRENIAS WITHIN THE REALM OF BIPOLAR DISORDER, THIS THING THAT CAN BE A LITTLE BIT ROMANTIC.

MANAGED.

AND MANAGED.

SO WE STAYED WITHIN THIS WEIRD REALM OF, YOU KNOW, SENSORY ODDITIES AND SUCH.

EVEN DELUSIONS FOR QUITE A WHILE BEFORE FINALLY MY NEXT PSYCHIATRIST HAD TO SAY, YOU KNOW, IT'S GOTTEN TO THE POINT WHERE WE HAVE TO SAY THIS IS SCHIZO EFFECTIVE DISORDER AND WE HAVE TO MAKE THE DIAGNOSIS.

WAS THERE A PART OF YOU AT YALE THAT THOUGHT, I WILL NEVER MAKE IT THROUGH?

YEAH.

THERE WERE SO MANY TIMES I THOUGHT I DON'T KNOW HOW I'M GOING TO DO THIS.

THERE WERE TIMES I COULD NOT FUNCTION WITHOUT SLEEPING AT LEAST 17 HOURS A DAY.

THERE WAS SO MUCH WORK.

I MEAN, LIKE A SCHOOL LIKE THAT, THERE WAS SO MUCH WORK TO DO.

I JUST HAD TO SLEEP.

I COULDN'T GET TO MY CLASSES.

I WAS REALLY, REALLY STRUGGLING.

I ENDED UP HOSPITALIZED TWICE.

THE FIRST TIME I WAS INVOLUNTARILY HOSPITALIZED.

THEY TOLD ME I COULD COME AND FINISH OUT THE YEAR IF ONE OF MY PARENTS WHO ENDED UP BEING MY MOTHER, CAME AND LIVED WITH ME FOR THE REMAINDER OF THE YEAR.

SO SHE DID.

AT THE TIME I DIDN'T HAVE A PARTICULARLY GOOD RELATIONSHIP WITH MY MOTHER.

YOU HAD FRIENDS CONCERNED THAT YOUR MOTHER COMING WOULD MAKE IT WORSE.

YEAH.

FORTUNATELY THINGS GOT BETTER BETWEEN MY MOTHER AND MYSELF AT THAT TIME.

BUT, YEAH, SHE CAME AND STAYED WITH ME IN A SMALL APARTMENT OUTSIDE OF THE CAMPUS BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T WANT ME ON CAMPUS.

THEN THE FOLLOWING YEAR IN MY SOPHOMORE YEAR I WAS HOSPITALIZED AGAIN.

AT THAT POINT THEY WERE LIKE YOU NEED TO NOT BE HERE.

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE WAY THE UNIVERSITY HANDLED YOUR CASE?

IT'S REALLY TRICKY.

I WAS VERY ANGRY FOR A VERY LONG I THINK IN THE YEARS SINCE -- I MEAN, IT'S BEEN A WHILE.

THAT HAPPENED AROUND 2003 OR SO.

SO I SEE IT FROM THE SCHOOL'S POINT OF VIEW.

THERE IS A LOT OF CONCERN ABOUT LIABILITY.U KNOW, STUDENTS HURTR STUDENTS, HURT THEMSELVES, THEIR PARENTS SUE THE SCHOOL.

I HOPE SOME FORM OF BEST PRACTICES WILL BE FORMED FOR HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS BECAUSE THERE IS NO BEST PRACTICE.

EVERY COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY HAS A DIFFERENT WAY OF DEALING WITH STUDENTS WHO HAVE SEVERE FORMS OF MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES.

THERE IS A LOT OF HIGH ACHIEVEMENT IN YOUR LIFE.

THERE IS A PASSAGE IN THE BOOK I WOULD LIKE FOR YOU TO READ.

OTHER SIGNIFIERS, MY WEDDING RING, A REFERENCE TO THE 16-YEAR RELATIONSHIP I HAVE MANAGED TO KEEP.

DESCRIPTIONS OF MY TREATMENT PLAN AS IF IT WERE A STABLE, INFALLIBLE ROSETTA STONE WHEN IN FACT THE PLAN CHANGES CONSTANTLY IN RESPONSE TO MY EVER-CHANGING BRAIN CHEMISTRY.

THE MENTION OF A SMALL ONLINE BUSINESS BASED ON DIGITAL PRODUCTS AND FREELANCE WORK I STARTED IN EARLY 2014.

WITH THESE SIGNIFIERS I'M TRYING TO SAY THAT I AM A WIFE, A GOOD PATIENT, AN ENTREPRENEUR.

I AM ALSO SCHIZO EFFECTIVE, LIVING WITH THE DISORDER, MENTAL ILLNESS, LIVING WITH MENTAL HEALTH CHALLENGES, CRAZY, INSANE, BUT I AM JUST LIKE YOU.

WHY IS THAT SO HARD FOR PEOPLE TO HEAR?

I THINK JUST THE WORD SCHIZOPHRENIA AND THAT DIAGNOSIS IN PARTICULAR IS SO STIGMATIZED.

IN TERMS OF MENTAL ILLNESS AND THE WAY WE TALK ABOUT IT IN SOCIETY NOW WE HAVE MADE ENORMOUS STRIDES IN TALKING ABOUT DEPRESSION, ANXIETY.

THERE IS STILL STIGMA AROUND THOSE THINGS, BUT I DID AND I DO FEEL LIKE ESPECIALLY WHEN I WAS WORKING ON THE BOOK THAT SCHIZOPHRENIA IS STILL A VERY TABOO SUBJECT.

IT IS ONE THAT PEOPLE DON'T UNDERSTAND.

SO WHEN I WAS WRITING THAT PASSAGE THAT I JUST READ IT HAD A LOT TO DO WITH THE THINGS THAT I DO -- THE ARMOR THAT I PUT ON, WHETHER IT'S ACTUAL PHYSICAL ARMOR LIKE THE CLOTHES THAT I WEAR OR THE JEWELRY THAT I WEAR OR EVEN JUST THE SIGNIFIERS THAT ARE MORE ABSTRACT.

LIKE THE THINGS I TALK ABOUT BEING ABLE TO MANAGE A RELATIONSHIP.

BEING, QUOTE/UNQUOTE, HIGH FUNCTIONING.E THINGS ARE WAYS II DEFEND MYSELF.

I WANT YOU TO READ A SECOND PASSAGE FROM THE BOOK, ONE I FOUND PARTICULARLY MOVING.

ONCE I DID WANT BIOLOGICAL CHILDREN.

HOURS AFTER PAUSING IN FRONT OF A CHILDREN'S CLOTHING STORE IN SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA, I DID NOT.

IT WAS EARLY IN MY RELATIONSHIP WITH C WHO WAS THEN STILL ONLY A BOYFRIEND, STILL IN HIS EARLY 20s.

I WATCHED WOMEN PURCHASE TINY PEA COATS AND MINIATURE BLOUSES WITH PETER PAN COLLARS WITH MY OWN SHOPPING BAGS HANGING AT MY SIDES.

LATER I CALLED HIM AND SAID, I WAS AT GYMBOREE EARLIER AND I THOUGHT OF YOU.

HE'D SPOKEN SEVERAL TIMES OF WANTING TO HAVE CHILDREN WITH ME THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME THAT I HAD, HOWEVER VAGUELY, RETURNED THE SENTIMENT.

HE WAS QUIET.

I TALKED TO MY MOM, HE SAID.

I DIDN'T UNDERSTAND.

SHE SAID THAT MENTAL ILLNESS IS GENETIC.

OH.

NEVER MIND THEN, I SAID.

FORGET I SAID ANYTHING.

I DIDN'T MEAN IT.

IT WAS HARD TO READ.

WAS IT HARD TO WRITE?

YEAH.

IT WAS PERHAPS THE HARDEST TO LIVE.

THAT ESSAY IS CALLED THE CHOICE OF CHILDREN.

IT'S VERY MUCH ABOUT THE KIND OF PUSH AND PULL I HAVE EXPERIENCED OVER THE YEARS ABOUT WANTING TO HAVE CHILDREN AND DECIDING NOT TO HAVE CHILDREN.

THEN GOING TO VOLUNTEER AS A CAMP COUNSELOR WITH MY THEN BOYFRIEND, NOW HUSBAND AT A CAMP FOR KIDS WITH BIPOLAR DISORDER.

WHAT A PHENOMENAL AND INTENSE EXPERIENCE THAT WAS.

AND HOW THAT REALLY COMPLICATED MY THOUGHTS ABOUT HAVING CHILDREN.

WHAT WAS THE DEBATE IN YOUR MIND ABOUT WANTING THEM VERSUS THE REALITIES OF HAVING THEM.

I HAD CONCERNS ABOUT WHETHER A CHILD WOULD INHERIT THE ILLNESSES THAT I HAVE.

I DIDN'T KNOW IF I WOULD WANT A CHILD TO SUFFER IN THE WAYS THAT I HAVE SUFFERED AND CONTINUE TO SUFFER.

THE IDEA OF WATCHING THEM GO THROUGH THESE THINGS AND TO LOVE THAT PERSON SO DEEPLY REALLY SCARED ME.

THERE WERE SO MANY CONCERNS I HAD.

AND SO I HAD NEVER PARTICULARLY BEEN SO DEEPLY MATERNAL OR WANTED TO HAVE CHILDREN TO BEGIN W. I WONDER IF THAT THOUGHT THAT KIND OF SO-CALLED DISTASTE FOR WANTING TO HAVE CHILDREN DID ORIGINATE FROM THAT CONVERSATION ABOUT GYMBOREE WHERE I DECIDED IT WAS PROBABLY FOR THE BEST NOT TO HAVE CHILDREN.

WE TALK A LOT ABOUT THE GIFTS THAT ACCOMPANY MENTAL ILLNESS.

THE EMPATHY THAT ACCOMPANIES DEPRESSION, CREATIVITY THAT ACCOMPANIES SCHIZOPHRENIA.

HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THE GIFTS THAT COME WITH THE OFFSET OF THOSE GIFTS?

I DO NOT EXPERIENCE THEM AS BESTOWING ME WITH GIFTS SO MUCH AS BESTOWING ME WITH A LOT OF I TALK IN THE BOOK ABOUT EXPLORING THE SPIRITUAL ASPECT AND I TALK ABOUT WHAT IT COULD MEAN FOR SUPER NATURAL THINGS THAT PERHAPS LIKE I COULD HAVE SUPER NATURAL ABILITIES OR PERHAPS I HAVE A SPIRITUAL MENTOR WHO IN THE BOOK TELLS ME ABOUT CERTAIN THINGS THAT MY VISIONS COULD MEAN.

SO THERE ARE WAYS IN WHICH THIS WHOLE IDEA OF PSYCHOSIS IS A GIFT OR SCHIZOPHRENIA IS A GIFT, IT IS NOT FOREIGN TO ME.ORE.

IN THE END I STILL JUST THINK SO MUCH OF ALL OF THE SUFFERING THAT HAPPENED.

RIGHT NOW, I'M IN A FAIRLY STABLE PLACE.

I MEAN, I WANT TO KNOCK ON WOOD LIKE AS SOON AS I SAID THAT.

I FOUND A TREATMENT PLAN THAT WORKS WELL FOR ME.

I DON'T WANT TO ROCK THE BOAT.

YOU KNOW, SOMETIMES I HAVE A BREAKTHROUGH PERIOD HERE AND THERE WHERE SOMETHING WILL HAPPEN IN MY BRAIN AND I'LL HAVE A HALLUCINATION PERIOD.

I HOPE NONE OF IT IS AS BAD AS IT WAS IN THE PERIODS THAT I WROTE ABOUT IN THIS BOOK.

BUT WHO KNOWS?

I NEVER KNOW IF IT WILL COME BACK.

I JUST CONNECT IT ALL SO MUCH WITH SUFFERING THAT IT'S HARD TO THINK OF IT AS HAVING GIFTS.

CONGRATULATIONS ON THE BOOK.

IT'S TRULY BEAUTIFUL.

THANK YOU SO MUCH.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with former George W. Bush administration officials Nicholas Burns and Scott Jennings about North Korea; and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor about his directorial debut. Alicia Menendez speaks with author Esmé Weijun Wang about her book of essays, “The Collected Schizophrenias.”

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