Illness Is Inseparable from the Self

Talking to Esmé Weijun Wang about identity, disability, and weaponized glamour

“Let’s note that I write this while experiencing psychosis,” begins Esmé Weijun Wang’s essay “Perdition Days.” The specific variety of psychosis, she explains, is called Cotard’s Delusion, “in which the patient believes she is dead.” Somewhere in the confusing landscape of psychosis is the writer. This, she says, is the point: cogito ergo sum.

In both her essays and fiction, Wang undoes and re-establishes how mental illness is discussed in contemporary society, revealing the many ways in which it is possible to survive one’s diagnosis (or diagnoses), the ways it’s possible to love and to write, to appreciate life. Her novel, The Border of Paradise, begins with the foretelling of a suicide, one that haunts the characters of the novel for the rest of their lives. The novel, recognized in numerous “Best of 2016” lists, is followed by her much anticipated, and best-selling, collection of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias. Winner of the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, these robust essays braid personal experience with the analytical rigor of a scientist. A former lab researcher at Stanford, Wang unravels the diagnosis of schizophrenia and reveals its multiplicity, its altering faces, addressing a broad range of subjects, from the impacts of rare strains of psychosis on everyday life to the question of child-bearing, knowing there’s a good chance they’ll inherit the schizophrenias.

For the first couple of years after college I was a special education teacher, working with students with such diagnoses as complex PTSD (or “emotional disturbance,” according to Special Education law), bipolar disorder, autism and a host of learning and behavioral differences. Wang’s essays are at once piercing and illuminating, and raised so many questions, for me, about the treatment of mental illness in our country, especially its institutions. I was thrilled to talk to the perennially stylish Wang about fashion, fiction, and the responsibility of higher education institutions to their students with mental illness.

Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada: Both The Border of Paradise and The Collected Schizophrenias address the legacy of the schizophrenias. Border is a gothic family drama that follows the lives of David Nowak and his wife Daisy, and their children, and how the legacy of schizophrenia impacts their lives. In one of your essays in the collection, “The Choice of Children,” you discuss the possibility of having a child with your husband, knowing the schizophrenias are likely to be passed on. How did your experiences as a researcher, an essayist, and a survivor of your diagnosis shape the writing of your novel?

Esmé Weijun Wang: One of my biggest hopes in writing Border was that it would be able to portray mental illness in ways that hadn’t been seen in fiction before. You can see that, I hope, in passages such as the ones about David and what he calls vitaphobia, or his experience of hallucinations, or the “Knifeless” chapter, in which his wife lives in fear that he’ll kill himself. I tried to do something similar, in terms of taking the abstract and turning it concrete, in The Collected Schizophrenias. Such passages are only a small part of the book, but they are some of the passages of which I’m most proud.

RRE: How did you write about the experience of psychosis without finding yourself slipping into it? Were you very far in the writing of the book when your wrote these passages?

EEW: Describing psychosis is not one of the triggers for psychosis, for me; stronger triggers include things like convincing descriptions of alternate realities, as described in “Reality, Onscreen.”

RRE: I’m glad you mention “Reality, Onscreen.” You write in that essay about being afraid of watching the Hunger Games movie Catching Fire, worried that you’ll find yourself lost in the film. And yet, you’re a fiction writer: you create characters and worlds, set in different places and time periods. How do you experience fiction writing — or even reading — and how is it different for you from watching a film?

EWW: Fiction is only tricky for me if I’m in a fragile mental state. I don’t lose my sense of reality if I’m not psychotic, or near-psychotic; if I am, my psychiatrist warns me to stay away from reading or audiobooks because I will quite literally begin to believe that I am in that fictional world. It’s very similar to what happens to me when I watch certain kinds of movies. The major difference is that movies can be tricky for me even if I’m not psychotic, depending on the subject matter; movies that present an alternate reality can be hard for me in a stable way of being.

If I am psychotic, my psychiatrist warns me to stay away from reading because I will begin to believe that I am in that fictional world.

RRE: In “Yale Will Not Save You,” you describe your last night at Yale, the ultimatum you’re ultimately given — leave voluntarily, or have an involuntary medical leave blemish your record — and the urgency with which you’re made to leave. I’ve been thinking about the competitiveness of college admissions, and how the number of applicants is ballooning yearly, just as the percentages of admitted students wane into single digits. The pressure on high school students to excel is a phenomenon specific to our times. At the end of the essay you say Yale owed you nothing, and that you owe it nothing in turn. But still — what responsibilities do you think educational institutions owe to the students they admit? Their mental, physical, emotional wellness? Their families?

EWW: I think you’ve pointed to where I may have been lying through my teeth in that essay, or, at least, lying to myself. I say that Yale owed me nothing, but much of what that essay includes is an argument about precisely that: because I had a disability, and because they were in a position to accommodate that disability, one might say that they actually did owe me the opportunity to get back on my feet — to be able to finish my education. (I did finish my BA, though I finished it elsewhere.) I don’t know what that looks like, in actuality. I don’t know what the best practices for educational institutions and their mentally ill students would look like. But we need to keep talking about it. Many of the most severe mental health disorders, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, first appear in the late teens and early twenties — right when students typically begin their college education. This issue is not going away.

RRE: In what ways was your experience different once you transferred? I know it’s around then that you started working at a research lab for mood and anxiety disorders, in addition to a bipolar disorder lab in the psychiatry department at Stanford. Were there any differences in how either school addressed mental illness among their students?

EEW: When I got to Stanford, I was asked right away if I wanted to register as a student with a disability, which was not something that I could remember happening when I was at Yale. I was given accommodations, too. I know many students who had negative experiences with student health at Stanford, but I can’t speak to those, because I was being treated off-campus.

Many of the most severe mental health disorders first appear in the late teens and early twenties — right when students typically begin their college education.

RRE: You return throughout your essays to the idea that dividing illness from self is impossible. “When the self has been swallowed by illness,” you write in “Perdition Days,” “isn’t it cruel to insist on a self that is not illness?” After, you list simple facts about yourself in your journal — your name, occupation, height, family details, your favorite flowers — anchoring yourself into the small but significant details that populate your daily life. Have your thoughts on the division of illness and selfhood changed since writing this book?

EWW: No, not really. I continue to see illness as inseparable from self. It’s a series of complicated relationships, particularly between my physical illnesses and self, but that word, “relationships,” also means that I’m always negotiating the connection between them.

RRE: You also write about fashion as a sort of armature, a way of articulating the part of the self that’s unencumbered by illness; but this “weaponized glamour” — as you coin in your Twitter profile from that time — isn’t always successful. At an Alexander McQueen exhibit, you appreciate the terrifying beauty of his pieces, just as you begin to duck away from “shadowy demons darting [at you] from all angles.” “There are things,” you conclude, “good costuming can’t hide.”

EWW: Just to clarify: I didn’t coin “weaponized glamour.” That’s from the writer Chaédria LaBouvier, who is absolutely brilliant. It’s a phrase that I find useful for myself — I love glamour, and I love the trappings of glamour, which help me to feel protected. I talk a lot in the book about fashion as costuming, or as armor, and that’s very true when it comes to glamour in particular, which is inherently over-the-top.

RRE: Do you think armature is inherently physical or are there other forms of protection you turn to that don’t necessarily have anything to do with style or self-presentation?

EEW: Yes — I speak to a number of them in the book, such as referring to my education, or making sure that I present as intelligent. This kind of defensive behavior isn’t something that I’m proud of, as it relies on privilege and excludes a lot of people who have the same diagnosis as I do, but I wanted to mention it in the book so that the reader could see me grappling with it, and grappling with that inner conflict.

RRE: A few weeks ago, on New Year’s Eve, I was in New Mexico and went to el Sanctuario de Chimayo with two friends. I had not yet finished The Collected Schizophrenias, or else I think my experience there might have been different, colored a bit by your essay “Chimayo.” Nevertheless, I keep coming back to the insistence of faith. We anoint ourselves with the sacred dirt of el posito (the Spanish word for well), repeat our prayers with earnestness, trust that we’ll come away healed in some way. Thousands of people make pilgrimage to Chimayo for Easter every year. “Hope,” you write in a journal entry, “is a curse and a gift.”

EEW: Oh, I love that you went there, too. Yes — faith is such an amazing thing. When I talk about hope in that piece, I’m expressing frustration that hope can lead us along a faulty path. But I’m also so glad that hope allows us the gift of continuing to keep going, to keep trying. I’m known for saying that often: keep going; you’re doing great.

RRE: I noticed that your restorative journaling course, “Rawness of Remembering,” promotes a similar sort of faith, faith in our abilities to use our journals for self-healing. Where did the idea for the course come about and how did you end up designing it?

EEW: Journaling is something that I’ve been doing for decades, and I realized after a while that I was developing specific methods and skills related to journaling that helped me get through difficult times. I put together a curriculum and taught a class over six weeks over the Internet; right now, people can purchase the class online on my website and work through it at their own pace. It’s the signature online course on my website, I really love it, and I know it’s helped hundreds of people over the last few years.

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