LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Schizophrenia terrifies. Those are the first two words of "The Collected Schizophrenias," Esme Weijun Wang's part-memoir-part-scientific chronicle of her journey to her own diagnosis. She first noticed that her brain worked differently than others do, she says, when she was just 5 or 6 years old. And then...
ESME WEIJUN WANG: Severe depression started when I was about 11. Depression that was diagnosed by a doctor probably happened when I was 15 or 16. Bipolar disorder was diagnosed by a psychiatrist when I was about 17 or 18. And then the schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, was diagnosed when I was in my late 20s.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that's a really difficult journey to get a diagnosis that you felt was right.
WANG: It does typically take people a really long time to get diagnosed with their, quote, unquote, "final diagnosis." And it's not unusual at all.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you define bipolar type schizoaffective disorder for us? I mean, how do you experience it?
WANG: So I like to kind of jokingly say that it's like a marriage between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. So my first hallucination that I ever had was actually when I was in the shower in college. And I heard a voice very clearly say to me, I hate you. And it was so clear to me (laughter). And this is why I say that hallucinations really effectively kidnap the senses - because it's exactly like someone is standing next to you and saying this thing to you.
And I started thinking, oh, is there something going on with the pipes, where I can hear maybe something on the floor below me, or maybe the floor above me? But it didn't really make sense to me physically. So I started thinking, maybe this is a hallucination. And then it kind of went off from there.
I started hearing women screaming for help outside my bedroom window - again, to the point where it was so realistic that I actually called 911 when that happened for the first time. It took a couple of times for my mom to tell me to stop calling the police because she - I think she knew that this was not real. And then later, I started having delusions in which I was believing that my loved ones were replaced by doubles or replaced by robots. So it's been an interesting journey.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're what you call and what others would call high-functioning, which means that, you know, as you describe it, you have a job. You have relationships. You are someone who functions in the world. And that gives you a sort of - there's a hierarchy - right? - in the psychiatric world, in which some people get treated in some ways, and others get treated in other ways.
WANG: Yeah. And I feel like the phrase high-functioning is extremely tricky. The reason I use it is that I'm very aware of my own sense of self-stigma. I'm aware of how people have a lot of stigma toward other people who have the same diagnosis as I do but who may not, quote, unquote, "function" as well as I do. So even being able to tell my own story through this book is something that I'm aware gives me a lot of privilege.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, this book is, in many ways, the story of the way the world treats people with mental illness. You make the point that society as a whole doesn't know what to do with the mentally ill. You write in the book, (reading) for those of us living with severe mental illness, the world is full of cages where we can be locked in.
WANG: That is part of an essay called, "On The Ward," about involuntary hospitalization. And my essay can be seen as quite negative about the laws about involuntary hospitalization. At the same time, I want to make it quite clear that I would hospitalize myself if I felt that the need were - were there. I don't think that any of the questions that I bring up in this book have answers that are really simple or have answers that are black and white. There are really more questions that are raised than the book even begins with.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that I got from reading the book is how you were examining how you had to be in the world and how you signaled certain things at different times. Partly because you worked in fashion, appearance is important to you.
WANG: Yeah, I think a lot of what I talk about is the way that I move around in the world in a way that seems to be defensive. I talk about fashion as costuming or fashion as armor. I talk about the way I use Yale as a place that I had gone to school as a kind of defense. The title of that essay is "Yale Will Not Save You" because I do kind of use it as a way to defend against people believing that I'm not worth talking to or interacting with.
There are all kinds of ways in which I feel that I'm starting off a couple of steps behind everybody else. And in order to move a few steps ahead, I, for example, put on red lipstick before I leave the house. And that may seem like an odd way to make up for suffering from delusions and hallucinations. But that is the way I do that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think red lipstick does a lot, I got to tell you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Esme Weijun Wang. Her new book is called "The Collected Schizophrenias." Thank you very much.
WANG: Thank you so much.
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