Sunday, 22 September 2019

Book review: The Collected Schizophrenias, Esme Weijun Wang (2019)

This fine collection of essays is both a memoir and a work of journalism. In recounting her problems with schizoaffective disorder, Wang does other things as well, as would a person who is motivated both by generosity and by an existential need: to comprehend something that normally lies beyond the boundaries of the ordinary person’s experience and that goes to the centre of her very identity. Unavoidably, her illness defines, in a real way, much about she is.

The book is both personal and accessible. In this realm there are few popular guides to conduct and so the author had to make it up as she went along. There are plenty of references in the book to the rendering of mental illness, particularly this kind of disease, in both popular culture and in more weighty works, so Wang is not completely adrift on a sea of nothingness. But the manner of her proceeding is all her own. She bounces ideas off existing cultural artefacts as well as examining institutional responses to mental illnesses of this nature, but she brings her own brand of intelligence to the table in looking for answers.

My own diagnosis is not included in this book but I did feel that I had been, to a certain degree, understood by this author. When I was first hospitalised following an episode of my illness, the doctors were hesitant to use the word “schizophrenia” but this word was later applied to me by others. Then, some 15 years later, another psychiatrist used a different word to describe my condition.

For someone who is living with a mental illness, this book can offer a particular type of signification that you can’t often find in the world. It is a strange document but Wang is a talented writer. Her habits of mind make her susceptible to grasping the meanings of both mundane and psychological phenomena and the solutions she seeks out to help her manage her illness, the many avenues she travels down in her quest for peace-of-mind, suggest a kind of practical wisdom. In telling her own story, Wang also says useful things about this kind of illness in a broader sense, and she looks at the different ways that society has, in the past, tried to cope with people who live with it.

Anyone who has lived with this kind of illness will understand implicitly the kinds of measures Wang resorts to and the kinds of questions she asks of a range of people, including medical practitioners. They will also understand how she feels at different moments, or most of the time at least.

As such, this book can serve people who do not live with this kind of illness as a kind of primer. I hope it will be widely read so that the author’s journey from a place characterised by intense suffering, to another kind of place, can be better understood. Stigma is real and it erodes people’s ability to live a normal life. While we need to speak out more about mental illness so that it can be better managed and so that suicide can be prevented more effectively, there is enough misunderstanding about mental illness that people who live with it are unwilling, in most cases, to tell many people about their condition. They might tell their close friends and their family but beyond that circle of trusted individuals they normally stay mum. This silence is corrosive and leads to poor outcomes.

So this book can function as a corrective for general ignorance but, with this kind of disease, not every solution that works for every person is guaranteed to work for every other person. To suggest such a thing would be preposterous. This is one woman’s journey yet it can, nonetheless, possess general relevance. A very good read, and it doesn’t take long to complete.

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