illustration of a man pulling off his face to reveal wires . . . he is a robot

Schizophrenia runs in my family. To learn more about this mental illness is, for me, a way of trying to understand a piece of my family history. So when I saw a book called The Collected Schizophrenias featured at my local indie bookstore, cute cover and all, I had to buy and devour it.

The Collected Schizophrenias is a collection of essays by Esmé Weijun Wang. Each of the essays puts a different focus on her experiences as a woman living with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. The writing is fabulously direct, concise, and honest. This book, like A Mind Unraveled by Kurt Eichenwald (which I previewed earlier this year), does a great job of dispelling common myths about the illness at hand (Eichenwald writes about epilepsy), while offering insights into how to thrive in the face of the illness’s difficulties.

I admire Wang’s strength in writing and speaking about her experiences. Mental illness is still, despite great strides forward in this area, stigmatized. One of the first and most important steps in fighting stigma is to hear and to understand. What is it like to live with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type? Wang endeavors, in this book, to explain.

It’s important to hear her. Wang points out that most information about the collected schizophrenias is presented from the perspective of an observer witnessing the words and behavior of someone else. For example, referring to a statement as a delusion implies that one does not believe the statement oneself. But the helpfulness of the outsider perspective goes only so far.

What does it feel like to be the person herself? Wang shares a few of her worst times in this passage:

“I’ve seen myself forget to feed my dog. I’ve seen myself remember, and then not care enough to do it. Sometimes I can’t even say more than two words or move. There are periods when I know that my husband has been replaced by an identical robot.”

To fully understand this passage, it’s important take into account the rest of the essay. For the essay is about some of Wang’s worst times . . . and best times. She tells a touching story about serving as a camp counselor for children with bipolar disorder. She was instrumental in helping a boy transform from hating the camp to loving it—from feeling all alone to feeling that he had friends. Here’s a passage about one of Wang’s best times. A camper was feeling sick:

“I told him to try and relax. I stroked his bangs with the palm of my hand. I hummed Chinese lullabies, and the longer I stood and stroked and hummed and whispered, the stiller he became, until he was asleep.”

It is important to remember, about oneself and others, that we all have our good and bad days. A diagnosis is not a life sentence. I don’t think it should be one, anyway. A diagnosis is, or should be, a tool to help people understand some of their personal roadblocks and look for ways to move forward.

I can personally identify with the worst-times and best-times passages. I know what it’s like to have terrifying thoughts along the identical robot theme. I also know what it’s like to sometimes want to reach out and help others, but other times feel removed from any reality except what’s in my head. It is unclear to me whether almost everyone has such thoughts and feelings, or whether it’s in my blood. That second possibility would not surprise me one bit!

On the other hand, reading this book drove home to me the seriousness of this illness. A recurrence of philosophical musings and doubts, even when they become obsessions, is a very different beast than a persistent feeling of utter certainty. Wang notes that on her bad days—which can last for months—she is incapable of doing things that others can easily do on their bad days. She also notes that powerful psychiatric drugs have given her a stability that she would otherwise lack.

But to return to the original hand . . . I suspect that we human beings are a lot more alike than we usually admit.

What are you like at your worst and best?