Friday, October 30, 2020

"The Collected Schizophrenias," by Esmé Weijun Wang--Nonfiction Review

This Friday, we’re talking about an illuminating book, one part collection of essays, and one part memoir about living with mental illness. “The Collected Schizophrenias” by Esmé Weijun Wang is a sometimes uncomfortable but necessary book written by a woman who lives with schizophrenia. 

Esmé Weijun Wang

What I love about this book:

This book had to take an immense amount of internal fortitude and external support to write. From my admittedly dim understanding of the disease, schizophrenia has to be one of the most all-time difficult conditions to deal with and stay out of an institution. For Wang to put her experiences, and the experiences of others like her, down into writing for random idiots—he said with self-awareness—to read and comment on it took bravery. I wish I knew I was capable of something similar myself, and I admire her immensely for this act of courage.

Wang expresses her thoughts and feelings in her own words, and since you all should know I obviously “read” the audiobook, you should know she also narrates the book—all of this makes the experience that much more powerful. She allows you to experience the horror and alienation of having your mind turn in on itself in an unhealthy way vicariously. If you’re like me and don’t have to experience mental illness regularly, it should make you appreciate your own mental health all the more.

Clearly knowledgeable about the topic, since it’s her lived experience, Wang takes the time to break down the features, variables, and variants of mental illness. She describes the types of medications and treatments there are, and while not an exhaustively comprehensive list of the subject, this book is an excellent introduction to this branch of medicine from the patient’s point of view. 

Though there is a lot of pain and suffering, while listening to Wang’s stories, there are also lighter moments, moments of understanding, and acceptance. Her stories about her time volunteering at the summer camp for children with bipolar disorder, especially resonated with me. Before going, she describes how she didn’t “like” children, mainly because she didn’t allow herself to out of fear that engaging with them might awaken a maternal instinct in her that she didn’t want. But she does go, and even outside of her comfort zone, she manages to do a lot of good. Wang went above and beyond for some of those kids, especially with one boy who didn’t fit in well, even when that task was sometimes a bit thankless.

What I don’t love about this book:

So this is a challenging section to write for this book. I’m not going to be over here like, “I just didn’t feel that her pain was all that bad or explained well enough.” Because that would make me a human monster. Instead, I will talk about aspects of the world that I don’t love that unfortunately needed to be addressed in this book.

My first disappointment was with how well Yale historically dealt with students suffering from mental illness. Spoilers, If Wang’s experiences can be used as a yardstick—not well. It would not surprise me if that’s still the case given how well many institutions of higher learning deal with sexual assault, again, not well. 

Furthermore, the Yale thing is really just a symptom of a larger problem within society, and that’s our apathy toward the mentally ill and disturbed. This is a point better captured by Ron Powers, “No One Cares About Crazy People,” another book related to this topic, than I can do justice here in a blog post. However, its apathy which leads to repeated misunderstandings and mismanagement of people who are legitimately suffering daily, just trying to keep up with the rat race of everyday life.  

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Author's Website: 

Parting thoughts:

I believe that a certain amount of our apathy as a society toward the mentally ill stems from another problem we all share more and more. We don’t empathize well with each other.

The world is a vastly complex place, so-much-so it’s often baffling to just one person. It’s drilled into us that the strong survive and the weak don’t. This messaging starts early, too, with kids. This is so prevalent that it sounds radical and new, even today when someone points out that in the wealthiest country in the world at the most technologically sophisticated time in human history—it doesn’t need to be this way. And the solution is deceptively simple, we need to start caring more for each other to work together to solve the problems we all face. 

Empathy is a newer kind of feeling for us as a species. People get the ascendency of humankind all wrong, in my opinion. It wasn’t our thumbs, or our application of brutality, or even our frankly overrated intelligence that built our world. Empathy is what allowed us to cease traveling around in small groups, killing each other on sight, for nearly a hundred thousand years—and trade tools. Then in time, language and stories, until one day we could tell ourselves a story that we were really all the same group of people, and we built the first villages.  

We all share the surface of this rock, hurtling through space, and one day it will likely be necessary for us to journey beyond it to survive long term. But before that, we should really take the time to learn how to care for each other first.

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