To look at San Francisco writer Esmé Weijun Wang, you wouldn’t know she’s seriously ill. Her platinum hair is in a tidy pixie cut, her lips painted bold red. Her clothes are artfully selected. It’s a cliché, sure, but in Wang’s case, it’s entirely intentional.
“With these signifiers, I am trying to say that I am a wife, I am a good patient, I am an entrepreneur. I am also schizoaffective, living with schizoaffective disorder, living with mental illness, living with mental-health challenges, crazy, insane — but I am just like you,” she writes in her new book, The Collected Schizophrenias, out this week from Graywolf Press. Wang appears on Thursday, Feb. 7 at East Bay Booksellers in Oakland in conversation with Caille Millner, author of The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification.
The book reveals Wang’s experiences living with schizoaffective disorder — and, to some extent, late-stage Lyme disease — through a series of interconnected essays that explore ideas like the line between psychosis and demonic possession, what it’s like in a psychiatric ward, and her decision not to have children. A former lab researcher at Stanford, her writing is clear-eyed and unsentimental, blending personal experience with research and reporting.
“This book was … something I would always look for,” she tells SF Weekly by phone. “I would pop into the psychology section of the bookstore and hope to find something I could relate to.”
Although there are numerous memoirs by writers with mental illness — or, more often, by writers whose loved ones are ill — Wang always found herself looking for something that was neither pure memoir nor purely sentimental.
In fact, she never meant to write essays about her mental illness at all. But in the run-up to the publication of her 2016 novel, The Border of Paradise, she wanted to get her name out there. She wrote an essay for the now-defunct web magazine The Toast called “Perdition Days” about her experience with Cotard’s Delusion, in which the subject believes they are dead. Before long, she found she had enough essays for a collection, and won Graywolf’s nonfiction contest with the manuscript in 2016.
Like many women, Wang’s diagnosis took longer than it should have. Her doctors told her she had bipolar disorder when she was in her teens, but the medication they gave her didn’t help. She had her first auditory hallucination when she was in her early 20s, and soon found herself dodging demons and rotting corpses that only she could see.
But her doctor wouldn’t budge on the diagnosis. It was only when she fell deeply into psychosis and switched doctors that she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder — a close cousin to schizophrenia or, as Wang calls it, “the fucked-up offspring of manic depression and schizophrenia.”
Born in the Midwest, stigma and shame led Wang’s parents to deny that mental illness ran in her family. Over time, though, she learned about a great-aunt who was institutionalized for most of her life, and a cousin who killed himself.
Wang was accepted to Yale in the early 2000s but struggled to hide her mental illness — until she couldn’t. She reported to a university psychiatrist that she was having suicidal thoughts, which led her to be hospitalized in the Yale Psychiatric Institute against her will. The dean told her she could remain a student only if she agreed to live off campus with her mother. She refused. Ultimately, she writes, she was booted from Yale because of her mental illness.
Even so, she recognizes that Yale is another one of those signifiers that she’s high-functioning — not like the schizophrenics you see in movies, or those unhinged people you see screaming in the street. “ ‘I went to Yale’ is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I’m not worthless,’” she writes.
That tension between mental illness and wanting to “pass” as normal is present throughout The Collected Schizophrenias, capturing a struggle that many people with invisible and chronic illnesses — physical or mental — experience day to day.
As Wang settled into her diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder and late-stage Lyme, which often leaves her feeling weak and light-headed, she became more involved with disability communities and began to confront her own internalized ableism. Although she is sometimes very ill, she didn’t want to look the part.
Over the recent holidays she visited her husband’s family in New Orleans, where the clan made its annual visit to the zoo. It was always an exhausting, unpleasant experience for Wang, but this year, her husband urged her to use a wheelchair, she says.
Some of the zoo visitors stared at her, “but I enjoyed it so much more than even when I use a cane. … I had enjoyed it for the first time in many years,” she says. She posted about the experience on Twitter and got responses from people who’ve tried walkers and wheelchairs for the first time in museums and other outings where walking is often the norm.
In one essay, “On the Ward,” Wang describes two episodes in which she was involuntarily hospitalized, including the one at Yale, and another after she overdosed on anticonvulsant medication.
Although she admits there are good reasons for hospitalization, including involuntary hospitalization, she writes that her stints on the ward didn’t help her.
“I believe that being held in a psychiatric ward against my will remains among the most scarring of my traumas,” she writes.
After “Perdition Days” was published in The Toast in 2014, Wang’s work — and her experience of this rare delusion — earned immediate attention. It was picked up in Longreads and written up in The New Yorker, Vice, and other publications.
More than that, she received an outpouring of letters from readers grateful to see such honest portrayals of mental illness.
“It struck me that this topic could be something that not only people would be interested in, but could help people,” she says.
As she heads out on the road in support of The Collective Schizophrenias, Wang is being careful to manage her health. She gave Graywolf Press what she calls her “rock-star rider,” stipulating that she needs wheelchairs at airports, can’t do evening or overnight flights, and requires certain kinds of chairs at her readings so she doesn’t get tired or sore. She’s also prepping herself mentally for a tour in which she’ll have to be nakedly honest about a subject many people still find uncomfortable, even taboo.
“It’s such an exciting time, but it’s a very scary time in a lot of ways,” she says. “I just hope the book fills a spot in people’s lives.”
Esmé Weijun Wang, Thursday, Feb. 7, 7 p.m., at East Bay Booksellers, 5433 College Ave., Oakland. Free; ebbooksellers.com