Apr 09

“The Collected Schizophrenias” by Esme Weijun Wang

One of the more frightening things about any painful experience that isn’t outwardly obvious to the people around us — like some mental and physical illnesses or disabilities — is how difficult it is to communicate what it feels like to those around us. Writers like Wang, however, give us a gift in their ability to convey the indescribable through language. Ilana Masad, NPR, reviewing The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

Writer Esmé Weijun Wang‘s The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays consists of 13 pieces regarding her schizoaffective disorder, chronic Lyme disease, and other aspects of her life shown “through simply-conveyed research, powerful metaphor, and personal experiences” (NPR).

Perceived as “high functioning” regarding her mental health diagnoses, Wang admits she’s not comfortable around those who aren’t. “I’m uncomfortable because I don’t want to be lumped in with the screaming man on the bus, or the woman who claims that she’s the reincarnation of God.”

Can you blame her? As she begins her book, “Schizophrenia terrifies.”

Wang knew she had serious problems since early childhood. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR:

She first noticed that her brain worked differently than others, she says, when she was just five or six years old. And then, she says, ‘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 when I was about 17 or 18, and then the schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, was diagnosed when I was in my late 20s.’

Reportedly, there’s much more to tell: a history of sexual assault, PTSD, and the eventual diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease.

The essays involve such issues as leaving college due to psychosis, involuntary hospitalization, society’s views of suicide, the health insurance industry’s faults, and the connection between mental illness and spirituality.

Further description of The Collected Schizophrenias (Publishers Weekly):

She explains her decision not to have children, while recalling time spent working at a camp for bipolar children, and muses about viewing her condition as a manifestation of ‘supernatural ability’ rather than a hindrance. Wang invariably describes her symptoms and experiences with remarkable candor and clarity, as when she narrates a soul-crushing stay in a Louisiana mental hospital and the alarming onset of a delusion in which ‘the thought settles over me, fine and gray as soot, that I am dead.’ She also tackles societal biases and misconceptions about mental health issues, criticizing involuntary commitment laws as cruel. Throughout these essays, Wang trains a dispassionate eye onto her personal narrative, creating a clinical remove that allows for the neurotypical reader’s greater comprehension of a thorny and oft-misunderstood topic.

Wang’s website name, The Unexpected Shape, is from the concept, says the author, of “the unexpected shape of our lives — the boundaries that we were not expecting to live with, but that we end up having to live with.”

Jun 28

Chronic Lyme, PTSD, Addiction, Etc. in “Sick”

Sick: A Memoir by Porochista Khakpour is largely about the author’s many years of struggle to get appropriate diagnosis and treatment for chronic Lyme disease, otherwise known as Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS). Nicole Clark, Vice:

Her symptoms include dizziness and fainting, severe insomnia, constant aches and headaches, limping, inability to regulate temperature, dysphagia (inability to swallow), and complete disorientation. In Sick she recounts countless doctors misdiagnosing her with depression, anxiety, diabetes, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, to name just a sampling of conditions.

But there’s also so much more than chronic Lyme. “I have been sick my whole life.I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in some sort of physical or mental pain, but usually both.” The many and varied reasons for this she’ll try to explain.

Some info about Khakpour’s earlier life (Kirkus Reviews):

A child of the Iranian Revolution, her earliest memories were of ‘pure anxiety.’ She survived the trauma of living in a war zone and moved from Tehran to Los Angeles. As she grew into adolescence, she writes, ‘everything about my body felt wrong,’ and her feelings of dysmorphia remained one of the constants in an often chaotic life. In college, Khakpour, who had long been fascinated by the ‘altered states’ that drugs could produce, began a ‘casual [long-term] relationship’ with cocaine and cultivated the ‘heroin chic’ look fashionable during the 1990s. In addition to her experimentation with drugs, the author endured harrowing experiences with sexual assault and depression.

Eventually needing help for the developing problems of central concern to Sick, Khakpour faces further obstacles and assaults on her health. Rien Fertel, AVClub:

Internists and nurses laugh at her, call her crazy. Friends and physicians blame a nightmarish litany of diseases, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to lupus to diabetes to Parkinson’s, Hashimoto’s, and various cancers. She’s prescribed a rainbow of pills: Ambien, Ativan, Celexa, Klonopin, Neurontin, Paxil, Remeron, Seroquel, Xanax. She tries nutritionists, acupuncturists, ayurvedics, and other new age healers, spending over $140,000 on her well-being.

Lidija Haas, New Yorker:

When doctors disbelieve her, or when her relapses reliably ‘coincide with global turmoil,’ she wonders whether her symptoms might indeed be psychosomatic, some form of P.T.S.D.; after she becomes addicted to the pills prescribed to treat her insomnia, she seems open to the suggestion that maybe her addiction is the main source of her problems. She cheerfully lists the ways in which she damages her own health, including by smoking cigarettes every day during the writing of her book.

Sick is not told chronologically “but rather by city and the lover who was is living with her at the time, linking illness to place and person. The constant is the racism Khakpour endures because she is a brown-skinned woman in post-9/11 America” (Vice).

A widely applauded memoir without a particularly uplifting ending, “…Sick is a bruising reminder and subtle revelation,” states Kiese Laymon, “that the lines between a sick human being and a sick nation are often not lines at all. The book boldly asserts that a nation wholly disinterested in what really constitutes ‘health’ will never tend the bodily and emotional needs of its sick and vulnerable.”

To read an excerpt, titled “Does My Disease Need a Name?,” click on this HuffPost link.