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.”

Feb 29

Bring Change 2 Mind: Combating Mental Health Stigma

Writing yesterday about the film Albert Nobbs, starring Glenn Close, reminded me of an important organization that she co-founded, Bring Change 2 Mind, that aims to combat stigma against mental illness.

From the Bring Change 2 Mind website, an explanation of mental health stigma: “Stigma is broadly defined as a collection of adverse and unfair beliefs. The stigma around mental health most often leads to the inaccurate and hurtful objectification of people as dangerous and incompetent.  The shame and isolation associated with stigma prevent people from seeking the help necessary to live healthy and full lives.”

Shown below is a moving PSA shot at Grand Central Station in 2009 on behalf of this organization’s efforts. It was created with the assistance of director Ron Howard and involves many volunteers representing various mental health issues. Among those featured are Close, her sister Jessie–who suffers from bipolar disorder–and their kids.

Apparently, Jessie wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until the age of 47. During the process of seeking help for her then-teenage son, Calen, she finally learned what had been going on with her own brain chemistry much of her life. It turned out that her son, by the way, suffers from schizoaffective disorder, which is a type of mood disorder that also involves some loss of contact with reality. (Source: “On the Couch…With Jessie Close,” Dr. Deborah Serani.)

Below is a chilling second PSA:

Men often face the challenges of mental health stigma and thus are part of a targeted Bring Change 2 Mind campaign called #StrongerThanStigma. From the website:

#StrongerThanStigma features four inspirational male figures from professional sports leagues, television, and the music industry who have each made mental health advocacy a part of their platform.  These headliners are Brandon Marshall, NFL All-Pro wide receiver for the New York Jets; Ben Scrivens, NHL goalie for the Montreal Canadiens; Michael Angelakos, lead singer of indietronica band Passion Pit; and Wayne Brady, comedian and actor.  Each man either lives with a mental health diagnosis or has chosen to serve as an empathetic advocate, and shares his story and encourages men to start the conversation and end the stigma.

Interested in more info? Check out their “Get Involved” page and other aspects of their services.