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Hallucinations Kidnap The Senses In 'The Collected Schizophrenias'

"Schizophrenia terrifies."

Those are the first two words of The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang's new book — part memoir, part scientific chronicle of her journey towards a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder.

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."

Interview Highlights

On her experience of schizoaffective disorder

I like to kind of jokingly say that it's like a marriage between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. So my first hallucination that I ever had was actually when I was in the shower in college, and I heard a voice very clearly say to me, "I hate you." And it was so clear to me, and this is why I say that hallucinations really effectively kidnap the senses, because it's exactly like someone is standing next to you and saying this thing to you. And I started thinking, oh, is there something going on with the pipes, where I can hear maybe something on the floor below me, or maybe the floor above me, but it didn't really make sense to me physically, so I started thinking, maybe this is a hallucination, and it kind of went off from there ... and then later I started having delusions in which I was believing that my loved ones were replaced by doubles, or replaced by robots — so it's been an interesting journey.

On being high-functioning

I feel like the phrase "high-functioning" is extremely tricky. The reason I use it is that I'm very aware of my own sense of self-stigma. I'm aware of how people have a lot of stigma toward other people who have the same diagnosis as I do, but who may not quote-unquote function as well as I do. So even being able to tell my own story through this book is something that I'm aware gives me a lot of privilege.

On living in the world

I think a lot of what I talk about is the way that I move around in the world in a way that seems to be defensive. I talk about fashion as costuming, or fashion as armor, I talk about the way I use Yale, a place that I had gone to school, as a kind of defense ... because I do kind of use it as a way to defend against people believing that I'm not worth talking to, or interacting with. There are all kinds of ways in which I feel that I am starting off a couple of steps behind everybody else, and in order to move a few steps ahead, I — for example — put on red lipstick before I leave the house, and that may seem like an odd way to make up for suffering from delusions and hallucinations, but that is the way I do that.

This story was produced for radio by Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.