Schizophrenia—This Is What It’s Like to Go Through a Psychotic Episode

I Have Schizophrenia—and This Is What It’s Like to Go Through a Psychotic Episode

Esmé Weijun Wang, an accomplished novelist, shares what it’s like to live with the disorder.

Esmé Weijun Wang knows she doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone with a psychotic disorder. She has degrees from Stanford and the University of Michigan, a well-received novel (and a second in the works), and a devoted husband of nine years.

Yet as someone who’s been suffering since her 20s with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, Wang, now 35, has experienced periods of psychosis that include hallucinations and delusions, as well as mania and depression, and has been held in the psych ward three times against her will.

Schizophrenia often sets in between ages 16 and 30. While it sometimes runs in families, scientists aren’t sure what causes it. Wang grew up hearing stories about a great-aunt who’d been institutionalized, but she was still shocked to learn that her brain was betraying her.

Though she tries to control her disorder, she doesn’t hide it. She talks to students, doctors, and patients about her diagnoses, delusions, and recovery, and in illuminating essays from The Collected Schizophrenias, she shares anecdotes both arch and alarming. Here, Wang takes us inside her mind.

When did you first realize something was wrong?

In 2005, I was showering in my dorm at Stanford, and I heard a loud voice say, “I hate you!” At first I wondered whether it was just other students talking through the pipes. But because I was studying psychology and had been seeing a therapist for other issues, I had a sense of what might be going on, and I was scared about what it meant for my mental health.

How does psychosis affect your life?

During a psychotic episode, I’ll see things like a maggot-infested corpse in the passenger seat of a parked car. I’ll ask myself, “What is the likelihood of there actuallybeing a corpse in that car?” With that I can usually pretend I didn’t see anything. But if I experience demonic shadows darting toward me, I instinctively move out of the way. Those types of hallucinations are harder to hide from people, so they’re much more disturbing to me.

In one months-long delusion, you believed you were dead. That must have been horrifying.

Actually, in the beginning, I had this idea that I was experiencing an afterlife in which I had the chance to do everything over—but in a more positive way! For instance, when I talked to telemarketers, I was really nice to them. But after a few days, I transitioned to a tormenting phase where I believed I was being punished. This delusion lifted without fanfare, but the threat of it returning remains.

Schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders afflict up to 2 million Americans.

When you’re having delusions, are you always fully aware of what’s happening?

I experienced a period of psychosis that lasted ten months, and it involved hallucinations and delusions at different levels. In deeper waters, I’d start panicking that my husband had poisoned my tea, or I’d call him saying that spiders were inhabiting my brain. I’d be unable to see my way out of what was happening. In the periods when I was closer to the surface of reality, I’d have a vague awareness that other people wanted me to believe something else.

Have you faced discrimination because of your diagnosis?

People have said, “I was expecting you to not be able to put words together.” But in terms of actually being discriminated against, I’ve been lucky. Part of that is being more high functioning; part is being able to put on a good face. One of the reasons I shared my experiences in this book was to show that there can be a way of living with this condition. Much of what’s written about “the schizophrenias” is from the perspective of caregivers. I thought it would be helpful for people to see it from my point of view.

There’s no cure for schizophrenia. How do you manage the symptoms?

I’m on a medication regimen that keeps me fairly stable in terms of psychosis. I see a therapist, which can be helpful if I’m entering a psychotic episode or even if I’m encountering more stress than usual—stress can be a big trigger for me.

I’ve found journaling to be beneficial, especially if I feel myself entering a psychotic period. I’m fortunate to have a loving partner and wonderful friends, and my family is now a great support system. My hallucinations, when I have them, are usually limited in scope. I feel less susceptible now, and I try to never take that for granted.


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