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Esmé Weijun Wang: Beyond Boundaries

Esmé Weijun Wang is a dazzling writer living within what she calls boundaries—limitations set by chronic illness and schizophrenia. Through her empathy, public speaking, and acclaimed writing, she nurtures and uplifts everyone.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Charlene Hong White. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers are Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

[COLD OPEN]
Esmé Weijun Wang had always found the Yale University campus beautiful. As her vintage heels clicked down paths past grand, sun-dappled brick buildings, she remembered what it was like to be a college student here. She used to marvel at the intricate stained glass in her lecture halls, and fall in love with all the books.

Today, eighteen years after she was supposed to graduate, Esmé felt proud and excited to be back at Yale to speak publicly. She strode into the auditorium, gazed out at the crowd, and spoke from her heart.

“I believe in eliminating the stigma around mental health so that we can create better policies and be kinder to others (and ourselves),” she said. Esmé was pleased by all the warm faces and applause.

After all, Yale was the university that had kicked her out, essentially, for having a mental health crisis. And now it was time for her to share her story. To create a new narrative.
SHOW INTRO

<THEME MUSIC>
I’m Charlene Hong White. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Esmé Weijun Wang, a writer and speaker who advocates for herself and others living with chronic and mental illness.
<END THEME MUSIC>

 

 

Eight-year-old Esmé and two friends played under the bright blue California sky. They giggled, skipping from shadow to shadow.

”Ooh!” Esmé shouted, as Jessica’s foot landed on a patch of sun. “Now we’re zombies!” The girls rolled their eyes back and staggered around. Then, Katie got scared.
“We’re just playing, right?” she asked.
“Groooaaaan,” said Esmé.
“Groooaaan,” said Jessica.
Katie started to cry. Later, Jessica asked Esmé, “Wait, we are just playing…right?”
Esmé didn’t know what to say. To her, they weren’t playing! When she was in a game, she was IN IT. It was as real to her as anything. Why didn’t her friends see it that way?
That’s how she felt about the stories she wrote, too: as if she could tip forward and tumble into the action. Take, for example, the two-hundred-page book she wrote at age ten, where the main character magically became a cat. It was epic! Esmé could feel the pop of whiskers bursting from her cheeks, the softness of fur behind her ears, and the itchy desire to scamper after a ball of yarn. She was such a talented writer that one of her teachers taught a story she wrote for years after she graduated.

But Esmé could get stuck in her imagination, like she was in a loop, unable to return to her other life, the one with her parents, little brother, and friends. She felt like she had a different kind of skin than the rest of her family—pricklier, with her emotions closer to the surface. Her family didn’t always understand when Esmé wrestled with big, scary, or sad feelings. They wanted to help, but they felt like they were on the outside, looking into her mind with wonder.

As a teenager, Esmé saw a psychiatrist. First, she was told she had depression. Then, a doctor thought she had bipolar disorder, which can mean big shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and actions. Neither of these diagnoses seemed to fit what was going on totally, but doctors taking Esmé’s mental health struggles seriously meant that Esmé’s family started to, as well. They realized she wasn’t being difficult or acting out on purpose—there were reasons beyond her control for her big feelings, her sleeplessness, and her sometimes confusing behavior. And at the same time, she was excelling in school. She even got into Yale, a very selective university.

One day at Yale, while Esmé was showering in her dorm, she heard a voice say, “I hate you.” She wiped the shampoo from her eyes and peered around the shower curtain into the empty bathroom. She crouched, the warm water beating down on her, and listened at the drain. Could it have come from the pipes? No, she thought. Someone said, “I hate you,” right into my ear.

It was a hallucination—very real to Esmé, but the voice came from her own brain. Later, she also began to see things that weren’t there. She’d be walking through campus and have to dodge a bat she thought was overhead. Sometimes, she’d have to jump to avoid a cavernous hole in front of her that nobody else saw. It was terrifying and made Esmé feel very lonely.

When Esmé had gotten into Yale, she had felt validated, like even though she struggled with her mental health, she had worth. It was extra devastating, then, when Yale decided that she was too sick to stay. Esmé took a leave of absence from school and moved off campus. Her mom came to help — cooking Esmé her favorite Taiwanese noodle dishes, making medication charts, and calling her psychiatrist to get help.
After Esmé took some time to nurture herself and refocus, she asked Yale if she could come back and take classes again, but the university said no. Esmé felt crushed. The school she’d worked so hard to attend kicked her out for something that felt overwhelming and inexplicable.

So Esmé and her doctors started doing tests and brain scans, searching for explanations. Esmé transferred to Stanford and studied psychology. She also got a master’s degree in fiction writing and got married to a man she adored. Her life felt full and even creative. Still, she was living with so many unknowns about what was going on in her brain.

One diagnosis that came up a lot was “schizophrenia” or schizoaffective disorder. This is a mental health condition that can cause people to hear, see or believe things that no one else experiences.
Esmé’s doctors resisted giving her this diagnosis because they didn’t want people to treat her differently, or for her to think of herself differently. Some people misunderstand schizophrenia or find it scary. But for Esmé, finally hearing these words helped her feel less alone. What she was going through had a name, and others had been through it, too. There were medications and therapies that could help her process her thoughts and manage the hallucinations. At long last, Esmé felt herself gaining control.

Still, she was afraid to reveal too much in certain places, like at work. What would her co-workers think? So she went home and wrote about her experiences. She published a piece called “Yale Will Not Save You” about being treated like she did something wrong, rather than being offered help so she could stay in school. After it came out, Esmé’s inbox flooded with emails from others saying she was telling their story, too.
She also published a beautiful novel, THE BORDER OF PARADISE, that explored different facets of mental illness. Connecting with people and understanding her unique brain helped Esmé learn how to cope. It gave her hope and energy too, so she could do the things she wanted to do, like sing karaoke with friends, write books, and advocate for others living with chronic and mental illness.
Today, determined, imaginative Esmé is an acclaimed writer. As she says, “So much of writing for me is turning these things that are really difficult to describe into words…”
Her writing is hopeful, vulnerable, honest and heartfelt. In 2019, she published a best-selling essay collection called THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS, which has helped thousands of people understand how everyone’s brain works differently. And many people cite Esmé’s writing and advocacy as the reason why Yale FINALLY changed their mental health policies for students.

As Esmé sees it, every human being experiences life in their own way. And when we take the time to share what’s in our heads and connect, then we make a more compassionate world. Esmé makes sure to be compassionate with herself on a daily basis, to prioritize being comfortable and inspired. In her home, she has a cozy vintage desk set up for her writing and also for her side gig—drawing pet portraits!

Perhaps she is sitting there right now, surrounded by unicorn trinkets, swaying to gentle music playing from her record player. She may be gazing at the jewel-like hummingbirds buzzing at the feeder outside her window, or taking slow, centering breaths.

This is her favorite way to dream up new ideas. This is where she finds exciting ways to share all that’s in her expansive mind.