While working on this Q&A (my first for Shu Flies, yay!), I was surprised to realize that I’ve been reading Esme Wang‘s blog entries for only five years. That’s a long time to follow anything online, but Esme–and more specifically, her honesty about living with mental illness–have made such an impact on me that it’s hard to imagine my life without her writing.
I first got to know Esme when we were both members of the Wardrobe Remix group on Flickr. The name of her previous blog, Fashion For Writers, appealed to me because I was, and still am, a telecommuting reporter whose daily dress-up routine consists of changing out of my pajamas into “loungewear” (i.e. slightly fancier pajamas). The more I got to know about Esme, the more I related to her–both of us are Taiwanese-American writers who grew up in north California and enjoy vintage style and Polaroid cameras. And, like me, Esme has lived with mental illness since she was a teenager. When Esme wrote about leaving Yale after a hospitalization, I related very deeply because I had a similar experience in college.
I identify with Esme and I also look up to her. Despite the hardship of dealing with her symptoms and the often painful side effects of medication, Esme constantly faces those challenges in a very head-on and organized way (just take a look at her planner). She graduated from school with a very high GPA, enrolled in a prestigious MFA, scored a writing grant, finished a novel, held a job at a fast-growing startup and now she’s started her own business, the first offering of which is a six-week online course called Rawness of Remembering: Restorative Journaling Through Difficult Times that is based on the journaling techniques Esme developed to help cope with mental illness and stress.
I was excited to sign up for Rawness of Remembering because I’ve kept a journal for years, but I’ve never figured out how to turn my scribbled ramblings into tools to help me weather and treat depressive episodes. More than that, I feel like I have a lot to learn from Esme’s approach to mental illness, which isn’t just about “coping” or being “high-functioning.” She really wants to live a good life–and she also wants other people to be able to enjoy their surroundings, their relationships and even just moments alone. I’m always impressed by the joy she takes in the smallest things, such as a bouquet of flowers, a bundle of fresh kale or the sunlight bouncing off her bedroom wall. She’s an inspiration to me and I hope she will be to you, too. Esme’s course is now open for registration and if you sign up before September 15, part of your enrollment fee will go to SOLVE, a San Francisco-based program that seeks to reduce stigma and help people get treatment for mental illness. Read on for more about Esme’s approach to journaling and Rawness of Remembering.
Q: Can you tell me about how you made the decision to start your own business and why Rawness of Remembering is your first offering?
A: Practically speaking, my day job was becoming increasingly detrimental to my health. During a six-month period of illness, I realized that the stress of my position, as well as the dictated 10-6 structure, was hurting my ability to heal. The day job was at a good company, and I loved my coworkers. But I knew that I had to move on.
While I was trying to make the decision about staying or leaving, I received a message from a reader who told me that she had spent the night intending to end her life, read my blog into the wee hours instead, and ultimately decided to live. That was a tremendous catalyst in my choice to start my own business, founded on the principles of Radical Sincerity and the tagline that I created to reflect my business model: Tell Your Story. Be Your Dream.
Rawness of Remembering: Restorative Journaling Through Difficult Times is Radical Sincerity that begins with oneself. I knew that most of my readers, like myself, were going through, or had gone through, difficult times; and yet it was incredibly common for them to feel isolated during their journey. I knew that journaling was one tool that had proven to work for myself during my own difficult times, and I wanted to share that with anyone who was interested. It’s been tremendous that other bloggers — including yourself! — have supported this endeavor, as well.
I think Radical Sincerity is an excellent way to describe your blog, especially your posts about mental illness. Can you tell me more about the concept and how it can help people cope with stress? How can it also potentially combat stigma?
So I actually just put together a manifesto about Radical Sincerity for my site, but I consider it a work-in-progress, so here’s your sneak peek:
Radical Sincerity is the future for everyday interactions and communications. It’s limited not to media or business, but ultimately to incorporate every inch of daily life; because the further we move from Radical Sincerity, the closer we come to creating a society that is more connected than ever via technological advancement, and yet is comprised by individuals plagued by loneliness. We so often hide our true selves, whether that be the parts of ourselves that suffer from stigmatized illnesses, hold opinions, values, or beliefs that we fear may be unpopular, or simply omit truths about our everyday realities, leaving ourselves fearful of discovery and vulnerable to isolation.
When we live in a society that practices Radical Sincerity on a regular basis, we become less stressed. We learn that other people have similar problems as ourselves. We feel okay, or even good, about being who we are. And with that universal openness naturally comes decreased stigma — in the case of mental illness, we learn that our neighbor who makes us the best apple pie in the world has schizophrenia, or that our best friend has been living with obsessive-compulsive disorder for the entire time that we’ve known her. And we still love her, as we should.
Who do you envision taking the course?
I envision someone who may have tried to start a journal, but isn’t sure how to go about it, or someone who has been keeping a journal for a while, but doesn’t know how to transform her journal from a dumping ground to a healing tool. I see my ideal student as someone who wants something more than to merely survive. I like to say that “it’s not about the journal” — because it’s not. It’s really about uncovering your voice, as well as discovering your own strength and bravery.
When did you start keeping a journal? What was your first journal like and how did that evolve?
I’ve been keeping a journal since I was very young. It started out as the typical, “so-and-so played with the class hamster for too long,” kept in Hello Kitty diaries with flimsy locks. But by the time I was in sixth grade, I had developed the skill for lengthy journal entries about the things I didn’t know how else to express, including my burgeoning depression and insomnia. I’ve always been a writer. I knew that telling fictional stories was one of my great skills. But it was telling my own story, privately, that has really saved me.
What’s the difference between keeping a journal as a “mind dump” versus turning it into a tool for healing?
Ha! Good question. This is pretty much the crux of Rawness of Remembering. First of all, I’ll say that there’s nothing wrong with having a mind dump. There’s definitely a place for that. But, to use the “dump” metaphor, a good mind dump is also a compost heap. That compost heap, full of rich material — narratives of important events, angry rants, ramblings about feelings, and so on — becomes the fertile ground for great stuff to grow out of it, which happens with reflection, analysis, sighting patterns, and what I like to call Growing Wonder.
I subscribe to your email list (which is great, by the way) and just got your message about journaling as a cure for “phase blindness.” I’m very familiar with the phenomenon because I tend to forget many details of my depressive episodes when I’m well, which unfortunately means I also forget the coping strategies I developed. That’s one of the reasons I signed up for your course. What other things do you plan to address in Rawness of Remembering?
Realizing that phase blindness exists (and giving it a name) was a big game-changer for me. To describe it, briefly: phase blindness occurs when I forget the experience of whatever phase I am not in at the time: I’m happy and I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be depressed/manic/psychotic; I’m not doing well and can’t imagine feeling okay again. Journaling is, as you’ve mentioned, one of the best ways I’ve found to record those phases for future reference. Other things I’ll address in Rawness of Remembering are concrete ways to find wonder when everything seems horrible. And something else that is really important to me, which is finding accurate words for feelings. As a word geek, and the partner of someone who reads the OED for fun, I think words for feelings are normally too limited. We’re happy, sad, angry, whatever. Those are a few of things I’ll be addressing in the class.
Can you tell me about how people who take “Rawness of Remembering” will be able to interact with you and one another? Why is creating a community around the course important to you?
The best online courses I’ve ever taken — and I’ve taken quite a few — are the ones where the teacher is incredibly involved with the students. The worst ones that I’ve taken, no matter how excellent the material, has alway disappointed me if the teacher is barely in the Facebook group, or the Flickr community, or whatever the forum is. Rawness of Remembering uses a private Facebook group, which utilizes a website that I tend to loathe, but it’s the best thing I’ve found so far — and I’m going to be there a lot. Community is important for anyone going through a difficult time, but building a community while working toward healing is even more important to me. I want people to feel comfortable with sharing how their experiences have changed them. I want people to be okay with saying, “I tried today’s lesson, and this is how it did or did not work for me.” If it didn’t work for them, I want to be able to jump in and suggest three things that might work instead; I also want other students to be able to jump in and say, “Hey, I’m glad you mentioned that, because I tried it also, and this nuanced bit that I added really helped me.” Without the community, none of that would be possible.
One of the things I’ve appreciated about your blog entries since I started reading them four or five years ago is that you are not only open about your experience with mental illness, but also advocate living well–being able to enjoy your environment, relationships and moments alone even while managing emotional or physical stress. When I was diagnosed with depression, my treatment focused first on coping, then on being “high functioning.” Recovering my ability to feel joy wasn’t emphasized (and it often seemed like too much to hope for anyway). How did living well with mental illness become a goal for you? Was it intuitive or did you have to figure out a way to balance and reconcile the two things?
Living well with mental illness has always been a high priority for me. I think it grew out of the attitude that I had before I got sick — I could do anything; I was an overachiever; I had big dreams. For a while, when I first became dysfunctional, and then for years when I was popping in and out of hospitals, sleeping for up to seventeen or eighteen hours a day, and trying every psychotropic imaginable, I wondered if the limitations imposed by my illness were insurmountable. Now I know that they’re not; the limitations exist, but I live with them. I want to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, but I was also floridly psychotic for half of 2013. It turns out that I’m something of an optimistic pessimist. I just keep going.
Esmé Weijun Wang is a writer, blogger, and mental health advocate. In her ideal universe, Radical Sincerity would be the norm in life, art, and business; colleges and universities would enact best practices toward its mentally ill students; and she’d be stopped dead by a beautifully crafted sentence every day. As seen in places such as Jezebel, MindBodyGreen, and Salon, she can also be found preparing to teach Rawness of Remembering: Restorative Journaling Through Difficult Times, her now-open-for-registration ecourse, as well as crafting a novel-writing intensive for 2014. Discover her writings about living well with mental illness, compassion and care, and the writing life athttp://www.esmewang.com/.