A Review of A Fish Growing Lungs by Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn

September 24, 2020 § Leave a comment

By Paul Pedroza

Those who live with mental illness are familiar with their own unique “aha” moments, those events, dialogues, reactions, or observations served up by others, whether you’re open to them or not, that make you wonder about yourself and the ways you interact with and fit into your world. For many, what follows is a tortuous, often torturous, path towards diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. Individuals place their trust in professionals in a soft science, one in which guesswork comes with the territory and one that relies upon self-reporting, family history, and the client’s actions and experiences in order to provide help, whether psychological or pharmaceutical or both.

Sawchyn’s path into the mental health care system began abruptly after an episode in which the author seems to experience an episode of derealization, rocking and hugging herself and possibly lashing out at her mother who, in her words, was an easy target because she offered nothing but love. There is much possibility here, in the sense that memory can be faulty and unreliable, but Sawchyn perseveres from the start in “An Apology” all the way through the rest of this essay collection.  She’s hospitalized. She has a history of cutting, a specific manifestation of non-suicidal self-injury, a symptom common in certain personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, or as the author herself notes, a diagnosis all its own.

After a stint in a state hospital, a place where she felt “like being reduced to dust” (“Wellness Index”), Sawchyn receives her diagnosis— acute psychosis, bipolar I, manic episode— and her medications. The results splice into her core identity. “My identity was intertwined too tightly with a mental health diagnosis” (“An Apology”). She’ll spend the next seven years faithfully dosing herself with what she’s been prescribed and experimenting with other drugs, legal and otherwise. Before long, she’s left to her own devices and her meds when seeking counseling becomes too expensive. She drifts from trip to trip, meets a few men with struggles of their own (“Three Men,” a composite sketch of boyfriends who struggled through suicidal ideation and attempts), and ends up in the Midwest for graduate school. It is here where, with the help of counselors, she discovers her misdiagnosis. For seven long years, she lived a life shaded by bipolar I and all of its symptoms and stigmas, a life ordered and disordered by the medications prescribed to alleviate, to take the edge off.

Many of the essays in A Fish Growing Lungs detail Sawchyn’s struggles and triumphs with processing the misdiagnosis, overcoming withdrawal from medications for bipolar I, and further navigating the recovery process post-reveal. A few questions remain, most of all the question of a probable differential diagnosis— if not bipolar I, then given the symptoms and histories, the cutting, anxiety, her depression and her family’s history of it, the obsessive thoughts about health and safety, then what could it be? The latter few essays offer much hope, but little in terms of demystifying her adjustment post-misdiagnosis, but perhaps this is matter for a future collection.

A Fish Growing Lungs is a dynamic debut that offers hope to readers and writers who are struggling to define and delineate their own lived experiences, and a collection that demystifies diagnosis, misdiagnosis, and the struggles attendant with recovery for those who wish to learn about mental illness and its persistent stigmas.

Paul Pedroza was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. He received his M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His story collection, The Dead Will Rise and Save Us, is available from Veliz Books. He has completed his first novel, and he is currently working on a second and on a collection of essays.

This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.


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