By Sarah Wilson
I first met Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn for coffee just over three years ago. She had just finished her MFA and moved back to the DC metro area. We were introduced by a mutual friend who thought it would be good for me to talk to someone about MFA programs, writing, life. I remember sitting with her in the sunshine outside of a small coffee shop that overlooked a movie theatre. She was calm and approachable and I was infinitely intimidated by her.
I imagine we spoke about writing. I imagine that I asked her questions about her MFA program. What I remember is telling her my fears and insecurities about my own venture into writing and MFA programs. Despite my own feelings of inadequacy and the intimidation I felt for the woman sitting across from me, something about her also permitted me to be honest.
Sawchyn’s premier book, A Fish Growing Lungs, showcases the woman that I would come to know. Her complexity comes from an ability to meld her intellectual advancement with brutal honesty and genuine inquiry about her mental health, her sometimes rebellious behavior, and navigating a misdiagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder.
This collection of linked essays doesn’t simply rely on what would be an interesting narrative. Sawchyn dives deep into a woman’s search for identity, layering the thoughts of a Nirvana obsessed 18 year old, with misgivings and questions that advance from a dull white noise to a roar in the mind of a woman in her mid-twenties.
My own personal fear when reading books billed as stories about mental health or addiction, is that they will sensationalize that which already holds a mystery to so many. My own journey with Bipolar I disorder and addiction has caused me to be skeptical of books that, often unintentionally, draw attention to the symptoms and drama of the disease rather than explore the complexities of navigating a chemical imbalance that can distort one’s sense of reality. To sensationalize mental illness is an easier, softer route for a writer to take. Stories of being othered because of forces outside of our control, only to overcome them with triumph, are heartwarming and encouraging and predictable. They are an impersonal way of reinforcing a societal push towards “normal.”
The stakes of Sawchyn’s collection does not come from the drama of existing with a misdiagnosis, but rather the threat to the narrator’s security and freedom should she choose to investigate past what doctors, friends, and family have deemed to be true about her. To investigate one’s identity is to separate from others’ perceptions of us. It is having the strength to practice rigorous honesty. Sawchyn writes of her diagnosis, questioning, and discovery of misdiagnosis, “I am the girl who shouted in earnest, the devil made me do it, and then grew up to learn the devil isn’t real, but, goddamn, growing up sure can look like madness.”
In these essays, I read a woman who advocates for herself. A woman who is willing to say that she did not hit her mother because of an episode of psychosis—an uncontrollable reaction—but because in that moment she was willing to consciously inflict pain. The misconception of mental illness is that those who suffer are sometimes absolved of their actions. But what happens when the explanation for your actions dissolves? What happens when you choose to confront a truth about yourself that you believe to be misguided? I think back to that initial meeting with Alysia. We sat for about an hour and in that hour I felt comfortable confronting my own truth of being terrified. Writing personal essays is an investigation of the self, an investigation of perception, an investigation of what a truth looks like from different angles. A Fish Growing Lungs confronts and attacks those truths. She creates an exploration of identity through misunderstanding. And she quotes plenty of good music along the way.
Sarah Wilson is phoebe’s Nonfiction Editor and a third-year MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at George Mason University. She is currently working on a collection of essays that investigates the relationship between isolation and solitude–very apt for the times we’re living in! She lives with her rescue pup, Kevin, outside of Washington DC. Kevin is love in a furry body.