‘Bleeding the radiator’ [book review]

A review of What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska

It was Cathy Rentzenbrink who put it so beautifully. After many years of struggling with immense grief and its traumatic aftermath, she has come to view crying not as something to be ashamed or scared of, but something necessary, a kind of essential emotional maintenance. She likes to think of it, she tells us, as ‘bleeding the radiator’ – just a task that needs to be done once in a while. More importantly, it’s something that each of us has to do on occasion, in our own way and for whatever reason. Some might cry easily and often; for others, like Rentzenbrink, tears might be something to be feared – the cliff edge that comes before a rapid plunge into the abyss of uncontrollable grief. But ultimately, they are common to all of us: an utterly human experience.

What Doesn't Kill You Elitsa Dermendzhiyska

Cathy Rentzenbrink, whose name may be familiar as the author of the highly acclaimed and heartbreaking memoir The Last Act of Love, is just one of the brilliant writers to have contributed to What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival, an anthology of writing on mental health edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I was first told about this collection, but from the very first lines of David Whyte’s short introductory essay I found myself engrossed and – I’ll admit it – very pleasantly surprised.

Divided into three sections titled ‘Struggle’, ‘Self’ and ‘Striving’, What Doesn’t Kill You brings together short personal essays by fifteen writers, comedians, speakers and academics to discuss mental health in all its facets. The authors’ experiences are wide-ranging, from alcoholism and ADHD to anorexia, panic attacks, trauma, bereavement and abusive relationships, to name just a handful of the subjects touched upon. The final section, ‘Striving’, also contains more ‘general’ topics, such as polar explorer Ben Saunders’ chapter on overcoming his sense of personal failure and the need to prove himself, or Alex Christofi’s exploration of family history and personal identity. Each of them is unique, each deeply personal, and each offers a fascinating – and important – glimpse into the complexities of the human mind.

Mental health can be incredibly difficult to talk about, and the danger with a book of this length – and the attendant wordcounts – is that it could end up being relatively superficial, only scratching the surface or somehow trivialising matters. Fortunately, this isn’t the case at all: each of these authors has previously written, taught or spoken extensively on their personal experiences with mental health, and it really shows. The writing contained in this anthology is beautifully crafted, intimate and individual, and I found each essay giving me pause for thought in its own way. Some of the most important people in my life suffer with their mental health, and I found myself pulled up by this collection, reminded that there is always more to be learned, always more to look for, always more to be talked about where possible.

While all the authors are distinctive and take different approaches to their work – with each of the issues they face actually worthy of its own book – the essays in What Doesn’t Kill You are bound together by their common sense of humanity, of seeking to share and to understand both oneself and others better. Some do take a slightly more ‘road to recovery’ angle, describing how they overcame their personal struggles and developed coping mechanisms, often over many years, but many choose simply to state the facts of their existence, describing the way in which they experience the world, their take on the ‘frontier between what is known and what is not known’. I found these – which included the essays by A. J. Ashworth, Irenosen Okojie, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Hazel Gale and Lily Bailey – to be the most powerful of the entire collection. Although one-sided, they felt like a conversation, one that I know I at least am guilty of having far too infrequently.

As well as being important and thought-provoking in its own right, this collection serves as a brilliant introduction to some truly inspiring authors. Many of the names appearing in the contents list were new to me, but afterwards I found myself searching for their work on the strength of these essays. It’s been a while since I read an anthology – really sat down and read one, rather than dipping in every now and again – and it reminded me how enjoyable an experience it can be, especially when the individual pieces are united by such a tight theme as this one. ‘There’s only ever a going on,’ writes A. J. Ashworth in her beautiful essay ‘Eight’, a complex and moving meditation structured around eight facts about the sun. It is true, what she says – life does, inevitably, go on – but her essay and this entire collection are a powerful reminder of the need not simply to steam on with our own lives, but to stop, look around us, and listen.

What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska is published by Unbound and available in both print and digital. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things for organising an advance review copy and giving me a place on the publication blog tour.

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