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

I was sent a review copy of this book by the wonderful Irenosen Okojie whose story ‘Three Wise Women’ is an excellent example of what this collection does so well: it creates memorable stories of struggle and survival, distillations of lived experience that are both remembered and inherited, delivered in ways which play with our sense of the straightforward narrative. Of course, not all the stories play with form, but some of my favourites do.

‘Eight’ by A. J. Ashworth combines facts about the sun with an exploration of panic and crippling anxiety. ‘Three Wise Women’ by Irenosen Okojie allows us to reconfigure the heroines of her story, giving the reader the chance to find them within herself. ‘The Lily Show’ by Lily Bailey begins mid sentence, situating us right in the flow of her obsessive compulsive disorder, placing us in the Truman show bubble that she imagines herself within.

Each story confronts different aspects not only of mental health, but of what it means to be alive, of how each of us experiences being human. Alcoholism (‘Not Wasted’ by Ed Mitchell), ADHD (‘ADHD and Me’ by Rury Bremner), anorexia (‘A Disappearing Act’ by Kate Leaver), the pursuit of happiness as a modern day and unhelpful fairytale (‘No Cure for Life’ by Julian Baggini), bipolar disorder (‘My Unremembered Life’ by Emily Reynolds), all these ideas of mental health or ill health and more are discussed. 

One of the beautiful things about Irenosen’s story was the insight it gives into her writing. She writes: ‘I only knew that for as long as I could remember, I had always seen art as a transformative space, but true transformation comes with pain, with sacrifice, with the commitment to take a leap of faith when you do not know how you will land’. Transformation or metamorphosis is at the heart of her work for me, as is language. She goes on to write: ‘my books were languages waiting to be released, slowly forming and shaping as I felt my way through the dark, catching bits of splintered light’. Beautiful. I wish I’d read this earlier so I could have asked her more about it in my interview with her at the start of this year. See it here.

There are similar insights into other writers’ careers as well. Rory Bremner’s account, ‘ADHD and Me’ considers his ADHD a positive driver of his comedy.

Divided into three sections – Struggle, Self and Striving – it is perhaps Elitsa Dermendzhiyska’s story of ‘The Pilgrimage’ that resonates most deeply with me. Elitsa describes choosing to take control over her life by using economics to help her work out how she should most efficiently spend her time, leading to a life that rejected pleasure as something with no useful outcome.

This was very much how I chose to spend my university life, though I’m no economist. I shaved my hair off, I refused to wear jewellry, I wore large baggy clothes. I was angry at the world for forcing me to feel as if I needed to present myself in a certain way, for forcing me to use a pleasing appearance to mediate a young mind reeling from a gap year that exposed the huge disparity in wealth across our world, and it ultimately led to a rejection of anything fun. If something wasn’t productive, if I wasn’t learning from it, then it wasn’t worth doing. If I wasn’t somehow working towards an expression of this disparity through the medium of words (I read English of course), then I was wasting my time. It was a kind of intellectual asceticism. Like Elitsa it was ‘an ambition fuelled not by desire to achieve but a fervent desperation not to fail’, though I admit mine had more desire to achieve in it. And like Elitsa my approach was a very religious one, despite ultimately falling out with Christianity. I felt I needed to be punished for having so much. It seemed deeply unfair and I didn’t know how to live comfortably with my own good fortune.

I say all this to give you an example of how there will be stories and snippets from each, that will speak to you of your own experiences, or of those around you. None of us has lived a life without any form of pain or self-doubt. In this way, the collection does everything that Elitsa Dermendzhiyska hoped it might do. It presents real stories of struggle from real people who have learned how to live with struggle in a way which is very hopeful, though not sentimental. This is not a book that offers a happily ever after – Julian Baggini’s story is particularly interesting on this – it offers embracing the ongoing experience of life that brings sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, hunger, depression as well as hope, clarity, equanimity, love, desire, happiness, all the multitude shifting states of emotion and being. Published by Unbound, What Doesn’t Kill You is a thought-provoking, short book that lingers long in the mind. I thoroughly recommend it. Buy it here or anywhere you can!

I’ll be reviewing Quicksand & Passing by Nella Larsen next. I’ve been allowing myself to fall into the world of The Witcher (it’s safe in there) and have been dipping in and out of a number of books – The Virago Book of Witches, for example – but haven’t kept up with the blog, for which, apologies. You can hear me talking to Shah Hussain, editor of The Virago Book of Witches tomorrow night at City Writes (on Zoom) if you’re up for it. Register here.