The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania is the second title to be released from our new trade imprint, Aevo UTP. The new imprint delves into the major issues facing today’s world including the climate crisis, urban development, mental health, and popular science.
Written by Sam Twyford-Moore and originally published in Australia, The Rapids is an exploration of manic depression (also known as bipolar disorder). In a new blog series to highlight the ways in which mental health is depicted and discussed in today’s world, Sam talks with other writers about some of their own experiences relating to mental health, similar to those discussed in his book. In Part 1, he spoke with Mia Walsch, a popular science fiction writer in Australia.
In this post, Sam talks to fellow Australian author Kylie Maslen.
By Sam Twyford-Moore. With Kylie Maslen
Kylie Maslen is a writer based in Adelaide. Her debut work of nonfiction Show Me Where it Hurts has just been released in Australia. The book serves as a complex treatise on lived experience with both physical and mental ill health. It’s normal to hear a writer say about their book on a health issue that they “just hope it helps someone else.” I am increasingly of the opinion that in writing about these matters it’s okay to admit that it helps the writer too – that there shouldn’t be stigma about writing having therapeutic or empowering aspects for the writer. That it isn’t self-indulgent. This feels true of Kylie’s achievements in this book. I was thrilled to have a chance to talk to her about over email recently.
Sam Twyford-Moore: Kylie! We worked together at the Emerging Writers’ Festival back in the day. I was Artistic Director at the time, and I was very lucky to work with you as Production Manager. I’m sure in the years since, we’ve had many, many conversations about burn out, particularly as it relates to working in the arts. You write empathically in Show Me Where it Hurts about needing to make the decision to rearrange your working arrangements, so as to take better care of your mental health. How important was it for you to impart this message in the book?
Kylie Maslen: It was really important for me to show the breadth of impact illness has on a person’s life, and naturally work plays a big role in this. For a long time, I carried internalized ableist ideas about a person’s output equaling their self worth. I was operating very close to burn out in 2014–2015 because of this, but it wasn’t until my physical health collapsed in 2017 that I was really forced to reassess what I was capable of doing. I was (and remain) incredibly grateful to my current employers who acknowledge this, and have helped me to safely test these boundaries and create a better working environment in the last few years. But I also recognize that this is a privileged position to be in, so I felt a sense of responsibility to others who might not be able to have these working arrangements to help their colleagues and peers understand what they’re going through every day.
STM: Reading Show Me Where it Hurts for the first time, I was struck by how it has a really powerful linear progression to it, despite being constructed from standalone essays. I’m increasingly interested in the idea that linear narratives around diagnoses can be really valuable for people to grapple with how to navigate the medical world, which can, as we know, be intimidating. It’s possible that people are never diagnosed because of how discouraging that space can be. Was this something you were aware of when writing the book?
KM: Thank you for recognizing this. That progression you speak of wasn’t planned, it just came about organically as the collection was coming together, but I’m really proud of how it has turned out this way.
It’s interesting you raise this idea of diagnostic navigation, which is something I’ve come to understand in relation to my physical disability and illnesses, but something I’m still coming to terms with regarding my complex mental illnesses. I wasn’t diagnosed with Bipolar II until just over two years ago, when I was 35, and I’m still learning about the links between the nerve dysfunction that fuels both my chronic pelvic pain and bipolar (doctors refer to this as comorbidity).
Again, it comes back to a question of privilege: it took me an extraordinary amount of pain and time and loss to get to this point in my life where I feel like I am finally somewhat in control of my health (or as much as I’ll ever be). I’ve been looking for answers since I was 13 years old – almost 25 years now – and I’m white, university educated, and cis-gendered. I wanted to recount what I went through to gain my various diagnoses, and the challenges I face living with disability and mental illness, in the hope that it creates a broader dialogue about what I am exempt from too. I make mention of some of this in the book, but I hope readers understand I am also far from saying I’ve done my bit now and am walking away from these conversations.
STM: The book exists as a dual act of writing about physical and mental ill health and disability – I think you do that so, so well, and I think you bring the writing of them together in a way that I haven’t really seen done before. Talking about living with multiple diagnoses is just as important to make accessible and clear to people – were you aware of anyone writing in this space, or did you feel you were breaking new ground a little bit?
KM: Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias talks of the link between autoimmune conditions and mental illness, and the lack of research into how they relate to each other. While our physical and mental illnesses differ, due to this comorbidity and lack of understanding, I found her essays to be relatable and confirming, as well as a useful reference during my research.
Given that Show Me Where it Hurts is primarily about the experience of living with endometriosis – which is so intertwined with mental health – I couldn’t talk about the physical alone. Like anyone with chronic pain there are impacts on my everyday life that can be incredibly tough: the social isolation that comes from constant rest, the exhaustion and frustration of fatigue, the inability to work and the pressures that creates financially, and because endometriosis also frequently carries painful sex and potential fertility issues this often affects relationships. These things all take a toll on our mental health after we’ve reached a diagnosis. Before that we have often faced years of being told the pain is “all in your head” or “normal” (the average time for an endometriosis diagnosis is seven years). So this narration wasn’t a conscious decision to do something new, it was simply giving a true account of the way the illness affects me and so many others.
STM: You are really pointed when writing about how you had a late diagnosis when it comes to Bipolar II. I fell into the category where I was diagnosed at the typical age – at 22. That happened for a lot of reasons – a little luck, a lot of privilege, and the extremes of my uncharacteristic behaviour at the time just couldn’t have gone on without being looked at. It wasn’t easy, but I can see how it would have been harder if I’d spent years without that diagnosis. “There is no such thing as a perfect diagnosis,” you write. I think that gives a lot of power to people living with uncertainty. Was this something you were writing towards reflecting?
KM: It was important for me to address the late diagnosis of my Bipolar II because it speaks to so much of my experience in healthcare. My behaviours were ignored or dismissed – often blamed on hormonal changes – and it took an enormous amount of personal advocacy to finally receive a diagnosis. I’m fortunate that I now have an incredible team of medical professionals (current count: seven) who work together to manage my physical and mental health, but I had to go through a lot and do a lot of my own research to find them.
My bipolar diagnosis still feels very raw in lots of ways, and I considered not writing about it in this book at all. I’m still questioning a lot of things from my past, and grieving for the person I might have been if I’d been diagnosed earlier. But it was the conversations around mental illness, and specifically bipolar, in pop culture (Lady Dynamite, Silver Linings Playbook, Please Like Me) that really helped me come to terms with my diagnosis, and I thought might be relatable for other illnesses that carry stigma too. It was – and remains – incredibly cathartic to see people on screen “living with uncertainty” that surrounds mental illness, as you say, in order to come to peace with my own.
STM: Show Me Where it Hurts is such an incredibly fun read. It comes to life so quickly and its pop culture analysis is lively too – there’s no stasis here. I think one of the amazing things you do is introduce the reader to meme and internet culture in a way that they haven’t probably thought about it before – that it has an important communal aspect and an empowering capacity for people living with chronic illness. (It’s one of the many reasons I think this would play well with a North American audience!) Did you feel like you were directly communicating a little bit with this community in writing about something this contemporaneous?
MK: Thank you! I have to say very sincerely that I was really inspired by The Rapids in this regard. You really helped to show me a way in which research can be incorporated in a way that is kind on the reader, as well as incorporating broader cultural touchstones to help those watching from the stands (bleachers for the North Americans). Your analysis of Kanye West and Carrie Fisher are particular examples I looked to.
The use of memes and internet culture came from my experience – and frustration – of often not having the words to describe how I felt in a text or a call, but then laughing out loud to a meme on Instagram because it captured what I couldn’t express. Online support groups and accounts can be a lifeline when you’re bed-bound, isolated, and unwell. Those communities are such safe spaces for me, and so many others, and I definitely was conscious of doing them proud in the opening chapter in particular.
Including internet culture as part of a broader cultural criticism was also part of my insistence in keeping this book accessible and easy to read. I was very conscious of how I’m not able to read SeRiOuS LiTeRaTuRe when I’m in pain or when I’m struggling with my mental health, so I wanted people to be able to pick up this book when they’re feeling a bit shit and feel a little less alone.
STM: I’ve been asking everyone I’ve been interviewing in this series the rather insipid question “Why write?” But obviously that question takes on a different kind of political and cultural agency when you ask it of someone living with chronic illness. I think so much of living with psychological ill health is about narrative – it’s there for the diagnostic phase, and it forms a big part of treatment through talk therapy. Why not get it down on the page at the same time? I feel like you answer this perfectly in the book, but for those who are yet to read it… why write?
MK: Above my desk I have a quote from James Murphy, the singer from the band LCD Soundsystem, that reads “The best way to complain is to make things.” Writing Show Me Where it Hurts was in no way therapeutic – often it was the complete opposite as I wrote and thought about my traumas in great detail. I’m sure you can relate to this in the way you so generously share so much of yourself in The Rapids. But like you say there is an advocacy to this work, and that helped relieve me of the idea that I was just another person too young to be writing a memoir. The form – essays incorporating cultural criticism – helped with that, too.
Ultimately, I wrote Show Me Where it Hurts because I know if it had been available to me twenty/ten/five/etc. years ago it would have made an enormous difference to not only my life but of those around me to whom I struggled to articulate what I was going through. I wanted readers with invisible illnesses to know it’s not in their head, their pain is real. I wanted this book to be an act of validation as comfort, as well as a call to action. I don’t have the ability to run for parliament or work in healthcare, but I can write. So writing is my way of being useful in the hope of change.
Sam Twyford Moore’s The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania is now available to order.
Click here to read an excerpt from the book.
Aevo UTP books delve into the major issues facing today’s world. Written by leading experts and intended for the intellectually curious, these books tackle a range of topics including the climate crisis, urban development, mental health, and popular science.
Click here to view the full list of Aevo UTP titles.