Lately, people in my life keep asking me: ‘Do you read fiction at all? Or do you just read memoir?’
The first time I’m asked the question, I smile. ‘Of course I read fiction,’ I reply. ‘Don’t you remember me posting Instagram stories about being obsessed with Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach and Vivian Pham’s The Coconut Children during lockdown?’
When I am asked the question again by someone else, at a post-lockdown brunch, I give a vague response but am disquieted by it. Later, I check my book-tracking app. Sure enough, I haven’t been reading many novels. I add about ten novels released in 2020 to my ‘To-Read Pile’ on the app. At bedtime, I order Luster by Raven Leilani, Real Life by Brandon Taylor and Weather by Jenny Offill. They sound fascinating, and I wait impatiently for them to be delivered, but once they arrive I add them to the books stacked high on my desk.
The third time I am asked the question, I try to make connections between the people who are asking me. But there are more differences than similarities. One of them refuses to read any nonfiction. One of them doesn’t like stories about trauma. One of them likes reading nonfiction, seeks out stories about trauma and is probably just being a shit-stirrer.
At home, sick of the newfound freedom of seeing people, I make a beeline for the bathtub. As the water runs, I walk around the house collecting books and then place them on the side of the bath. I have three books with me—Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Kylie Maslen’s Show Me Where It Hurts and Meera Atkinson’s Traumata—as I am committed to bath reading and like to go in over-prepared.
Looking at the three books from the vantage point of the bath, it’s obvious that the question ‘Do you just read memoir?’ isn’t about critiquing memoir. What they are really referring to is mental illness, disability and trauma, since that’s what I choose to read about. It has implications, unsaid follow-up statements like ‘You should read something happier’ and ‘I don’t think the books you read are good for you.’
But I disagree; I recently read Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me, which I finished in the bathtub, incidentally, and I was so delighted by the way she brought everything together at the end I found myself literally exclaiming with pleasure. She writes:
Maybe that’s all bravery is: when your hunger is greater than your fear. I resist the implication that bravery is noble. I must face the things that scare me in order to survive. And survival is not noble. It is not a sacrifice of self but in service to the self.
The books are so good for me that I wish they were prescribed by my psychiatrist along with my medication. They are nourishing. They make me stay in the bath for so long that my wife comes to check on me.
I become prickly about my reading choices. I wait for a fourth person to ask me about reading fiction.
I don’t get asked again. I do get asked about the book I am writing. People listen with interest when I say that I am writing a memoir about mental illness and trauma. I realise they are surprised to hear others talk about mental illness symptoms, diagnoses and treatment without being shy, awkward or apologetic.
But when a new GP, running through a checklist of questions, asks me about the medication I am taking, her brow furrows and she flinches—not upon hearing me name the anti-depressant but in response to the antipsychotic. ‘Is it for—’
‘Bipolar disorder’, I reply, rather than have to hear what she assumes I have or, worse, her reaction. I don’t mention my personality disorder; based on past experience, doctors don’t tend to respond well to those.
In Katerina Bryant’s Hysteria, she writes:
If in fifteen years I am still listening to a GP tell me not to be ashamed when I have merely sat down and asked for a medication refill, I am not sure how I will bear it. Even worse is imagining a young woman staggering through the same questions I have and still have few answers to live with.
Reading Hysteria followed by Kylie Maslen’s Show Me Where It Hurts, I experience the sensation of being seen, finally, in literature. The writers’ experiences are beautifully, artfully woven together, and the books don’t just offer a sense of hope but remind me that I am entitled to better care, better systems, better policy.
I imagine if these books had been around five years ago when I found myself in hospital emergency departments and in consulting rooms with unethical psychiatrists. I would love to go back and provide certain doctors with the names of these books, shoving a list in their faces the same way they thrust diagnoses or prescriptions at me.
Maslen acknowledges a number of hard facts about life with chronic pain, including that:
…in the life of someone with chronic pain, mental illness or disability, coming of age is cyclical rather than permanent. Our lives are spent constantly renegotiating friendships, relationships, employment, housing, financial resources and politics.
I’ve come to think of my health conditions as tropical storms. My body, like a sea of warm water, is at the mercy of erratic and unpredictable fronts, the impacts of which are long-lasting and deeply felt. My pain and mental illnesses have triggers, like the thunderstorms that fuel tropical storms. And just as storms have seasons, the triggers that cause me pain or distress come in patterns. I can’t prevent them; I can only do my best to soothe this particular cycle until it dies out. Then I look around me—at the land that has been flattened and destroyed, as if a cyclone has swept across my life. I begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild, but I never lose sight of the sky, knowing the wind can pick up again at any time.
I’m drawn to the idea of health conditions as tropical storms. In my case, writing has offered a way through these tropical storms or, at least, has helped me when I’m at the rebuilding stage. Also, I’m now in the final year of a PhD exploring the connection between life writing, identity, meaning-making and mental health, and my research has found that this is the case for others, too.
I’ll read the novels in my book piles eventually. I’m sure they offer new, clever and absorbing ways through, whether they write directly in the eye of the storm or adjacent to it.
For now, though, I want to read about people shaking off stigma and shame, and speaking openly about mental illness, disability and trauma.
As my book-tracking app says, I mainly read ‘nonfiction books that are reflective, emotional, and challenging…slow-paced books that are <300 pages long.’ The algorithm is right.
Febos writes at the end of Abandon Me, ‘Pulling a curtain around something doesn’t keep the dark out. It keeps it in.’ And that’s why I remain utterly besotted with nonfiction: darkness and light seep into everything, even when the storm is raging.
Roz Bellamy’s writing has been published in The Big Issue, The Guardian, ISLAND, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, SBS, The Sydney Morning Herald and Growing Up Queer in Australia (Black Inc.)