Stavanger, Savid, Radhiah Chowdhury and Mohammad Awad, (eds). Admissions: voices within mental health. Perth: Upswell Publishing, 2022. RRP: $29.99, 352pp, ISBN: 9780645248098.
Discussion of mental health often flirts with terminology. It skirts around reality. In the mental health industry, which I’ve worked in as a counsellor for ten years, people and their experiences are regularly defined and spoken for, rather than extensively listened to. Generic labels and descriptions are placed onto unique circumstances. The power lies in the clinician’s hands.
Many people tell me that they have felt alone in the thick of their experience, that the mental health system speaks a language they don’t resonate with or gain relief from. When I ask what they might need to feel less alone, one of the more common requests is for stories and examples that reflect what’s going on in their head and bodies, in their struggles, in their hard-fought-for triumphs. Admissions: voices within mental health is a collection of such experiences, tilting the power of voice and definition towards those who live in mental ill-health and recovery.
Admissions gathers 105 Australian voices, from the well-known in writing and entertainment circles to thirty emerging writers, and gives them a space to step out of the shadows of stigma and be heard. The book’s poems, essays, stories and artworks dive headfirst into lived experience, demonstrating that the truest perspectives lie beyond the generic diagnosis, even when the diagnosis is accurate. As Lindsay Tuggle writes in her poem, ‘Aftermaths are as personal as fingerprints’ (55).
Thematically, this is a prismatic collection, with the turn of most pages altering what the reader will next see and feel. It rarely settles onto one topic, shifting from the loneliness and displacement of mental ill-health to the relief of having one’s experience validated, from feeling nothing to then feeling every horrible thing imaginable. It then jarringly steps into experiences such as suicide, panic attacks, dissociation, the impact of domestic violence and sexual assault, of transitioning and living with obsessive-compulsions, and psychosis to name a few.
Throughout many of the works, the invisible elements of mental illness are strikingly written and made salient. The bodily experience of what is often thought of as only impacting the mind is explored, as well as how being a minority and facing structural inequalities place additional strain on one’s health. All of this is done with minimal interpretation, allowing the reader to form their own opinions about what has been shared and, I believe, to challenge the mainstream need to neatly summarise a person’s experience around mental health.
There is a beautiful, raw subversiveness to this collection, built from placing the works in reverse alphabetical order, the avoidance of neat descriptors around mental health issues and the destabilising nature of some of the poetry. Some of the pieces may shock or rattle the reader, particularly when it comes to what writers have lived through, such as Stuart Barnes’ poem that addresses rape (291). These works will ripple and shake most readers’ sense of equilibrium. And yet, while Admissions doesn’t coddle the reader at any point, this collection will most likely see them interrogate what they previously understood about mental health, allowing them to arrive at a more compassionate place, whether hearing stories from others, or when experiencing these things themselves.
The interspersed prose and essay pieces provide a stabilising element to the anthology, presenting moments of explanation and grounding. Sam Twyford-Moore’s ‘Preface to The Rapids’ captures the ‘ever-evolving’ (50) discussion around mental health. Amani Haydar’s memoir ‘Retreat’ (196) and cover art delves into the disconnection one feels within their own anatomy. She explores the impact that trauma has on the brain, how the body carries our sadness and our history, and the steps towards reconnecting with one’s body and breath. Kristen Dunphy’s story of wanting to be an anchor for her sick wife (237) and Pascalle Burton’s sharing of her mother’s schizophrenia give insight from those providing support (267); they are filled with tenderness and clarity.
This is not an easy book to read. It is not one to be wolfed down in one sitting. The stories and experiences require pausing, honouring and pondering. Not every piece will impact, but one does need to take time to sit with the emotions that come up during its reading. I fluctuated between devastation, comfort, feeling seen, feeling confused, a draining futility and blooms of hope.
It is a book that rewards slower reading, revealing layers of humour and pathos, such as this line by the Bedroom Philosopher: I’m so lonely / My shadow wants to start seeing other people’ (290). And this, from Lesh Karan’s ‘Tense’:
The truth of where I am now is cortisol walking through a fog of fear in the atmosphere, seeking metamorphosis in a chrysalis of therapists. (157)
A slower, mindful perusal allows time to spot and savour some truly magnificent writing. Elizabeth Tan’s short story ‘Smart Ovens for Lonely People’ (57) about the character’s interaction with a smart oven after considering suicide was a literary highlight. And I won’t spoil the final two lines of Melanie Mununggurr’s poem ‘Point Of No Return’ (129), but they are a masterclass of poetry.
There is no skirting around reality in this collection. Admissions captures the toll of mental ill-health and questions the accepted definitions of what is ill and what is health. Purely by presenting lived experience, it takes fixed ideas around mental health and stretches many of them to fit a breadth of experiences. It might just see some of those outdated, restrictive ideas left entirely in our wake.
Dave Clark is a writer-poet with chronic fatigue syndrome, living in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). He works as a counsellor, creating space for stories of significance. He won the 2022 NT Literary Award (Poetry) and has works published in Bramble, Red Room Poetry, Grieve, Mantissa and Swim Meet Lit.