The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania (Part 1)

Today marks the official release of the North American version of The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania, 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 this post, Sam talks to fellow Australian author Mia Walsch.

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By Sam Twyford-Moore. With Mia Walsch

With the publication of The Rapids, I felt the pressing need to talk to a number of other writers about their experiences writing memoir that, in part, deals with issues relating to chronic mental ill health. Mia Walsch is the pseudonym of a popular science fiction writer in Australia. Her first book under this new name is Money for Something, a brisk and bold memoir of her life in the sex work industry, which was published in Australia in July. Mia and I had an email conversation during the COVID-19 lockdown in Australia about her book and how chronic mental health can be expressed and, indeed, intersect with writing.

Sam Twyford-Moore: We went to primary school together! The fact that we’ve both written books that focus on issues relating to mental ill health within a couple of years of each other amazes me endlessly. It makes me proud that writers could come from the world in which we grew up – well outside of Sydney and so deeply working class. Does coming from the background we share mean anything to your writing career?

Mia Walsch: It really does, and it’s interesting to think about this and articulate why and how coming from the suburban/regional/coastal/smallish town we grew up in is so important to my writing and, like shit, overall as a person.

When I think of home I think of the local pub I grew up in, swamp oaks, something on fire somewhere, water birds drying their wings by the lake that stinks. It looms big in my memory with vivid colours and smells, heat, and changes of light. That sense of place via collections of random but deeply specific details has informed the way I worldbuild, especially in my science fiction. It is a bit different to my memoir, which I wrote to exist outside of place. Sydney could well have been a character in Money for Something, but it wasn’t. That period is one of disconnect to everything, and I lost my sense of place for a good long while.

Regarding my career – most certainly. Our primary school was actually pretty great, and I think it gave me a solid base of confidence, ambition, and trust in myself that I could draw on for when I simultaneously entered high school, started getting bullied, and my mental illness came crashing in. One of the greatest sins I remember from that time was trying anything. Being called a “try-hard” was so weird to me, because what was so wrong about trying hard at things you wanted to be good at? I knew I had to protect anything I truly cared about because otherwise my peers ripped it to shreds.

During high school I started to get more insight into the socio-economic position I and a lot of my peers fell into, as well. All the adults I saw seemed to live through an endless working-class grind and a lot of them sought the escapism through heavy alcohol use and drugs. So many people there seemed to have a sense of hopeless(?) destruction, a level of violence below violence itself (perhaps the threat of it?) that comes from this weird sense of no-future.

STM: A great deal of Money for Something details your drug use – in a really powerfully open and honest way – and we know that addiction can be an extremely challenging co-morbidity of chronic mental ill health, which I think you capture well. If anything you seem to really understand how the highs of recreational drugs, and the deep crashing lows they can elicit, seems in line with mental ill health – was that important for you to reflect in the writing?

Mia Walsch is pseudonymous but not anonymous. She is an award-winning author and occasional sex-worker from Melbourne, Australia. Money For Something is her first non-fiction book.

MW: By the time I was seventeen I’d developed a drug dependency that surprised no one, especially me. I actively sought it out as soon as I could. I was ducking out of my school formal to do rails under a bridge. I love doing drugs alone. That’s when you know it’s not normal. I could go out dancing with my friends on pills, be social and have a nice time, like a “normal” person. But then I’d go home and do coke and K for two days on my own, and I knew that was shameful and something to be hidden.

I have always had this hunger inside me. I have to consume, constantly. Lately, I’ve heard of it as a somewhat common ADHD trait – achieving stimulus by snacking, smoking, drinking fluid. I had no idea. I’m constantly coming across little common quirks that people with this diagnosis share that maybe help to explain myself to me. But anyway, my whole life, as long as I remember, I’ve had this thing inside me that needed feeding. Plus, I have no impulse control; when I want something I must have it. Add to all this a massive capacity for and tolerance to drugs, and I was a disaster waiting to happen.

I dunno, I feel like ecstasy is bipolar over an evening: the full spectrum of that high and low. I had a hard time identifying my symptoms for such a long time because I was always swinging up and down from drug use. My shrinks would say, “I cannot work with you until you stop the drugs.” But I needed mental health care to stop the drugs. It was such a pointless cycle.

I’d lived so long feeling bad and thought maybe drugs could make me feel good. And they did! It’s just that they also drained a lot from me as well. It took a long time to realize that.

STM: You write about some often misunderstood and complex forms of mental ill health, including self harm and atypical panic attacks. Was there other writing you encountered that documented these experiences, or do you feel like you were walking across unmapped territory in a way?

MW: Until I read More, Now, Again by Elizabeth Wurtzel, I’d not read about anyone who acted like I did, or who took to drugs with the same disregard for life and limb. I was also heavily invested in the Jezebel/XO Jane thing of the early 2010s, so I was privy to Cat Marnell’s unapologetic chaos too, though I’d long renounced heavy drugs and all binges not food related by then. Their stuff was the closest I’d ever seen to how I was: a treatment-resistant selfish hot-mess. I admired their willingness to own that.

It’s fucking brave for a woman to say, “yep, I’m the worst,” but it is much easier when you’re a white woman with a decent amount of privilege. We are given more permission to act terribly with fewer consequences, and more platforms to talk about it.

Maybe if I’d read more depictions of anxiety, I might have known I was having panic attacks decades earlier. Maybe if I’d seen more people talking about self-harm, I would not struggle as much with my urges. Maybe if I’d seen someone lay out all the ugly and petty and scary and wonderful things about themselves on a page, an act which implies a form of radical self-acceptance, I might have accepted myself sooner. I don’t know.

So, I gave it a try. I’m acting as if. I’ll let you know if it worked.

Describing your own experience of mental illness will always be a singular thing. Everyone is so different. But I see myself here and there. When I read Come by Rita Therese, there was this tiny bit about how she’d have intrusive thoughts about cutting off her fingers and I was like, “what? I thought I was the only one!” Just reading that gave me a tiny spark like I was being seen. When you are this way and someone talks about it, it’s a little bit revelatory. Every writers take on mental illness is unmapped territory. Everyone has their own various nutcasery. But maybe someone who feels some of the ways I do might read my stuff and feel seen for a second, and that’s nice to think about.

STM: You challenge so many stereotypes of sex workers in the book. You write: “Yes I am mentally ill. Sex work provides, for a time, a refuse job that I can take because I am too mentally ill to hold down a regular job. But not all sex workers are mentally ill.” That helps to figure it as employment that has incredible levels of personal emotional investment and, equally, necessary divestment, but that the work should figure as plain and simple employment all the same. That prefacing helps make the scenes portraying your mental ill health episodes as clearly impacting the stability of your employment. It’s rare to read writing about the impact of mental ill health on employment. Was this something you were conscious of?

MW: Oh yes. I mean, I don’t think I have read about it, though I’m sure other writers have explored it at one point or another.

So, up until the pandemic I used to rely heavily on this idea that I had reached a point where yes, I was mentally ill, but I was a “good worker.” I’d had my previous two jobs for six and five years respectively, I work hard on my writing career which itself is like a full-time job I don’t really get paid for, and I am ambitious in my own weird little way. Once COVID-19 hit, all that got stripped away, I had a severe hypomanic episode, and I honestly stopped being able to function.

The idea that mental illness is something that is only okay to have as long as you can still participate in labour just seems like bullshit to me now. I am no less valid a person if at times I am unable to complete accepted forms of labour due to episodic neurochemical changes that I cannot control.

I refer to myself as a “public bonkers person,” which means I am out publicly as someone with complex mental illness. I don’t know how much of that comes from bravery and wanting to change the public discourse, and how much comes from the fact that I am simply unable to hide it. Anyway, I’m pretty sure it’s affected my career negatively. I dunno, in the past five years as my public profile grew, I sent out hundreds of unsuccessful job applications and I do wonder if my mental illness has anything to do with that.

I know my crazy has held me back from a certain level of “success,” which to me just means “not being broke all the time.” So many of my peers are moving into senior positions in their respective fields and here I am, almost forty, still applying for entry level jobs and not even getting those. Gah.

STM: One of the many lovely things about Money for Something is its depiction of an informal support network that slowly forms around you – it’s not the typical imagined support network of parents or partners, but rather a group of friends (including, poignantly, the pseudonymous “Jack” and “Zara”). Support networks figure so prominently in my mind when it comes to treatment of mental ill health – was this something that hit you in the writing of Money for Something, looking back on those early years of your adulthood (when things can be so fractious that support networks can be extremely fragile)?

MW: Whatever is different about my brain has always made friendships difficult. My own self-hatred, even to this day, means that I have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to be around me. I feel often as if I am inflicting myself on my friends and retreat from them at my worst. Mental illness is so isolating, and anyone who can reach through that is brave and patient and kind.

“Zara” supported me as a friend in a way I never felt like I deserved. For years after the era of the book, she always kept an eye on me and offered her help in so many ways. She is a generous person, in every single aspect. You can feel it coming in waves from her. She has boundless energy for the people she cares about and is truly singular, one of those people that just has something special on fire inside. I’m so lucky I know her.

“Jack” saved my life. I didn’t get into our relationship as much as I could have in the book, but without his friendship and generosity and kindness and his putting up with my endless, endless bullshit, I’d probably be dead. He cared for me when I did not care for myself. He also gave me the freedom to fuck up, because I was going to do it anyway, but let me know he’d always catch me if I fell. I dunno, I probably should have put it in, because our 20+ year friendship is a little-seen example of a deep and loving but platonic friendship between a cis man and woman.

Not having much family makes me feel like a balloon on a string sometimes. Like there’s not much to tether me to the earth. Friends do that for me. Friends who love me, who don’t just say but show it, they hold my tether. And they have no obligation to, they choose! That gives me a sense of my validity and value that I’m not able to see on my own.

STM: “Why write?” is such a bloody dull question – but I’m asking it of everyone I’m interviewing here because I think it is interesting when you think about it in relation to mental ill health. Not in a way to romanticize the connections between mental ill health and creativity, but in a way that focuses on simply how it helps. Alice W. Flaherty presents a statistic that writers are ten times more like to be diagnosed with bipolar than the rest of the population, and poets are a staggering forty times more likely. Do you think there’s something compulsive about writing, or something therapeutic? Perhaps not in the self-help sense, but in making a narrative order of things and just getting some of life down on the page?

MW: Why write? Just gotta. There’s so much chatter in my brain that I can’t keep track of it, I have to write it down or it gets lost as fast as it comes.

In relation to my science fiction work, there are whole worlds inside my head. The future universe of my SF book series kind of exists alongside the real world in my brain, like a memory. Right now I’m making a new one for a future book and I can feel it expanding in the box or bubble I keep these worlds in as I read and research and think. Is that weird? It’s probably weird. But it’s cool too. Is it a symptom or side effect or added bonus of my neurodiversity? Maybe. I just feel really lucky that my brain does that and that I have a good handle on words to be able to share it with other people.

I feel like to get down to what I really think, I have to write it, edit it, reframe it, and write it a bit more. I was so glad you asked these insightful questions in writing because if I’d had to answer them on the spot, the answers would be a big jumble of words and emotions and hand gestures no one could see. I’ve been doing a lot of live radio publicity for this book, and I’m just terrible at it. I will forget the question completely, forget what I’m saying in the middle of a sentence.

In the book I say, “I live in a constant present, like an animal.” It’s true. So, by writing about the past I can see its shape, see the cycles of my mood. Through my written exploration of the past, I’ve become better at recognizing my present state. Plus, I gotta write my negative out so that I don’t just vent it to my long-suffering friends or to horrified strangers. But it’s also why I destroy all my journals. I get out all the oily, toxic shit on paper and then shred or burn it. I just thought that if I died or something and people read them, they’d think I was a really unhappy, negative person, and I’m not. I’m actually one of the most cheerful depressed people you’ve ever met.

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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.

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Aevo UTP

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.