Review: What Doesn’t Kill You by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska and Others (2020)

I am very pleased to share my review of this powerful and important non-fiction collection published by Unbound. Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.


“A stellar cast of writers and thinkers.” Nathan Filer

An explorer spends a decade preparing for an expedition to the South Pole; what happens when you live for a goal, but once it’s been accomplished, you discover it’s not enough? A successful broadcast journalist ends up broke, drunk and sleeping rough; what makes alcohol so hard to resist despite its ruinous consequences? A teenage girl tries to disappear by starving herself; what is this force that compels so many women to reduce their size so drastically?

In this essay collection, writers share the struggles that have shaped their lives – loss, depression, addiction, anxiety, trauma, identity and others. But as they take you on a journey to the darkest recesses of their mind, the authors grapple with challenges that haunt us all.


In her foreward, Elitsa Dermendzhiyska asks the following questions:

“How can we live with our demons? How can we grow from our wounds? How can we write another story when the one we wanted is taken away from us?”

As anyone who has struggled with mental health issues knows, there are no easy answers. But one thing which is becoming increasingly clear is that the first step is breaking the silence and having open, honest, often painful conversations about our demons and our wounds. Personally, I am so much more open about my own battles with depression and anxiety than I used to be, partly – and I cannot stress this enough – because others are also more willing to share their stories. This project, clearly a labour of love by Dermendzhiyska, is of vital importance not only for those of us who may have experienced these kinds of issues, but also, I think, for those who have not. Revealing what goes on beneath the surface of the ‘self’ which we present to the world is hugely illuminating in terms of helping us to understand each other a little better, and to treat each other with more compassion and kindness – qualities we need now more than ever.

The book is divided into three sections: ‘Struggle,’ ‘Self,’ and ‘Striving’. Each contains essays by different authors, representing a huge range of experiences and opinions. Every essay deserves its place here, and I took something from all of them. Together they form a record of human experience which is profoundly moving. I was particularly struck by A.J. Ashworth’s ‘Eight,’ in which she recounts in vivid present tense her first ever panic attack; Irenosen Okojie’s beautiful, almost fable-like ‘Three Wise Women,’ telling of how she was saved by her grandmother when she was a baby; Hazel Gale’s incredibly powerful ‘The Last Fight’ and Ben Saunders’ brutally honest ‘A Very Long Walk in a Very Cold Place.’ These latter two essays are particularly shrewd inclusions in this collection as, on the face of it, Gale and Saunders have both completed physical achievements (in kickboxing/boxing and polar exploration respectively) that outwardly seem to represent a kind of ‘success’ unthinkable to those of us for whom getting out of bed is sometimes more than we can manage. There is a lesson here about challenging our assumptions and respecting the fact that we can’t judge the interior lives of others based on what we can see from the outside.

The final point I want to make about this collection is an aesthetic one. Many of these essays are written in gorgeous, startling prose, sometimes experimental, representing the very best of creative non-fiction. The talent on display adds a bittersweet layer of pleasure to the pain of the experiences recounted, and got me thinking deeply about the connection, explicitly mentioned in several of these essays, between creativity and inner struggles. This is a beautiful, affective, important collection that delves into what it means to be an imperfect human. I highly recommend it.

What Doesn’t Kill You is published by Unbound and is out in June. It is available for preorder now.



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