Review of “Instability in Six Colors” by Rachel Kallem Whitman
Instability in Six Colors is Rachel Kallem Whitman’s first publication on mental health, available today! Inside Our Minds scored an advance copy through secret channels (or because Rachel presented the widely popular “Madness and Fatness” workshop for our Radical Mental Health Series in 2019), and our founder Alyssa was excited to read through and write a review of the book for our community.
[Access Note: Instability in Six Colors features book chapters and section titles in different colors in order to convey meaning. In reviewing Rachel’s book, I’ve utilized her color scheme with the chapters and associated pieces: “Hypomania” as hot pink, “Mania” as vibrant yellow, “Psychosis” as blood red, “Depression” as black, “Existing” as deep sky blue, “Body” as bright orange, and “Relationships” as grass green.]
Rachel Kallem Whitman is an educator, advocate, and writer who has been “shacking up with bipolar disorder since 2000” (via her Medium page). Instability in Six Colors is a memoir in poems, prose, musings, and quips with bits of knowledge and social justice sprinkled on top. The book is captivating from the first glance – both because of the gorgeous surrealist artwork by Jessica Earhart and the colorful cursive font that highlights each piece. The memoir is divided into chapters based on Rachel’s lived experience and their associated colors: Hypomania, Mania, Psychosis, Depression, and Existing. The chapter divisions are not stark, however, as the colors and topics often run into each other. Pieces on the topics of Body and Relationships are placed throughout the book (completing the book’s six color palette, minus Depression’s black). For those who know her, the memoir reads exactly as Rachel – you hear the poems in her voice, read the stories with her liveliness and energy. The entirety of it is imbibed with the essence of someone who is true to herself, and true to telling her stories in her own voice.
The memoir is packed with stories (242 pages worth!), so I’ve picked out a few of my favorite moments from each color to highlight here:
Hypomania features pieces like “so much fun” that give a description to the slow-burn and inevitable demise of hypomania (which Rachel refers to as “the socially acceptable shade of madness”). Other poems such as “secretly hypomanic” pose questions that punch from the start: “Why must everything be so painfully beautiful and full?”
Mania moves into pieces that explore the height of mania’s contrasting radiance and destruction, showcasing Rachel’s strength in illustrating the extremes of her lived experience (such as in “moonlit mania”):
I beam so brightly for you
until I set my brain on fire.”
The chapter seamlessly transitions into Psychosis, bringing the emotional heights of mania into unsettling, but realistic portrayals of psychosis (such as this one from “my manic opus”):
“And then psychosis comes to stay, and she whittles paper doll chains out of my brain and hangs them all around my psychiatrist’s office. Playful bloody madness dressed as delicate shapes slammed on his white walls. The stains set in and I just know insurance won’t cover it.”
The remainder of Psychosis continues this theme, opening with the powerfully jarring “the night my cat told me to kill myself” and featuring sensory-driven, block-style poems like “in every color:”
“You stencil “god” in dark black, but where’s the fun in that, so I ruin your work with rainbows and rivers and monsoons. Oh, the magnitude of this mess, but I bet you can guess why I trade your word for a landscape of bursting balloons.”
Depression is an understandably dark chapter, featuring somber poems like “sometimes,” which create wordscapes that capture the essence of depression’s sadness and comfortable familiarity:
“Sometimes my sadness is soft.
Soft and familiar.
I can curl up against it, sink into it, surrendering to the quiet, familiar aching.
I know this pain and, in a way, it’s comforting to dissolve into a sorrow that asks nothing of me.”
With a final line of “I choose to exist,” the reader moves into Existing, a chapter that functions as a collection of stories about living with mental illness. There are poems about the positives and side-effects of psychiatric medications (“a message to my meds”), the discrimination people with mental health labels face when going to the doctor (“family history of”), and the not-so-subtle stigma society holds against addiction (“the story of trixie pickles and my story of addiction”).
Throughout all of the chapters are pieces that fall into Rachel’s categories Body and Relationships: pieces on fat acceptance and body positivity (“my fatness,” pp. 9-10), struggles with anorexia (“memories from when i didn’t eat,” pp. 190-191), the intoxicating pull of self-harm (“i cut for me,” pp. 30-31), and how depression affects the ability to feel loved in relationships (“alone,” p. 201). The tactile descriptions from “i eat my crazy” are particularly thought-provoking (p. 77):
“Flossing deep into tender red gums, fishing particles
of Lithium from between my jagged teeth.
No more psychiatric morsels tucked up in the attic of my mouth.”
I appreciate that Rachel writes for a wide variety of audiences both within and outside the mental health community, including alternative mental health communities like ours. Pieces like “my illness, my voice, my life” (pp. 206-208) highlight the importance of respecting people’s identity labels, even those that go against the norm. For example, I’m mentioned in this essay as Rachel’s “professional crazy person” friend, referencing the times we’ve discussed how people have corrected us on our own identity labels. Others like “the pathology of speaking up” (pp. 193-195) shed an important light on medical paternalism and feeling unheard in medical settings, all while maintaining an air of insider humor: “Hi, yes, I’d like to file a complaint. Oh, against Geodon. That name isn’t on file?”
Overall, Instability in Six Colors is an encaptivating narrative about Rachel’s lived experience with mental illness, beautiful written and relatable to a wide-variety of audiences.
Instability in Six Colors arrives on February 18th (available from Barnes & Noble and Amazon). For Pittsburgh locals, there will be a launch party at White Whale Bookstore on Friday, February 21st from 7:00 – 9:00pm (wheelchair accessible venue). RSVP on Facebook.