Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review: Marbles, Ellen Forney's Remarkable Chronicle of Dealing with Mental Illness

Marbles by Ellen Forney
Gotham/Penguin, 2012
Bi-polar disorder is especially insidious, a personality disorder that sends the sufferer toppling through waves of euphoria and despair, uninhibited mania and soul-crushing depression. And it is notoriously difficult to treat - one can spend years looking for the right combination of medications to effectively deal with the opposite forces at play, medications that often carry profoundly negative side-effects. Ellen Forney is a Seattle-based cartoonist, who, at the age of thirty was diagnosed as bi-polar. Marbles from Gotham Books is her frank and entertaining memoir of her journey of self-rediscovery and her long, arduous path to treatment and recovery.

At this point in her life she saw her manic episodes as nothing more than periods of hyper-creativity. As an artist, this worked to her advantage. But there were other things going on than just increased production of her art. In her manic episodes she was impulsive personally, professionally and sexually. She multitasked to the point of non-production. And, upon reflection, she was prone to sudden dark periods that would last months.

Once the diagnosis was made, the path to recovery was clear: medication and therapy. Forney had no problem pursuing the latter, though to her determent she was often less-than-honest with her therapist. It was the medication that scared her. Her concern, one shared by many with personality disorders, was simply that the medications would kill her personality, her creativity. She looked at her manic episodes, despite the exhausting physical tole it took on her, as fuel for her art and indeed her very life. What would happen to her if she was medicated? What would happen to her if she was not?

She was immediately put on regimen of medications to deal common for people with her condition, and immediately began to suffer the side-effects. Many of the medications approved for bi-polar disorder have just as many side-effects as benefits, physical and mental, making it harder for the patient to stick with the meds. While Forney and her doctor experiment with the right combination of meds, she researches the effects of mental illness on notable artists of the past and chronicles her progress through her art.

Forney's memoir is fresh and entertaining, comprehensive on the subjects of bi-polar disorder and the medications involved without coming across like a self-help book. She doesn't shy away from the negative things she had to go through, and her exploration of her therapy was engaging (in a way that Alison Bechdel's frustrating and insipid Are You My Mother simply failed at). Forney's art is also very accessible, and overall you are left with a remarkable, brave and simply fantastic memoir and study of mental illness.

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