Review: Marbles, Ellen Forney

I started keeping a new TBR spreadsheet a few months back, with different tabs for pleasure reading, research reading, and forthcoming books. Maybe some weekend when I’m bored, I’ll set it up so that I can track when I read/review one of the books on the list, and it’ll make automatic pie charts of my percentages of gender, nationality, and whether the American cover was better or the British one. (Currently all that stuff is on another spreadsheet.)

(Yes, I like spreadsheets. Sue me.)

Anyway, Marbles, by Ellen Forney (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), was the very first book added to my new TBR spreadsheet, and I have already read it, although it is only February. I feel like such an efficient reader now! I may make a habit of it. Maybe once a month, I’ll make it that I have to fish or cut bait on the oldest book currently sitting on my TBR spreadsheet. That could be a good way of keeping things currentish while also giving myself a joyous feeling of accomplishment.

Marbles is a memoir of Ellen Forney’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder and her subsequent struggles to understand and manage it. Ana recommended it in a comics round-up post last year, and what caught my eye in the review was this:

Part of me was afraid Marbles was going to be yet another exercise in romanticising mental health issues in the name of ~art~. … But as it turns out, Marbles is very much an exploration of all the reasons why this idea is uncomfortable, and that was what made it such an interesting read for me.

Hooray! Like Ana, I’m unhappy with the notion of Art and Madness They Be Linked — or, more specifically, I’m unhappy with the notion that Sylvia Plath would never have produced such brilliant work if she’d been on Xanax. (Sylvia Plath is here synecdoche for all mentally ill artists in the history of ever.) Forney wonderfully takes on these ideas from all sides in Marbles. When she’s first diagnosed, part of her feels proud: She is a crazy artist! They didn’t have medication and why should she? And part of her feels confident: Manic Ellen can organize everything to make life easy for Future Depressed Ellen.

(I sympathize with that so much! I am always trying to do things that will help out Future Jenny. It’s impossible to know what Future Jenny will have on her plate, you know? Best to take care of it now. I paid $50 into my 2014 taxes when I paid my 2013 taxes. Oh, also, I have already filed my taxes BOOM I am the responsiblest of citizens.)

But when she hits a depressive episode, she finds that it is far less manageable than she expected/remembered. (“My head was a cage of frantic rats” is an experience from my life.) So she dives into the fun and exciting world of psychotropic pharmaceuticals. I loved Forney for discussing the ups and downs of medicating with such honesty and humor: She acknowledges that life on the meds is difficult, but life off of them was becoming impossible. Taking them isn’t a perfect fix. There are side effects, which require additional medications; some meds work badly for her, and some don’t work at all. It’s a frustrating, messy, exhausting struggle to finally reach a balance that works.

Though Forney talks a lot about art and madness, she wonderfully doesn’t draw any broad conclusions, concluding instead that there aren’t broad conclusions to draw. For all her early fears that medication would destroy her creativity, she ultimately realizes that achieving balance with her bipolar disorder enables her to continue being creative. She knows this is true of her, not of everybody, and takes pains to say that different creative people respond differently to mental illness and differently to treatment.

So I liked that. I like it when someone is willing to look at a hard question and give the (potentially) unsatisfying answer, It depends.

I also wanted to mention something else about the diagnosis scene that interested me. Forney’s therapist takes out the DSM-IV and reads through the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Forney recognizes herself in every single one of them, and she thinks this:

My own brilliant, unique personality was neatly outlined right there, in that inanimate stack of paper. My personality reflected a disorder, shared by a group of people.

I was very struck by that. I’ve struggled with depression since high school, and when I’m on a downswing, it helps to read the DSM-IV’s list of symptoms, or take the Beck Depression Inventory. It frames all the things I hate about myself as a disease, not something intrinsic to me; it must be terribly sad and difficult to feel that everything you like about yourself is really just your disease.