Ellen Forney is the author of several comic books. Her most recent work, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me, covers her bipolar diagnosis and treatment, and examines the romanticised stereotype of the “crazy artist”. As readers we learn about the heredity of the disorder in her family, her experience of disclosing her illness, the financial cost of treatment, and what her self-care plan looks like. We’re also given valuable information about terms we may have previously heard, but not properly understood.
In the pages above, Forney gives a helpful summary of the most common types of mood disorders and states, and describes her experience of mania. As Forney explains, bipolar disorder is characterised by alternating manic and depressive episodes. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders explains a manic episode as “a distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood, lasting at least 1 week”. A manic episode is accompanied by a variety of symptoms, most commonly an increase in goal-oriented activity, and a decreased need for sleep.
While many people are familiar with depression, mania is often misunderstood, perhaps because at a distance it can seem quite positive (ambition and high productivity are qualities we generally think of as desirable, even when their effect is not). In Marbles, Forney does an excellent job of illustrating how tiring and disorientating this experience is for her, particularly when it’s accompanied by a subsequent slide into depression.
Forney also generously portrays her 13-year relationship with her psychiatrist, giving readers a view into what the clinician-client relationship is – or can be – like. Psychiatrists are often characterised as uncaring, in favor of repressing emotions with drugs, and too concerned with medicating their clients to engage with them as individuals. But in Marbles, Forney describes her psychiatrist’s office as a “pocket of safe space”, and the only place she can relax in the midst of a depressive episode. While it’s important to note that this is not everyone’s experience (not every clinician is compassionate, emotionally intelligent, or good at their job), we sometimes lump psychiatry into the ‘bad’ box because the idea of medication is scary and ‘unnatural’, ergo, the people who administer it cannot be trusted.
While we don’t know everything there is to know about the brain (and medication is sometimes exclusively used when complementary talk-therapy with a psychologist could be valuable), many people require medication to live functional, fulfilling lives. In Marbles, we see Forney have regular visits with her psychiatrist, adjusting her medications and dosages to find a balance that is right for her. The regularity and the transparency of these visits help to normalise this type of treatment.
Medication is frequently depicted as a tool to pacify people with mental illnesses in hospital settings. We rarely see medication as something that allows people to be high functioning individuals who make valuable cultural contributions. Forney herself is an artist, speaker, and author of several books. Normalcy and illness aren't necessarily mutually exclusive terms. Nevertheless, Forney struggles with this assumption in Marbles. Concerned that medication will dull her creativity, that her creativity is derived from her illness, and that a stable life is a boring one – she questions her choice to take medication, and finds comfort in a list of accomplished artists who may have had untreated bipolar disorder. However, through her research she finds that the experience of creativity as a medicated artist is too varied and subjective to consider medication a barrier to a creative and normal life. “It was a relief to discover that… a balanced life [does not mean] a boring one. I didn’t need to be manic to get a tattoo in my mouth, or to get into Lake Washington in my clothes, or do my work”.
If you’d like to read Forney’s commentary on some key pages in Marbles, see this 2014 interview.