Marbles by Ellen Forney: Book Review

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Marbles by Ellen Forney
Title: Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me
Content Warning: Sex, Drug Use, Mental Illness

My Synopsis:

In her late twenties, author/artist Ellen Forney was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. She knew she had bipolar tendencies but an actual diagnosis shook her. Was she “crazy crazy”? Should she take medication? What if the medication affected her art and her sense of self? In this memoir, Forney leads us through her highs and lows as she learns to live with her diagnosis and tries to find her way to a place of balance and productivity.

My Review:

I got behind on the monthly prompts for the Diversity Reading Challenge in August so I was looking for a short book about mental health or addiction when I stumbled on this title. It seemed like the perfect choice to help me catch up. But what started as a book I was reading simply to check a box quickly became a fascinating read. Forney’s journey helped me learn more about this potentially devastating disorder.

She’s brutally honest about her risky behaviors during manic periods and exactly how low she sinks in her depression. She sinks so low that her psychiatrist is excited when she manages to get out of bed to sleep on the couch for a change. Her artwork perfectly captures the energy of what she’s feeling at any given period. There are lots of arrows connecting ideas and double page spreads to capture everything she’s thinking when she’s up. But everything is darker and tighter when she’s down. She also included some artwork that she created during specific periods to show exactly where her mind was. Those pieces were particularly powerful.

Forney spends a lot of time writing about her struggles with medication. She completely resisted the idea at first. She didn’t want to feel zonked out and lose her creative spark, as she assumed would happen. Eventually, she gives in and starts taking it but she’s still reluctant. She’s honest about the side effects, which can be really unpleasant, and in the end, she tallies up exactly how much her medications, therapy, and alternative therapies cost her per month, even with health insurance. It’s staggering. But I think what surprised me the most is that it literally took years to find a combination of medications that worked for her. Years of mania and crushing depression, seeing the signs of moving toward one end of the spectrum or the other, and having very little control over it. How horrifying that must be.

I liked that the author also includes alternative therapies that worked for her and some that didn’t. As a fairly serious athlete, she looked down on yoga. But when she tried it, she found that it did help her achieve an inner feeling of balance. Charts, breathing exercises, journals, and books (she includes a bibliography) all help her cope. This feels like a rope she throws out for others with a similar diagnosis: “Hey, this worked for me and it might work for you.”

She also spends time researching the lives of famous creators who struggled with bipolar disorder and how it affected their work. This is what most concerns her. She creates charts and lists of who carried the diagnosis (which sometimes came after death, based on historical records), who was hospitalized, who committed suicide, and when their most productive periods occurred. These show exactly how devastating this disorder can be if left untreated.

I highly recommend this for an honest look at what it’s like to face a diagnosis of mental illness, in particular Bipolar I Disorder. If you or someone you love shares the diagnosis, it ultimately gives you hope that things will be okay.

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Reading Challenge:

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