The Next Page / Mental illness, in pictures



It was a cold November evening in New Haven, Conn., when I ducked into the Atticus Bookstore Cafe for some warmth and a chance to browse.

I was at Yale University to do interviews for a series of stories that starts today on depression and phobias, so it was no surprise that Ellen Forney's book almost leapt off the shelves and into my hands.

"Marbles," its sky-blue cover read: "Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me."

Ms. Forney is a comics artist based in Seattle, and over the next couple of days, her drawings and text pulled me into her journey through bipolar illness and her arrival several years ago at a stable, productive plateau in her life.

I called her and asked if she would tell me more about her story. She was happy to oblige.

The 2012 graphic memoir chronicles her life from 1998 to 2002, when she was diagnosed with what used to be called manic-depressive illness and sought the psychiatric help that soon became her lifeline.

Ms. Forney, now 45, said she first began thinking about a book after she drew several painful, revealing drawings when she was in the midst of deep depression, and thought she ought to find some way to archive them. "I was externalizing all of this pain that was inside me, and that was very relieving. I hope never to be able to do drawings like that again."

After she had become stable, and was able to avoid the racing thoughts of her manic highs and the deadening pain of her depressed lows, she began to plan a book in earnest.

"I was just going to do case studies at first, and maybe not include myself, but a colleague and mentor said 'No, it's your personal story that I'm interested in reading.' "

It was the right move, because it is her own tale that gives the book its power, sadness, scariness and humor. But it is also an instructive book, packed with useful information on symptoms, therapies and medications. "It felt right to me to balance my own personal story with that more universal information."

One major theme in the book was her fear of losing her artistic fire if she submitted to medications.

At first, she almost wanted to pride herself on belonging to an exclusive club.

But her psychiatrist helped persuade her that wouldn't be the best attitude to adopt.

"When I was first diagnosed," she recalled, "I really didn't want to take medication because I was terrified it was going to dampen or kill my creativity. And my life is so wrapped up in being an artist; it's who I am. At that point, I was manic.

"But when I slid into a very deep depression, it was just clear to me that I needed help, and that the help that was nearest was my doctor and I just had to trust her.

"I really felt like I was fighting for survival. I never considered suicide, but I had a very strong feeling I was sinking way, way under. So at that point, I felt whatever I had to deal with beyond surviving, I would deal with.

"There are some artists who feel they are most productive when they're manic, and for some people that's true -- they get a ton done, and they don't sleep -- but I wasn't one of those artists, because I would get way too distracted to get much done."

Doing her book as a graphic memoir allowed her to express her ideas in ways that would have been much harder in plain text.

"My style was loopy and dizzy in the way I drew the mania, like when I was having different brainstorms -- there was lots of energy on the page. For the scenes where I was depressed, I used a style that was more stark and static; there was just a lot of low energy."

The imagery also allowed her to express complex ideas in a vivid way -- as she did in describing the highs and lows a bipolar patient can cycle through.

As her publication date neared, "I was steeling myself for when the book was going to be released. I'd always been pretty private about my disorder."

But the reaction she received was overwhelmingly positive. "I've heard from a number of people who found it useful and said it was almost a manual for them, and that's been really satisfying."

It also allowed people with bipolar illness to explain themselves better to friends, lovers and relatives. She said one woman who had been bipolar years before "was really scared what would happen if she would relapse, and she gave 'Marbles' to her partner and told him it was required reading. To be able to enter people's lives in that way has been an honor."

It also has created a second life for her as a public speaker.

In June, she will be a keynote speaker at a conference at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine titled, "Comics & Medicine: From Private Lives to Public Health."

At the end of "Marbles," she depicts her future self talking to her younger, manic self. "You're going to like getting off the emotional roller coaster," her older self says. "Don't worry, you'll still be emotional and you'll still have ups and downs ... [but] you'll do more work than when you were manic because you won't keep wanting to, like, rearrange your bookshelves. [And] people won't freak out when they find out you're bipolar.

"Your life is shifting. You can handle it."

"Thanks, future self," says her younger version, who then wants to know how her life will turn out.

"Well, I can't say things are always easy, but they're good and ... yeah ... I'm OK."

 

Images reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Random House Co., from "Marbles" by Ellen Forney. Copyright © 2012 by Ellen Forney.

"Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me" may be purchased at marblesbyellenforney.com.


Mark Roth (mroth@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1130, and on Twitter: @markomar) covers mental-health issues.

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