Friday, May 16, 2014

Graphic Memoir: Marbles by Ellen Forney

The full title of this week's selection is Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, by Ellen Forney. The graphic memoir came out in 2012 and I was immediately interested. But of course, as often happens, I am just now getting around to reading it about two years later.

The Situation: Ellen Forney is a cartoonist living in Seattle, doing her weekly strip and feeling great. She feels great about her work, she feels even better about her ideas for future projects, and she's generally just enjoying hanging out with friends and living her life. She may seem a bit spastic and manic at times, and has even experienced dramatic lows in the past where she hasn't felt so great. But things are so good right now that she can't even remember what that low was like. So when she is diagnosed as bipolar by her psychologist, Karen, Ellen agrees that she is displaying many of the symptoms of a manic episode, but wants to avoid taking drugs, specifically lithium, at all costs. Also, she doesn't want to give up smoking pot, and sort of neglects to tell Karen about that part of her life. Ellen fears lithium will stifle her creativity. So despite Karen's warning, Ellen believes she can adequately prepare in advance for the oncoming low, and continues to do what she has always done.

The Problem: Just as Karen warned, the low eventually hits Ellen, and it hits her hard. Most days, it is an incredible thing if Ellen is able to stop lying on her bed, only to make it to the living room so she can lie on her couch. Karen immediately prescribes the lithium, but the drug doesn't help much when the patient is already experiencing a low. Now Ellen remembers what the previous lows were really like, and knows she won't be able to get to those fabulous projects her manic self had prepared for her now depressed self. Since Ellen never wants to experience a low like that again, she agrees to try lithium, but doesn't like the side effects, mainly the memory loss. What follows is a process of Karen and Ellen attempting to find just the right cocktail of medication that will stabilize Ellen's mood without ruining her health, or, and possibly most important to Ellen, taking a toll on her creative side. With so many historical creative types that were diagnosed with some form of depression, Ellen wonders if the "crazy artist" is more than just a stereotype. She certainly can't ignore how many of them were known for mental instability. But even more disturbing was for how many that instability ended in suicide.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a graphic memoir that tells of the author's journey through the first few years of her life after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, most of which involves her and her psychologist attempting to find a combination of medicine that works for her. There is much discussion regarding the high number of artists and writers from the past who were known for also having some form of depression, and whether these creative geniuses were creative (or even genius) because of their disorder, or in spite of it. Did the medication help them with their work? Or did it cause their work to suffer? And what effect will the medication have on Ellen? Is it worth the risk to her mental sanity to not take medication in order to guarantee that she stay creative? When trying to answer these questions, Ellen makes use of a pretty long list of famous artists, a list that includes Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Victor Hugo, Mary Shelley, Vincent Van Gogh, and of course, Michelangelo. And the more research she does on the subject, the more she realizes that the artists community has a higher concentration of depressives than most, so there appears to be something behind the cliche of the "crazy artist."

My Verdict: This one had a rough start, but then got really good really quickly. And the fact that it is a graphic story means it is a quick read with very little chance of the reader's interest being lost. With humor and wit and honesty, Forney tells the story of her journey through the early years after her initial diagnosis. There are many moments that will make you laugh, and quite a few that will make you sad. But for me, there were a great many that just made me hopeful and made me smile. By the end of the book, I was rooting for Forney and for her work and creativity. She adequately addresses the issue I am sure many face when considering medication for various conditions. Many people wonder not only about what it will do to their creativity, but also just their personality in general, fearing they will somehow no longer be "themselves." I think Forney's story could help a lot of people, and the way it is presented is just icing on the cake.

Favorite Moment: Although it was incredibly sad, for some reason I appreciated a part of the story where Forney simply drew herself lying on her bed under the covers for several panels in a row, because when she was depressed, this is all that she did and all she felt like doing. Maybe it was how honest it was, but I really liked that.

Favorite Character: If forced to pick someone besides Ellen, I would pick Karen, her psychologist. It was clear to see why Ellen stuck with her throughout this whole exhausting process and never went looking for another doctor, despite the myriad of prescription drugs Karen had her try.

Recommended Reading: As a follow-up to Forney's story I would recommend Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe. Sharpe's story is also about being diagnosed with depression and her trials with various medications and how they affected her. It isn't presented in graphic form, but still an interesting memoir.

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