Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me is Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir about her struggle with bipolar disorder. A graphic novel is a brilliant way to deal with this subject, because words, even words in the hands of a gifted writer, are not quite big enough to depict the illness.
She starts the book with the story of getting her first tattoo, and the reader is plunged into a first-person perspective of insanity right away, in a page full of minutely detailed graphics that hit you all at once, and take time to sink in.
Forney shifts to the story of getting diagnosed during a manic episode — “this sank in like the sun had gone behind the clouds” — and her immediate reluctance to medicate. She is simultaneously excited and scared by her entry to the “crazy artist” club, but whoever heard of a medicated artist? We ride with her through her manic 30th birthday celebration (for everyone who was 7 in ’75) until she plunges into a deep depression, a depression so much worse than her memory of it.
She starts the chapter on depression with a page of wordless featureless line drawings of herself getting out of bed to fall asleep on the couch, drawings that say more about depression than words ever could. She gets started on the long, slow road to finding the right medication through trial and error, does yoga, reads books like Kay Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind” and William Styron’s “Darkess Visible”, all of which helps her. Ultimately, her depression starts lifting under a cocktail of medications, only to have her be swept away on an emotional roller-coaster, looking for balance once again. The creepy self-portraits from her private sketchbook, which she shares in this section of her memoir, are telling and powerful.
Ellen Forney also talks about coming out with her disease, a fear that anyone with a mental disorder can recognize. But real life being less scary than our self-induced nightmares, no-one goes “AAAAAAA!!” or refuses to hire her, or makes the topic fodder for juicy gossip. Instead, she gets a range of supportive, understanding and broadly well-meaning responses. The book wraps up with her finally finding balance and creativity. She asks, “Is bipolar disorder a curse, a source of misery and pain? A dangerous, often life-threatening disease? Or an inextricable, even essential part of many creative personalities? A source of inspiration and profound artistic work? I suppose it’s both. For better and worse, bipolar disorder is an important part of who I am and how I think.”
This graphic memoir succeeds in the difficult balancing act of skimming lightly and humorously over the surface of a debilitating disease while exposing the stark realities of its grim depths. It is a highly recommended read if you wish to understand what a loved one with a mood disorder is going through, and equally good as a lifeline read for someone currently struggling with depression.