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Memoir Traces How Cartoonist Lost Her 'Marbles'

Nov 26, 2012
Originally published on November 26, 2012 9:45 am

When you think of mental illness, you don't often think of comics; but for cartoonist Ellen Forney, the two came crashing together just before her 30th birthday. That's when she found out she has bipolar disorder, a diagnosis that finally explained her super-charged highs and debilitating lows.

Now that diagnosis is also the subject of Forney's new graphic memoir. It's called Marbles, as in losing one's marbles — a hint that this memoir is both painful and funny. It opens just after a wild trip to a tattoo parlor leads Forney to a psychiatrist. She joins NPR's Renee Montagne to discuss what that psychiatrist told her and how she came to reconcile her illness with her artwork.


Interview Highlights

On learning she was bipolar

"The psychiatrist was the one, after the second visit, who told me that I was bipolar. And I didn't believe it briefly. We went through the symptoms together in the DSM — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, basically the bible of mental disorders. And we went through the symptoms, one by one, and it sank in. And it was just a very, very strange, strange feeling to see what I had thought of — in particular when I was manic — as super-duper me; exponentially me; very, very, very me. And to see it right there in a book."

On becoming part of "Club Van Gogh," a list of writers and artists with depression

"I think that Van Gogh is really the ultimate crazy artist that we all think of. And so there was a certain sense of cred to being part of that [club]. I found that list both encouraging, and I felt like I had company; and at the same time it was terrifying because all of these artists and writers who had done such brilliant work hadn't been medicated, for the most part."

On the notion that treating her condition might medicate away her creativity

"I find that stability is good for my creativity. There are different artists that I found that feel differently. Poet Anne Sexton was one. It was her opinion that it was the responsibility of artists to feel intense pain so that we could express that for other people who couldn't express it themselves.

"But then, of course, she committed suicide as well. So if you're talking about how creative someone with a mood disorder can be, that really cuts short your creativity and productivity if you cut your own life short."

On a section of the book that shows her being swept into mania

"On the left side of the page, there's this sense of what stability is about. There's a house and a dock. And then, swooping over onto the right side of the page, is me desperately reaching for the dock, with the rope that had secured me there broken and [me] knowing that I was [being] swept into this depiction that I did of mania, which is this big cloud of mermaids and hearts and stars and swirls and woosh! And I could feel that I was slipping, that I was becoming unmoored, and there was really nothing that I could do to keep that from happening."

On the book's sense of humor

"It was very important to have humor in the book. For one, it's much easier to take in a difficult story if there's relief. There's a relief in being able to laugh. Like, for instance, in the book there's a scene where, because of my health insurance that didn't cover mental health, I had to go to the cheapest place for my meds that I could find, and that was Costco. And so I would, very depressed, have to drive myself down to this huge, brightly lit, full of enormous tubs of peanut butter and Twizzlers [Costco], and I would go to the pharmacy there. And they did this thing at the time that I hope they don't do anymore, which is, with all of the rest of the people around, they call your name — your full name, 'Ellen Forney' — and to make sure they have the right prescription, they say, 'Lithium.' And so that kind of thing, maybe it wasn't funny at the time — and I would have to say it was not funny at the time — in retrospect, just the absurdity of it [is] very funny."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All right, for the most part we do not think mental illness and then think: Cartoons. But for cartoonist Ellen Forney, the two came crashing together just before her 30th birthday.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

That's when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That diagnosis suddenly explained her super-charged highs and debilitating lows, and is now the subject of Forney's graphic memoir; something like a graphic novel but here, all true. It's titled "Marbles," as in losing one's marbles, a hint that this memoir is both painful and funny. It opens just after a wild trip to a tattoo parlor leads Forney to a psychiatrist.

ELLEN FORNEY: The psychiatrist was the one, after the second visit, told me that I was bipolar. And I didn't believe it briefly. We went through the symptoms together in the DSM - the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, basically the bible of mental disorders. And we went through the symptoms, one by one, and it sank in. And it was just a very, very strange, strange feeling to see what I had thought of - in particular when I was manic - as super-duper me; exponentially me; very, very, very me. And to see it right there in a book.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, as a collection of symptoms.

FORNEY: Right, exact.

MONTAGNE: And one of the first things you did was you found a list of some very famous writers and artists in history who had suffered from manic depressive illness, or just depression. And at that moment in time, as you describe it, you got a membership card in what you call Club Van Gogh.

FORNEY: Yeah, I think that Van Gogh is really the ultimate crazy artist that we all think of. And so, there was a certain sense of cred to being part of that lineage. I found that list both encouraging and I felt like I had company. And at the same time, it was terrifying because all of these artists and writers, who had done such brilliant work, hadn't been medicated for the most part.

MONTAGNE: You have this fear or this notion that by treating your condition, you just might be medicating away your own creativity.

FORNEY: Well, for me - I don't think this is a spoiler for the book - but I find that stability is good for my creativity. There are different artists that I found that feel differently. Poet Anne Sexton was one. It was her opinion that it was the responsibility of artists to feel intense pain, so that we could express that for other people who couldn't express it themselves.

But then, of course, she committed suicide as well. So if you're talking about how creative someone with a mood disorder can be, that really cuts short your creativity and productivity if you cut your own life short.

MONTAGNE: You know, the words and the pictures entwined in this graphic memoir; a little at the dance. It really seems like you could never have told this story in any other way than this. There's one cartoon in the book where you are being literally swept into mania. That is, you're a little character in a little boat. Can you describe for us?

FORNEY: Sure. On the left side of the page, there's this sense of what stability is about. There's a house and a dock. And then, swooping over onto the right side of the page, is me desperately reaching for the dock, with the rope that had secured me there broken and knowing that I was swept into this depiction that I did of mania, which is this big cloud of mermaids and hearts and stars and swirls and woosh. And I could feel that I was slipping, that I was becoming unmoored, and there was really nothing that I could do to keep that from happening.

MONTAGNE: Well, you would think that most of this book - on both the manic and the depression moments - might be hard to be part of, hard to read. But, in fact, there's quite a bit of joy and humor in this book.

FORNEY: It was very important to have humor in the book. For one, it's much easier to take in a difficult story if there is relief. There's a relief in being able to laugh. Like, for instance, in the book there's a scene where, because of my health insurance that didn't cover mental health, I had to go to the cheapest place for my meds that I could find, and that was Costco.

And so I would, very depressed, have to drive myself down to this huge, brightly lit, full of enormous tubs of peanut butter and Twizzlers. And I would go to the pharmacy there. And they did this thing at the time that I hope they don't do anymore. Which is, with all of the rest of the people around, they call your name - your full name, Ellen Forney, and to make sure they have the right prescription, they say, lithium.

(LAUGHTER)

FORNEY: And so that kind of thing, maybe it wasn't funny at the time - and I would have to say it was not funny at the time - in retrospect, just the absurdity of it - very funny

MONTAGNE: Well, I'm looking at the frame at the side: Here's your lithium, Ms. Forney.

FORNEY: Ah-huh.

MONTAGNE: There's a little sign above your head that says, like a blinking on and off sign saying: Crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

FORNEY: Yes, exactly. Exactly. That's what I was trying to balance in this book; to give a sense of what it was like at the time. I was feeling so lost in the beginning. And I had no idea if things were going to be OK. And now, at this point, I know looking back that they, that they are.

MONTAGNE: Cartoonist Ellen Forney, her new graphic memoir is called "Marbles."

Thank you very much for joining us.

FORNEY: Thank you, Renee, so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And you can see some of the cartoons from Forney's graphic memoir at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Renee Montagne, I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.