You, Ellen Forney, & Me: An insight to mental illness offered through a graphic memoir

Photo courtesy of Rachel Luck
English major Rachel Luck offers an in-depth analysis of the memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me.

Rachel Luck

“It was a relief to discover that aiming for a balanced life doesn’t mean succumbing to a boring one,” Ellen Forney writes in her graphic memoir, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me.

Marbles is an eye-opening, educational memoir about Forney’s personal journey through learning about bipolar disorder and how to live with it in her own life. There are many things to be learned from the book, including an in-depth look at how people with bipolar disorder actually function from day to day.

We’ve all heard the stereotypes of being hot and cold, on and off like a switch, up and down. These phrases are associated with the term, “bipolar,” which signifies two polar opposites existing at the same time, but it’s much more than that. Through a narrative perspective, it’s so much easier for someone, like myself who does not have the same bipolar disorder as Forney, to understand what she and others have experienced and continue to live with.

According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), 25 percent of the adults in their 2005 survey on bipolar disorder awareness could not name any symptoms of the disorder. Additionally, the majority of adults could not recognize “classic symptoms” of it. The human narrative is a tool, and it could help us all understand each other a bit more. That’s where people like Forney come in.

I too have been going through my own battles with mental illness. Things like depression, anxiety, depersonalization, possible bipolar disorder, are words that have been thrown around me from time to time throughout my life, swirling around my head like angry bats. As I write this, I have a doctor’s appointment set up that will solidify which one of those, if not multiple, I might be suffering from. The initial questioning has been done, blood has been taken, electrocardiogram complete; I’m waiting now. But it could have taken a lot longer to get here had I not read Marbles.

When you have something “wrong” with you, it’s difficult to face that fact, let alone ask for help. You wonder what others will think when you tell them – if you’ll tell them. For some people, it might put an end to things if you say “I’m bipolar” in a first date. I know I’ve rolled my eyes at my grandmother with bipolar disorder one or two or a hundred times. “There she goes, talking a mile a minute. She’s completely out of control,” I’d think – as if there was actually any way for her to choose to stop.

Now, I have friends who are bipolar and I’ve educated myself more about it, and I’ve read this graphic memoir. I don’t know what the doctor will tell me in a few days, but because of Forney, I think I’ll be just fine. Reading it provided me with the bravery that at the very least, it couldn’t hurt to talk to somebody.

And talking to somebody is just what Forney does. In between the things she experiences in the outside world through her various mood states, she shows conversations she’s had with her psychiatrist who is extremely helpful and supportive of her for many years. When things get confusing, when they try to find patterns in Forney’s mood, most importantly they “keep track.”

Keeping track is a huge routine in her battle with bipolar disorder. They work together to find patterns and which medications are working and which aren’t. Through these meetings, it’s like a veil has peeled back that shows what goes on behind the scenes of coping with mental illness. It seems to say: you don’t have to go through this alone. It’s a huge part of understanding oneself and figuring out how to cope.

Another veil that Forney pulls back, is that she is able to show what’s going on on the inside by depicting herself in different ways on the outside. Forney’s art style changes her image from one avatar to another. With these different art styles, she conveys how she feels at certain times within the memoir. Her stages of mania, and depression, if there were no words to explain, are still clear because of this. When manic, her hair is slicked back with a few curls in the front, her clothes consist of knee-high striped socks, combat boots, a black shirt and jewelry. While depressed, her hair is shaggy, she wears sweat pants and a hoodie. These all reflect her mental states and feelings about herself.

Additionally, some scenes are incredibly detailed, while others minimalistic. Her most detailed scene is when she’s receiving a tattoo. There is so much detail that you can see the wrinkles in her face forming as she grimaces from the intense pain. Alternatively, the first depressive episode we see is shown with her in bed wrapped in a blanket, and then on her couch with the same blanket. The lines are soft and simple. Not only is she depicting low energy, but I’m sure those panels took little energy to create. If you have never suffered from mental illness, you can still find some understanding through how she shows what she’s going through.

One thing I’ve been terrified of since I knew that it existed is mood stabilizer medication. As someone who loves to create art in many forms, I would never want to lose that ability. It’s a huge part of who I am. I appreciate Forney discussing her fears of losing her own creativity with meds and showing her internal debates about classic artists and geniuses. What if they had been on medication? Would they have created less artwork? Well, maybe they wouldn’t have killed themselves. Maybe they would have had another 40 years to create art. Even if my own creativity was going to be sacrificed, I now feel that above all else, my health takes precedence.

I think that anyone can benefit from reading Marbles whether their lives have been affected by mental illness or not. Witnessing bipolar disorder from Forney’s perspective can bring understanding to questioning family members, people who’ve just received a daunting diagnosis, people who have been struggling for a long time or anybody that’s just curious.