Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Madness: A Bipolar Life--Marya Hornbacher

Library displays work, everybody. It's what lead me to pick up this book. Here I was, just checking out my selections at the Saguaro, and this was on the shelf by the checkout machine. I hadn't read Hornbacher's previous memoir Wasted, which was nominated for a Pulitzer. But as many of you know, The Don was bipolar, and I have a general interest in it. Although I've been assured that my highs aren't mania, that just called "being happy, Kerry."

Oh my god. This is an agonizing read. Hornbacher expertly puts the reader in the middle of her struggle. She came out of her adolescence, which she spent drinking, cutting and starving herself, to a sort of steady place. She's able to write, at least. However, she still suffered from racing brain and deep depressions and mood swings. Then a new psychiatrist tells her she's such a classic case of bipolar that he doesn't know why no one noticed it. Which turns out to be the answer to what's wrong with her, and at least the starting point. Then Hornbacher ignores that for the next several years, preferring to drink, not take her meds, to wind up in hospitals, to tell herself that she's fine and can control things. When she finally does take her illness seriously, it's progressed to the place where it controls her--she spends most of the next several years in the hospital, including a 2 year period where she can't spend more than a week at home before being rehospitalized.

The power in this book stems not from the outline of the story--which is gripping enough, but not unusual. It's Hornbacher's control of her narrative voice, and the way she shows the pace of her thoughts through her writing. An example:

"It seems I've called my mother at some point in the last few days. I've been gone for weeks. My parents--now divorced, my mother living in Minneapolis with her new husband, my father with his new wife in Arizona--knew only that I was on a hiking trip with a friend. They've been worried about me for months, listening to me get crazier and crazier during our infrequent phone calls. Whatever I said to my mother when I called from Oregon must have tipped her off that I was not doing so well (No, not so well). She called her sister, who lives in Oregon, and asked her to come and get me. She also called my sister-in-law, a doctor in a Portland hospital, and made certain a bed in the psych ward was waiting for me.

But I know none of this. All I know is that I am in the beach house, and my aunt is here, and I am near tears with relief. I try to feign normalcy--give her a hug, tell her I just needed a little getaway, the beach house seemed the very place. I don't tell her I didn't even know I was in the beach house. I smile and tell her I'm writing. I babble and chatter, my speech getting faster by the second. I flit from topic to topic, unable to stop, and she nods, looking at me strangely, worried, and I don't want her to be worried, I don't want her to think I'm crazy.

Out of nowhere I hear myself lighting into HMOs and their evils, their failure to cover mental health services, and I am being extremely articulate, honing my argument, and now I am sobbing, and I say I don't know what I am going to do, I have no way to get help, and i think it's possible I may need some help, nothing serious, but maybe something to help me get back on my feet, but they won't cover anything and it's all a bureaucracy with no connection to real people with real problems who need help. I watch tears drip from my nose onto the wood grain of the kitchen table and try to get ahold of myself, to start speaking in a nice, detached, intellectual way. This will surely pursuade my aunt that I am perfectly fine, outburst aside.

Oh, sweetie, she says." (pg 126)

The whole book draws you into the immediacy of the moment, the volatility of Hornbacher's emotions. It's a powerful, engrossing read that draws upon your sympathy without abusing it. Recommended for anyone looking to understand how mental illness affects individuals and why they just won't straighten up and take their meds and take care of themselves.

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