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“Is mental illness a curse or is it actually a gift?” Ellen Forney explores this question with stunning vulnerability and clarity in Marbles (Gotham), a graphic memoir about her struggle with bipolar disorder. Already an established cartoonist at the time of her diagnosis, Ellen begins taking medications that promise mental stability, but in reality make her foggy, depressed, and at times completely unable to create. Thus begins a years-long journey in which Ellen struggles to find the right combination of meds, come out to family and friends as bipolar, and understand the link between craziness and creativity. An incredibly personal story, Marbles also examines the lives and work of other famous artists who suffered from mood disorders, including Vincent Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath, and in doing so, points to a need for care and balance that is universal.
Released in November, Marbles has already reached number four on the New York Times Bestseller list for graphic books.Ellen has already collaborated on the National Book Award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and created the Eisner Award-nominated books I Love Led Zeppelin and Monkey Food.
Forney agreed to sit down with Lambda and talk to about the unique challenges and rewards of writing a graphic novel, the sorry state of the mental healthcare industry, and of course, flying squirrels on the moon.
One of the things that really struck me when I was reading Marbles is how adept you are at following your mind and reporting your thought patterns. Did you have that kind of clarity when you were experiencing these things or in the early drafts of the book?
When I was really in the midst of being thrown around emotionally, I kept journals. I think otherwise there would have been a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have remembered. But going back and reading them in order to prepare for the book was a pretty intense experience for me. At the time I was really doing my best to keep a grip on things. I was trying to pin things down and figure out what was going on and attain clarity, but my perspective was limited because I was in the midst of it. There’s a point in the middle of Marbles where I say, “How do I keep track of my mind with my own mind?” And my mental image at the time was of a spoon trying to watch itself stir. I was inside of it and trying to be inside and outside of it at the same time. I think being able to looking at things clearly now has to do with being outside of that time to a significant degree, and then also to do with years and years of therapy—being trained by necessity to keep in touch with myself and how I’m feeling and how I’m doing. It’s a very difficult challenge and it’s never entirely possible but it’s one of the things I’ve been working on for so long.
What made you decide to tell this story as a memoir? Was it from looking at your journals and drawings?
Initially, I didn’t think that I had a story. I had never tried to kill myself, I had never ran down the street naked saying I was God, so I thought, do I really have a story? It took some time and some talking with one cartoonist in particular who is kind of my mentor in Seattle, Jim Woodring. I showed him some ideas that I had about doing a book of case studies [of other people with bipolar disorder] and I thought maybe I’d be in it, or maybe not. But he convinced me that it really was my own story that would be the most interesting. And even then I took a step back from that and wanted to include more context for my story, so I did bring in the mental histories of other artists and writers. A lot of the information came from a book called Touched With Fire. Kay Jameson goes into a lot of detail about the correlation between mood disorders and creativity.
It was really interesting to see mood disorders put into a larger historical context and have you ask the questions that I think a lot of artists ask, which is: Am I crazy and are other artists crazy?
Right, and what does that mean? What does crazy mean? I hope that I wound up bringing up more questions than answers, because I only really have the answer for me. I try to present a number of things that are helpful for me in hopes that other people might consider them. (Like, oh here’s a taste of what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is, or here’s a yoga breathing exercise you can try.)
I’m interested in how you created a narrative that utilized both writing and drawing. Do you ever start just with drawing or start just with writing, or are they always linked together?
They’re definitely linked. I start out, probably, with more writing than drawing. But when I’m writing, part of my mind is thinking about pictures. So I go in and out of using little diagrams and little stick figures and faces. Writing for a comic is a little bit more like writing a screenplay, maybe, not doing a lot of exposition. Sometimes I might write a big description of a kitchen that’s full of clutter and know that I’m not going to use all that, but I’ll still have it in my mind as a drawing. When I was first getting the story together, like an early early draft, I’d have an 11×17 sheet of paper and not worry about panels, just so I could get the story down. That’s basically how I scripted it. I’m a writer too, and when I write just for writing, I’ll use the computer. But when I write just for comics, it’s always on paper.It makes it more immediate. I’m also one of those cartoonists who is really into lettering. All of the writing in the book is hand lettered and that was really important to me.
There’s a picture at the beginning of the book of your back tattoo and there is one line where your hand indents the flesh on your back, and to me, that seems so much more revealing than writing my back is fat, or there is fat on my back partially, because the drawing is so subtle. Do you think there is something revealing about drawing that’s revealing in a different way than writing?
Oh, yes. I’m a real enthusiast for the medium and I teach comics at a college level at Cornish College of the Arts. That gives me the opportunity to keep in touch with different principles and techniques—how to take it apart and how to put it together. I think comics are a unique and engaging literary form because of the way the words and pictures work. You have words and pictures that go together in a very adjoined way, where the pictures are really illustrating the words. (Then there are times when the words can be very specific like “One week later,” or “Zyprexa has these side effects,” but the drawings and renderings give—not just a specific meaning—but also create a mood or emotion.) That, I think, is unique to comics—how they bring you in with both what the words have to offer and then what the pictures have to offer. It winds up being a pretty holistic and complex experience.
Well it ends up being in some ways so much more evocative than just reading a straight narrative.
That’s great! My passion and my talent is to try to create expressiveness and volume from generally as few lines as I can. So that’s what you were picking up on—I wanted my back to be fleshy but with only that one line, so that that came across for you is very satisfying for me.
There’s so much in this book. How did you decide what to leave out?
There were some things that I didn’t really want to talk about. One thing that I didn’t want to put in the book that I ended up putting in was pot. I didn’t want to talk about pot. I figured it would confuse matters. It would confuse me as a character and it really wasn’t necessary. I had a lot of defensiveness around it. But in the research that I did, I found that a significant majority of people with mood disorders have substance use and abuse issues. I just realized I wasn’t creating a full picture of myself and that it was also an important part of many peoples’ experience of having a mood disorder. If I skipped [that detail] I’d be skipping something important. I tried to be understanding and non-judgmental about the decisions I made and what role they had in my thinking and in my treatment and incorporate [pot] in a way that wasn’t going to make me feel really vulnerable, or like I was misrepresenting myself.
People often fear being completely honest with their therapist. They worry that being completely honest may lead to catastrophe. It seems like telling your therapist about smoking pot really moves things along for you in the book.
Yeah that’s one of the reasons I talked about the therapist/patient role, because I think that people who haven’t been in therapy, or found a therapist they click with, don’t have a sense of how totally unique and difficult that relationship is. It’s someone you can talk to in the same way you can write in your journal. Nobody else is like that. You have no social consequences from talking to this human being—none of it is ever going to be repeated, and you’re not going to listen to them talk about their problems. It’s just really different. But pot is one of the only places where I call attention to the ways [therapy] can also be hard, where it feels like talking to a cross between a doctor and a parent.
Did it feel hard to reveal a relationship that wouldn’t be revealed otherwise?
The scenes with my psychiatrist were not nearly as difficult as some of the other scenes. I guess it was kind of interesting to take the wheel and guide the reader. The scenes with my psychiatrist were like an occasional check-in and I definitely brought out the more serious, dry side of her. I mean, she’s funny and she thinks I’m funny, but I needed our scenes together in the book to be much more of a reflection of what I was like in that moment. It was also a time where I could bring out specific information like the side effects of some medicine, or the kinds of things she would ask me and be concerned about. She was a bit of a foil. I mean, she doesn’t always wear all white (laughs).
….And I assume she has pupils behind her glasses.
Was it hard to write about your family and friends knowing that they would read it?
Well, my family is accustomed to my doing comics about them. I have a whole book called Monkey Food which was my 7 in ’75 collection. But this is obviously very different from that. It’s much heavier and was a bigger challenge. They have always been very supportive and so have my friends. They’re all very proud of me. They’ve seen me struggle. That I’ve gotten to this point where I can tell the story for myself and make sense of that time—partly in order to share and help others—has been a long and difficult process. So I think if they’ve had any hesitations, they haven’t voiced them to me—if they have had hesitations, they’ve figured it out on their own. (A few people asked me to change their names, which I totally understand.)
In the book you were afraid to tell people you were bipolar and when you did, they ended up having a much more positive response than you feared. Is that true of people’s reaction to you now?
Oh, for sure, and I’m getting that in spades now. My focus when I was working on the book was that I really needed the book to say what I wanted it to say as best as I could. I had to be happy with it. All along, I knew it was a book that was going to be out there, but when I turned it in, I was like, “Oh my God, here’s my little boat and it’s going out onto the water and I don’t have control over this to a large degree any more.” So then I suddenly felt like my coat was open, my guts were on display, and I was trying to think about how it was going to be critiqued and criticized and what was going to be pointed out and how was I going to deal with this kind of exposure. What has been overwhelming is hearing people say that they struggle with either the same thing themselves or they haven’t found the right meds. At a reading just recently, one man came up to me and told me his mother was bipolar and had committed suicide. I think it’s our inclination to want to share those experiences when we are given the opportunity because we don’t get to talk about mental health stuff much. It’s been an amazing experience for me—thinking I was exposing myself and then having all of these other people respond with, “Me too.” I have so much company.
What are you working on now?
I have a couple things I’m pondering, but they are such little wet lumps of clay. Here’s one of my answers: I’m going to do a fictional graphic novel about flying squirrels on the moon (laughs). That’s one possibility.
But really the making of this book and the dealing with it being out there has been really intense for me, so that’s pretty much what I’m working on. I did a comic that’s going to be in Jezebel soon. It’s a spoof. It’s called “Crazy Mart” and it’s a fake website for branding mental illness, with flags and Pez dispensers for your meds. It’s based on all the rainbow crap and all the pink ribbon crap and just all the merchandizing that is aimed at people who are searching for identity. I got such a kick out of doing it that that’s part of what is next, really. I might not be done with bipolar disorders and mental illness. There’s so much there. I mean, I think the mental health system is just so screwed. It’s something that is ridiculously important and something that I want to continue to speak up about.
You talk in the book about the incredible cost of meds and therapy.
Right. And who has money? Not artists. So who has money for health insurance? Not artists. As a result, a lot of the kind of mental health care that winds up happening is a general practitioner will make a diagnosis and hand over some meds and that’s kind of the extent of it. I know from my experience that it was such a delicate, long process to find what was going to work for me. So to think that just taking a pill has any sort of effectiveness—I mean, my mom’s a doctor, so it’s not like I’m against doctors—but it’s your brain, you need a specialist. You wouldn’t have a general practitioner give you foot surgery, would you?
….And therapy can be such an important part of self-healing and self care.
Therapy also gets you used to the idea that you have to deal with this everyday in a way that means changing your values. That’s was another thing I dealt with in Marbles, which I hope comes across to people who resist [therapy], because I know I did: You have to change a certain amount of your identity. I am no longer a person who can smoke cigarettes and stay up until four because I’m working on something. I cannot do it. And I really, really resented it at first and I had to come to embrace it, not just deal with it but embrace it. I don’t just have this disorder that’s stuck on me, it’s not like a tumor on my thigh that I can cut off. It’s me. I am bipolar, this is me. It’s inextricable from who I am and from my creativity for that matter. So if I’m going to have a good life I have to figure out how to make this me.
Okay, maybe this is a better final question: what do you do when you want to have fun and take a break?
I’m the type of person who works pretty much all the time. The last year that I was working on Marbles I was pretty much just doing that. I could actually stand to have more fun! But how about this? Seattle has beautiful, beautiful parks, and the arboretum where I go for a walk in Marbles and have that whole tree hugging experience is my favorite. I love that park. It’s one of the best places to go and get some perspective and just feel like life is going to be okay.