I just finished reading Madness, Marya Hornbacher’s account of her life leading up to and after the diagnosis of Type I rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, the most severe form of bipolar there is.
All I can say is Hornbacher’s first-hand experience made my own circumstance of living through my mother’s bipolar disorder seem like a cake walk. Hornbacher’s vivid descriptions of the emotional rollercoaster she was already on by the ripe old age of four give the reader a you-are-there feeling throughout. In a video interview www.idream.tv/madness-a-bipolar-life/ she admits that some of the writing was literally penned shortly after emerging from a manic or a depressive episode. It is so raw and ripe it drips off the page.
I was reminded of a Tom Clancy quote I keep taped to the wall in my writing corner to keep my own writing grounded: “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.” Hornbacher’s memoir is full-blown reality and indeed, sometimes it didn’t make sense that one person could survive all the trauma she has lived through. She crumpled into a pile of tears and called herself fat at the age of five. By nine she was bulimic, into drugs and alcohol by thirteen, and at fifteen she was a full-blown anorexic. Along the way were multiple hospital visits, two of them because of nearly fatal situations. In one she “accidentally” cut an artery in her wrist when she was regularly cutting herself, and another time she was given one week to live when her weight dropped to 52 pounds. It seems she had lived a cat’s nine lives well before a psychiatrist finally hit upon the bipolar diagnosis when she was just twenty-four.
Today she is living a relatively normal life, although she cautions that she will always be bipolar and because of the nature of her particular diagnosis, there are still daily challenges. She must stay on meds that need to be closely monitored to accommodate the ever-changing chemical imbalance in her brain. She must remain sober, as alcohol completely cancels out the effectiveness of her meds. In addition, she has found yoga and non-compulsive exercise to be an important part of staying healthy.
I appreciate Hornbacher’s purpose in writing Madness as well as her first book, Wasted, in which she chronicles her struggle with bulimia and anorexia. When asked why she wrote such revealing and sometimes embarrassingly honest books, she says the writing “had everything to do with wanting to contribute a perspective that I felt was useful to the larger social conversation on mental illness.” Of Madness in particular, she says “I wanted there to be a book available to anyone that would open the door to the mind of someone with bipolar, so that there could be a more experiential understanding of the disorder and less a sense of bipolar as ‘other’ or strange.
“Ten years after Wasted I’ve found a greater laughter, a greater peace. If Wasted was, as one reviewer once said (to my never-ending entertainment), ‘a primal scream of a story,’ then I think Madness is a song.”
If you can withstand the raw realism of a bestselling memoir with no-holds-barred craziness, you will find this book both enlightening and hard to put down.