Friday, January 22, 2016

2015 Recommendations in Review: Marbles

Been a while since I posted any kind of review or discussion, but over the next couple days I will be catching up on recommendations from people I received in 2015. First up is a graphic novel called Marbles by Ellen Forney which my cousin Alaina loaned me. We never got to discuss it, so I thought I would share my thoughts here.

I love comics and go through about 3-5 trade paper backs a month. These days, every comic trade is called a graphic novel (which is stupid) because there are books like Maus, Persepolis, Seconds, and Marbles that live up to the title as a format. At its core, Marbles is the story of a bohemian artist being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and coming to terms with what that entails: managing periods of mania and crushing depression, social stigmas, and hardest of all, medication.

Parts of the book really resonated with me. Forney's musings on the relationship between artistry and mental instability echo some of my own inner monologues. She likens her diagnosis to joining a club, whose esteemed members include Van Gogh, Cobain, and dozens of others. There's a there there. Creativity often walks hand in hand with craziness, or wave to each other fondly on two sides of a narrow path. Of course, that romantic cache amounts to little when weighed against the reality of living with a disorder.

That said, I didn't really enjoy the book. It took me a while to figure out why, and I have yet to completely articulate my misgivings, but it boils down to a few factors.

I should confess that I haven't had as hard of a time with bipolar as the author. I was diagnosed with ADD when I was 6, put on meds immediately, and diagnosed with bipolar disorder (which may have been 'activated' by my ADD meds) in high school. The net result is a lot of practice dealing with medication. I learned what to look for as I grew up. If I were diagnosed now, just as I feel like I've found and forged an identity, I imagine it would be much harder to cope with. Despite that acknowledgement, I was annoyed by Forney's crushing despair. Which is kind of terrible of me.

By nature, depression is overwhelming and irrational, and you cannot will yourself to get over it. Blaming somebody for depression is as callous as telling a paraplegic to "walk it off." Stupid trifles are enough to ruin your week, and nothing will make you feel right. Being labeled a borderline insane person is no mere trifle, either. At first I thought it was because she reminded me of my own periods of depression, but one particular panel from the book sticks out in my head: Forney tearfully shares her diagnosis with her mom, and her mom's reaction is to cry in turn and say "why couldn't it be me!" like it's cancer. Something about that pissed me right off. Sure, telling somebody to "walk it off," or even "just take your damn meds" is not productive, but I think melodramatic sympathy can be just as damaging. It enables a kind of victimhood, which might be the most poisonous mentality a person can have.

In similar vein, she is so scared of people's reactions to everyone learning she's bipolar when in my experience, nobody gives a shit. Especially if they already know you. The most severe reaction I've received is "You? Really? No way. You don't seem bipolar," which is meant as a compliment but kind of douchey. Should I encounter somebody who stigmatizes me for a chemical imbalance in my brain, that person is an asshole and I am better off without them. She herself discovers that people don't really mind, but to me, it begged the question of how she perceived people with bipolar disorder prior to her own diagnosis.

The other weird thing is, the central existential threat for Forney is inverted for me. She is (rightly) terrified that drugs will inhibit her creativity and happiness, whereas I am (legitimately) terrified I will one day have to stop taking the drugs that keep me stable and productive. We are in accord about the horror of adjusting medications: it will fuck you up like you cannot believe, and there ain't no side effects like psychoactive side effects (especially lithium. What was her shrink thinking?) It really is an awful process. And like Forney, I've compounded those problems at various points in my life by adjusting my dose on the fly because I thought I knew better than my doctor. So we do have a lot in common. We are members of that same club.

But there's just a fundamental schism in how we react to our 'damage.' My gut reaction is to respond with violence; great vengeance and furious anger. I want to feel like my drugs are weapons I've used to take control of my life, and that I can overcome their side-effects through skillful self awareness in an ongoing battle. Maybe that's juvenile, but it's how I choose to perceive myself, whereas I get the impression that Forney is more of a lover than a fighter. That's not to say she's weak willed. If she were, she just would have let lithium steam roll her, or succumbed to suicide. But her end goal seemed to be peace and dignity despite hardship. Comfort with one's self despite having to fight, versus being comfortable with yourself because you fight. It really is two ways of telling the same story. As an aspiring author, I think that's what bothered me: she told a story that personally resonates in a way that didn't.

I am grateful for the read because my reaction to led to some pretty intense introspection. I would also recommend the book to a couple friends.

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