Marya Hornbacher was only 22 when she received critical praise for her bestselling memoir, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, which recounted her childhood and teen years spent cycling through health care facilities, state institutions, and family homes in hopes of breaking destructive cycles. The true root of her problem wasn't determined until several years later, when she was diagnosed with Type 1 rapid-cycle bipolar, the most severe and difficult to treat form of the disorder. In Madness: A Bipolar Life she recounts the struggles she's faced in managing the illness with intelligence, honesty, and even humor. The award-winning journalist, lecturer, and author took a moment to chat with City Pages.
CP: You've written two memoirs. Do you ever find it difficult or upsetting that so much of your life is out there?
MH: Yeah. It would be more comfortable if I had never written a book about myself. They are books about my life, but not so much about me. When you're writing a memoir, it's a shaped story, not just about my life. My life story would be drastically boring; nothing really happens. Yeah, people have 300 pages about something I know about, and all right, there are some deep, dark secrets. And I don't exactly come out squeaky clean, but this is just one aspect of a 34-year experience. That fact—that it's only a segment of my life—makes it a little bit more comfortable.
CP: You write about expressing bipolar symptoms at a very young age. Do you think we need to re-evaluate how we diagnose our kids? Is it possible that mental illness starts younger than previously assumed?
MH: It absolutely does. They've known for a while that depression can have a pretty early onset. They've known for a shorter while that there was such as thing as early onset bipolar. There's this idea that we're over-diagnosing and under-diagnosing. I think the understanding of bipolar is changing so rapidly that we don't always know which form we are looking at, we still don't know how many forms there are, or whether we're looking at ADD or bipolar or both. It's very confusing with children because childhood bipolar looks different than adult bipolar. Kids with bipolar often also have ADHD or ADD. More research money needs to be spent on understanding the lifelong development of mental illness. We know what illnesses look like in one form, but we don't always know what it looks like in children, in the geriatric community, or at other various points in life. This is especially important when dealing with bipolar, which is progressive until it is arrested and managed. We have the capacity to know more. I sincerely hope people start looking into childhood diagnostic.
CP: Do you ever get frustrated with the way mental illness is portrayed in the media?
MH: Yes! I think it's one of those things that gets worse before it gets better. We all jump up down saying, "Oh, we're being so understanding. People are crucifying Britney Spears, but she has bipolar, so doesn't that make us fabulous because we are trying to understand mental illness?" We're not trying to understand living with mental illness; we're trying to entertain ourselves with a thing that is still viewed as freaky. It's sort of talked about, so we think we know what it is. Or, like when I see an episode of Law and Order, and there's a bipolar character. He goes manic and pushes someone in front a train, and then he's immediately sorry. I think that's one of the more pervasive and problematic perceptions: That people with mental illness are more violent, which is not true. There's absolutely no higher rate of violence or violent crime among people with mental illness than those without. The whole perception is that when one has mental illness they are across the board crazy. You're not psychotic all the time, and even when you are, you probably don't look that psychotic, you're often just psychotic quietly.
See Hornbacher discuss her writing tonight at Barnes & Noble.
Thu., April 17, 7:30 p.m., 2008