Marya Horbacher discusses Madness

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.

City Pages: There are moments early on in Madness where you express embarrassment that you suffer from bipolar. Yet you talk very openly about your experience now. How were you able to become more open?

Marya Hornbacher: I think Wasted was not as difficult because I was a little bit… younger. I think when you’re younger its easier to say, “To hell with it! This is the deal, this is what I have experienced, these are my thoughts on the larger issues, this is the story.” With Madness, I had to suck it up and say, “Alright, I think this is an important issue. I think there are a lot of people that go through this, and are curious about bipolar disorder. This is something I want to write, as a writer.” In the end I wanted to write a book about this, and it’s an important story.

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’re books about my life, but not so much about me. When you’re writing 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 alright, 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: Due to your illness, you have chronological gaps in memory. Was it hard to write a memoir with missing memories? Or was the experience therapeutic in any way?

MH: For me, writing is not therapeutic. I think most people have this idea about memoir and writing; that you write to get it all off your chest. I wasn’t feeling particularly burdened by the story; it’s just a story. I have a really great therapist who I pay a lot of money to help me. Writing Madness was extremely difficult on a personal level. On a technical level, I did a lot of research. I interviewed family, friends, doctors. I went through everything I could find: photographs, letters, medical records, postcards, journals. When you have a fragmented memory, you use tools and triggers to try to fit the rest of the pieces. There are things that are totally AWOL from my head. I don’t remember my 30th birthday party. There are plenty of stories from the book that are gone. But when you are writing a memoir, you have to edit pretty heavily anyway. What happens with memory loss is that it can be inconvenient for the purposes of writing the book. It was annoying, it was challenging, but it’s also not so different from what you do with any memoir, which is shape your recollection.

CP: Do you ever use the act of writing to gage wellness?

MH: I do a lot of keeping track of what’s going on during the day. When you’re manic, the language part of your brain lights up. You think everything you say is fabulously important. So I find that if at the end of the day I have written half a notebook of really fascinating thoughts, I do begin to wonder. The days when I can’t work, it feels like writer’s block. It’s sort of surreal knowing that the language center of my brain has slowed down. I am directly impacted when I hit a mood cycle that’s going to not allow me to write. When I am high, I write a ton, but when sliding down, the writing slows up. So I am able to gage by whether or not I can write whether or not I am on the verge of losing my mind.

CP: Do you feel your illnesses have improved your writing in any way? Hindered?

MH: One of my favorite subjects! I think people have a very lovely idea that mental illness, or rather the concept of madness aids you. I am willing to entertain the notion that the 8 months a year when I can actually function, that it could be helping, but during the 4 months a year I can’t function, doesn’t help so much. There are a lot of people in the arts with mental illness, and they do know that there is a certain degree of connection. People with mental illness often come from families with high rates of mental illness and high rates of creativity, so there’s a genetic link. But on a day-to-day practical level, I am certainly no better at writing because I have mental illness than I would be if I didn’t.

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 that 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.

CP: You talk about the importance of pacing yourself in order to maintain good mental health. How do you integrate a schedule while working in a very unscheduled profession?

MH: I do work in a high pressure job. I am also driven, not because I am bipolar. I love my job, and not because I am bipolar. So there are these things that enable me, as well as things that make it harder. Right now I am on tour. I am running 20 hours a day, which is not ideal. Knowing that living day-to-day this way could cause mania--that’s terrifying. My tendency is to push on through it, but I can’t pretend. Working daily, pacing yourself as much as possible is important. I also know that I can’t go 24-7 anymore just because it’s fun. I have to keep track of every single minute, which is tiresome, but in the long run keeping me sane.

Marya Hornbacher reads Thursday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble (3225 W. 69th St., Edina; 952.920.0633).