Monday, September 16, 2013

Review of Marya Hornbacher's "Madness: A Bipolar Life"

Marya Hornbacher's memoir "Madness: A Bipolar Life" was published in 2008, but her originality, creativity, courage, intelligence, and, yes, wackiness make it compelling today, too.

Hornbacher denied for years that she has rapid cycling bipolar disorder, although her episodes occur at least four times a year, can last for less than a day or for months, have landed her in a hospital psychiatric ward several times, and may again. As if that weren't trouble enough for one life, she has also struggled with (and written about) bulimia and addiction. Her addiction to alcohol was key in her refusal to stick to a treatment regime for bipolar disorder that depends on sobriety.

Despite all her problems, Hornbacher has a tremendous will to keep on keeping on, even when her life seems like a nightmare. After slicing her arm from wrist to elbow, she called 911 and then, fading in and out of consciousness as an ambulance delivers her to the hospital, wonders where she is and why. Eventually sanity returns, but she can never count on it to stay.

I, having lived in Santa Fe, was particularly drawn to Hornbacher's description of wandering in a southwestern desert with her crazy friend Sean. When they find themselves without food, water, or a compass, they know they could die. Through luck alone, their drifting takes them to a roadhouse where they eat and drink.

A particularly striking aspect of her life is the fact that people who love Hornbacher surround and help her. And after her mother and father divorce, they continue to cooperate in meeting Marya's needs for parenting that goes well beyond what is asked of most parents. Marya's friends, who are weird in their own interesting ways, also see her through when she can't take care of herself.

When she marries, Hornbacher and her husband, who suffers from periodic, crippling depression, support each other, although like most couples, they have disagreements and flare ups. The scenes of their cuddling in bed, comforting each other when they both have lost a firm grip on sanity, are touching and life affirming.

Despite the challenges, Hornbacher's husband works full-time, and she freelances as a successful writer.

Hornbacher's psychiatrist of many years continues to see her even when she fails to follow his instructions. At last he must tell her she has been soaking her brain in alcohol for so long that the day may not be far off when there is no way to bring her out of psychosis, and that will mean spending the rest of her life locked in a psychiatric care facility. She is already well known in the locked psychiatric ward of a hospital in Minneapolis, the city near which she grew up and where she now lives.

The appalling prospect of permanently losing connection with consensus reality finally shocks Hornbacher into giving up alcohol. Her bipolar medications and electroconvulsive therapy then work as they should. But no treatment currently available will cure her entirely of the symptoms of rapid cycling bipolar disorder. As a result, the obstacles she overcomes make her talents and accomplishments all the more impressive. On top of that, she is a damn fine storyteller.

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