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Smitten with Ellen Forney’s illustrations in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutley True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I went to her website and found she had her own book out! Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me is a graphic memoir about life following her bipolar diagnosis.

There are all kinds of reasons to read this book. Whether you have a mental illness, know someone who does, have an interest in what it’s like or just love a well crafted graphic memoir, you’ll find company between these pages.  This isn’t a bleak book. It’s sad in parts, fascinating in others. Forney doesn’t hold back on her fears, perceptions, struggles or pursuit of finding effective treatment. Did I mention there are naked ladies?


The journey begins when Forney is diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly before her 30th birthday. This happened to be a time when she was riding a particularly high mania, loaded with physical energy, in touch with cosmic forces and creatively prolific. She’s swimming, running, throwing parties, MCing her own production. Her view from way up high makes medication look like a one-way ticket to Zombiedom. Why would she want that?

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me by Ellen Forney.

Ellen Forney’s illustration from “Marbles”

At first she attempts to create balance without medicating. After all, the mania boosts her creative energies and, as a professional illustrator, creativity is her livelihood. She tries storing creative ideas to give herself fodder to work off of when depression returns and she’s not able to think as creatively. This sounds like a good plan on paper, but it doesn’t work. As her psychiatrist warned her, memory is mood-specific.

My euphoric mind just couldn’t conjure up that dramatic shift within itself.

Then the euphoria goes away.

She recounts a long period of depression that followed. And guess what? Her health insurance didn’t cover mental health (this was in the 1990s to early 2000’s), which meant visits to her psychiatrist, medications and other expenses were out of pocket. This at the same time her productivity plummets. It’s a harsh reality. Many bipolars work in creative fields. Many creative jobs pay poorly. Expenses sky rocket to thousands of dollars a month at the same time income bottoms out – add this stress to trying to manage a serious illness. She was lucky enough to have some help from her family, but not everybody is.

(With new health laws, plans are required by law to cover some preventive services like screenings. The Affordable Care Act expanded mental health coverage, BUT “affordable” is a questionable choice of words and many people still fall through the cracks.)


Ellen Forney’s illustration from “Marbles”

Some of my favorite illustrations are those depicting her depression. She becomes entranced with her own reflection, particularly when she’s crying. She sounds almost surprised to see that she looks like a sad person, not a monster. It’s a heartbreaking observation that cuts deeper when she draws similarities to van Gogh. He painted more than 40 self portraits in the 4 years he was in and out of institutions before his death. She wonders if he was looking for the demons in his head, or did this calm him?

After this depression lifts, she decides to take medication to help reduce the chance of falling back there. One of the main focuses is the ups and downs of combining different pills. It takes years and years and many wrong turns to eventually find the right mix of medications that stabilizes her mania, depression, sleeplessness, not to mention medicating the side effects of other medications.

She emphasizes that finding effective treatment is worth it. Don’t give up.

In addition to recounting sessions with her doctor, what it was like to tell friends about her disorder and realizing that, with “Herculean” effort, she could still create comics while depressed, Forney looks at the relationship between mental illness and art. There’s a long list of painters, poets and writers known to have had or are suspected of having had the disorder, including Edvard Much’s hallucinationa and his famous The Scream painting. Here I wanted more examination, but that’s not what this book is. The shared research is interesting regardless. Instead she revisits her earlier reluctance to medicate and the assumptions she had that it would zap her creativity.

For me, mania is a dormant volcano, and I would like it to stay that way.

The physical touch of Marbles, the extra weight of the pages feel like someone’s art journal. Paging through reads a bit like a diary that was always intended to be shared. It’s a cool book that addresses a heavy topic in an accessible way. Making peace with the decision to medicate doesn’t come easy, especially when the medications set off their own little landmines, but she trusts her doctor and doesn’t give up on finding a treatment that will allow her to live a life rich with love and art minus the madness.

So glad to have discovered this book and I definitely recommend it. Not to brag, but I’m kind of on a reading hot streak. Sometimes it’s hard to get into a new novel right after finishing one you loved. Marbles is a great book to pick up when you’re in a reading slump. It’s unique and at the same time has a clear, expressive narrative.

If you’re interested in other memoirs on mental illness, check out Stacy Pershall’s Loud in the House of Myself.