Page Turner: Ellen Forney
The bisexual cartoonist's memoir "Marbles" graphically portrays her bipolar disorder.
Jacob Peter Fennell
The author Ellen Forney likes to say she’s had three coming outs. First, she announced that she was bisexual—not too hard for someone who lives in Seattle and whose mother is a lesbian. Second, she came out as a cartoonist (rather than becoming a therapist, as she had originally planned), landing gigs at Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger and writing comic books including Lust and I Was Seven in ’75. But her third coming out was the most difficult. She had to tell her friends and family that she has bipolar disorder, a long-term mental illness that, when left untreated, can even lead to suicide.
In the 12 years since she was diagnosed, it has gotten easier to tell loved ones about her condition, as well as to manage it. But her new graphic memoir, Marbles, raises the stakes. In it, she publicly lays bare her affliction: For her it entailed hypersexuality, a pharmacopoeia of medications, and friendships that were strained and broken. She tracks the ups and downs of her illness from its highs, when she was “vibrating with sexual energy” and hooking up with friends and strangers alike, to the crushing lows, when she took Tegretol (Carbamazepine) and could no longer have an orgasm. Forney, with a darkly funny honesty and powerful imagery, illustrates what it means to have a disease that affects only 1 or 2 percent of the adult population—but that most people are afraid to talk about.
Yet how to embark on writing about the most difficult time in her life? “I waited a number of years, until I felt that I was securely stable, so that I could tell the story and not feel like I was going to be breaking down in a much more public way,” Forney says. Part of coming to terms with her illness required looking back at some of the world-changing artists she admires and who, yes, also had mood disorders: among them are Georgia O’Keeffe , Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath. Of O’Keeffe , Forney says in the book, “I was manic for my sexier photo shoots. Could she have been, too?” She then comically draws a high-energy, wild-eyed O’Keeffe shouting, “I want more wine!” Forney at first finds these “crazy artists” inspiring—“If these people are this productive and this amazing, then I thought maybe I could at least get myself together”—but also realizes how problematic it is to romanticize the madness.
After she discovered others who had the same affliction, Forney felt ready to examine her own experience. “Part of the way mania manifested itself in me was hypersexuality,” she says. In the beginning of Marbles, the author includes a nude photo shoot with her and her friends Molly and Anita, which was slated to become a comic for Eros Comix. The images portray a naughty grrl band—they stop by a lingerie store after rehearsal, play dress up with fishnet stockings and garter belts, and have sex in the fitting room. But after loading up on sugar and cigarettes, Forney says, between acts of foreplay, “My brain was sizzling and Anita was right with me.” She kisses Anita with abandon but loses track of her Eros Comix narrative entirely. In fact, this scene’s inclusion in Marbles marks the first time it has seen the light of day. She never completed the book. She says, “When I was manic, I would have a difficult time following through on my ideas. Mania, basically, is either lacking focus or hyper-focused. And then I’d be depressed—it was just hard to have any sort of inspiration.”
Forney depicts depression elegantly. On one wordless page of the book, she shows a simple, faceless figure struggling to get out of bed, wrapping itself up in a comforter, and heading to the living room, only to curl up and sleep on the sofa. Here, her graphic memoir does what text can’t, it portrays a devastating mood for which there are no words. To guide Forney from this state back toward stability, her doctor put her on a cocktail of meds. From Depakote to Lithium to Lamictal to Tegretol, she shows the impact these drugs had on her body and her mind. This last drug crippled her ability to have an orgasm, so she turned to marijuana to take the edge off. In reflecting on this for Marbles, she says, “Here’s one thing that made doing this book difficult: Memory is really bad during depression and during mania. I don’t know what this book would have been like without my journals. And I got my medication history from my psychiatrist, so that I could track the dates and try to remember—‘Oh yeah, when I was on Tegretol, this is what happened.’ ” For the author, this book is, as she describes it, “cathartic,” but it is also a recovery project, a way for her to literally recall her story, so that she can accept it, then share it.
Now that she’s stable, and has been since 2004, she can even put her experience to good use—to the best use: “I’d say it’s been great for my creativity.” No longer wanting to indulge the “crazy artist,” as she did when she was first diagnosed, she sees Marbles as a therapeutic exercise, and hopes it will be an inspiration for others with mood disorders. “It will give maybe some specific ideas to people who have similar outlets, like, ‘Oh, I could do this in my sketchbook!’ ” she says. “To be able to externalize your feelings, to be able to put them out there and put them outside of yourself, to examine them, it’s really super important and very comforting and an important part of therapy.” And what about coming out so publicly as bipolar? “It’s not so terrifying anymore. It’s more exciting, because the reactions that I have gotten have been positive. But it’s definitely opening myself up, something that is very personal and not always easy,” she says. “I don’t know that it’s ever easy.”