Madness: A Bipolar Life

madnessMarya Hornbacher is probably best-known for her memoir Wasted, an account of her struggles with eating disorders. Around the time that Wasted was published, Hornbacher was diagnosed with bipolar, and in this book, she describes her diagnosis and treatment.

One of the remarkable things about Hornbacher’s writing is her ability to bring her readers inside her head. When she writes about her manic episodes, the writing is fast and frenetic, and it actually made me feel a little panicked:

I peel out of the driveway, roaring up Thirty-sixth Street, away from my pretty house and sleepy neighborhood. Slow down! I am screaming at myself, Marya, slow down.

And the madness screams back, I won’t!

It slides under my skin, borrowing my body without asking: my hands are its hands, and its hands are filled with an otherworldly strength. Its hands feel the need to lash out, to hit something, so it tightens its white-knuckled fists on the wheel, its bare foot slamming the gas. My head jerks back. Half in abject terror, half in awe, I watch the lights stream across the sky, bending as I careen around corners, up Hennepin, down through the seething nightlife of Lake Street, past the spectrally brilliant movie theater marquee, the crowds a blur, stoplights are not for me!

This gift for description makes it possible for readers to understand the unexplainable, or at least to have some vague sense of why certain ridiculous behaviors make sense to a person in a manic state. Such insights make it a little easier to feel compassion for people dealing with these kinds of problems.

The book mainly focuses on Hornbacher’s own story and gives general facts on bipolar as they are pertinent to the story. It’s her own personal account, and I imagine (even hope) that others’ experiences with bipolar are different. But even if her story isn’t particularly representative, certain aspects of it would probably be common to many with bipolar.

This is a frustrating book to read; I got frustrated with Hornbacher for acting so irrationally and not taking care of herself, with doctors who gave her the wrong meds, with friends and family members who didn’t see what was happening, and with Hornbacher again for not being honest with her doctors. It seems to me, though, that frustration is what coping with this kind of mental illness is all about, so that’s exactly the right reaction to have, and it’s a testimony to Hornbacher’s terrific writing that she could make me care that much.

This entry was posted in Contemporary, Memoir, Nonfiction. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Madness: A Bipolar Life

  1. bookloverlisa says:

    Great review. I have a friend who is bi-polar, and have been wanting to read this book. Now I I will definitely have to. Thanks.

  2. Jenny says:

    You’re not going to believe this, but I was just online looking at this book yesterday. I’ve read Wasted three times, and I couldn’t make up my mind whether this memoir would be painfully self-absorbed or interesting (or both! no reason it can’t be both.) Thanks for the good review!

  3. Teresa says:

    bookloverlisa: I don’t have a close acquaintance with anyone’s who’s bipolar, but if I did, I think I’d like this book just for the chance to see the bipolar perspective. And she does talk a bit at the end about how it affects her friends.

    Jenny: I think you would find this interesting, particularly because of how it sheds an entirely new light on parts of Wasted. (And one of these days we are going to find ourselves reading the same thing at the same time!)

  4. Maggie says:

    Another excellent memoir written by a bipolar author is Life is Like a Line by Cynthia Sabotka. I’ve known people with bipolar disorder, and this is the most brutally honest description of living with bipolar disorder I have ever read. I’ll definitely have to read Madness now so that I can compare!

  5. Hi – I just posted an interview with Marya on my blog, Aberration Nation, that you may want to check out. The link is

  6. Becky says:

    I thought that “bipolar bare: my life’s journey with mental disorder- a memoir” by Carlton Davis was also very good. Gave me a very clear perspective of bipolar disorder. I would be interested in checking out “Madness” also. Thank you for suggesting it.

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