“Madness: A Bipolar Life:

by Marya Hornbacher is the shattering sort of memoir about which I’ve a   personal rule of not starting to read before bedtime. Because I won’t want to put it down until it’s finished.

When we first meet Marya, she’s lying on the bathroom floor in a pool of blood, having severed an artery while cutting herself. This is what draws us into the living hell of her condition–rapid-cycling Bipolar I, the worst form of the disease.

We experience Marya’s turbulent early life as she tells us about the “Goat Man”–who her mother tries to assure is a nightmare, but 4-year-old Marya knows is very real. She’s seen him and felt his fur.

Marya also struggles with serious eating disorders, about which she has written in more detail in the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (P.S.)

She adds that back in the 70’s children weren’t diagnosed as bipolar and that even now there’s a debate over whether or not children can have bipolar. Also, we learn that the term “bipolar” was first used in 1980–before that, the illness had been called manic-depression.

As a teen Marya abuses street drugs and, in order to obtain them because she doesn’t have much money, trades promiscuous sex for them. Also, she begins drinking heavily on top of her eating disorders which prove life-threatening and for which she ends up in the hospital.

She’s taken to her mother’s Alpharetta psychiatrist who diagnoses her with depression (which those with eating disorders were thought to suffer from then) and prescribed Prozac–the “in” med of the time, but the worst thing you can give someone with bipolar.

Later in life she experiences the surreal roller-coaster of an illness that, even after she’s finally been properly diagnosed at the age of 24, she still doesn’t take seriously. Because bipolar, like diabetes, is a disease that must be managed throughout one’s life. She doesn’t take presctibed meds and instead drinks in order to self-medicate. One day she has 17 drinks and still doesn’t think she’s had too much. Also, she still has anorexia and bulimia at times. This sort of thing ruins her liver and otherwise threatens her life.

In the best of times, she energetically works for a magazine; in the worst she’s hospitalized more than a few times–sometimes even enduring electroshock treatment which wipes out large blocks of her memories. And because she’s so ill she must endure heavy side-effects from her meds.

Sometimes there’s even some humor in her story–like when she mentions being in a new psychiatrist’s office and notices that she sees the same magazine there as she’s seen in all other psychiatrists’ offices. She adds that the pictures on the waiting room walls are the same in every office. This reminds me of Johnny Carson’s joke about there being only only one fruitcake and around Christmas everybody sends it to everybody else.

Everyone who has bipolar or any other mental illness needs a steady rock in her life–and Marya’s has always been her mother. Her mother visits her when she’s in the hospital and, when she has to recover in her mother’s home, supports her throughout and treats her with kindness and gentleness.

Such a far cry from my own movie-buff mother who, since I was unable to deliiver the “Oscar-winning performance” of tight emotional control she demanded, verbally/emotionally abused me for years as I was growing up–but that’s subject for another diary that I’ll write when I feel up to it. I don’t feel like it now.

I can, however, relate to many other things Marya went through, although so far I’ve escaped the substance abuse, self-injury, and promiscuous sex, and never have had it badly enough to be hospitalized. But in ways, my life has been just as surreal and disjointed between the disease and its fallout as was hers. I’ve been coming down from a manic or high hypomanic episode and mentioned this to my psychiatrist who said I should up the Depakote to 4 a day–so I’ll give that a try. Wish me luck!

“Madness” reads like a novel and is a very fast read. It’a a must read whether you’ve bipolar and want to know about another person’s experience with the condition, know someone with bipolar and want to better understand what they’re going through, or just want to learn about bipolar. You won’t want to miss it.


  1. … LA76.

    It’s so difficult nowadways for anyone with a mental illness to get good treatment.  Drugs can help, but there’s real healing to be done, imo, as well, and that’s where many therapists don’t do enough.  It’s probably because we put such a low priority on mental health.

    I hope everything goes well for you and if you still need volunteers for the NOLA/Gulf Blogathon, you can count me in … I’m already feeling the approach of the 3rd anniversary, and it’s not a nice feeling, sigh.

  2. I too suffer with bipolar however I am “lucky” enough to just have mixed bipolar 2. My life was a constant struggle to control my symptoms (I am unable to tolerate Lithium) until I found Dr Sharma. He literally saved my sanity and most likely my life by starting me on Abilify and sending me for a sleep study. It is so important for us to get good, adequate sleep and my sleep apnea kept me from doing that. While not perfect my life is, for the first time in 53 years, almost normal. Thanks I will read this book. Who knows maybe I will find even more insites than I have now!

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