Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher

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The book is written in such a way that the reader truly experiences Hornbacher’s manias and depressions right along with her.

Reviewed by Shana Scudder

Ten years ago, when Hornbacher’s debut memoir Wasted was published, I was a teenager living in New York City, overwhelmed with my life, and struggling with a relapse of the eating disorder that had been plaguing me for the last seven years. It was to be my last such relapse, due in part to Hornbacher’s grave portrayal of the realities of a disease that is often glamorized by the media. So to say I was anticipating the arrival of her follow-up memoir would be a gross understatement. As soon as I caught wind of its imminent existence, I put in an order at my local bookstore, ensuring that I received a copy before it even hit the shelves.

To say I was not disappointed would be yet another understatement. Just as I did with Wasted, I read Madness practically in one sitting. The book is written in such a way that the reader truly experiences Hornbacher’s manias and depressions right along with her. Not only that, but the way the book is pieced together gives the impression of lost time, which she experienced. Sometimes the next paragraph takes place days or weeks later, and in certain sections, where her perception of time is confused, ours is as well.

Fortunately, Madness leaves the reader with a somewhat more triumphant ending than we are left with in Wasted. However, in both portraits, we sit with her in acceptance that her “normal” might not be the same as everyone else’s. She does a fantastic job explaining that mental illness is the same as any other disease of the body that can be managed but not cured. One has to accept the limitations inherent in such a diagnosis, and adjust her life accordingly. However, she makes it clear that even thought she cannot accomplish everything that her manias tell her she can, she can have a perfectly “normal” life, complete with friends, family, and fulfilling work. She leaves the reader with the hope and reality that sufferers of bipolar depression can still have the lives they want, and that modern medicine has created methods to make such a life possible.

One thing she does not really touch on is the incredibly luxury it is to have access to the vast resources it takes to manage a mental illness. Hornbacher includes statistics at the end of the book that depict how much she pays, both with insurance and out-of-pocket, and these staggering numbers are sobering. Hornbacher is clearly in a financial position to access the care she needs, while many, if not most, people suffering from grave mental illnesses are not. These are the stories we will not read about, because these are the people who cannot work, living either on the street or at the mercy of friends and family who do what they can, giving up their lives just so their loved one can survive.

With this in mind, we can still walk away grateful that treatment for this disorder exists at all, even if it is mostly for the privileged at this time. Hopefully one day, the stigma of mental illness will be lifted, and care will be available for those who need it, regardless of their financial resources. Either way, Hornbacher’s stunning portrait of her struggles give us a brave insight into what is like to live with madness hovering constantly, always threatening to take everything away.

Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher is published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Shana Scudder also writes for Feminist Review.

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