Madness: A Bipolar Life

By Marya Hornbacher

Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

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By the author of the groundbreaking memoir Wasted about her struggle with eating disorders written nearly a decade ago, Marya Hornbacher is back. This time with a look at her struggle with bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) in her new book, Madness: A Bipolar Life. It is a lively biographical tale following the author’s life from age 4 to the present, and all of the stories that she believes related to her bipolar disorder (she wasn’t diagnosed with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder until age 24, 10 years ago).

Ms. Hornbacher’s writing style is raw and in-the-moment, and she doesn’t mince words with very detailed descriptions of her thinking, feelings and behaviors — some of which may be too much for readers easily triggered (especially the self-injury cutting scene which kicks off the book in the Prologue; be warned, the book has more self-injury and possibly triggering behavior throughout).

Bipolar disorder is characterized by mood swings from elated highs to depressing lows. And in rapid cycling, such mood swings occur more frequently than normally. A person with such a diagnosis can typically lead a very challenging life if they don’t find treatment that works for them.

The joy for me in reading a book like this is that it brings into extreme focus one woman’s life and struggle with mental illness in a way rarely experienced by most of us. Her writing style makes it feel like you are there with her — in her life, in her mind — experiencing the same things that she is. You not only get a close-up look of bipolar disorder, but also of all of her attempts at diagnosis and treatment, including multiple hospitalizations. Such episodes paint a picture of how difficult it is to get straight, simple answers for one’s emotional pain and trauma. And how difficult it is to find a treatment regiment that actually works. You end up feeling just as frustrated as she was in trying to get help for her problems.

Real life is messy, and so is the book. Written with real-world dialogue (including the liberal use of profanities) and messy situations of a life in progress, the book is not for the feint of heart. I find Ms. Hornbacher’s style and wit interesting and engrossing; others may find it more self-involved and navel-gazing. But isn’t that why we read a book of this nature — to gain first-hand perspective of what it is to live with a debilitating illness like bipolar?

Ms. Horbacher’s life makes for an amazing read, and this memoir won’t disappoint. The numerous setbacks she experiences only makes you appreciate every time she finds a moment of happiness or peace. Shortly into the book, you begin rooting for her, as though she were some fictional character in a novel. And that’s the clincher — she’s not fictional, she’s real. The stories she tells are of a real person trying to find their way in a hard world that doesn’t always understand or make any allowances for someone struggling with mental illness. Madness, as she notes, isn’t pretty or predictable:

Here’s the Hell of it: madness doesn’t announce itself. There isn’t time to prepare for its coming. It shows up without calling and sits in your kitchen ashing in your plant. You ask how long it plans to stay; it shrugs its shoulders, gets up, and starts digging through the fridge.

That’s the crux of it — even when under treatment and “doing well,” some people with bipolar disorder and other serious mental disorders sometimes feel like they live in a state of siege. They’re never sure when the next episode is going to rear its ugly head once again.

The book is highly recommended, if you can stomach the rawness of it and the descriptions of the self-injury behavior, for anyone who has a loved one in their life grappling with bipolar disorder, or really any serious mental disorder. For people who have bipolar disorder, Ms. Hornbacher’s memoir will likely sound like a familiar tale. 299 pp., softcover.

Psych Central's Recommendation:
Worth Your Time! +++

Your Recommendation: (if you've read this book)
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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2008). Madness: A Bipolar Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/madness-a-bipolar-life/0001372
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.