November 28, 2012
…I can hear you but then when I say something there’s a lag and it’s like you’re — huh.
There’s this curse with interviews where something always goes screwy with the equipment.
We will battle through!
Cool, so how are you doing these days?
Good. It’s really been great how Marbles has been received. I worked hard and felt good about putting it out there. Having it resonate with so many people has been deeply satisfying.
The book is about discovering you have Bipolar Disorder – and the fear that if you treat it you’ll lose your creative spark. What is the link between creativity and mental illness?
I tried to not just cover my own illness, but also other artists through history that struggled with mental disorders and how they dealt with that. But I also did a lot of research about mood disorders and creativity and found that in many clinical studies there does seem to be a correlation.
I was wondering if the therapy and mood stabilization helped you to get the book together, work with your publisher, promote the book – maybe not the most artistic parts of an endeavor but certainly necessary efforts to be successful.
My question in the beginning of the book was “Are medications going to flatten my creativity?” It became clear to me when I fell into a depression that I wasn’t going to be able to handle this alone and that I was going to have to take meds. And even when I was in that rocking boat — I would say stability has been good for my creativity because I can focus now in a way that I couldn’t when I was having more mercurial swings. I don’t think I would have been able to do this book if I weren’t grounded.
Towards the end of the book you break down the cost of treatment and it was like — thousands a month? What hope is there for people who can’t even come close to affording that?
Hmm, that’s a good question. Hopefully one that we are dealing with in the healthcare reforms right now. Those of us who can get support from our families and friends have a real advantage. I got a lot of help from my mom, specifically financial, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep my apartment. Part of the problem is that so many people are getting diagnosed and medicated by general practitioners. You need a specialist, a psychiatrist. It took such an effort to find the right treatment for me that I can’t imagine a general practitioner would have either the resources or the time. Meds are so expensive because the pharmaceutical companies are screwy and there’s no real regulation on costs. Beyond all that, in my discovering, if we look at creative people – musicians and writers and artists – this is not a group who have that kind of income and often, they don’t have health insurance. So yeah, it’s a big problem and things need to change.
Where do you think you would be now if you just had to struggle through the system, dealing with general practitioners and limited resources?
Worse. But the treatment I got and my psychiatrist were excellent. And I can only draw on that experience. I was lucky. I would be having a much harder time now.
How do you cope with being on meds for the rest of you life?
I’ve incorporated that into who I am. It’s not just meds. It’s not just talk therapy. It’s a lot of self-awareness and exercise and being able to accept that I am the type of person who has to take care of myself in this way. At first I really pushed that away – that’s not me, that’s not the kind of person I am. That scene in Marbles where I’m crying and hugging a tree? I was leaving, feeling relieved from crying on this tree and thinking, it’s a good thing nobody walked by cause they would think I was crazy. And then realizing that… I was crazy. Okay, I guess that’s who I am and I have to accept that about myself.
So you had to learn to take better care of yourself.
In a different way, yeah. Everybody’s experience is different. I can’t say stability is good for everyone’s creativity. I can’t say that meds work for everyone. I’m not the kind of artist anymore who stays up all night working. I have to get a full night’s sleep now. And I accept that. I really didn’t value balance. I didn’t want to be balanced! I wanted to be passionate and sort of slung around. Yoga helped a lot with that. So it was a shift in my identity to learn to be a healthy, grounded person.
I was a psych major and worked many years in the mental hospital myself. Coming from that background, I appreciate you writing this book and I’m glad to see it getting a lot of attention. Plus, I’m a big fan of graphic novels.
Oh great! Yeah, I’m really hoping the format will help. I’ve been a professional cartoonist since ’92 and doing comics ever since I can remember, just drawing pictures and telling myself stories. I’m also a comics educator at Cornish College in Seattle. I think comics are very powerful as a literary medium. And they’re fun to read.
Whether I’m aware of it or not, all of those comics – I love. Do you know Pete Bagge? Did a comic called Hate?
I’ve seen it, yeah.
There’s a page where I’m freaking out at the San Diego comics convention and I think Pete does freaking out so effective. So I used an Ellen version of one of his characters, Valerie, who is also bipolar…. So that’s why his book is on the table in that scene. It’s my homage to Pete Bagge. Also, I’ve always been inspired by Alison Bechdel. When I was doing this book I felt like I was bringing in everything I know.
What did you do before the books?
I used to do a comic series for The Stranger, which is the alternative weekly in Seattle. Originally it was called How Do You Do That? In the course of drawing stuff like “How to Sew an Amputated Finger Back On” I learned to take dry information and make it visually interesting and make it work as a comic. Which isn’t easy. But it prepared me for Marbles when I was explaining what a mood disorder was or going through the different studies. It was important for me to get that information out there.
I think a lot of mental health professionals will be referring this book just for that reason. It’s informative but you can actually read it. Also, it comes from someone who has walked the same path and that’s invaluable.
That’s my hope. I hope that it helps. And that it’s a good read. But I also wrote it as a letter to my younger self. For people who are lost or just got diagnosed or are struggling with medications. I’m hoping therapists will be able to give it to clients and maybe they won’t feel so alone. I was a psych major too.
Being in Seattle – what are your thoughts on Cobain and the parable there between artistic genius and mental illness?
I think it just goes back to the prevalence of mood disorders in artists. I don’t know if Seattle got to experience it more than other groups of creative people, except there was a real spotlight for awhile. Kurt was such a talented, brilliant, tragic figure and suicide is so common in people with mood disorders. I was never specifically suicidal. I knew that my mother loved me so much and that it would just ruin her if I killed myself. I felt much more like I just wanted to disappear. There’s this friend of mine and she’s so strong and I wanted to shrink down really tiny and live in the space in the side of her ribs. I don’t know why. I was just so tired. I valued myself so little I just wanted to hide.
It didn’t get in the book because there just wasn’t room for everything.
It must be hard to write about things that honest.
Yes. It was a really intense and difficult project. But it felt worthwhile for so many reasons. And you know, I found while I was writing that it would not behold me to shy away from the things that were hard. To see that when you cut corners emotionally it’s not only worse for the story – it’s worse for me. It’s like a splinter. It hurts to pull at it or work it with a needle – but you have to go in there. You have to clean it out if you are really going to heal.
People trust us when we show them our scars. I believe people identify with that sort of honesty and humility.
So many people have stories. Almost everyone will tell me about how they struggle with depression or bipolar disorder or are dealing with medications. They’ll tell me about their brother or mother or lover who killed themselves after a long fight with a mental illness. We really don’t have a safe place to tell those stories. There’s a stigma that sort of causes us to keep our stories to ourselves. I was bracing myself for this big coming out because I had been very private, as most of us are, about my struggles. But I’ve been talking about it and that’s taken a lot of the negative power away. So instead of making me more vulnerable, it’s made me stronger. It’s been amazing, Jamie.
So what do you work on from here?
I don’t know what you can put in The Nervous Breakdown but the true answer to that is this: Fuck if I know. (laughs) There’s a part of me that thinks, Perhaps now I should do a graphic novel about squirrels on the moon.
You mention in the book how helpful Led Zeppelin therapy was. What is Led Zeppelin therapy?
My psychiatrist says that mania is a time of your energy going out and depression is a time of your energy going in. I found that I could lose myself in things that I couldn’t in other mood states because I needed that safe place. Like, I could just get lost in children’s books. I think it’s partly this desire to escape. To not be where you are. So Led Zeppelin therapy is just getting lost in that energy and that music.
Maybe you should do a children’s book about Led Zeppelin next.
Cartoonist Ellen Forney grew up in Philadelphia and has lived in Seattle, Washington since 1989. She created the Eisner-nominated comic books I Love Led Zeppelin and Monkey Food, and collaborated with Sherman Alexie on the National Book Award-winning novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. She has been teaching comics at Cornish College of the Arts since 2002. Ellen swims and does yoga, and fixes things with rubber bands and paper clips.