A Bipolar Life
Marya Hornbacher
Since I am a little loony myself, I enjoy --- no, better --- I devour books about other loonycakes. Daniel Paul Schreber's autobiography is at the top of the list: a respected judge from 19th century Germany who went bananas (bi-polar affective disorder), was committed, wrote Memoir of My Nervous Illness, which was picked up by Freud in 1911 and made part of his "Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a Case of paranoia (dementia paranoides)." A typical passage of Schreber's is,

    As proof of this statement I will at present only mention the fact that the sun has for years spoken with me in human words and thereby reveals herself as a living being or as the organ of a still higher being behind her.

Then there is Kate Millett's Looney-Bin Trip, published in 1990, which takes us through the nightmare of not only being crazy, but being in the hands of the crazy-industry, with their careful offices, their 1960s operating cells, and acres of lithium. The driving pity of Millett's story is the loss of love ... how we drive away those who could comfort us in the time of being bonkers.

We should mention two other faves. There's a hippy memoir, The Eden Express, by Mark Vonnegut, who plunked himself and his damaged psyche on an island in the Canadian San Juans, and, with the assist of massive inputs of psychedelics, managed to drive himself completely dotty. It's a riveting story; might drive you dotty, too.

Then there is Jim Knipfel's out-of-this-world Quitting the Nairobi Trio, a strange charmer of the life of a crazy: "I'd been trying to kill myself since I was fourteen," Knipfel says. Cutting himself with knives, attempting to hang himself, taking pills. Finally, in 1989, he slashed himself, hung himself, and took pills all at the same time. Why?

    I'd attribute [it] to boredom ... Balancing the checkbook. Making the bed. Cleaning the tub. Walking to the bus stop. Racing the bus. Walking home from the bus stop.

§     §     §

Now comes Marya Hornbacher who with her Madness, fills the mad-lit bill nicely, even ups the stakes, at least for me, if your bill is, like mine, the following: If I am reading a book about The Crazies and as I am reading it I start to feel a little crazy, then the author certainly knows what he or she is doing, knows how to use the very words to drag us into that very isolated space, where one has gone over the precipice, and you begin to think if I am truly crazy, will my friends let me know? Or maybe they will think by telling me the truth they'll be pushing me even further downhill...

...So you begin to watch your self, and watch them too (family and friends), trying to pick up clues, as to whether they think you are acting screwy, so you put on your best behavior, so they won't know what a nut-fudge case you've become, because that might push them away, or they might put you away ... and then you would be alone, with your (sometimes unbearable) madness. Which would be most unbearable.

By these standards, Madness is the Real McCoy. Like a true nut-case, Hornbacher won't shut up with her run-on sentences, at least when she's in the manic stage, there on the road with her equally run-on, edge-city lover Sean,

    The day whirls around in a circle, and we bumble into the night again. It is the next night, or the one after that, or we have been driving for years. The road had narrowed to a red thread down which we are careening. Crazy Sean is telling me he loves me and has to kill me to save me. He's sobbing and trying to take the wheel. We haven't eaten for days. Someone is screaming. It may be me.

Suicide rates among psychiatrists has always been at the upper end of the scale for the professions. How about crazy-lit readers? How about the players? Madness breeds madness: it's an infection of all them mind-germs. Sean and Marilyn up the ante continuously with each other. "He will not shut up, will not stop talking, crying, filling my ears with cacophonous noise."

And when she falls off her manic high, becomes so depressed she cannot move, or sit up, or even cry, we, the reader, move in with her, become a bit unbundled too:

    We sit in a circle, trying to talk. The day program tries to give us something to do other than kill ourselves or lie on the couch thinking about how depressed we are and how much we wish we were dead. It is meant as a crisis-management program only, intended to keep us safe and occupied for as long as the episode lasts.

"From this abysmal low, Down, down, down, It doesn't feel like depression; I am not sad. I am underwater."

And we get to follow Hornbacher on the merry-go-round once again until she bounces up, up so high, she has taken on a job with a new magazine there in Minneapolis, works non-stop, conferences and parties and writing, going non-stop, begins to expand her horizons, thinking beyond Minnesota, maybe New York, maybe think of moving to the east, maybe, she thinks, of taking over the New Yorker, or the New York Times ... and yet again, she's off the cliff.

§     §     §

We were not very impressed with Hornbacher's earlier effort, on bulemia/anorexia --- Wasted. We found it a bit self-indulgent, suggested a little discipline might have helped. (We were also the object of not-a-few snippy letters to the editor too, going on and on about our insensitivity. These letters, fortunately, over the years, have dropped off.)

This made us not all that enthusiastic about taking up Madness. But, I must say, the ups-and-downs in this one have Hornbacher's tale of mere bulimia beat by a mile. The language here is profuse, drags you in to such a degree that one can only wonder at the price of pure nuttiness. And, more importantly, the nagging question behind the whole exercise: how in hell has Hornbacher managed to survive all these years?

She started trying to murder herself when she was but nine years old ... by starving herself to death. In her latest edition, when she's not burning herself out, she's driving everywhere at 90 miles-per-hour. She works twenty-two hours a day, carves up her arms, drinks whole bottles of Scotch (her favorite) at the same time getting loaded up on Klonopin and Depakote which, according to her psychiatrist, do not help when you are zonked out of your mind on two bottles of Dewar's. At one point, she reaches a milestone:

    Even my psychiatrist is disgusted with me. By my count, that makes everyone, including me.

--- Lolita Lark
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