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Ellen Forney Wants Those Living with Bipolar Disorder to Rock Steady

Cartoonist Ellen Forney’s 2012 memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me began with her diagnosis as bipolar, sought to understand the archetype of the “crazy” artist, and followed her struggle to find mental and emotional balance. Washington Post, Time, Entertainment Weekly and Publishers Weekly were among the many publications to rank it among that year’s finest graphic novels.

Having lived stable since 2002, Forney was in a good place to look back, dig into her experiences, and share them in the pages of Marbles. But getting stable is only part of the story. These days, Forney continues to ride the seesaw of her emotions and that daily struggle served as the genesis for her new companion book from Fantagraphics, Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from My Bipolar Life, a manual of tips and counsel for living with mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder.

RELATED: Ellen Forney Talks “Marbles,” Dealing with Bipolar Disorder

“[Rock Steady] was definitely a very different challenge,” Forney explained in an interview with CBR. “It certainly wasn’t as personally and emotionally wrenching. Marbles took a lot of difficult and painful self-examination, getting that down on paper and sharing it. Rock Steady was coming from a much more grounded place. It was a lot of gathering and a lot of work, but it definitely did feel more stable.

“We stopped calling it a sequel [to Marbles]. I consider it a companion book. That story arc from being really in the thick of mood swings and getting my diagnosis, the real struggle to get stable as much as one can be without a cure -- it’s a tidy story arc in a way,” she said. “But getting stability isn’t maintaining stability, and that’s where I’m at now. It’s been years and years, and it’s not as dramatic, so what is the story now? And what it is is a lot tools and a lot of examining. In Rock Steady, I did a lot more specifically getting into analyzing all the different aspects of how to be stable.”

The experience of putting all she’d learned about living with bipolar disorder down on paper surprised Forney. “Oh my god, I learned so much when I did this.” She even noted that she discovered “new tools for me in the course of doing the book. In that way, after Marbles, the story really is ‘How do you maintain?’ In that way, it’s a continuation. Marbles was my personal story with some tools folded in, and basically Rock Steady is the flip of that. It’s tools with some of my personal stories told.”

Ironically, the existence of Rock Steady will be providing new challenges to Forney’s 16 years of stability, as she’ll be touring in support of the new book. Fortunately, everywhere she travels, she’ll have copies of her own guidebook to refer to.

“[The stress of a book tour is] definitely [something] I had to consider,” she admitted. “One of my main points in Rock Steady relates to the title itself. That’s basically what life is, and how it is we have to think about dealing with stability. We’re going to get thrown off whatever we might consider our optimal way of staying healthy and stable, and then it’s a matter of figuring out how to steady ourselves. Like in chapter one, you’re standing in the middle of a seesaw and maybe for the most part you have enough tools to stay pretty balanced in the middle, but sometimes it’s gonna tip a bit and you just kind of figure out how to stay on the seesaw. For me, what that means is I’m gonna be dealing with jet lag; I’m gonna be dealing with a certain amount of stress; and I’m gonna be meeting a lot of people I haven’t met before.

“I’ve done a couple book tours before, so I kind of have an idea of the kinds of challenges that I’m going to encounter. I’m just going to make sure to stay focused on the parts of the seesaw that I need to pay attention to: getting enough sleep and as regularly as I can; not forgetting my meds even though I’m off my routine; eating well and on a regular basis. If I’m stressing out, what are the tools -- I have a whole chapter on tools -- to calm yourself when overwhelmed, knowing that I might need to take a step back and do some sort of breathing exercise.

“It’s knowing that my routine is going to be thrown off a bit. So here again, that gets into chapter six, Danger Zones, with red flagpoles and red flags,” Forney explained, going back to the touchstone of Rock Steady. “The red flagpole would be all sorts of things that have to do with a book tour and all the stresses I was just talking about, and just doing what I can to look out for the red flags to make sure those aren’t coming up, and dealing with those.”

Turning the discussion to what readers can find in the pages of Rock Steady, Forney told CBR that the book mixes a combination of approaches, including “informal things that I have come up with myself, like ways to mark your generic medications. Then there are a lot of studies -- I’m the kind of nerd that loves doing research. Then there were a couple of psychiatrists -- one in particular -- that I asked to work with me as a consultant. She’s a clinical psychiatrist, so she has the point of view of what a psychiatrist, a clinician, a caregiver would recommend. She’s pretty progressive, so our attitudes about the kind of treatment that is realistic and helpful really lined up, and that was important to me. She also had an overview of a lot of different people she deals with -- other people with bipolar in particular.

“So I was kind of working with a wide range of sources,” Forney said. “It is really important to me to get it accurate. It’s not going to be useful if it’s not. It’s why I have a whole bibliography, to make sure people know that they can trust the information. I did that really carefully -- the section on substances in particular. The doctor that I cite there, Tushar Kumar, is an addiction psychiatrist specifically. We went back and forth and back and forth, and we talked for a really long time on the phone. It’s such an important issue.

“I know that there are other reference books that are comics, but it’s not a format that the general public tends to see as a source of reliable scientific information. In particular, the medical and scientific community is slower to pick up on this kind of material as reliable or accurate or appropriate, so I wanted to make really sure that what I was offering is accurate. And part of what I went through with Dr. Ashely Bouzis was to make sure that the language I was using would be useful and recognizable to clinicians, that the language would make sense to them in their own practice.”

Striking a balance between the medical consensus for bipolarism and her own experience living with it proved challenging. “From the beginning, what I wanted to do with this book was to give my own tips, tricks, and tools that I had come up with myself. Because you can get the clinical information if you read articles and studies,” she explained. “[I like] research and gathering all this information, but at the same time, it was really important to make clear that [this advice] is coming from someone with bipolar disorder, someone who is using this stuff and who has a personal take on the relevance of this.”

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