It was our great pleasure to be able to interview the most AWESOME and inspirational author, Marya Hornbacher. Here’s how it went down …
CHRISTI: In both Wasted and Madness, you discuss some painful memories (physically and emotionally), was that therapeutic, or do you think that remembering those things were triggers and kept “fueling the fire”.
MARYA: Neither, actually. It certainly wasn’t therapeutic in the sense one might expect, viz. it didn’t feel like catharsis, and there was no sense of unburdening myself of a psychic weight. But writing about these things also didn’t fuel the fire. It was simply very painful at times—particularly in writing Wasted—to remember the history, and really very instructive at other times, particularly w/re: Madness, to put the pieces together on the page.
CHRISTI: Of all the therapies, medications, doctors, and procedures you have experienced (you discussed quite a few in your book Madness), what have you found to be the most effective in terms of managing your bipolar?
MARYA: A combination of excellent professional support from a psychiatrist and therapist, a regimen of medication that is constantly being tweaked to adjust as my brain chemistry shifts (as brain chemistry just does), regular but not compulsive exercise, especially yoga, being a part of a community of friends and family who accept, understand, and in some cases have some form of mental disorder, meditation, and doing activist work on behalf of people who live with mental disorders. Sounds like a lot, and I think if I had read that list when I was just approaching the diagnosis, I would have been overwhelmed. But really all it amounts to is a lifestyle that includes mindful self-care, as I believe anyone’s life should.
MARYBETH: I like how you say “non compulsive exercise”. Being a runner, I often run into spurts where I over do it. I push myself too hard. Have you experienced this in the past or are you just mindful that you are at risk of doing so?
MARYA: Yes, I’ve definitely struggled with compulsive exercise; I think for me that’s been product of both the eating disorder and, at other times, episodes of mania. I think the mania can contribute to that “I’m superhuman” feeling, but also contribute to a desire for that “high” (esp for runners, I expect). Wonder if there’s any research out there on this?? So, yes, these days I’m mindful that I run that risk, and keep myself in check.
CHRISTI: If you came upon a young woman who was a young version of you, who had not taken any steps toward addressing her mental illness, what advice would you give her, after knowing what you do now and after all that you have gone through?
MARYA: I do come upon young women, and young men, in that situation. I say the same thing every time: Take your meds; accept the disorder; accept the need to manage it; stop fighting; and do whatever it takes for you to attain health and peace of mind, including holding onto hope, and believing in the possibility of health for yourself.
JEN: What’s the one thing you learned the most about yourself while writing this book?
MARYA: That above all the things I have gained through managing the illness and moving into recovery, the most precious to me was the ability to give back to the people I love, and hopefully to the world, in some small way.
MARYBETH: Believe me…it’s a way huge way!
MARYA: Thank you. Truly.
JEN: Besides the term Bipolar what’s a term you would use to describe the illness and why?
MARYA: Brain disease. Because that’s what it is. Just like any other illness of the biggest organ in the body, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, this is a physical disease that requires medical attention—and is due a great deal more research funding toward better and more effective treatment than it gets at this time.
MARYBETH: I’ve never actually thought about it in regards to Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Gives me a whole new perspective. Not to mention a whole new reason to hate the stigma!
JEN: Do you think in the future you’ll have quite as many trips to the hospital in such a short time as you have in the past? Why or why not?
MARYA: To my immense relief and surprise, I can report that I have not been hospitalized since 2007, the last episode described in Madness. A combination of factors have contributed to the onset of stability—improved response to medication, hard work in therapy, the addition of yoga and meditation to my healthcare regimen, and increasing acceptance of my disease, and, with that acceptance, greater willingness to keep an eye on symptoms and be aware of my state of mind, my needs for support, and my mental wellness overall.
MARYBETH: Congrats!!! My one and only hospitalization was in 2007 as well. Must have been the year for break downs. It was also the year I was diagnosed and finally accepted the fact that I wasn’t “just depressed”. Acceptance is definitely a huge part of healing and maintaining mental wellness!
MARYA: Congrats to you too! Acceptance is where it’s at, at least for me.
JEN: Why do you think Yoga works so well for you?
MARYA: Yoga is really just a form of meditation in movement, and neurological research has shown clearly that meditation has a dramatic impact on not only one’s psychological well-being, but actually changes the activity of the brain for the better over the long term. That, and yoga is just really good exercise, which has the emotional benefits we all know about.
JEN: Is there anything you miss about your life before your bipolar was managed properly?
MARYA: People ask me this often, and I honestly have to say that the answer is no. The exhilaration of the old manias, which we all love for a while and in a way, was always accompanied by that horrific crash, which got worse and worse over time. So these days, instead of manic exhilaration, I have the wonderful experience of genuine happiness, joy, excitement—all those feelings that I chased when I chased mania before, because I thought mania was the only way I could get those feelings. Turns out I was wrong. A healthy, stable life brings me far more joy and excitement than mania ever did. Also, I truly believed my creativity stemmed from the illness, and I could only reach creative generation in an altered state of mind. Wrong there too. I produce vastly more, and vastly better, work when I’m healthy, because I have the stability to work consistently, and consistently strive to improve.
MARYBETH: How did you find new things to enjoy once you stopped drinking? Were you ever afraid you would be bored without it?
MARYA: This is a tricky thing, because when one decides to quit drinking, one has obviously reached a point—at least in a part of themselves—where they recognize that drinking isn’t fun anymore, isn’t working like they want it do and like it did at first, and is damaging them more than it is helping. So there’s already the suspicion there that drinking may never again provide that “enjoyment.” But one does feel the loss of the belief that it will one day work again, the idea stuck in the head that it’s the only source of enjoyment available to them. I absolutely faced this question when I got sober, even though I knew drinking was killing me and destroying my life—and was far from enjoyable. And I think almost everyone who sobers up faces this question. The thing is that one has to take on faith that real life—sober life—will allow them to really live—and real life does include a huge measure of enjoyment, fun, pleasure, and a true measure of satisfaction that was always missing when the substances were blocking it. Being sober is, frankly, far more fun than being drunk ever was. There were some great parties, sure—but these days, (drunk) partying seems really dull in comparison to true connection with friends one can make when one is healthy, the excitement of satisfying productivity, and the enjoyment of all the changes and new things that life brings. I had no idea when I got sober that I’d ever laugh again. Believe me, I laugh a hell of a lot more now.
JEN: Do you think Jeff is the main reason you got better or was it something you did for yourself or both?
MARYA: Oh boy. Jeff and I are no longer together, for reasons totally unrelated to my bipolar, or his depression. While he was an amazing support to me when I was very sick, he is also a human being, not a saint. Our relationship eventually revolved around my illness; when I was no longer ill, there was an enormous power imbalance that had to be corrected, and we had to see each other as simply people, rather than Sick Person and Savior. Ultimately, it was absolutely a combination of my own decision to take care of myself, and the support of all the people I love so much, that helped me toward health.
JEN: What is the most difficult part of the illness for you?
MARYA: These days, very little. I’ve somehow come to a degree of acceptance that allows me to take symptoms in stride, and do what I need to get help or handle them. The hardest part, I think, is simply being part of a community of people that deals with such enormous, frustrating, absurd stigma. As a member of the larger community, I am angered by the lack of research funds, the inaccessibility of insurance and treatment, the lack of access to basic needs like housing and work—in short, the suffering that so many people go through when it is just not necessary.
MARYBETH: When you say community, do you mean online or actually a face to face community? I can’t imagine what it was like before online networking. Some days I think that it is solely the people I have met and connected with that keep me going!
MARYA: That’s fascinating to me—I have almost no interaction with an online community of people seeking mental wellness. My community is very much a face-to-face one, one I’ve been lucky enough to find and nurture over many years. I think I should tap into the online resources that are out there. Thanks for the tip.
MARYBETH: What was the defining moment where you decided “Shit, I’ve got to get a handle on this?”
MARYA: When I was hospitalized, coming in and out of psychosis, and a doctor said to me, very clearly, “If you don’t stop drinking, you will never, never be well.” That hit like a ton of bricks, and I realized that recovery for me was going to start there.
CHRISTI: How did you react? We saw at the beginning of Madness your reaction to the book Wasted. Was it different this time? Why?
MARYA: It was very different this time. I was very at peace with the history that is covered in Madness—a hard story, but one I had had time to process and accept. It was also my third book, written at age 34, not my first, written at age 22. So I had a different take on the publishing world and its mercurial nature, as well as a different take on my own work. I liked the book, so I was ok with it going out. People reacted with enormous excitement—I was (and am) swamped with letters from people saying the story resonated strongly with their experience, whether they were people who dealt with mental illness themselves or whether their loved ones did; I heard from many people who just were curious about the subject, or who worked in the helping professions, who said it changed their perspective on mental illness and the people who had it; it was a really warm, human response from readers, and I was and am grateful for their feedback.
MARYBETH: How did people first react to Madness? How about your family? Jeff?
MARYA: My family had a hard time with the book, though they were glad I wrote it; it was just that it contained information they hadn’t had before, and it told a hard story that they wished hadn’t been my experience. Jeff knew the whole book inside and out before it was published, so he wasn’t fazed.
MARYBETH: Also, were you somewhat embarrassed to bring certain parts of the book out into the open? My mother is trying to convince me to write a memoir. But I can only imagine what she would think of me if I actually confessed all the things I’ve done in my life! Did you ever feel that way?
MARYA: Absolutely I was concerned about how some of that material I disclosed would come off—much less concerned about how the great They would think of it, or me, and much more concerned about my family in general having to hear about some really challenging and unflattering situations. But it was critical to me that I get those things out there, so that people might be able to see what the disorder looks like when it is neither defiled nor prettied up. Know what I mean? I’m sure you do.
MARYBETH: You briefly mentioned some moments as a child where you recall some possible symptoms. Were those the only ones you remember, or are you able to list more? I know I have multiple stories from my youth.
MARYA: I couldn’t begin to count the number of memories I have of symptoms emerging in childhood and adolescence—the overall sensation of those memories, collectively, is a sense of terror and confusion, as if I was in a car that was hurtling along at warp speed all by itself, and I couldn’t get it to stop. That feeling was occasional, as a child, and then was nearly constant by the time I was an adult.
MARYBETH: Do you think that your financial situations (ie being poor, then well off, then poor again) contribute to your break downs or do you think the were a product of your break downs?
MARYA: Absolutely a product of my breakdowns. These days, I either have money or I don’t (the nature of being a writer), and it doesn’t seem to affect my mood, state of mind, or symptoms in any way. I just make the necessary lifestyle adjustments, and carry on. Also, I know better than to shop or make financial decisions when I’m experiencing any degree of mania or depression.
MARYBETH: You recently wrote a book called, “Sane”, can you tell us a little bit about it? What was your inspiration?
MARYA: Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps is a book I wrote for a couple of reasons, but primarily because I was and am so concerned about the lack of information and support that are out there for people who deal with both mental illness and addiction. There’s also a lack of understanding about the 12 Steps among people with MI, and a lack of understanding of MI among some 12 Step people. So I wanted to bridge the gap in understanding on both sides, as well as provide a companion for people with MI in their sobriety journey.
MARYBETH: What was the overall goal of writing madness? Was it just to write it and get the words out, or was it bigger than that?
MARYA: Had nothing to do with wanting to get the words out—had everything to do with wanting to contribute a perspective that I felt was useful to the larger social conversation on mental illness. I wanted there to be a book available to anyone that would open the door to the mind of someone with bipolar, so that there could be a more experiential understanding of the disorder, and less a sense of bipolar as ‘Other’ or strange or etc etc etc. In short, I wrote it for the same reason I write almost anything: because I think it can be useful to someone in some way.
MARYBETH: You are a gianormous inspiration to me and our authors. Who was your inspiration?
MARYA: Thank you. That’s incredibly kind. My inspirations are truly the people in my life, who live in such beautiful, thoughtful, self-challenging, self-respecting, creative, generous ways that I am unceasingly amazed. My friends, my family, my students, and the many readers whose paths I am lucky enough to cross i all amaze me with their strength, laughter, and capacity for love. I get to see people heal themselves, heal each other, and grow in hope every day. How could I help but be inspired?
Thank you so much for taking the time to ask these questions. I am grateful to you!
MARYBETH: And we are grateful to have you!!!
Marya Hornbacher is the author of the Pulitzer-Prize nominated book Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, the acclaimed novel The Center of Winter, and the New York Times Bestseller Madness: A Bipolar Life, as well as a book about addiction and mental illness, Sane: Mental Health, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps. Her newest book, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power will be released by Hazelden Books in June. An award-winning journalist and mental health advocate, Hornbacher’s work has been translated into sixteen languages. She lectures nationally on writing, addiction, and mental health, and teaches at Northwestern University.