by Laura Farrell
Marbles is a hilarious and moving graphic memoir about artist Ellen Forney’s diagnosis and recovery journey with bipolar disorder. Even if the diagnosis and recovery processes are not one a reader can directly relate to, the story is also about something grander: a search for clarity and wellness. Ellen aches to be a better human, create important things and find fulfillment.
Ellen Forney is a successful illustrator and comic. Her work has appeared in several magazines and news papers. She currently teaches comic courses at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. Ellen’s bipolar diagnoses set her on a journey of identity and self-discovery. While part of her feels honored to be part of the tradition of the “crazy artist,” another part of her seeks balance in life, and we experience her ups and downs as she tries to find the right combination of medication and therapies that will allow her to be her happiest self.
The images in Marbles paired with the text are engaging and informative, providing the reader with two ways of understanding Ellen’s story. The drawings embody the thrilling and terrifying highs of mania and the darkness of low and depressive states. She also breaks down what these states feel like and what they mean.
The opening scene illustrates a time that Ellen was manic without being aware of it. As she is getting a tattoo she thinks, “I could see the sensation — A bright white light, an electrical charge . . . it connected with my right temple and ran through my body… I was being transformed,” She explains the experience of getting a tattoo, the idea “burst into her consciousness.” At this point these feelings are excited, as if the world is trembling with the need to communicate and everything Ellen thinks and encounters holds a special meaning. Just a few chapters later Ellen encounters a low state where she, “could barely drag herself out of bed and to the couch.” She illustrates this with a dark image of herself beneath blankets on the couch, “I was slipping down and there was nothing I could do to hold on.” Ellen recognizes at this point the importance of her medication.
Ellen struggles to find ways of remaining creative and passionate while complying to medication and dealing with mental health challenges. She worries about the long list of potential side effects. As she struggles she learns that maintaining mental health and stability is the way she can make art. She explains, “I hadn’t ever wanted to be healthy or balanced. I’d always been drawn to the ‘tortured artist…’ but what a relief to feel like things might be coming together, the dust settling . . . I aimed for that kind of surrender.” Once attached to the struggles of an artist, Ellen recognizes now the importance of balance in creation.
My relationship with Ellen Forney’s graphic novel, Marbles, has shifted and grown as I’ve encountered it in different phases of my life. The first time I read this book was around the time it was first published in 2012. I was on winter break from my junior year of college. I read the book in one day. At the time I was struggling with my own creative work and relationships. I was writing a play about rape culture, and the triggering content was creeping into all aspects of my life. Ellen’s honesty and bravery inspired me.
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On first read, I enjoyed Ellen’s story, finding it both hilarious and dark, relatable at times and at others far from my own experiences — but that intrigued me. Certain moments in Marbles particularly resonated with me, like Ellen’s struggle for creativity and the ways in which she connects with other people. She is worried that her creative self is not stable. As a creative person myself, I relate to this struggle. In Marbles, Ellen looks into medical studies, which express that creativity is often correlated with mania. It is difficult to recognize that stability is a key ingredient for producing work, and feeling happy and fulfilled.
This was also the first time I sat down with a text about bipolar disorder. I knew a few people who had suffered from it but I didn’t know what the diagnosis meant or what it was like to experience those challenges. Although Marbles is a book about bipolar disorder specifically, many of Ellen’s moods felt close to mine. She simply explains what mania and depression look like to her, “Mania is a time of energy going out, and depression can be a time of passivity, or energy going in. This could be a time to listen and observe.” Periods of energy going in and out or being high or low is relatable to anyone. Ellen sets up tools for readers and herself so she can be able to listen to her body and mind and bow to these experiences.
In the summer of 2012 I returned home after a successful and draining semester where I completed writing my play and again picked up Marbles. This time I related to the book in a different way. I was feeling depressed after the long semester and writing the triggering play. Ellen’s words about depression and isolation resonated with me, such as the scenes when she was unable to motivate herself to do anything. I read the graphic novel on the beach and it often moved me to tears, I’d put my sunglasses on to hide my sadness.
Reading Marbles that summer inspired me to be more creative and to practice self-care. Ellen uses both yoga and journaling to work through her emotions and find balance. I too set up my own exercise and journaling routine. I came back to school in the fall of 2012 for my senior year of college feeling the best I ever had.
In Marbles, Ellen deals with the difficult process of finding the correct medication for her and attempting to understand what it means to have bipolar disorder, while maintaining her dark sense of humor and creating new things. She is wildly creative and active, constantly making comics, sketching, writing, working and exercising. Ellen struggles between happiness and sadness, boundless energy and low depression. She has used these things to help her produce work but she now finds that the balance is what drives her creativity. If you are curious to learn more about bipolar disorder, mental stability, finding a meeting place between art and mental health, or you just want to experience a story about resilience, this book is for you.
Please visit marblesbyellenforney.com to order your own copy of Marbles.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Bipolar Disorder, Mental Health First Person Essays, Mental Health Reviews