Marya Hornbacher is a journalist and author, nominated for the Pulitzer Price with her first autobiographical book “Wasted-A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia”. Followed up with “Sane” and “Waiting”, she contributed guides to help in recovery from mental illness and substance abuse. Covering the story of her own bipolar disorder, she wrote another international bestseller with “Madness“.
The real healing comes when you begin see yourself as something greater than a quirk of mind
I am honored to present you this interview with Marya Hornbacher, author of the well-known book “Wasted – a Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia”. I have read this book twice, and I was enchanted by her writing style and the way she described her life with a severe eating disorder without any self-pity. As an individual who has managed to overcome both her eating issues and a bipolar disorder, I thought it would highly inspiring to take a moment and listen to her advice.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. I have read your first book “Wasted” twice and just recently read the first half of “Madness- a bipolar life”. In your autobiographic books, you have been very open and honest about your mental illness, namely bipolar disorder. Also, you have survived severe anorexia and bulimia.
Which brings me to my first question:
How are you today?
Today, more than anything else, I am grateful. I am in full recovery from the eating disorders, and have been for many years, which is a great relief; my bipolar disorder is exceptionally well treated, and these days my psych chart lists my diagnosis as “bipolar disorder I, in remission.” I feel deeply blessed by both the experiences I’ve had, and also the support that’s gotten me through them.
You have explained in your books how bipolar disorder feels when untreated. How have your emotions changed through medication? Do you still have slight ups and downs or is it a smooth sailing?
Honestly, I would worry if I didn’t have slight ups and downs–every one of us does. That’s the nature of being human. We’re changeable creatures, and our experience of emotion, mood, thought, perception–really everything having to do with the mind–are always inflected by circumstance. For me, medication really affects mood and thought, more than it does emotion per se. I find that the meds I take increase my baseline stability, rather than removing or dampening or even altering my emotions–I still feel great happiness and, when appropriate, sadness as well. What the medications do is provide me with the mood stability I need to stay in balance as I experience emotions, and as I experience the challenges we all face out in the world. So while life is never exactly smooth sailing, I have found a measure of peace of mind that I did not have before.
A diagnosis is something that has two sides: the one that finally explains what is wrong with you and the one that means that you are merely “crazy”. How do you see your diagnosis now?
I don’t really think about it, as it doesn’t particularly affect my sense of self. It’s a name. Perhaps it explains some of the events in my past, some of my present-day responses, and some of my thoughts; in that sense, it is more instructive than troublesome. I find it helpful to consider–for example when making a decision–whether my decision is being influenced by any remaining symptoms of bipolar. Am I being impulsive? Am I aiming too high, or for that matter, too low? That helps me with the question of whether I’m acting from that silliest of symptoms, usually called “lack of insight.” 🙂 I try to gain that insight from the historical experience of a mental health disorder, and use it to help me move forward today.
When someone is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, do they ask themselves: “If my emotions are an illness, then what should be my real feelings? Who would I be without this disorder?” What is your answer to this?
I’m glad you asked this because it’s important to distinguish between mood and emotion. Bipolar is just a mood disorder–i.e., one’s emotions themselves are not the problem. I always think of it as a matter of intensity. When bipolar is highly interruptive, it can feel like the emotions themselves are out of control; but in fact, there’s nothing wrong with emotions. We need them; they help us function, learn, connect with others, and behave effectively in our lives. What’s troublesome is that the intensity of the emotional experience can become problematic. Either high or low mood–mania or depression–can seem to take on enormous force, and influence the way we think about and understand any given situation. That, in turn, can set off an emotional response. So–the trick is to get the mania and depression to settle down, and then to re-teach yourself how to interpret your emotions and thoughts in a way that is not so outsized. It’s like turning down the volume on the stereo. The problem is not the music; it’s that you’re being blasted backwards by its force. Turn the stereo down, and you can experience the music as it was intended.
In your books, you have touched the subject of not being completely honest in therapy, e.g. when it comes to bingeing and purging or alcohol abuse. Is it shame? Denial? What is your advice for those in the same dilemma?
It’s my sense that most addictive and self-destructive behaviors–such as substance abuse and eating disorders, but all the others as well–are easy for us to slip into when we’re struggling with organic mental health disorders, for several reasons. There’s a genetic tie between addiction and mental illness, for one, in particular with bipolar. Also, as all of us know, the experience of mood swings can drive us literally to drink; there’s some truth to the idea that people with mental illness are “self-medicating” with substances and behaviors that are ultimately ineffective. They seem effective at the time. I think the resistance to talking about these things in therapy comes from a lack of alternatives–if I don’t know how to manage my moods, and I’m trying to do it by drinking, why would I stop drinking? The problem is, addictive behaviors always worsen mental health, and create more trouble than they’re worth. I would encourage people to be honest with their support people because that’s the first move toward gathering better tools with which to work.
A question that repeatedly comes to my mind when reading your books: How did you manage to develop your skills and become this successful despite your at times debilitating illness? Is there a message you want to send out to the young people who have just been diagnosed?
Thank you, first of all. The most important thing I would say to people just setting out on the recovery process is that it’s essential to define yourself as something besides the disorder. The label of diagnosis does not define you, and it does not need to limit you. There are ways to work around the symptoms we experience, and a good portion of recovery is learning to be adaptable. Learn what your symptoms are, find the best treatments for them, of course–but those are only the initial steps in recovery. The real healing comes when you begin to see yourself as something greater than a quirk of mind. The quirk of mind can be managed–now, you learn to live your life. That is the bigger, and much more rewarding, task.
Your books touch on very hard topics but are so readable since you never lose a sense of humor, that sometimes even seems like you did not take yourself too seriously. In an interview, you explained that this is a way for you to take a step back from your illness. Could this be a resource for those stuck in their own mind?
I find it essential to laugh, and to see the absurd in things–all things, not just my mental health. Humans are ridiculous, including myself, and that is a great reminder to me that I’m just a human–no better, no worse, no more and no less. Humor keeps me mindful of the fact that my problems–however enormous they may seem at the moment–are not in fact very great at all. That detachment allows me to take a long view of my experience, and to see it to scale. It’s vastly more manageable that way, and often very funny, as well.
Are you currently reading something or can you give a recommendation?
Right now, I’m reading about seventeen books on the brain, because of research. But when not reading those, I’m reading a stack of books on solitude–my favorite of which is Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.
One of your current projects is a book about the mental health system. Can you share some thoughts on this upcoming work? When will it be available?
The next book, which comes out exactly a year from now, chronicles the journey I’ve taken over the past 5 years to investigate the conditions of mental health in the contemporary world. The book follows a number of remarkable people who live with mental health diagnoses, and who have found ways to adapt and thrive. Along the way, I speak with a host of people in psychiatry, neuroscience, the mental health treatment professions, and the recovery-oriented community. I hope this book will bring our fairly antiquated notions about what mental illness means into the 21st century, and I feel lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to speak with so many wonderful folks.