Recovery Heroine: An Interview with Marya Hornbacher

depression & anxiety

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“.

 As an assistant professor of Writing Arts at Rowan University, she regularly lectures in different institutions about writing and mental health. You will find information on her upcoming work on her website maryahornbacher.com.

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.

The Interview

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.

Marya Hornbacher

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.

Hope you guys enjoy this interview!

17 Comments

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  1. Great interview! I have a few journalistic suggestions that may help in the future if you don’t mind. I think the bio at the beginning was a great idea- it helps to readers get to know who they are reading about before the actual interview begins. However, I wouldn’t have structured the interview exactly how you did it. Instead of using header text and normal text to designate who is speaking, use italics and label who is who with abbreviations (ex. Psych2Go = P2G, etc.) As a reader it was confusing at first because you also used the header text for subheadings, so I thought there was another subheading.

  2. This is a wonderful interview! The questions you asked were deep and brought home the core ideas of what it’s like to have been in a predicament similar to Marya Hornbacher. I just have a few notes, firstly I agree with Gabriella about the header text being confusing for readers since you use it in the interview and for subheadings. The quotations in the beginning were off, one on the bottom and one on top, but that could be a formatting error, I don’t even know how to put quotations like that (not a huge problem). The main critique I have is that there are a few grammatical errors, for example in your question “what should be my real feelings”, “ones” should be “one’s”. Quick proofreading should fix this in the future. I really enjoyed your interview!

  3. A wonderful interview! The questions were deep and very interesting.
    It was very interesting to read about Hornbachers experience with her illness and and the advice she had for people who struggle with mental illness.
    I especially like the beginning where the interviewer asks ” How are you today”, mainly because honestly answering this question, for me, is a very big part of recovering. Honestly saying what one feels and not trying to lie by simply saying ” I am fine” is a very important thing to do.
    I also liked hornbachers advice on ” The label of diagnosis does not define you, and it does not need to limit you”

  4. As someone who deals with bipolar disorder, I found this article refreshing and informative. I applaud Ms. Hornbacher for providing a personal account on her struggles to help others. Also, I appreciate that you asked, “How are you today?” I think that is an essential question to include for the sake of the topic at hand. Your questions were well constructed and gave pathway to insightful answers.

    As others before me have said, I don’t think it’s necessary to subhead the bio and interview or at least don’t bold them. It’s just a small suggestion for the sake of clarity. Overall amazing article!

  5. This was a great interview! The questions were deep and got to the core of things, I also like that you didn’t seem to hold back with what you wanted to ask her. I really liked that you asked her how she was because, as someone else said, that is such an important thing to ask yourself in recovery and be able to be honest about.
    I also really appreciated that Hornbacher made the distinction between mood and emotions, describing it as a matter of intensity. It isn’t the emotions that are the problem. It’s the mood that makes the emotions more intense. That is something that I’ve had trouble understanding in the past and she described it so well. And the interview question before that answer was great! It prompted such an in-depth answer.
    I noticed that the quotations in the beginning were a little funky, it sort of looked like a formatting error. And in one of the questions I think a word got deleted or cut off, but besides that it was great! Just a few minor issues that didn’t affect the over all clarity of the article.

  6. There are some rather odd grammatical issues, particularly with your quotation marks in the very beginning. It seems to be that you used two commas rather than quotation marks, and I would advise using a colleague that can proof read your articles in the future. There are some spacing issues, and some phrasing such as, “… it would highly inspiring it would highly inspiring…” that raise a question as to whether you reviewed your article prior to publishing it. It can also be noted that it’s rather in poor taste to state some of your comments to Ms. Hornbacher, such as, “Also you have survived severe anorexia and bulimia.” This, however, is merely my opinion, and I would have personally refrained from blunt statements such as these when broaching the subject with Ms. Hornbacher, even if she is open and honest with the obstacles she has overcome in life. However, I enjoyed the enticing questions you asked her, and I feel that with some brushing up, this article can truly meet its full potential and impact more of the youth of today. Keep writing!

  7. I liked the way the article was written. It seemed to flow well.
    The idea of laughter helping a person to distance themselves from their illness is an interesting one. I’ve never heard anyone explicitly say it, but now that I’m thinking about it, I’ve seen it in practice.

  8. First of all I think that the questions are great. I admire everyone who’s struggling with anorexia, bulimia or bipolar disorder. People sometimes don’t even realise, how hard is for that people to fight with themself. I love that Marya Hornbacher wrote books about the diseases she had, becuase that way we can get an “inside” story. I hope one day I will be able to get those books in my country. There would be insteresting to know, how long did it take for mrs Hornbacher to feel recovered? How the people around her act when she was recovering? What was hardest thing to do for her?

  9. I really like that you put bio at the beginning, it gives a good start for a reader. And the overall look of the text is very pleasing. There’s a bridge between introduction and interview – yaaay! I also can’t praise you enough for beginning with a question “how are you today?” – it was very heartwarming and I’m sure it mattered a lot to Marya. All questions were well prepared and well balanced. Marya’s answers were inspiring and I want to read her books now 🙂 The only thing I found missing was the ending. Overall, great job!

  10. As someone who struggles with bipolar disorder, this article was very uplifting to read. I always feel like the world is in need of more stories like Hornbaucher’s. Too often, the media represents those of us who struggle with bipolar disorder as crazy or restricted by their illness, which isn’t at all the case. I am glad to know this story is out there in the world, helping those like myself on the way to recovery.

    My question for Hornbaucher is, based on your experience, how can we work to overcome this idea that we are “defined by our illness?” How can we, as people who suffer from bipolar disorder, help others realize this isn’t true? How can those who do not have bipolar disorder work to overcome this notion?

  11. The interview itself was absolutely amazing! The questions were in depth and meaningful, and very compelling questions – and Ms. Hornbacher earns so much of my respect for what she’s overcome. I especially appreciate the bio up at the top, because it saves from a lot of possible confusion. However, grammatically there were a few errors. The quotation marks.. don’t look right, which was incredibly distracting. There were a few typos too, particularly in one of the questions that made it hard to understand. And at one point, maybe this was just what I’m reading it on, but there was an emoji, which felt incredibly inappropriate. However, information wise it was fantastic, and incredibly useful. I also appreciate how her website link was given, for those who want to learn more. I always love seeing that in interview articles, because it saves readers a lot of searching sometimes. The interview itself felt very relaxed and relatable, and sweet, almost.

  12. The beginning bio didn’t grab me at all, yet the content itself made up for it and then some. The questions that Hornbacher was asked shed light on complex concepts. Through this article, I understand better than ever that Bipolar disorder is indeed a mental illness, yet it is simply an increase in the intensity of emotion; the roller coaster of feeling is more like the Nitro at Six Flags rather than a standard kids ride.

    There are a few spelling errors, most notably when talking about Hornbacher’s sense of humor when writing. The lack of clarity proofreading takes away from some of the reading, yet as someone who was very unfamiliar with Bipolar disorder, I am grateful I got to read this article.

  13. Wow! This was an incredible read!

    I really, really love the quote that we are more than a quirk of mind. From discussions that I’ve had with those in and out of recovery, it is very easy to see ourselves as the diagnosis instead of as a person who is experiencing the diagnosis. Having that separation allows for the realization that we as beings aren’t affixed and that our modes of interacting with the world can shift.

    I also deeply appreciate Hornbacher bringing clarification to the function of medication. Many people feel as though they or the person they know will be absolved of any emotional reaction. As stated this isn’t the case nor is it the purpose. Medication allows for clarity of thought, stability of mood, which leads to opportunity for us to choose better behaviors.

    I think this idea of meds eliminating emotions is due to wishful thinking which I find to be similar to people’s misperceptions of stoicism. Many people don’t want to experience negative emotions. It also could be that those close to someone who is struggling with a mental illness, don’t want that person to have to deal with the burden of negative emotions in addition to their illness. However, emotions are an important tool and guide for us. They alert us to what’s happening in our environment. What we don’t want is for our emotions to have a significant effect on our mood and behavior.

    Lastly, it was incredibly brilliant for you to have asked the question regarding how people may question their reality. Especially in the case of personality disorders, if the person is insightful and aware of the presence of the disorder, they may come to question whether or not any of their thoughts or feelings are genuinely theirs or if it is a part of the disorder. This reasoning highlights the importance of separating ourselves from the disorder because it is easy to assume pathology/abnormality where there is none.

    Well done! Thank you!

  14. This was a very interesting and insightful article because it is so personal and I find bipolar disorder to be a very interesting mental illness to study (I do not mean this in a vulgar way or to belittle anyone with it, it is just a disorder that is interesting to learn about). I actually had a guest speaker in one of my Abnormal Psychology courses who wrote a book about his struggle with bipolar disorder. The book was called “An Americans’s Resurrection: My Pilgrimage from Child Abuse and Mental Illness to Salvation” by Eric Arauz and this was one of my first introductions to this disorder. It is extremely unpredictable and a very hard disorder to live with, just like any other one and requires adaptation and finding what is right for the person. I commend you for sharing your story about this disorder because it is so personal. It was interesting when you spoke about how bipolar disorder is about the intensity rather than the emotions. This was a very important point. The degree of the mania and depression can vary greatly which is probably very hard for the person with the disorder, and according to the book I had read, Eric had said that it would go on for days (like being in a mania stage) and he did not realize that it was happening while it was happening because he was just going through the phases. It was amazing when you talked about how the diagnosis does not define you and that you need to define yourself apart from the disorder. By not allowing the disorder to take over your life and consume you, I can see how it helps people recover.

  15. I like the way the article was set up and the personal inputs made by Marya Hornbacher as well. The quote following the bio was also a great thing to add as I feel it to be very important for those with mental illnesses to see themselves beyond their disorder. By doing that, it can lead one to define themselves more for their passions and such, rather than seeing themselves in a negative way.
    The question mentioning humor and Hornbacher’s response to it was insightful to read about. Laughter is great for one’s mental health and mentioning how it makes Hornbacher remember that she’s just human was an interesting input. Sometimes I forget the benefits laughter can bring to one’s mind and body. Also reading about how Hornbacher has found that medication affected more mood and thought rather than emotion was much of an eye opener to me. I thought that to be very interesting to read about, for I never read in too much depth about medications throughout my psychology classes.
    I really appreciated Marya Hornbacher’s feedback and the article was very informative to me, giving me much to think about throughout the read. This was a very well done article!

  16. Overall I think this is a very interesting interview, the questions are very insightful and the responses given by Marya Hornbacher are even better. The one that stuck out to me the most was the one about someone that has been diagnosed and is questioning if their emotions/feelings are real, its a common feeling to have after being diagnosed with a mental disorder. After reading this interview and seeing the number of questions relating back to her books, I am very interested in giving them a read.
    There are slight grammatical/punctuation errors which can be solved by having another person proofread before publishing. Also the bio, in my opinion, could have been more personal and more about Marya Hornbacher instead of all about her books. That would probably help the reader get a better idea as to who she is and make it easier for them to relate to her.

  17. I think the interviewer really nailed the first question b asking: ‘how are you today?
    The question is really setup the momentum where the interview will lead.

    There so many deep questions covered as well on this interview which i really like, and it seems you’re very straightforward as well with the questions.

    I really enjoyed reading this article as it tackles a specific psychological disorder; which unfortunately in my country every psychological disease will be refereed as ‘crazy’, as simple as it is. This article really open up my mind truly.

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