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Madness: A Bipolar Life Hardcover – April 9, 2008

4.3 out of 5 stars 269 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Hornbacher, who detailed her struggle with bulimia and anorexia in Wasted, now shares the story of her lifelong battle with mental illness, finally diagnosed as rapid cycling type 1 bipolar disorder. Even as a toddler, Hornbacher couldn't sleep at night and jabbered endlessly, trying to talk her parents into going outside to play in the dark. Other schoolchildren called her crazy. When she was just 10, she discovered alcohol was a good mood stabilizer; by age 14, she was trading sex for pills. In her late teens, her eating disorder landed her in the hospital, followed by another body obsession, cutting. An alcoholic by this point, she was alternating between mania and depression, with frequent hospitalizations. Her doctor explained that not only did the alcohol block her medications, it was up to her to control her mental illness, which would always be with her. This truth didn't sink in for a long, long time, but when it did, she had a chance for a life outside her local hospital's psychiatric unit. Hornbacher ends on a cautiously optimistic note—she knows she'll never lead a normal life, but maybe she could live with the life she does have. Although painfully self-absorbed, Hornbacher will touch a nerve with readers struggling to cope with mental illness. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

Like a horror-movie sequence that threatens never to end, Hornbacher’s testimony grabs and doesn’t let go through episode after episode of bulimia, substance abuse, and promiscuity. Mania with its attendant voices plagued Hornbacher ever since she can remember. Extreme mood swings finally led to diagnosis at 24 of bipolarity. Possibly genetic, given a family history rife with anecdotes implying mental instability going back for generations, Hornbacher’s bipolar disorder is a label she initially rejected, though she responded to medication for it. She married, and threw herself into overworking that triggered recurrences of the mood swings, two years of repeated hospitalization, then electroconvulsive therapy. With cutting perception and skill, she makes palpable not only madness’ losses but the things gained as well. --Whitney Scott
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 299 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (April 9, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618754458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618754458
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (269 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #682,217 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Madness is one of the few personal accounts of bipolar disorder I've read that covers the escalating unfolding of the disorder from such an early age (4 years old) to the present. The book covers just about every aspect of the struggle with bipolar disorder - early failures to diagnose it, misdiagnosis, clueless and competent psychiatrists and therapists, stressors, triggers, the tendency to self-medicate, hospitalizations, hyper-sexuality, the terrible side effects of many of the medications used to treat depression and mania, bipolar and career, alcoholism, self-mutilation, relationship dynamics, lack of insight (not realizing when a manic episode is settling in), and the highly productive and invigorating hypomanias that often convince those with bipolar disorder that nothing's wrong. Her narrative functions almost like a textbook case study of bipolar disorder.

The book has a solid chronological structure that leads the reader through the escalating and exhausting mood cycles Hornbacher experienced. She is a highly skilled writer who keeps the narrative progressing at a quick pace while revealing dazzling insights about the disorder, about people, and about life in general along the way.

What I found particularly helpful about the book is Hornbacher's descriptions of how her mood episodes began so seemingly innocent enough. One day, life seems to be just fine and then over the course of several days, weeks, or months becomes wonderful - everything is clicking and Hornbacher's energy and joy seduces all those around her - and then, just as suddenly, her world crashes in on her. People who haven't experienced this, don't know what it's like. They wonder why people with bipolar disorder can't tell when their moods are cycling or why a loved one didn't step in sooner.
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Format: Hardcover
Marya is an amazing writer and her literary gift puts you right in the middle of her psychotic episodes. So on sheer literary value, this book would get 5 stars for me. It was gripping, emotionally intense, and very well-written.

That being said, this book is being hailed as an end-all, be-all for Bipolar disorder and as a female with exactly the same diagnosis as Marya (Ultra Rapid Cycling Bipolar I) but without an eighth of the crazy that she has, it's important to remember that Bipolar is a SPECTRUM disorder and she is at the FAR crazy end of it, a near worst case possibility that is not typical in the least. This is yet another book that makes the general population terrified of people with Bipolar disorder. I haven't seen many books at ALL that will gently remind you that Bipolar is a spectrum disorder and there ARE people out there with these tragic diagnoses (like myself) who still get up every day, go to work, and function as productive members of our society. Just because she needs a visit to the funny farm a few times a year and about 18 different chemicals in her bloodstream at any given moment doesn't mean that all or even MOST people who live with Manic Depression are the same.

On that basis, I deduct a point from the book because it focuses on her experience, her diagnosis, her reckless abandon, and her low functionality in a world that expects she at least get out of her pj's every day, without acknowledging that she is indeed, out of her mind. She never takes more than a sentence to remind the world that she's on the far end of a SPECTRUM disorder. She just writes down her experiences with the disorder, a bunch of jumbled facts, and closes the book out.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Having recently entered into the confusing world of having a child diagnosed with bi-polar, trying to tease out a distinction between mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction, watching different psychiatrists prescribe different medications, along with the child being a hostile patient, i.e. doesn't want to talk about what's going on---this book is a brilliant insight into what's going on inside a rapid cycle bi-polar head. I recognized some actions of my son throughout this book and finally got a sense of what it must be like inside his brain. This book gave me a new appreciation for the pain he is trying to hide or run away from. And also gave me insight into how I can better be there for him in his mental illness while not enabling his addictive behavior. This illness is not fun and there seems to be a lot of differences in how to treat it, especially as the field of study on bi-polar appears to be expanding and new treatments are on the rise but not consistently throughout the psychiatric profession.

Marya Hornbacher has done a great service for me by writing in such vivid prose her ongoing dilemma. Admittedly, my reading on bi-polar is not exhaustive, but this is the first book I've read that truly captured the tyranny of this illness. Ms. Hornbacher is a truly gifted writer. I do not envy her the ongoing struggle she faces, but she sure dug deep to write this. Throughout the the painful descriptions of behavior and feelings shines a courage that lifts my hopes for my own son.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I eagerly purchased "Madness" after its release; "Wasted" was one of the most compelling memoirs I've ever read and Hornbacher is a fascinating and incredibly talented writer. After reading about a third of the book, I found myself struck by the disparity between Marya Hornbacher the writer and Marya Hornbacher the person.

Marya the writer is thoughtful and shockingly insightful; she is hyper self-aware, almost to the point of being self-obsessed, able to write chapter after chapter of intricate prose about her own history, thoughts, and actions.

Marya the person seems to lack any self-awareness. She acts on impulse alone, jumping from one whim to the next, rarely stopping to pause and think about what she's doing. She is sucked into her own emotions and compulsions easily; she easily slips back into patterns drug & alcohol habits, compulsive spending, self-mutilation, sex-addicted behavior.

Both Maryas are interesting, and make for a hardy memoir, but there's something missing in the writing. "Madness" is extremely detached, written as if "Marya" is a fictional character being written about by an impartial observer. It's often hard to believe that Marya the writer actually did the things Marya the person did. There's plenty of pretty prose, plenty of insight, but there's no connectivity. Hornbacher is a great writer, but she is a clinical and analytical one. Sometimes that works in a memoirist's favor (see, "Darkness Visible," "Girl Interrupted") but it's just sort of strange to read someone writing about themselves in a cold, mathematical, detached sort of what when they are trying to relate periods of extreme passion & mental illness.
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