books, throwback thursday

Throwback Thursday: The Eye of the Storm: Safe Spaces and the Reframing of Mental Illness in Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me

Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder have a reputation for being frightening, to both patients who are diagnosed and those around them. Ellen Forney in her graphic memoir Marbles seeks to reframe how her bipolar disorder is thought of, both by others but more importantly by herself, as she grapples with her diagnosis and treatment. Page 84 stands out in this reframing of her illness, as Ellen’s therapist Karen tries to help her rethink her disorder, and the symptoms she experiences. 

Ellen’s therapist Karen’s office is labeled as a safe space, and is the only place Ellen feels she can relax while in a depressive episode. Page 84 of Marbles shows Karen’s office as a white, uninterrupted background, while all around there are lines surrounding Karen and Ellen outside of that safe space. These lines look like raindrops, giving the illusion that there is a storm outside the office. The office itself is the eye of the storm, offering Ellen safety and reprieve. The visual depiction of the office’s safe space as the eye of a storm implies a false sense of safety, because during the eye of the storm, the storm seems to have passed when it has not. We see this false sense of safety as Ellen still feels unable to tell her therapist about her drug use until years after the moment depicted on this page.

On this page, Karen asks Ellen to rethink her mania and depression in order to better cope with both the concept of her diagnosis as well as her actual symptoms. Reframing thoughts is a tool often used to combat depressive thoughts, and is the basis of the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that Karen later introduces Ellen to. This reframing combates the cognitive distortions that depression causes. While Karen asks Ellen to reframe the way she thinks about her depression, the safe space of the office is framed in by the lines around it, on top of looking like the eye of the storm, it also makes Ellen and Karen seem as if they are framed for display. This is particularly interesting because one of Ellen’s fears throughout the memoir is being seen as nothing more than a mentally ill artist, and she worries about her appearance and her art making her diagnosis clear to the rest of the world. Because of her perception of her disorder as something to be ashamed of still, she is boxed into that way of thinking, which is visually depicted by the way the safe space is boxed in on the page. Part of Ellen’s treatment is learning how to be okay outside of the safe space of Karen’s office, and part of that comes with reframing her disorder from something to be ashamed of to something that she simply has to balance. 

All the words on the page are on the same white empty space as the safe space, which gives the impression that Ellen feels free to express her thoughts on the page the same way she does in Karen’s office. At the top of the page, Ellen writes: “I had no sense of purpose. I felt like I was missing my skin.” These words have no borders around them. Her commentary on the rest of the page after Karen’s advice on reframing her mania and depression, are boxed in or framed, perhaps with how she is choosing to look back on that time now with the advantage of time to reframe how she thinks of herself and her bipolar disorder. At the time Ellen wrote the memoir, she would have had the time and distance from the original events to have already reframed the way she thinks of her bipolar disorder, and now her safe space really can extend away from Karen’s office. Ellen, as we are reading about at the time this page takes place, doesn’t yet know how to live her life as a bipolar artist, but Ellen, at the time she is writing the memoir, does. This combats the negative stereotype of those living with bipolar disorder as being incapable of functioning or living an independent life. 

While Ellen learns to reframe how she thinks of her bipolar disorder in order to most effectively receive treatment and bring balance to her life within the content of the memoir. At the same time, Ellen in the act of writing the memoir helps the reader see a different perspective on bipolar disorder than the stereotypes encountered when she was first diagnosed, which made it difficult to cope with her diagnosis and treatment. This different way of looking at bipolar disorder, as morally neutral and as a flow of energy (as Karen tells Ellen on this page), not only sets Ellen up for better success in her treatment as she moves away from the stigma of her diagnosis, but it primes the reader to move away from that stigma as well. 

3 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: The Eye of the Storm: Safe Spaces and the Reframing of Mental Illness in Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me”

  1. This sounds incredible! For all the comics I read, I rarely venture outside of the superhero genre. But I have to check this out. Anything which helps us challenge and reframe our experience of mental health and mental illness is close to my heart and this sounds like a thoughtful text which is also a joy to read. Thank you for putting it on my radar!

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      1. I will take you up on that! I teach so right now my life is a wild balance of work/planning/grading/free time. I can’t really read much but I can start a list. And over Christmas break and especially over my summer vacation I’d love to have some recommendations like this handy!

        Liked by 1 person

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