When cartoonist Ellen Forney published Marbles, her 2012 graphic memoir on bipolar disorder, readers reached out in droves thanking her for the insights her story provided into mental illness. In response, Forney started working on Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from My Bipolar Life, published last week by Fantagraphics, which explains what happens when a person starts to recover, or at least stabilize, from mental illness.
More than a memoir or sequel, Rock Steady is an illustrated reference book whose eight chapters explore eight distinct topics related to mental health. Chapter two considers the many kinds of therapy available; chapter five discusses how to deal with medications; chapter six examines warning signs that can signal the start of a flare-up.
The structure of Rock Steady flips the script that Forney followed for Marbles. Rather than having bits of how-to knowledge accompany a personal narrative, Rock Steady is pragmatically structured around specific topics, which only occasionally are accompanied by witty narrative segments. Still, the humorous narratives can be the best part. In one, Forney’s cartoon alter-ego gets around a seemingly restrictive meditation prompt, on which she was unable to fully concentrate, by pretending she is being tasked by alien forces to scan the nature that surrounds her. She convinces herself that any rambling thought would create interference that would compromise the “footage.”
Aside from her illustrations, Forney’s writing style gets her message across: she does not coddle her readers, nor does she overwhelm them with complex medical terminology. For example, one section, “How to stop crying” — which hits close to home — offers no-nonsense advice. “If your emotions are in a haywire spiral and you can’t calm yourself down, try this fast, effective + fascinating technique: plunge into your MAMMALIAN DIVING REFLEX,” she explains, with the last words being written on the body of a happy-looking seal diving into a body of water. “A mammal’s response to immersion in freezing water is to slow the heart + shut down non-essential body processes,” she continues. “Note that emotional mayhem = a non-essential body process.”
For the most part, the book also does a good job avoiding all-too-common clichés of wellness, self-care, and the romanticization of mental illness. A small exception could be Forney’s “The Mood Disorder Hall of Fame,” which first lists living artists, performers, and writers with psychiatric conditions who, nonetheless, are thriving. It’s followed by a “heritage mural” featuring historical artists and writers with mood disorders. While its presence is easily justified as being a “stigma squasher” within Rock Steady, it could easily, and counterproductively, be taken out of context. A social media post featuring the very same image, for example, would perpetuate the romantic ideal of the tortured artist using their demons for the sake of art.
At times, the scantiness of narrative segments in favor of long, explanatory chapters makes Rock Steady a less “pleasurable” read than its predecessor. Sections like “Focus on your body” or “Be kind to yourself” contain long, hyper-detailed blocks of text. While mental health is not a topic that can fit into neat text boxes, Tweets, or Pinterest-worthy platitudes, at times the long passages make the page structure feel unbalanced, and the all-too-valuable information becomes harder to peruse. Bubbles of texts, linking to boxes, pointing to arrows are not very easy on the eye.
Still, even without a gripping narrative arc, Rock Steady achieves its goals in a brilliant manner. It might not be engrossing, but it will be easy and comforting to consult for some issue-specific advice and relief. Hopefully, not too many readers will need to peruse all eight chapters in one sitting.
Ellen Forney’s Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life is available from Amazon, Fantagraphics, and other booksellers.