Mad Sisyphus – New Thoughts on an Old Book

Mad Sisyphus – New Thoughts on an Old Book

“Madness,” by Marya Hornbacher, was published in 2008. It was a New York Times best seller at the time, but now it has faded to 300,000 in book sales on Amazon. It’s only 100,000 higher in sales than my own book, “Bipolar Bare,” which as a self-published work did not have the backing of a major publisher like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Now her book is old hat.  Too bad we stop talking about this book or any book that has gone beyond the nine- month window of media interest, because there is still much that can be said. I recently finished reading this book, and I have thoughts worth recording.

No one has described the state of mania better, or written about it in such a way that you feel the crazy high energy of this state of mind. Hornbacher writes at a forward-pushing staccato pace that blows you up like litter as the fire truck of her narrative sweeps past.

In one of my favorite passages she writes:

“I dash into the laundry room, leaping like a little frog, green pajamas flapping, and shout, “Just in time!” for I have flooded the basement. My bedspread is emerging out of the washer in an enormous coil, burbling over the edges like some kind of disgusting tongue, which I remind myself it is not, is not a tongue, “now don’t start with that shit, missy,” I snap, and tiptoe through the pool of soapy water that swirls all over the concrete floor. I grab the bedspread and try to wrestle it out of the washer, which takes this opportunity –“fuckers!”- to hemorrhage vast quantities of water; water is surging up and out of the washer and all over me, drenching me and twisting the coil of the bedspread ever higher so it looks like a cobra dancing out of the washer (though it doesn’t look in the traditional sense like a cobra, i.e., I do not really see a cobra, or anything other than a bedspread, which makes me meditate for a split second on the nature of simile and metaphor) “ah yes!” I bellow, “I have you now.” I climb up on the washer, barefoot, skidding a little, and seize the bedspread with all my strength and begin to drag it out of the “fucking bastard washing machine!” which I will think later (as I am giving myself a ‘calming’ bath), it does not occur to me to simply turn off, no, I hop down from the washer and, the soaking bedspread over my shoulder, lean forward with all my weight and begin a long, slow trudge across the basement, looking like Titian’s Sisyphus.”

What wonderful writing, such vivid images – the tongue, the soggy wet cobra of a bed spread, the author perched on top of the washing machine yanking at the cloth snake, and present tense narrative of dash, snap, grab, wrestle, hemorrhage, bellow, climb, drag, hop, and trudge, captures the whole mad scene, which is countered and deepened by the momentary thought of simile and metaphor and finally culminates in the art historical reference to Titian’s Sisyphus.

Sisyphus (1548-1549) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid

Are Bipolar Disorder and Sisyphus an unlikely pairing?  I think not. Hornbacher’s illusion to Sisyphus is not only a stunning image – I can imagine Mayra, grasping the heavy wet mass over her head and struggling across the basement and up the stairs while the dripping leviathan falls backward only to be gathered up and the steps remounted again and again – and it is a brilliant metaphor for the condition of Bipolar Disorder in a number of ways. Bipolar Disorder is a condition that never goes away. Like Sisyphus we carry the rock of our disorder with us all of our life. We carry it up the hill of experience thinking we can dump it over the crest and be done with it. But it slips out of our grasp, out of our control, and rolls back down to where we began, and we begin again to try and get rid of this terrible rock.  Hornbacher has dealt with this rock in so many ways, from an eating disorder, to cutting, and near suicide; and then the many bouts of mania that have plagued her life. She describes her attempt to escape this burden thus:

And I know, I know that if I do that, I will drive myself off a cliff. At this moment, I understand with all my being why someone would commit suicide: there is no other way to get away from yourself, and I want nothing more than to finally escape the incessant shrieking of my mind, the crawling madness that has infested every part of me, body, and brain.”

I look at Titian’s painting that captures the madness swirling around Sisyphus, the raging sky and turbulent sea with its monsters nipping at the heels of the burdened man, and I hear the incessant shrieking of Sisyphus’s mind, Hornbacher’s mind, and my own mind, forever struggling up hill with the rock of our condition. There are times when I too can think only of suicide, perhaps as Sisyphus might have, when I think I have reached the point where I can dump this rock only to have it descend down the hill into the deepest depression.  Yet I climb down, pick up the rock again, and rush up the hill of my mania because I can do no other.

The rock is me, and not me.  The rock is another me conjoined with me in a never-ending labor to carry it away.  Marya Hornbacher has described eloquently her rock, her other self, her uninvited guest in this way:

“….no matter what you do, no matter how tightly you batten the hatches, madness can get in.

You wake up one morning and there it is, sitting in an old plaid bathrobe in your kitchen, unpleasant and unshaved. You look at it, heart sinking. Madness is a rotten guest. You can tell it to leave till you’re blue in the face. You follow it around the house, explaining that it’s come at a bad time, and could it come another day. Eventually you give up and go back to bed shutting the door.

But of course it barges in and demands to be entertained. Before you know it, it has strewn its stuff all over the house, and there are sticky plates in its bed, and it refuses to change the sheets.  Madness lounges all day in front of the TV……”

Dealing with the Bipolar Disorder is Sisyphean, a task that is endless and unavailing.  We carry the rock of our disorder up the mountain and down it tumbles. We carry it up again, and down it plummets, condemned forever to an affliction that is meaningless and absurd.  I wonder: why? I know in my heart of hearts that it is a biological condition, but then I think could be my own hubris, which, like Sisyphus’s insolence and cleverness, leads Zeus to condemn him to the rock, lead nature or God to give me this affliction. I rise from my depression with its feelings of worthlessness to the manic high where I think myself too clever for my own good.  I think myself to be grand, and I see that trait in others with the affliction. We have a distrust of authority, and tendency to be overly self-reliant. Marya Hornbacher describes the bias when she writes about medication:

“The habit of fucking with the dosages of your meds is common among bipolar people; since we don’t trust doctors, we figure our ideas are better than theirs, and so we add and subtract pills all the time. This rarely has good effects.”

For manic arrogance we are sentenced to the fall and the never-ending repetition of our errors.  There is an escape where the rock remains with us — perhaps the rock is eroded from boulder to stone, or cleft into a jewel like Marya Hornbacher has done with her writing — through acceptance.  Albert Camus related in his book the “Myth of Sisyphus” this concept. Camus, who saw the Sisyphean condition as a metaphor for modern man convicted to a life of ridiculous meaningless work, believed that when the hopelessness of this labor was accepted in all its futility that contentment could be found. Marya Hornbacher writes:

“Managing mental illness is mostly about acceptance — of the things you can’t do, and the things you must…… But there is hope too.  It’s been a long time since I’ve felt hope. I might have been mad, but in spite of it I did things, heard things, was inspired by things, wrote things, held conversations, worked, loved, even if I can’t remember it all.”

Looking at Titian’s painting of Sisyphus, I see a man with closed eyes grimly bearing his load. Surrounding him the wild sky rages full of storm clouds and intimations of fire. One small speck of blue sky appears near his knee. I see that patch of blue as hope. On one interminable trip Sisyphus will open his eyes and see the calm light, on that day like Camus’s Sisyphus, Titian’s Sisyphus will become happy because all is right in world. There is clear sky somewhere. The day of blue sky has come to me and to Marya Hornbacher.

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  1. Good post, especially for those who feel they are gentitg overloaded as the heroes. But let me throw in a couple of counter examples of why the hero syndrome often continues:1. It feels good to be the hero. It may take some self sacrifice to give up that recognition doing something you know has a positive impact, in favor of a team effort that may have an even better impact.2. Constantly fighting fires as the hero can perversely be easier. If all you have to do is handle problems other people present to you, you only have to react using the knowledge you already have. You don’t have to spend time investigating, thinking up your own tests, and expanding your knowledge.

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