Ellen Forney is ‘Rock Steady’ on the Way to Stability
Columnist, Melody Moezzi, delves into Ellen Forney’s latest book, “Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from My Bipolar Life,” on finding stability and how to maintain it.
By Melody Moezzi
It’s not easy being highly public about something most people prefer to keep highly private, but knowing you’re not alone makes it a whole lot easier. As an “out” bipolar memoirist, I’m part of a decidedly small crew, but I’m honored to be in it with the likes of Ellen Forney. We first met a couple years ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we attended and spoke at a pair of screenings of a PBS documentary called Ride the Tiger: A Guide Through the Bipolar Brain. We were featured in the film as examples of people with bipolar disorder who were leading full and productive lives. But having far more in common than a diagnosis or a documentary, we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Apart from both having bipolar I, Forney and I were both diagnosed at the age of 29 and both graduated from Wesleyan University.
I had first been introduced to Forney’s work with the publication of her New York Times bestselling graphic memoir, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & Me. The book would go on to be named a best graphic novel of 2012 by The Washington Post, Time magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Publishers Weekly.
Her latest book, Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from My Bipolar Life, picks up where Marbles left off. Published in May by Fantagraphics Books, it’s part graphic memoir, part bipolar survival manual, and 100-percent Ellen Forney: creative, smart, funny, and insightful.
Rock Steady is chock-full of practical coping tools informed by Forney’s intensive research, as well as her own extensive personal experience with bipolar disorder and nearly 15 years of stability. She keenly points out in the introduction that “[g]etting stable is really tough. Maintaining stability over the long term is a whole other challenge. Ideally, it’s less dramatic, but it’s just as demanding.” Reading the book, I couldn’t help but wish it had been around when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as it’s far more informative than any bipolar memoir I’ve ever read and far more entertaining than any bipolar self-help book.
Rock Steady provides a panoply of resources and tools for those of us seeking stability in the face of a mood disorder. Forney begins the book by introducing us to a mascot named SMEDMERTS, which is an acronym for the elements that make up her strategy for stability: getting enough (but not too much) Sleep, taking your Medications if that’s part of your treatment plan, Eating well, seeing your Doctor, practicing some form of Mindfulness and/or meditation, getting regular Exercise, keeping a consistent Routine, and having plenty of individualized coping Tools, along with a strong Support system.
Forney admits that following her own advice takes work and practice. “One thing I emphasize in Rock Steady is that stability is an action,” she says via video chat. “Like you can never get to ‘rock steady’ as in ‘stable as a rock’—but the idea is to see those words as verbs. So, it’s rocking as in getting off balance, and steadying as in regaining your balance. It’s a constant calibrating and recalibrating, so stability is never a done deal.”
The book pitches SMEDMERTS not as a cure-all, but rather as a map of some of the “key things to stay on top of” in order to maintain stability. Here are some gems from the treasure trove of tips and tricks you’ll find in Rock Steady.
Recognizing that healthy sleep is the top priority for maintaining stability, Forney provides a slew of suggestions for falling and staying asleep: from more standard advice—around limiting and/or avoiding certain substances depending on the hour, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, getting sunlight early in the day, judicious napping, over-the-counter products, and prescription sleep meds—to the less standard advice, including a restorative yoga pose I can’t pronounce, screen filters and minimized screen exposure before bedtime, guided meditation, podcasts, white noise, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, and yes, even orgasms. She also includes helpful tips on dealing with jet lag, suggesting you “get into the new time zone as soon as you can—or if you’re only there for a short time, you could try sticking to your home time zone schedule.”
It’s common knowledge that we should keep our medications somewhere convenient and make sure they’re easy to identify, but Forney goes beyond that, delving deep into the nitty gritty of medication management, covering topics like pill cutting, pill swallowing, picking the best pill storage systems for home and travel, sticking to a regular medication regimen, and dealing with side effects responsibly. When starting a new medication, Forney astutely advises, “Look it up, and don’t freak out at the long list of side effects! You definitely need to watch out for them, but the weird ones probably won’t happen to you. Be sure to tell your doctor if you’re having side effects—your meds may need to be changed or adjusted.”
A healthy diet is a key component to maintaining stability. “The things you ingest affect your brain (caffeine, alcohol, psych meds, etc.). So the food you eat affects your mood and mental health. … Eating well is a challenge, for like, everyone. Just know that it’s a mental health consideration, too.” Wisely recognizing that we are all different, Forney promotes variety and moderation instead of advocating for any specific diet. Ever practical, she notes, “It’s impossible to have a flawless, uninterrupted 24/7 self-care routine. You might not have time to get enough sleep and eat a good breakfast and meditate and catch a 7 a.m. flight. It’s about balance: calibrate, recalibrate. Get off schedule, get back on schedule. Rock, steady.”
Rock Steady delineates the many different kinds of mental health practitioners (including psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, psychiatric nurses, social workers, and more), as well as plenty of distinct available therapies (including psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, psychoeducation, interpersonal social rhythm therapy, family focused therapy, and much more). In addition, Forney deftly addresses the need for greater cultural competency in psychiatric care, while also providing very specific and practical suggestions around financing mental health treatment—such as checking with insurance, getting trusted referrals, utilizing student health centers where applicable, and contacting community mental health centers for more affordable options. She also suggests situations that might warrant reaching out to your chosen mental health professional—namely, “if something’s weird, or worrisome, or an emergency, or if you’re having side effects,” while simultaneously noting the dangers of misdiagnosis and the importance of getting an accurate diagnosis early on.
Meditation & Mindfulness
Forney gives a Five Star rating to the practice of meditation and/or mindfulness —“bringing your awareness to the present moment, without judgment, and quieting your busy brain”—for maintaining stability. She suggests picking a regular time, finding a comfortable position, and trying different ways to focus until you find the one that works best for you, whether it’s with your eyes open or closed, with guided meditation podcasts or with white noise or with total silence.
The breathing exercises alone present but one example. Forney takes the time to explain and discuss the benefits of all kinds of breathing techniques, including breathing fully, exhaling slowly, taking five deep breaths, symmetrical breathing, asymmetrical breathing, alternate nostril breathing, counting 12 breaths, and more. She also encourages the practice of meditation and/or mindfulness while doing seemingly mundane tasks—such as waiting in line or doing laundry or walking.
Recognizing that “exercise activates the brain’s anxiety-relieving neurotransmitters, supports overall physical health, invites a sense of well-being and comfort in your body, and helps regulate your eating,”
Forney recommends that we all get regular exercise, but she doesn’t much care what kind of exercise we get, just that we “find something [we] enjoy.” She also extols the benefits of irregular exercise, especially if that’s all we can manage. From dancing to a single song to taking a walk around the block to stretching for few minutes, Forney acknowledges that something is better than nothing, and reminds us that a little can go a long way. “Doing a bit of low-key exercise—even just a tiny bit—can turn around an emotion that’s not serving you. Even better if it can get you outside.”
To emphasize the importance of maintaining a steady daily routine, Forney draws a page full of numbered dance steps. Between the steps, she writes, “Keep a regular routine, because the world is already chaotic enough, because a routine makes it easier to do all the things you need to fit into your daily life, [and] because balancing and regulating our bodies and minds means balancing and regulating not just our sleep, but also meals, exercise, rest and more.” Forney also discusses how she used to struggle with maintaining a routine before realizing that “when my schedule is all over the place, my moods are all over the place too, and … ‘regular routine’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘dogmatic and boring routine.’”
Rock Steady includes countless coping tools to make it easy, convenient, and as entertaining as possible to deal with the different trials and tribulations faced by those of us living with bipolar disorder (see sidebar). While Forney devotes an entire chapter to coping tools, plenty more tools pop up in every chapter of Rock Steady. Some are as simple and common as making lists or keeping mood charts or reciting mantras, but others are incredibly inventive. For example, Forney goes beyond merely telling us about the power of music to improve our moods. She actually creates her own extensive customized “Rock Steady Playlists,” such as “Lift It Up,” “Walk Right On,” “Kick in the Pants” and “Set on Down.”
Dancing to a new and solid beat, we arrive at the power of support. Whether through friends or support groups or family or pets or books like Ellen’s or magazine’s like bp—having a strong and informed support system means learning from the people and resources that compose our unique support systems.
Ever since meeting in Michigan, Ellen and I have become part of each other’s vast support networks, finding comfort in one another’s work and presence. The power of a strong and sundry support system, combined with the knowledge that you are in stellar company, cannot be overestimated, and this is the powerful underlying message that pervades Rock Steady.
“This is hard,” Forney noted during her interview with bp. “I want [my readers] to know that messing up doesn’t mean that you’ve messed up irreparably. Probably it’ll be okay, and if not, probably, it’s fixable … and I want my readers to remember that we are in good company. We are not alone.”
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A sampling of Ellen Forney’s Wisdom on Finding and Maintaining Stability
- Creative Output: Journal, Draw, Doodle, Color, Knit, Write, Play Music.
- Creative Input: Read, watch, and/or listen to material you enjoy by like-minded folks.
- Allow yourself things that comfort you, even if they seem silly or indulgent.
- Be kind to yourself: Treat yourself the way you would treat someone else who you “truly, intuitively care about.”
- Focus on your physical body: Take a shower or a bath, check your posture and your breathing, get up and move.
- Practice meditation or mindfulness, whatever that looks like for you.
- Engage in therapeutic activities, like making lists and charts, or taking your “as needed” medications when appropriate.
- Employ positive mantras to “protect us when negative messages are pressing in.”
Printed as “Rocking Steady with Ellen Forney” Summer 2018