In Ellen Forney’s Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from My Bipolar Life, you’ll learn how to make a game of taking your meds by swallowing them all at once; how to reframe yourself as mysterious when you’re not feeling socially capable; and how to cry inconspicuously in public. Most importantly, you’ll learn about “SMEDMERTS”, which translates to “Sleep Meds Eat Doctor Mindfulness Exercise Routine Tools Support system.”
The fact that SMEDMERTS is pictured as a friendly little monster gives you an idea of the tone of the book. Psychological coping tools are presented as a kind of Batmanesque Utility Belt. A quote from “Fluffy” Flaubert shows him as a cartoon rabbit. Yet Rock Steady is careful and precise, too. It knows no amount of fun diminishes the amount of work mental stability can take. “Getting stable is really tough,” writes Forney. “Maintaining stability over the long term is a whole other challenge. Ideally, it’s less dramatic, but it’s just as demanding.”
Forney first documented her own bipolar experience in her 2012 graphic memoir, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me. It depicted her mania with word balloons crammed with text, anecdotes about proposing make-out sessions with strangers, and vivid, sometimes upsetting, sketches from her journals. Forney resists medication at first as she fears she can’t be creative without her extreme moods; the book quickly becomes an interrogation of the notion of the “crazy artist”. She decides she doesn’t want to embrace unnecessary pain and can still make her art without it. It ends with her stating, simply, “I’m okay.”
Those looking for narrative continuation of her own story will be disappointed. The only moment of real story comes in the introduction, which depicts the author being told – just as she begins work on Rock Steady – that she’s going to have to come off lithium. Despite her initial resistance to taking it, it has been one of her two mood stabilizers for over a decade. There’s a scrap from her journal: “I am angry, frustrated + scared but I KNOW HOW TO DO THIS. Breathe. Let it go. Do the work.”
This is a book about that work, and how to do it. If you read Rock Steady before going back to Marbles, as I did, you’ll wish for a kind of time-travel: you want to be able to give this same guidebook to Forney when she most needs it. Instead, you see her develop the hard-won advice that Rock Steady shares. While it’s drawn from her own experience with bipolar, most of it is applicable to anyone with a mood disorder; in fact, it has chapters that would be useful for anyone, like one entirely dedicated to insomnia. It has everything from practical advice on funding your mental health care to track listings of mixtapes to help with different moods.
There’s not too much sequential art here. There’s the occasional effective vignette – talking with a therapist, a woman’s account of inpatient psychiatric care – but mostly it’s more of an illustrated guidebook. That’s not to say it’s less personal than Marbles, however. Forney knows that it’s one thing to provide tips on how to be kind to yourself. It’s another to actually see her daily notes from her journal, and how they track through the red flags of an oncoming manic episode.
Hand-lettered comics cast a particular spell that’s more difficult for typeset books: the illusion that what you’re holding is a one-off artifact, penciled and inked and bound just for you. That’s part of what makes Rocky Steady powerful. Its advice is like that passed on by a witty, wise friend. Mantras like “Go through the motions (it’ll come)” and “This too shall pass” read differently in the handwriting of someone who knows the plain truth behind them.
How do you review a book like Rock Steady? Art is usually that which isn’t strictly necessary. Rock Steady, though, is a practical guide. It’s impossible to gauge how well it succeeds without asking if it’s useful, or if it’s not. All I can say is that I found it useful, and I imagine many others will too.