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Author discusses life of anorexia, bipolar disorder

In her breakout novel "Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia," Marya Hornbacher told all. She wrote of making herself throw up a meal for the first time at age 9. She wrote of sneaking vodka in a water bottle into classrooms at 10. The Edina, ...

Marya Hornbacher, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated

In her breakout novel "Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia," Marya Hornbacher told all.

She wrote of making herself throw up a meal for the first time at age 9. She wrote of sneaking vodka in a water bottle into classrooms at 10.

The Edina, Minn.,-bred kin of the regional grocery chain founder, she wrote of hitting 50 pounds at 19.

But, except for a passing mention in the epilogue, Hornbacher, then 23, left something out. The condition she glossed over went on to wreak havoc on her life as she received a nonfiction Pulitzer Prize nomination and published the novel "The Center of Winter," a New York Times Notable Book in 2005.

In her latest book, "Madness: A Life," Hornbacher, who is now 33, looks back on a turbulent youth spent in denial of her bipolar disorder, to disastrous effect. This Thursday as part of Minnesota State University Moorhead's McGrath Visiting Writer Series, Hornbacher gives the first public reading from the book, due out next spring.

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In a phone interview from her Minneapolis home, Hornbacher spoke of coming to terms with mental illness, addiction - and success.

Q: When were you diagnosed with bipolar disorder?

A: When I wrote the epilogue of "Wasted," I had just been diagnosed. It's very telling. It says something to the effect of, "I've been diagnosed bipolar, rapid-cycling Type 2, which means essentially nothing." "Madness" addresses that period when I was diagnosed and completely didn't take it seriously. And then of course it took hold of my life. It caused a total collapse in my 20s.

Q: So the diagnosis didn't give you instant clarity?

A: No. I was so frightened of the diagnosis, so resistant to having bipolar disorder. I had the same prejudices about mental illness as many people do. A running joke among bipolar people is, you know, bipolar happens. But at the time I was horrified. I was 24, getting some success in my career. I was married. I had a house. I was finally getting my life back together, or that's what it felt like. The most crucial part of treating bipolar disorder is to religiously take your medication. And I was like, "OK, I'll take my meds when I feel like it."

Q: What drove you to start taking your illness seriously?

A: I ran my life completely into the ground. I struggle with alcohol addiction, and so many people with bipolar illness do. Between the uncontrolled bipolar and my out-of-control drinking, I had ruined my life. I had lost my marriage. I was losing my career. Those years in my memory are a little dim, so when I wrote about them, that confusion and that lack of clarity are reflected in the writing. I really had to piece it together from talking to the people who were in my life, from reading medical records, from looking at my journals, which were practically incomprehensible. When I completely bottomed out, I went, "Oh, maybe that bipolar thing has something to it." When you start treating bipolar, you realize it's a highly treatable disease.

Q:Your Web site says "Madness" is about the difficulties and, counterintuitively, the promise of living with mental illness. Where does the promise lie?

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A: Probably the reviewers won't emphasize that, but "Madness" is a really funny book. I absolutely believe this is essential - you have to be able to laugh. Living with a mental illness has a degree of absurdity to it. It's a very unusual perspective from in here, and it can be very funny. One of the ways you have to learn to survive is to see the humor and the absurdity in your struggles. Sometimes things get very, very dark with a mental illness - sometimes for years. You can open up a book like "Madness" and say, "Wait, I will come out of this."

Q: Do you feel you've decisively won the battle with anorexia now, or does that illness still haunt you?

A: I wouldn't say it haunts me. I would say it lingers in the same way that wanting a drink lingers. I've been sober for years, and every now and then I suddenly want a scotch. Every now and then, I'll look in the mirror, and I'll go, "Oh my God, you're terribly fat." It's like having an annoying dog. Every once in a while, it'll be at your ankles. Eventually you just ignore it.

If you go:

What: Marya Hornbacher

Where: Comstock Memorial Union 101, Minnesota State University Moorhead

When: Thursday, talk on the writer's

craft 4 p.m., reading 8 p.m.

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Info: Free.

(218) 477-2199

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529 Author discusses life of anorexia, bipolar disorder Mila Koumpilova 20071106

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