Looking back on the “rocky road” that was the first part of her life, author and advocate Marya Hornbacher readily admits that she chose not to deal with her mental illness.
“It’s scary to be told that you have a chronic, lifelong illness for which there is no cure,” Hornbacher told the AJW. “Acknowledging that requires you to face that fear, come to terms with it, accept it — acceptance is hard for many of us — and do a lot of work. There’s a lot of stuff to do to take care of your health.”
Hornbacher’s struggles began in her teens, when she was gripped by severe anorexia and bulimia. By the time she was 20 years old, she had been hospitalized 10 or 11 times — eventually being placed on life support.
At age 24, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type I. But she turned to alcohol as a way to cope with “extreme anxiety,” which negated the drugs she had been given to manage her condition.
“One does not want to have that stigma placed upon them by the social world,” she said. “And also that stigma is alive and well in us as individuals. Part of my struggle was with the idea of knowing I had a mental illness, the idea of thinking about myself as someone who had a mental illness.”
Finally, at age 30, after she “bottomed out” and “lost everything,” Hornbacher made the decision to deal with her alcoholism.
“When I sobered up, magically, the meds began to work,” she said. “And that roller-coaster ride that I had been on my entire life began to level out, and then as things got steadier, I got off the roller coaster… I realized that there was stability that could be found and I went after it.”
Hornbacher will be the keynote speaker at the Twin Cities Jewish Community 12th Annual Conference on Mental Health that will take place on Nov. 11 at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. The free conference, titled “On the Front Lines of Healing,” will include workshops on mental health issues that can affect anyone — men and women, children and seniors.
This year’s conference takes place on Veterans Day and it will pay special tribute to those who have served our country. Combat veterans frequently experience a range of mental health problems.
The event will feature two sessions of workshops exploring 25 topics. Among the workshops will be “Men and Depression,” “Talking about Wellness in a Weight-Focused World,” “From the Front Lines to the Home Front,” “Reducing Health Disparities in LGBT and Queer Communities,” “Cultivating Creativity to Build Resilience” and more.
One of the topics in the first session will be the Jeff Elliot Kaner Supportive Torah Workshop, which will take place on Kaner’s first yahrtzeit (anniversary of his passing). Kaner founded the Supportive Torah program, and was an active organizer and presenter at the annual conference (11-11-11 AJW). The workshop will be led this year by Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, of Shir Tikvah, and other rabbis will be invited to teach in future years.
Hornbacher will lead “Writing as a Tool for Recovery” in both the first and second sessions. An author and creative writing teacher at Northwestern University in Chicago, she will offer tools to assist beginners as well as experienced writers. She encourages participants to bring their notebooks.
Hornbacher, who lives in St. Paul, says she has been aware of this conference and was “delighted” to be asked to speak.
“There’s a wonderful spiritual energy about this,” Hornbacher said. “There’s such coming together of community in support of its members that you see almost nowhere. So I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Hornbacher has written five books on eating disorders, mental illness, and addiction and recovery. Her 2008 memoir, Madness: A Bipolar Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was a New York Times bestseller and Hornbacher received many letters and e-mails from others dealing with a similar experience.
“I was so excited by that, by the fact that I hadn’t just told my story, I had told stories of people’s lives who weren’t getting that voice,” she said.
That bolstered Hornbacher to become more involved in mental health advocacy. Currently, she serves on the board of Hennepin County NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness) and gives lectures to “be of support to people with mental illness.”
Hornbacher has also written a novel, The Center of Winter, which touches on a variety of issues in one family, including alcoholism, mental illness in children and post-traumatic stress disorder. She is a Pulitzer Prize and Pushcart Prize nominee, and winner of several awards for her journalism and books.
Hornbacher says Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, which was published by Hazelden in 2011, is closest to her heart. Her father was a practicing Episcopalian who later became a lay minister, but Hornbacher came to understand that “you don’t have to have a set of beliefs about where do we come from, how does it work.”
Hornbacher has an undergraduate degree in philosophy and has read a lot of religious literature. She feels a connection to Judaism.
“I find a great deal of wisdom in the Judaic literature because it is so focused on ethics, because so much has to do with how do we live here, how does one live a spiritual and grounded and good life?” she said. “That’s the religion I came to feel the most akin to… I found a lot to hold on to there.”
Prior to Hornbacher’s keynote session, David Wellstone, son of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, will speak; Sen. Wellstone spoke at the first annual Conference on Mental Health in 2001. David Wellstone has a new book titled Becoming Wellstone: Healing from Tragedy and Carrying On My Father’s Legacy.
There will also be a pre-conference special event, featuring a discussion and performance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Next to Normal, on Nov. 8. The cost is $18 and only 100 theatre tickets are available.
The Annual Conference on Mental Health is presented by the Mental Health Education Project (MHEP), which is part of the Jewish Community Health Awareness Initiative (J-CHAI), a collaborative program of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis (JFCS) and Jewish Family Service of St. Paul (JFS).
“This conference gives so much information that people can use in their own lives but can also take out into their understanding of the social world,” Hornbacher said. “Rarely do I find a community of people saying, This is our community, we want to give this information, we want to share this information and come together to discuss these things. And that, to me, is how the social web is woven, how the social safety net stays intact and it’s really exciting.”
The Twin Cities Jewish Community 12th Annual Conference on Mental Health, featuring keynote speaker Marya Hornbacher, will take place 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11 at Temple Israel, 2324 Emerson Ave. S., Minneapolis. The conference is free and open to all.
A pre-conference special event will take place on Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Brian Coyle Center, 420 15th Ave. S., Minneapolis. A light dinner reception at 5:30 p.m. will be followed by a panel discussion and performance of Next to Normal at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis. The cost is $18, which will support future mental health conferences.
For information and to register by Nov. 4, call 651-698-0767 or visit: www.jfcsmpls.org. (Transportation can also be arranged from the St. Paul JCC.)