Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Cracking up or breaking down.
Whilst writing about Jeanette Winterson's break down in my recent post What doesn't kill you I remembered a post I did six years ago after watching Stephen Fry talk about his own problems with manic depression or bipolar disease, as it is now known. It seems just as relevant today so I'm posting it again.
Stephen opened his programme ‘The Secret Life of the Manic Depresssive’by telling us that after three performances of Simon Gray’s ‘Cell Mates’ he had left the West End Theatre and walked out of the play. I knew about this but what I didn’t know was that he took a duvet from his flat to seal the door of his garage and sat in his car for two hours staring at the ignition key. It wasn’t a cry for help, he said; he wanted to kill himself.
He fled to Europe and after a week returned to hospital where – aged thirty seven he was diagnosed as being bipolar. He went for a long break to America asking was he mad and how did he get the disease. He said there are four million people in the UK who suffer from this and many of them may commit suicide. He wanted to know what triggered it, was he getting better or worse and was it the correct diagnosis. He decided to talk to others. He was told in L.A. ‘You don’t need to be gay or Jewish to get on here- just bipolar.’
For years he has kept quiet about his illness but now wants to speak out. He met his friend Robbie Williams in L.A. Robbie had been told he was not manic depressive – just ‘dead upset.’ He said his drug of choice was fantasy to escape depression and boost his self esteem. He lost ‘the cog’ to socialise but could perform brilliantly before thousands of people. He used the classic method of alcohol and drugs. Then he was prescribed anti-depressants and they worked. Stephen said that he was manic in real life.
Stephen next visited Carrie Fisher who, he said lived on the edge of sanity – not mad enough to be hospitalised but not sane enough to live a normal life. She described her ‘highs’ where she is manically enthusiastic about everything and everybody and spins out of control imagining she is getting messages from deep space. She was asked ‘Does your doctor know you behave like this?’ And then she would cry for four hours at a time. She was diagnosed and is on medication but half the sufferers are not diagnosed.
It is not easy to diagnose and Stephen found that a brain scan doesn’t show any difference to a normal brain. He went to Cardiff University where they are trying to find a bipolar gene and had his DNA taken. There isn’t a single bipolar gene and there is no clear cut test. The psychiatrist asked Stephen many questions and built a medical history.
Stephen was nearly expelled from prep school and was from Uppingham. He used to cut games and wander over the rooves of the school. He said he was a ‘show off’ a ‘loud mouth’ and ‘impossible.’ He met his old house master who remembered giving him permission to go to London and he didn’t return. He had been to see ‘Clockwork Orange’ The Metropolitan Police were called and a psychiatrist said he had a mild depressive illness with ‘some brain damage’
He stole although he didn’t need to. The school laid a trap in Matron’s room and everybody was very shocked to discover the thief was Stephen. Stephen said the stealing was ‘nerve wracking but a real buzz.’ It was just called ‘bad behaviour’ He stole credit cards and then had a manic episode aged seventeen where he bought ridiculous suits and drank cocktails at the Savoy. He was arrested and sent to Pucklechurch Prison.
When his mother visited him in prison bringing him crosswords, he was very upset.
He found prison very like boarding school. He reckoned that every five years a ‘huge storm ‘would come. First there would be depression and then 6/12 later a manic phase;’a Tourette's view of yourself – a complete arsehole.’ He attempted suicide.
He travelled again to the USA and found they diagnose children much earlier and thus are treated earlier. In the UK they don’t label sufferers until aged nineteen. He met a family where the two young sons were both bipolar. Some are diagnosed as young as three years.
Stephen thinks that great stress can push you into Manic depression. He suffers great stress before his many public appearances but thinks the illness has probably helped his brilliant career.
He met Rod in Cornwall who had been an officer on the Royal Yacht for four years. He had a break down and went to France where he hallucinated and saw sea gulls as soldiers who had been killed and he thought he was Jesus. He was hospitalised and decided to escape. He walked onto a motorway and stepped in front of a lorry. He showed his mangled legs – a legacy of that incident. That was ten years ago and now he is stabilised. He wouldn’t change his illness because he has ‘walked with angels.’
Stephen interviewed the chef Rick Stein whose father was manic depressive and hurled himself from the cliffs in Cornwall where Rick lives. His concern is if he or his sons would develop the illness. He also spoke to Tony Slatterley who had suddenly plunged into manic depression ‘out of the blue – for no reason.’ He rented a warehouse and stayed alone for months. He called it his dark hour but – like most of the others – if given the choice to get rid of the illness would not.
A young mother knew that pregnancy was very dangerous for her condition and reluctantly decided not to have any more children. It was said that somewhere in the sufferers history there would be another family member who had been bipolar – not necessarily diagnosed.
Another woman in her forties was the one person who bitterly regretted having Manic Depression. ‘I don’t see the future’ she said. She had attempted suicide a number of times – once by using an electric drill in her head.
Stephen reckoned that he was lucky to be at the mild end of Manic Depression but the psychiatrist thought differently and by the end of the programme Stephen said he must consider treatment and that his life needs to change dramatically.
It is not a very cheerful subject but I think Stephen Fry is doing a great service by bringing this out into the open. When families are struck by this illness they shouldn’t have the added burden of having to hide it. I did this post specifically for an overseas friend and apologise for any mistakes but shorthand is all Greek to me.
More information can be got from bbc.co.uk/health.