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.


LL Cool Joe said...

I think humour and depression appear to go hand in hand. I've had some very bad bouts of depression over the years. I'm fairly level at the moment. The only good thing about my depression is that I lose loads of weight. At the moment I've gained a few pounds. That says it all.

Granny Annie said...

Tremendous post and very educational. You did it exactly right.

kenju said...

what a sad thing for the sufferers. I know two brothers, who were adopted and are not blood related. Both of them suffer from it - one is diagnosed and one isn't. I wonder if their upbringing caused it, not genetics. Or maybe there is some obscure physical reason and then family and stress triggers it?

One of those brothers attempted suicide 3 times, but was found/stopped before he was successful.

Pat said...

Joey: not just humour - artistic talent in general often goes hand in hand with bouts of severe depression. I'm really glad you have a few extra pounds Joey:)

Granny Annie: thank you so much.xox

Judy: nobody really knows. It is tragic when- in many cases - with the right treatment-their lives can be transformed.

Chef Files said...

I have a very miserable foreign fella who operates a JCB for me on the odd occasion I am short of labour.

I diagnosed him as 'Bi-Polish'.

Mage said...

Brilliancy and creativity often go hand in hand with madness. I had drug induced schizophrenia, and what a terrible thing to live with.

OldLady Of The Hills said...

Such an interesting and informative post, Pat. I LOVE Stephen Fry and think he is sooo Brilliantly Talented! You are right. He is doing a great service by being so open about this.
Carrie Fisher is on Talk Shows here, all the time, and talks about having Shock Treatments--now called something less horrble---on a regular basis to help control her condition...I wondedr if Fry has interviewed anyone else who is having these treatments, too...Carrie Fisher feels they have really helped her tremendously. She is another Brilliantly Talented person!

Pat said...

Chef: see below!

Mage: hat off to have come through it and be where you are.

Naomi: I did another post on his second programme. Maybe I'll repost that too.

Vagabonde said...

I don’t know much about this illness, so was interested in your post. You explained it well. I read several books about Virginia Woolf and her bipolar disorder – she certainly was a gifted writer. I think I have all her books.

Chef Files said...

Oh good... another chance for more jokes. No point in being miserable about being miserable eh doll?

Gadjo Dilo said...

Stephen Fry's a lucky lad to have an appreciative audience when he talks about his demons, and to be able to 'flee to France' rather than simply 'lose his job', but I reckon he's decent enough to know this, and I imagine he's doing a good job of airing the subject. This kind of thing rather runs in my family, but I personally managed to delay my own singular losing of the plot until I was safely in the loving embrace of the Danish Health Care system :-) Recommended.

AndrewM said...

He said his drug of choice was fantasy..

Do you mean ecstasy????????

Pat said...

Vagabonde:Virginia Woolf - so sad when she put the stones in her pocket and went into the river.

Chef: well when you put it like that...

Gadjo: I think there are many families - more than are ever dreamed of - that have this kind of experience and it's has to be good that we are more open about it.
I'm glad you found the right sort of help and may you continue well.

AndrewM: 'he' was Robbie Williams - pay attention:)
I just wrote what I heard - and you know all about my writing. Either could be true.

Guyana-Gyal said...

Mental illness is not much talked about in my country, and it makes me sad. It's considered 'shameful'. I have pages of notes about one young relative who's told me of her experience.

This is such a well-written post, Pat. I appreciate how much you've put into writing it, I'm glad you've done it.

Stephen Fry, by opening up, and getting others to talk, will help so many others.

The Unbearable Banishment said...

I didn't know any of this about Fry! Oftentimes, genius and madness are two sides of the same coin.

I just saw a play last night staring Laurie Metcalf who plays a doctor stricken with dementia. Her descent into madness is convincing and upsetting. It'll get her a Tony nod, for sure.

Pat said...

GG: if your relative was agreeable maybe you could write about it too. It's the only way for people to realise that it is sad- not shameful - like any seriousillness and muh more common than people imagine.

UB: then I'm glad I reposted it. It is a vital part of Fry's make-up. Dementia is a whole new ball game and as one gets older more aand more one finds friends suffering from it and one can feel one's own brain cells diminishing.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Thanks Pat - yes, I did indeeed find the right sort of help at the time, and in fact I think the whole experience made me a stronger, better person, and I don't see it happening again.

Very true, this sort of thing is more common than people imagine, and it's good that societies such as Britain are now more open to discussing it; unfortunately I'm now living in a country where it's still taboo....