Depress to impress

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 by

It’s not often television, especially in documentary form, makes me feel humble or lucky, even though through my own reasons of health and happiness (though the fortune has yet to turn up), I know I am. But watching Stephen Fry’s two-part examination of the bipolar condition with which he and four million others live made me feel just lucky to be me, warts and all.

Stemming from Fry’s own diagnosis after he scarpered from Cell Mates in 1995, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive followed him around as he examined methods of diagnosis, identification of symptoms and somewhat indelicate methods of treatment and, most touchingly of all, interviewed numerous sufferers of varying social and intellectual standing, the majority of whom were, thankfully, not famous.

Fry is, of course, a colossal brain on two long legs, so I was grateful when he found himself listening carefully, without interruption or anticipation, to folk with the same illness as he, but without his cerebral power, finance or public profile to protect, tell their own horrific stories about living life on the edge of suicide or self-harm without any discernible reason for it. These people weren’t mad, or even coping with a dual personality. They were largely normal folk, educated to one extent or another, with careers and families who had seen their own helpless manic depression eat away at everything they had worked for.

The American mother whose two teenage sons were both bipolar and routinely attacked people and inanimate objects at school, and were on a peppermill-sized daily cocktail of drugs. The ex-Royal Yacht commander whose condition had him thrown out of service and eventually led him to walk in front of a truck, causing such severe compound fractures to his legs that they were now merely lumps of random skin and bone attached to his pelvis. The bright Oxford student, whose depression was so extreme that it wiped her memory just prior to her finals, yet in moments of mania prompted outstanding pieces of creative writing. The ex-lawyer and TA sergeant who now lives on drugs, unable to walk without aids nor leave her house. The brain surgeon who became a patient three separate times in a mental hospital and had to tell fibs about her past to return to the medical profession as a GP once her condition eased. I felt for them all. So did Fry.

Rick Stein told of how his father threw himself off a cliff in Cornwall in front of him, while Tony Slattery re-told his tales of chucking all his electrical equipment into the Thames while the river police, with megaphone, politely asked him to desist. All these stories – and more from the likes of Robbie Williams and Carrie Fisher – were taken on by Fry as he sought answers to his own condition.

Whether we got answers or not is debatable. There is no outright cure – sufferers can use drugs for the rest of their life and never show symptoms again, but this is no cure – but ultimately the main answer was to the question of how much public sympathy can this particular type of mental illness garner? After all, some of our unforgiving press will tell you that a mentalist is a mentalist is a mentalist, and no closer examination of symptoms or diagnosis will stop them being a danger to themselves, you, your family and – to quote Will Self’s Daily Mail parody – your house’s value.

Having a major player like Fry, a man of few enemies in public or private despite an antecedence which includes school expulsion, imprisonment and Stalag Luft, present the documentary so nakedly (we got two uses of the “c”-word entirely uncensored during his own lowest moments) clearly helped. His obvious vulnerability, despite his enormous intelligence quotient, was both sweet and alarming as he shopped for his 14th Mackintosh computer and DVDs he would never watch during extreme moments of mania (accompanied by a cognitive therapist who tried and failed to dissuade him) while also reeling at the realisation that he causes so much perennial worry to his family in depressive states (through his sister and diary organiser’s admission) even when he seems happy on the surface.

Ultimately Fry is a clown who we want to be a little mad, but now we realise he really is to an extent. But yet again he is associated with a piece of utterly compelling television, and boy do I wish well every person he interviewed.


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