Tonight on BBC2, Stephen Fry joins his fellow sufferers Carrie Fisher and British singer Robbie Williams in discussing his experiences with bipolar disorder. Stephen Fry is a well-respected British actor, comedian and author. In Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, he discusses, among other topics, how he was driven to the brink of suicide. (Bipolar disorder is also known as manic depression.)
After deserting a UK West End production of the play, Cell Mates, Fry recounts spending a couple of hours in his garage trying to decide whether to turn on his car’s ignition and take his own life. Instead he decided to take some time off in Europe, returning later to Britain where a doctor at a private London hospital told him what the problem was — he had something known as bipolar disorder.
“I’d never heard the word before,” Fry recalls. “For the first time, at the age of 37, I had a diagnosis that explained the massive highs and miserable lows I’d lived with all my life.”
Carrie Fisher, also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, makes it sound far from just a curse, however — “When you’re galloping along at a great speed, it is better than anything you could ever take.”
Indeed, what strikes you is how almost all the victims he quizzes tell Fry that, awful as it is, they would rather remain bipolar than not.
Tony Slattery, who plummeted very publicly into depression, admitted that even after all the havoc and pain that being bipolar disorder has caused him, he wouldn’t choose to be rid of it. There is some fear that although they would not be as tormented as they sometimes feel, maybe they would also not be as creative, and successful, as they have been when propelled by manic surges of energy.
For one of television’s best loved performers, Stephen Fry’s spectacular collapse became headline news, but for many it is a condition which goes undiagnosed for years.
The main symptoms of bipolar disorder are mood swings, from extremely happy, called mania, to extremely sad, known as depression. During a manic episode, people often cannot tell anything is wrong and might feel as if other people are being critical, negative or unhelpful.
The more common symptoms can be incoherence, rapid or disjointed thinking, being talkative, severely impaired judgment, ever-changing plans and ideas, constant elation or euphoria, waking early, and highly energized, and promiscuous, or increased, sexual behavior.
Everyone gets depressed or feels down occasionally, but with bipolar it is far more than the feeling of being fed up and miserable. People feel useless, desperate, guilty, hopeless, isolated, empty, tired, and unable to think properly.
“People often say just pull yourself together, but it’s not as easy as that,” said Malcolm Turner, chief executive of a local branch of the British mental health charity, Mind.
Working with people suffering from mental illness, he is all too aware of the up-hill struggle faced by those affected.
Turner is among those hoping tonight’s program will raise people’s awareness – as many people, when faced with the prospect of helping a loved one overcome the condition, find they know very little about it and wrongly believe it is something the sufferer can just “snap out of”.
“People like Stephen Fry show you can overcome your problems but you need an awful lot of determination and support to do it,” added Turner. “Sufferers need an awful lot of support and guidance and to take small steps rather than expecting huge improvements instantly.”