Stephen Fry is one of those people to whom I am eternally tempted to send a lengthy, complicated letter, detailing exactly what I think of him and why. It's not quite as bad as it sounds -- usually the urge strikes when I start to get the feeling that someone is completely oblivious to some fundamental aspect of their personality that makes people like them. The problem is that there are really only two ways to react to getting mail like that from a complete stranger: to be charmed and deeply touched, if somewhat at a loss for what to say in response, or to lie awake at night wondering if it's time to put sturdier set of deadbolts on the front door. I generally go with Plan A when these things land in my inbox, which occasionally they do, but I haven't spent most of my adult life fending off people who saw me do something interesting once on the telly and now, fifteen years later, are thoughtfully sending me friendly warnings about the lizard people and handmade tinfoil hats.

Fry, as I mentioned, is very famous for two things. The first is being excruciatingly smart, and the second is being near life-threateningly funny. The second and a half thing, for which he has mostly become known in the past five years or so, is being profoundly manic-depressive. If you were unaware of that, I wouldn't feel too badly about it. I've been known to spot this kind of thing before I even know it has a name, and I wouldn't have picked it up, had he chosen not to say anything. I can, in fact, be thwarted, and he has managed to do so. (For decades. My parents were a big fan of PBS -- I saw the Wodehouse adaptations he did with Hugh Laurie before I had any idea there were books.) I don't follow the reviews of Fry's miscellaneous stage work, but whatever praise he has gotten as a serious actor, it is not enough -- he has evidently been keeping the mother of all lids on this for something like forty years. Even running through the better part of ten series of QI back to back -- which is exactly the sort of semi-scripted thing that I normally spot these patterns in -- I can only pick out tiny, rare moments where a chance comment hints that perhaps he's not concentrating entirely on trivia like the mating habits of the Bolivian mountain shrew, and it's nowhere near enough for me to catch the whole thread.

He is phenomenal at covering. I'm not entirely sure that counts as a compliment, to be honest. I don't have the upswings -- I occasionally wish I did; I would like to someday, just for a moment, have as much fun as bipolar Is seem to be having in that one last glorious microsecond before you completely torpedo your life in a naked insomniac shopping frenzy -- but I'm well-acquainted with the miserable bits. The thing is, when you're in a trough, you don't have the ability to interact meaningfully with other people. It just isn't there. When people see you looking unhappy, they respond to it, and they expect you to respond to their response, and you. just. can't. Telling your friends to treat you like everything's normal is equivalent to playing a never-ending round of the Elephant Game (don't think of an elephant -- whoops, you lose!), so the only way for you to avoid that particular soul-sucking bog is to learn how to control how much information other people get about your internal state. It's something nobody ever really talks about, but the bipolars and chronic depressives are all nodding to themselves -- do it long enough, and you get very, very good at it. You have to; it's a survival skill.

After a while it gets to the point where being able to cosplay as a functional human being is the only thing you feel like you can do even kind of right. Maybe you have to argue with yourself for an hour before you can crawl out of bed and take a shower, but goddamnit if you manage to leave the house you are going to look completely normal until you get back. It's difficult to convince a depressive that it might be worth getting help in the first place, but once the mask settles on it gets exponentially more difficult to drop it again, even if not doing so is self-destructive.

It was 1995, and Fry was 37, before he managed to get a diagnosis. This is not that unusual, in my experience. I don't know how it goes if you're bipolar and not too bright, but the manic-depressives I know, like all my other friends, tend to be on the frighteningly smart end of things. The smarter you are, the longer you can get away with covering, lying, and generally outwitting yourself in order to keep going, until all the trunk latches pop open and everything comes spewing out. The extent to which Fry manages to keep all of his assorted mental manteaux properly crammed into their traveling porte most of the time is quite stunningly evident if you watch his documentary The Secret Life of the Manic-Depressive, for which he won an Emmy, and which can be viewed on YouTube (part 1 and part 2).

Fair warning: This documentary is not funny. Most of Fry's non-fiction projects end up being that combination of informative and preposterous that makes Harvard anthropologists piss themselves laughing, but this one is not. If you know many bipolar people, you know that the ones who cope with it more or less successfully tend to do so by developing this darkly screwball sense of humor that lets them tell stories about what happened the time they forgot to refill their prescription for a week and woke up in Mexico with a new tattoo and an unfamiliar dog whose collar said Bubbles but who actually answered to the name Bosco, while asking you nicely to please duct tape them to this chair in case it happens again; Fry does have that self-awareness, and has always had a fine sense of the absurd, but that kind of madness is not what this project is about. It is quite possibly the only thing I've ever seen him do on television that is not amusing in the slightest.

I hesitate to say things like "that's very brave". Other people can get away with it; I always think I sound like I'm patronizing a seven-year-old who's just gotten through a whole dental appointment without biting the hygienist. I will say that I recognize how much effort it took him to not cover for his mood swings on-camera. People have this idea sometimes that it's a matter of just relaxing something and letting yourself be sad in front of other people, that it's some sort of catharsis, and this does make some sense if your only experience with depression is the situational kind -- dead pets, sick grandmothers, failed exams, and getting dumped are the kind of things where understanding and hugs honestly do matter. But that's not the way it works with clinical depression.

The misery of clinical depression is completely, utterly, grotesquely pointless. It has no cause, it respects no reason, and it carries no meaning. It is not a burden that can be shared; it is a disease that can be spread. If I dredge up my hopelessness, and I tell you about it, it doesn't make me less hopeless. It makes me acutely aware that I am just as hollow as ever, and now I have also worried you. Digging all of this up and laying it out privately for a therapist or a friend hurts at the beginning, hurts in the middle, and hurts when it's over. There is no relief in it. The reason Fry decided to do it on camera is the same reason I keep trying to do it here: There's nothing I can do for myself once I'm already in the hole, but if I'm determined enough, I can force this pain into a form that may have meaning for someone else.

It's a bizarrely selfless thing, that feeling that you should be the last one to ever drown in this. And it doesn't necessarily make much sense. But the depressives are all out there nodding their heads again, I'm sure.

One thing that all of the bipolar people I have met have had in common is that they are all absolutely terrified: Terrified that other people will notice, terrified that they themselves won't notice and will consequently talk themselves into doing something awful, terrified that they'll notice and it won't matter because they won't be able to stop themselves doing the awful thing, terrified that one day one of the mood swings will just take over and that will be it, no more personality or rationality, just unending rage or mania or sobbing or nothingness all the time. Above all there is an overwhelming terror that whatever someday obliterates them will hurt other people as it does so. Fry has all that; you can see it in his eyes when he says that the sudden, inexplicable, manic rage is familiar. He looks so bewildered when he talks about it -- very much that's not me, I don't feel that way except that, very briefly, he was, and he did, and I don't think it's a thing that anyone can ever understand.

That Fry has a very large squodgy spot for animals, even the ones that aren't cute, is blindingly obvious in stuff like QI, where the panel occasionally even uses it against him; that he has an equally large squodgy spot for other people is somewhat less so. He guards it a bit better when the animals have two legs and the ability to use language. He is also not so bad at the people-reading himself. Near the end of part 2 of the documentary, Fry watches a tape of a therapy session involving a young woman he's interviewing for the piece; he both narrates and interprets her actions, with what I would say is a fair degree of accuracy. She picks up her bag; she wants to leave. The young lady is an aspiring writer -- the therapist asks her if she's afraid her illness will take away her ability to write. Fry's face is a terrible collision between Christ, that must be what I look like and I know exactly how that feels and oh god that terrifies me too and I want to take that feeling away from her, and I can't.

You may have noticed that when I write these things, I tend to stick to journalistic style when it comes to names. Full name on first mention, surname thereafter. I'm aware that this is not usually what people do anymore; fan pages for people almost invariably use first names, if not silly nicknames. If I tried this IRL I'd probably confuse the hell out of everyone. I do it on purpose, to try and put some distance between me and my subject. Tromping around in other peoples' heads strikes me sometimes as being rather like tromping around in other peoples' fields. If I'm going to do it, the least I can do is keep in mind that I'm not really supposed to be there. There are some people for whom it becomes increasingly difficult for me to remember this as time goes on, and Fry is one of them; the more I type, the more I have to stop myself from typing 'Stephen'. Which is completely, frustratingly unwarranted, no matter how many of his books I've read.


  1. Thank you for posting the links to Fry's documentary. I have bipolar disorder, and did not know that he does too. I started watching Part One of the documentary immediately after reading about it in your post, and enjoyed it immensely.

    1. Fry has also written quite a lot of books, two of which are autobiographies: Moab Is My Washpot and The Fry Chronicles. From my perspective, he's highly-critical and deeply unfair to himself in a lot of places, but he is also very candid and has considerable intellectual insight into the wide variety of fucked-up things his brain decides to do from time to time. If you enjoy his dry, elliptical style of presenting on TV, then you'll also like his books -- he writes exactly like he speaks.

  2. As a person who has bipolar and had an episode of post-partum psychosis, this post nearly made me cry. I appreciate the sensitive way you handle these issues--you've absolutely nailed the descriptions of terror (oh god, don't take away my writing, please) and covering. I've always thought of depression itself as a selfish disease, always wanting more, but you're correct in that the way (most?) people hide its effects from their friends is born from selflessness.

    I've seen Stephen Fry's documentary but have not yet read his books. His autobiographies sound illuminating.

    1. Well, that's a new one on me -- I assume that any entry that contains phrases like "naked insomniac shopping frenzy" is automatically exempt from the 'sensitive' category, but I'm glad you found it helpful. I sometimes think my function in life is to voice things that nobody else ever says but should, and if I put it on the internet I figure anyone who doesn't like it can just close the tab.

      Manic-depression is one of those things I deal better with in others than they do in themselves. Another universal complaint of bipolar sufferers seems to be that they don't really know who they are -- which I find curious, since my experience of them from outside is of a coherent personality with a very wide range of mood states, rather than a fragmented jumble of 'manic persona' and 'depressed persona' and 'dysphoric hypomanic persona' etc. I've always wanted to ask why they feel that, but it really never comes up at times conducive to intellectual discussion.

  3. "naked insomniac shopping frenzy"

    I actually found this hilarious. Then again, I'm the one who tells my friends that I "cleaned like a madwoman today" and waits to see who picked up on the language use. (Not one person yet, sadly.)

    I've only had my diagnoses for a few years, and it has only been within the last six months that I've been medicated properly enough to start sorting my head out. I am both lucky and privileged to have the working meds/headspace to pick this disease apart, and I *still* have trouble knowing who I am. I've only begun to recognize and catalogue mood state symptoms, and like everyone with an chronic illness, I've got a long way to go re: learning out how it works--and how to work with it.

    A great deal of the difficulty for me is looking back on my life and realizing that a lot of the decisions I've made--and sometimes ones I make now--are based on the perceptions and feelings I have while in mood episodes. Like marrying my current partner when I did and subsequently falling pregnant. Did *I* make those decisions? How much of me? Would I have made a different decision at the time were I not manic/depressed? (Oh, so much yes re: acquisition of baby, at least. Mon dieu.)

    You're right that the core personality of a person with mood episodes is the same, and likely presents as such to an astute outside observer. But when I can't get out of bed in the morning, dancing naked in front of a window in the afternoon, and then frothing mad at dinner, it's difficult to get a bead on which parts of my personality carry over. Self-awareness is the ability to compare external events with internal values, but in a bipolar person, this is compounded by internal events affecting them which have absolutely nothing to do with what's happening externally.

    I hope that my convoluted opinion helps!

    *For the record, my official diagnosis is severe Bipolar I with psychotic features, ultra-radian cycling and mixed episodes. I am the life at a party ten minutes at a time.


Post a Comment