Wednesday, September 20, 2006

All in the mind

The writer, actor, raconteur and all-round good egg Stephen Fry last night hosted the first segment of a two-part documentary on bipolar disorder (which used to be known as "manic depression" in the good old days). It was an honest account of his life coping with the condition, and featured case studies and contributions from people of all walks of life from around the planet.

As someone with bipolar disorder myself (I don't suffer from it, it's simply part of how I'm made), I found it to be very enlightening, refreshing and elegantly presented. As a man who has presented his "funny side" to the world for most of his career, Stephen showed just what the disorder can do to one's self-esteem, social agonising and inability to function in what one estimates to be a normal fashion. If nothing else, it showed the facts in a normal, measured way that hopefully will foster understanding not just in carers closely associated with bipolar people, but in the wider public.

Bipolar disorder is generally characterised by mood swings that take the form of horrid, depressing lows that lead to inertia, suicidal thoughts, negative self-image and reclusiveness, coupled with hysterical highs during which one feels able to take on any task, destroy opposition to one's plans, lead nations into a bright new tomorrow and so forth. This then spirals out of control, dumping one back into the lows in a cycle that can, at times, feel inescapable for those trapped in them.

A major problem in breaking the cycle is that the initial stages of the highs can literally be one's most productive times - you have an unshakeable faith in your beliefs, jobs that "mere mortals" would take ages to do are annihilated in record time and yet still done very well. This is a seductive and dangerous state to be in. Everything feels more intense, you feel more alive, the world seems to just click into place around you, people find you more attractive and you feel a burning desire to just get out there and do stuff, because you know it'll be brilliant.

Along with this, however, comes a nagging worry that the people who find you attractive only do so because of the state you're in (and it won't last...), that other people involved in your work need to just speed up somehow to keep up with your freewheeling mind, that maybe you're somehow better than anyone else or destined for greatness if only everyone else could just see it. These feelings then precipitate the plummet into the depths, where the rage, bitterness and anger about missed chances or "being dealt an unfair hand" lie.

The efficacy of treatment is, naturally, different for every person with bipolar disorder. What would certainly have helped me in the early stages of finding out what was wrong with me over twenty years ago, is getting over the fear of letting anyone know that I'm "mental". By that, I mean that there is an inbuilt fear of vulnerability, that somehow letting people know that you're not normal will make them run a mile and all those worries about whether anyone really likes you will be confirmed.

Many of the interviewees with bipolar disorder (including Carrie Fisher, Robbie Williams and Tony Slattery) stated that, although it has caused them almost unbearable suffering at times, if they were presented with a button that could take it away, they wouldn't press it.This strikes many people as odd, but imagine that you could live your life in regular pastel shades but every once in a while, it would flip into glorious Technicolour with surround sound and everything, and I do mean everything, would just fit into place. That's what the highs feel like before they get out of control. It also means that the cost for those periods is to serve another section of your life out in grainy, scratchy black and white with muffled mono sound. Most of the contributors felt that the high periods were where they were at their most creative and inspired.

This is not to say that being bipolar is somehow a blessing - it's not. It's not a badge to wave for sympathy, and it's certainly not something to flaunt as if other people should be envious.

Stephen's Hollywood agent, when asked about Stephen's revelatory role in the show, was quoted as saying "Contrary to popular opinion you don’t have to be gay or Jewish to get on in Hollywood, but by God you’ve got to be bipolar. I can give you any number of people for your documentary." Illuminating, huh? Perhaps not - maybe I should start thinking about moving across? ;-)

Stephen Fry and the team behind the show have, even in the first half of the piece, done a huge service if only for the simple fact of showing that there are heaps of people living with and managing the condition, they're not attempting to go on gun rampages or eat babies at dawn, and that being diagnosed bipolar is not a curse, but the opening of a door onto the future.

Well done, Stephen. I look forward to next Tuesday's concluding segment.


At 10:28 pm, Blogger Harry Lime said...

Well said, mate. Now you know EXACTLY how I feel a lot of the time.

As I've currently got the Scissor Sisters' new album on repeat, I can only assume a major upswing is imminent.

At 8:06 pm, Blogger wcdixon said...

Excellent post - enlightening and informative...


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