Stephen Fry’s own experience with manic depression lead him to create a documentary about the condition.
Question: Can you discuss your experience with bipolar disease?
Stephen Fry: Yes. I was first diagnosed actually not to my knowledge as being possibly bipolar when I was about fifteen. I didn’t know this until much later when I made a documentary about my life as a manic depressive or someone with bipolar disorder, whatever you choose to call it, an uppy-downy, mood-swingy kind of guy. In fact, technically I believe the correct diagnosis for my condition is psychothymic, which is like also known as bipolar light in America, which is rather nice and makes it sound like a variety of cola, but bipolar disorder is a mood disorder rather than a personality disorder such as that might mean to anybody, but I think we all kind of get what that is. To me mood is the equivalent of weather. Weather is real. That’s the important thing to remember about weather. It is absolutely real. When it rains it rains. It is wet. You get wet. There is no question about it. It’s also true about weather that you can’t control it. You can’t say if I wish hard enough it won’t rain and it’s equally true that if the weather is bad one day it will get better and what I had to learn was to treat my moods like the weather. On the one hand denying that they were there and saying I can’t… I’m not really depressed. Why should I be depressed? I’ve got enough money. I’ve got a job. People like me. There is no to be depressed. That’s at stupid as saying there is no reason to have asthma or there is no reason to have the measles. You know you’ve got it. It’s there. It’s not about reason. You don’t get depressed because bad things happen to you. That’s getting pissed off and annoyed. That’s reasonable. Someone hits you in the face you go ow, you know that’s… but depression is something that happens like weather to you inside you and it’s not about… It could be triggered by something unfortunate, but it isn’t… You know it’s not enough to talk yourself out of it by saying but I shouldn’t be depressed because I’ve got people who are nice to me, which is frustrating for people outside. They go, “Don’t be depressed.” “Everyone loves you.” “You’re really happy.” “You’ve got a good life.” I know. That is what is so depressing. I can’t help it. So but once you… It’s not a solution, but anyway, it’s very important at least to get that stage of it out of the way is to recognize it as a mood disorder as something that is akin to weather, but the nature of manic depression or bipolar disorder is it is bipolar. It is two poles. It’s not just depression. The point is that there is this other side to it. You have a depressed mood. You have an elevated mood that is mania, which is the manic side of manic depression and these are hypomanic or hyper manic states in which you can be grandiose. You can be absurdly extreme in your optimism and your creativity and your energy. You can go for ages without sleep. You can be sexually promiscuous. You can be a shopping addict, but people have different ways in which they’re elevated moods are expressed and they talk nineteen to the dozen. They can’t stop thinking, their mind races. They think they can solve the problems of the world. They think they have a unique insight. It can be a very blissful and exciting and extraordinary state of mind to be in and then comes the crash. The problems of it are manifested in tens. One is that people, most people outside family and friends are more annoyed, are more uncomfortable at the manic phase than the depressed phase. The depressed person you can deal with because all they want to do is just sit there and they want to be in dark in the bedroom sleeping and not doing any work and just hating themselves and as long as they’re not you know really considering suicide, as long as the pain isn’t that bad then you can manage them whereas a person in an elevated state is unmanageably annoying. They won’t stop talking. They won’t stop shaking their knees up and down and getting excited and talking about things and changing things and re-tidying rooms and oh, like that. So you know it can be a very frustrating for people around you. At its worst it can be very dangerous. Obviously suicide is the down side of depression. I had several suicide attempts in my life, but also really and this always sounds like a feeble excuse, but it is true. The most natural way you would attempt to cope with something inside you that is affecting your moods and your energy levels is to intervene with chemicals to help and because medical science hasn’t come up with pharmaceuticals that do particularly well you tend to reach for the chemicals that are outside the Pharma counter, i.e. narcotics and alcohol because they can guarantee your mood more or less. They like, like the condition itself will store up a big crash or big reverse, but you just keep at it and you keep getting drunk, keep getting wired and you’ll stave off the inevitable disaster of being alone with your moods.
So for a long time I was I suppose dependent is the word on cocaine powder and naturally when you take a lot of cocaine powder you tend to take a lot of alcohol with it as well, so for many years really I never went out without at least four or five grams of cocaine powder on my person and I would ingest it intranasally as was the fashion through the use of some sort of straw or rolled up currency note and managed to get by on it. I never did that when I was working. I didn’t do it onstage or on while filming or anything. It was a way of ending… As soon as you… Because work provided its own high, but as soon as I finished work that was it. I was out. I was in clubs and things. I can’t believe it now. I don’t know how I managed to do it. It’s just extraordinary, but I did and anyway, then I had a bit of a disaster in the mid nineties. I was in a play and it just all went wrong and horrible and I ran for the hills as it were. Well actually I ran for Belgium which are not hills at all. I ran for the low countries and through Belgium went to Germany and I was… and so declared missing by the British for awhile and then I was found and it was all very ghastly, but it sort of made me confront the whole business of this diagnosis and I saw doctors and things and they confirmed the diagnosis and then a few years later when I was back on a more even keel and more used to dealing with things and a little bit more clear about myself I made a program about… called Manic Depression and Me or The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive was the proper title. And in which I… It was two one hour films in which I went around America and England actually and talking to people with the problem, talking to doctors, talking my own history and my own condition and it was really interesting because it was considered something of a success this program and something of a breakthrough and because aside from all the problems I’ve spoken about one of the major problems is not the person who suffers with the disease. It’s with the rest of the world and mental health disorder and its stigma. People just are terrible at coping with it, other people. They don’t like anyone mentioning it if possible.
I had the great pleasure of dinner last night here in New York with Dick Caveat, the talk show host of the sixties and seventies, a brilliant talk show host. Look him up on YouTube if you don’t know his… the show he… I mean he is absolutely wonderful, but his career was pretty much stalled in many ways by his fight with depression and he has written about it superbly and he talked about it and we were chatting about it last night and it is that problem of you know say to someone I’ve got a broken leg or I’ve got diabetes, particularly if you say diabetes and asthma say, which are both chronic conditions that won’t go away. People go, “Oh, do you take insulin or do you take that little wheezer thing for your asthma?” You go, “Yes.” If you say I’ve got a mental health condition they go, “Oh, do you?” “That’s nice.” And they want to be somewhere else. They don’t want to be anywhere near you and I can understand that. Of course I can understand it, but you know that it’s like six degrees of separation I think. You know that you know all six of Kevin Bacon or whichever. I don’t think that you’re ever more than three or four steps away from someone close to you who has a mental health problem and I think the more we accept that it is us, it is part of being human then the better we are because then we can start concentrating on the things that matter in terms of coping with it.
Question: What do you think about medicating children who appear manic depressive?
Stephen Fry: It’s a really… It’s a really tricky business that of diagnosing children. On the one hand it is very good if the diagnosis is sound and you believe in it to spot the early signs of what could be a very difficult growing up for a child, on the other hand, to give Ritalin or powerful antipsychotic drugs to a child as young as four or five. I spoke to a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He is one of the leading people in his field who is quite prepared to diagnose very young children as being bipolar, not just ADHD and things that we’re used to in children and his point is that non intervention is not a neutral act. Not giving someone drugs when you’ve diagnosed it is in itself allowing the brain as he would put it to toxify itself, that whatever is happening as the brain is forming if it is forming in a bad way, bad pathways, bad neural signals are being sent and they’re creating bad pathways as it were or you know bad demands for you know because let’s face it. We don’t really understand that balance between hormone… if you like or hormone and neurotransmitter, but that’s his argument is that nonintervention allows the brain to build itself badly, but it’s a heck of a thing to give a child as young as… Well as young as ten or even as young as fourteen frankly some of these powerful drugs when the brain is still growing. I find it tricky and certainly in Europe it’s considered outrageous, but it happens a lot in America, but then you have more mad people. No, I mean sorry. You have a bigger population and better scientists.
Recorded December 8, 2009