A successful mental health picture requires work, and a tremendous amount of honesty.
I’ve had the flu and can’t get out for a run these days; surviving on tea and oranges, I fear I’ll soon tread into increasingly unstable territory.
“It’s so much work,” I say (actually sob) to my husband.
Why do I have to work harder than other people just to lead a normal life?
A few days ago, in a flu-y streak of internet surfing (what else?), I followed a link to an article about Carrie Fisher (who did this remarkable and innovative thing just by being open about her “not-so-normal” experience of reality), which led me to this, a 2006 BBC documentary I’d never heard of. I spent the next eye-opening hours with well-known British actor, Stephen Fry, watching The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Parts 1 and 2.
Fry’s agenda is singular and the same as Fisher’s: reduce at all costs the stigma around mental health problems.
If you haven’t read my previous posts, I’m NOT manic depressive, or bipolar. I’ve experienced acute depression, anxiety, and reclusive tendencies in semi-regular bouts (less frequently now) for over twenty-five years. But a lot of what this documentary touches on … well, let’s just say I could relate.
Stephen Fry is bipolar, but has dealt with his condition largely by ignoring it. That is, until he decides to film a deeply personal exploration of his illness, in the consideration of “changing his life.”
His problems surfaced at 14 with symptoms that just looked like bad behaviour. In a constant state of edginess, he was a show-off, a loud-mouth, disruptive and impossible to handle, and a thief of credit cards for which he was eventually imprisoned. He did cocaine for years in order to bring himself ‘down.’ We watch him chain smoke cigarettes while he bangs out an award show speech. And later, he’s racked with anxiety preparing to go on stage. He admits he works too much, shops too much (he has 9 digital cameras, 14 Ipods, 12 computers, and at one time had 11 cars), takes Ambien, Xanax and three vodkas to go to sleep at night, and doesn’t seem to be at all conscious of diet considerations.
And that’s his point. To show and tell.
In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2009, Carrie Fisher said: “If I can claim it, it’s mine. Declare something, and it has less power over you. Say your ‘weak’ things in a strong voice.”
I’ve always wondered if by admitting that I have chronic depression, I could perform some exorcism upon my being, turn illness into strength. It motivates this blog even; self-serving and not entirely for the good of lifting stigma for all, but entirely human.
The stories of others embedded into Fry’s story are also deeply honest.
Rod lost his marriage and a fulfilling career to bipolar disorder (and almost his life when he stepped in front of a lorry), and admits to seeing a parallel world filled with angels during his manic episodes. Fry asks, “Do you regret the fact that you were born with this strange disorder…? “It’s a very easy question,” he answers. “Not for a second.”
Rick speaks about his father, who dove off a cliff at their summer home when Rick was 18. The illness hasn’t been passed down to him, although even in his fifties Rick still sees a psychotherapist. “What happens to you as a child is indelibly printed on your brain. They fuck you up, your mom and dad,” he says. But he worries for his sons, that they may at some point show signs of the illness.
Liz, a doctor, was ‘sectioned’ (‘committed’ would be our equivalent) three times. She has taken no medication for the last 15 years, but depends on diet to keep her brain healthy, particularly fruits, vegetables and Omega 3 fatty acids, and she makes sure she doesn’t get too stressed or work too much. Liz believes that medication is like training wheels; once she felt what it was like to lead a normal life, she could take the training wheels off.
After speaking with an American doctor who hands out diagnoses (and meds) to children as young as four and a half, Fry visits the medical cabinet of bipolar American brothers, ages 16 and 13, where he finds Prozac, Lamictol, Clozapine (which is like a tranquilizer), Ambien, and Concerta (like Ritalin and commonly prescribed for ADHD). It takes their mother ‘the better part of an hour” to fill their medications for the day. “All of that to take the edge off a 16-year-old’s wilder behaviour? What I think? I’m not sure,” Fry says. British researchers believe too much medication early on can harm developing brains, and don’t diagnose bipolar disorder until age nineteen.
On the flip side, Richard Dreyfuss’ comments on his use of lithium for 23 years are illuminating: “I remember driving down Mulholland Drive and all of a sudden I was aware, after about ten days of taking lithium, that I had letterboxed. It was an absolutely non-claustrophobic experience that took the top and bottom away and said, ‘You could live here.’ And I was very happy to do so. I married with it. Had children by it. Reclaimed my career… Later I said to my doctor, ‘I have become a person I admire in the last few years. I have wept more. I have said ‘I’m sorry’ more. I have succeeded in endeavors I thought were impossible…And I could not have done that without this ‘courage.’ And he said to me, ‘It’s not courage. It is the absence of anxiety.”
Although veering into sentimentality here and there, Stephen Fry’s doc is revelatory and fierce. All of these people were prepared to be seen and heard so those of us watching could know more about what it’s like to live with mental illness. And when you’ve spent a good chunk of your life struggling with addictions and outright fearing a psych ward, as I did throughout my entire twenties, listening to people talk about living through and thriving from those experiences is about the most reassuring thing.
The music is a bit much, and I could have done without repeated scenes where Fry’s psychiatrist tells him how ‘very bad’ his condition is. Otherwise, the film compelled me to post this review.
“If you could press a button and live your whole life without the illness, would you?” It turns out, most of those interviewed would NOT press the button. Fry wouldn’t, “not for all the tea in China.”
If you’ve hung on and read this, thanks. Just don’t go cuddling your flu-y kid because you think your immune system is equivalent to full body armour.
Go tell someone about your ‘weak’ thing instead. In a strong voice, declare it as your own.