Stephen Fry has published a piece on his website talking about his suicide attempt last year and the mental illness that provoked it.
Some people, as some people always will, cannot understand that depression (or in my case cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder) is an illness and they are themselves perhaps the sufferers of a malady that one might call either an obsession with money, or a woeful lack of imagination.
“How can someone so well-off, well-known and successful have depression?” they ask. Alastair Campbell in a marvelous article, suggested changing the word “depression” to “cancer” or “diabetes” in order to reveal how, in its own way, sick a question, it is. Ill-natured, ill-informed, ill-willed or just plain ill, it’s hard to say.
But, most people, a surging, warm, caring majority, have been kind. Almost too kind. There’s something a little flustering and embarrassing when a taxi-driver shakes you by the hand, looks deep into your eyes and says “You look after yourself, mate, yes? Promise me?” And there’s something perhaps not too helpful to one’s mental health when it is the only subject people want to talk to you about, however kindly or for whatever reasons.
But I have nothing to complain about. I won’t go into the terrible details of the bottle of vodka, the mixture of pills and the closeness to permanent oblivion I came. You can imagine them and I don’t want to upset the poor TV producer and hotel staff who had to break down my door and find me in the unconscious state I was in, four broken ribs thanks to some sort of convulsive fit that must have overtaken me while I lay almost comatose, vomit dribbling from my mouth. You can picture the scene.
The episode, plus the relationship I now have with a magnificent psychiatrist, has made made my mental health better, I think, than it’s ever been.
Aside from his relationship with a psychiatrist, Fry also talks about the medications he now takes:
But medicine, much as some don’t like to hear it, can help. I am on a regime of four a day. One is an SNRI, the other a mood-stabilizer. I haven’t considered suicide in anything other than a puzzled intellectual way since this pharmaceutical regime “kicked in”.
But I can still be sad. Perhaps you might go to my tumblr page and see what Bertrand Russell wrote about his abiding passions (it’s the last section of the page). I can be sad for the same reason he was, though I do so much less about it than that great man did. But I can be sad for personal reasons because I am often forlorn, unhappy and lonely. These are qualities all humans suffer from and do not qualify (except in their worst extremes) as mental illnesses.
Fry also touches on the contradictory loneliness that comes with many mental illnesses. It’s a loneliness that pays not respect to a person’s fame or popularity:
It’s not that I want a sexual partner, a long-term partner, someone to share a bed and a snuggle on the sofa with – although perhaps I do and in the past I have had and it has been joyful. But the fact is I value my privacy too. It’s a lose-lose matter. I don’t want to be alone, but I want to be left alone. Perhaps this is just a form of narcissism, vanity, overdemanding entitlement – give it whatever derogatory term you think it deserves. I don’t know the answer.
I suppose I just don’t like my own company very much. Which is odd, given how many times people very kindly tell me that they’d put me on their ideal dinner party guestlist. I do think I can usually be relied upon to be good company when I’m out and about and sitting round a table chatting, being silly, sharing jokes and stories and bringing shy people out of their shells.
But then I get home and I’m all alone again.
I don’t write this for sympathy. I don’t write it as part as my on going and undying commitment to the cause of mental health charities like Mind. I don’t quite know why I write it. I think I write it because it fascinates me.
And perhaps I am writing this for any of you out there who are lonely too. There’s not much we can do about it. I am luckier than many of you because I am lonely in a crowd of people who are mostly very nice to me and appear to be pleased to meet me. But I want you to know that you are not alone in your being alone.
It took me a lot of time before I stopped feeling guilty about my own suicide attempt. I still feel pangs of guilt and shame when the subject is breached. But that is what mental illnesses have in common with cancer and other physical conditions: it kills people. Nobody blames the person who dies of cancer, but we often do blame the people who die of mental illness. Nobody feels guilt for contracting cancer, but we often feel tremendous shame for having a mental illness.
Those things will go away the more we talk about it. And having prominent people like Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow being open about their afflictions will help to normalize them in the way that diabetes is normalized. Props to Fry for his bravery.