Stephen Fry’s sequel to his Emmy-award winning documentary Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive is as sad as it is beautiful. It’s a poignant, delicate look at how the lives of the individuals featured in the original documentary have changed since they were first introduced to us, ten years ago.
For those who don’t know Fry’s original work, I would highly recommend taking a look. Struggling with his recent diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder, after a dramatic suicide attempt involving his car, a garage, his duvet, and a theatrical escape from London, he returns with a fierce desire – to understand more about the disorder, its sufferers, and the hope for treatment. His ultimate desire is to raise awareness – and try to alleviate the stigma – of this misunderstood disorder.
The individuals he interviews in his documentary are likeable, intelligent, and relatable. What is so moving about these individuals is how incredibly honest and brave they are. Their stories are often harrowing and intense, their worries and fears unrelenting. This is their life – their daily struggles in coming to terms with their condition, and what it means for them.
One of the individuals, Cordelia in particular struck a chord with me. Perhaps it is because she is writer, like me. Perhaps it is because she is my age. Or perhaps it is because I could quite easily imagine her as a friend of mine.
She is a beautiful girl, fiercely intelligent, and highly ambitious. Fiesty and confident, the world is her oyster. Her friends are all smart, gregarious and fun. She does brilliantly at school, attends a prestigious university and gains her masters. She is a budding writer whose works have been highly praised in the past, and she is excited about her future.
Then it all falls apart. For no apparent reason, she starts to have episodes which are uncharacteristic, impulsive, irrational, and ultimately dangerous. She begins to go out until very late, with friends – or without. She begins to drink too much, put herself in dangerous situations, becomes promiscuous, and takes risks. She exhibits an inflated sense of self, of self-confidence and inhibition. She believes she is invincible. She begins to her worry those around her with her wild antics.
For those of us with bipolar we can immediately recognise this as mania. For Cordelia, as with most of us, respectively looking back reveals periods of mild hypomanic/manic symptoms – impulsive nights out, crazy social behaviours, seemingly boundless energy at certain times. All considered acceptable in the sphere of youth and university.
The trigger for this plight into mania is vague. Certainly there was stress attached to her masters studies, and an uncertainty about her future. Typical Type-A anxiety relating to her life. She was also highly sensitive and insightful – always questioning and worrying.
After the mania came the inevitable crash. She became lethargic, listless, hopeless, and depressed. She wouldn’t see friends, and could not get out of bed. She began writing in her diary incessantly about this ‘fear’ and how it consumed her. It was always with her.
One of Cordelia’s greatest loves was her writing. When depressed she found she could not write; her ultimate fear. Attached to her writing was her sense of self – and therefore when she could not write, her world become grey and hopeless. As she sank deeper into the disorder she began to doubt all of her abilities, and even her worth as human being. If she could not write, if she could not achieve – who was she?
Cordelia’s story moved me because she had such potential, and she felt like the disorder took it from her. She felt her future slipping away with each day.
Many of us with bipolar feel this way. Many of us were extremely highly functioning before our condition kicked in, and could take on the world with ease, and excel at everything we wanted. We often were social and had wonderful networks of family and friends.
For many of us now, it is an absolute struggle just to get by. It is hard to articulate how unbelievably difficult it can sometimes be just to get of bed, have a shower, get ready, and go about our day. At other times we are manic for long periods (which may seem fun but it is not – believe me!). We become highly energetic, unable to sit still, or relax, or calm our racing thoughts.
I was deeply saddened to see that Cordelia’s story has not adopted a fairytale ending, as I was secretly hoping. In addition to her mental plight she now faces a physical one – she has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. C’est la vie
Nevertheless I remain hopeful. Life is an adventure. We play the best with the cards we’re dealt. In the past ten years since the original documentary was aired leaps and bounds have been made in achieving Fry’s original mission. People are beginning to gain an understanding of bipolar, and the stigma – like that of previous mental illnesses such as depression – has lifted significantly. This leads to compassion and acceptance – which helps the sufferer enormously. Treatments are becoming increasingly more effective and more is known about the most successful management strategies for dealing with the condition.
In addition, being bipolar forces an individual to look at their life, their happiness and their choices. What they are grateful for, who they are grateful for, and what they really want in life.
These are all valuable lessons.
Part 2: The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: 10 Years On by Stephen Fry is available at:
And the original:
The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive by Stephen Fry is available at:
*links and featured image courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)