High and low profile

Living with bipolar disorder is nothing like the movies, says Sally Feldman

January 17, 2013

I blame Stephen Fry. In his 2006 documentary, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, he not only confessed to suffering from the illness himself but also interviewed a succession of celebrities with the same problem. Step forward Tony Slattery, Jo Brand, Carrie Fisher, Richard Dreyfuss and Griff Rhys Jones. Oh, and he also squeezed in a few “ordinary” sufferers who, without the comforting glare of the limelight, seemed the most deeply unhappy. For this, the programme implied, is an illness of the talented and the creative.

It’s a view that was initially proposed by the author Kay Redfield Jamison in her book Touched with Fire. To support her thesis she analysed a galaxy of past geniuses. Those thought to have been manic depressive include Ludwig van Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sir Isaac Newton, Judy Garland, Robert Schumann and Lord Byron. No wonder it’s tempting to be part of such an august line-up. So much so that having a touch of bipolar is now almost de rigueur for the famous. It’s the must-have disorder to add to your other fashion accessories like the latest Hermès bag or a cashmere onesie. Or the celebrity drug of choice, cocaine, which, taken in excess, can produce symptoms strangely similar to those of manic depression.

Fry himself, who has on several occasions claimed he can cope with his illness without medication, actually welcomes it. “I love my condition,” he told The Independent in 2006. “It’s infuriating I know, but I do get a huge buzz out of the manic side…It’s tormented me all my life with the deepest of depressions while giving me the energy and creativity that perhaps has made my career.”

Anyone who has truly been affected by this crippling mental illness, with its extreme mood swings from suicidal depression to ecstatic crazed highs, is unlikely to love it. To say that you can “manage” without medication risks trivialising the disorder itself, and those who have to live with it. And the latest culprit to contribute to this vogueish glamorisation is the film Silver Linings Playbook. Bradley Cooper, as manic depressive Pat Solatano, gives a magnificent performance. In the first half of the film he sustains a convincing combination of despair, unpredictable violence and touchingly pleading hope. But after he meets the equally disturbed Tiffany he is transformed. It’s as if the movie has the same affliction: one minute it’s a persuasive portrait of mental illness, the next, it’s just another romcom. The result is a misleading moral message: anything can be cured if you find true love. And that’s not true.

Of course, this complex mental condition can veer from fairly mild to utterly incapacitating. For all I know Catherine Zeta-Jones did “recover” after diagnosis and a short spell in hospital in 2011. Maybe it was the disorder, rather than his legendary libido, that fuelled the exploits of Russell Brand. But such cases won’t be of much help to the millions who have had their lives blighted by this cruel illness. Nor will they help us to understand and recognise it.

And those of us working in universities need to be especially alert to signs of manic depression. Fry may have been diagnosed only when he was 37. But bipolar disorder will usually manifest itself in the late teens and early twenties. The age, in other words, of most students.

No doubt campus counselling services are aware of the symptoms and maybe even look out for them. But they’re not always well placed to advise or to treat. And that can be of use only if the student is referred to them in the first place.

One young woman told me that she returned to her university a couple of years after graduation to explain to her tutors that she had only been diagnosed after she had graduated. One of them told her he’d suspected that she was bipolar but hadn’t liked to say anything.

Why not? The personal tutoring system, the first safety net for troubled undergraduates, is intended to ensure some form of pastoral vigilance. But a couple of meetings a year, which is the norm in most institutions, won’t guarantee that problems are identified. Lecturers are less likely to notice aberrations in behaviour if they are coping with large classes and overcrowded seminars. And if they do detect a problem, and are wise enough to refer the student to a counsellor, that is going to help only if the advice is accepted.

One of my own students, who had been intermittently disruptive, sometimes even violent, and had indeed been seen by various counsellors, revealed in one of his frequent disciplinary hearings that he hadn’t chosen to take his prescribed drugs but was instead self-medicating: with heroin.

Yet despite the sad prevalence of suicide among manic depressives, by far the majority lead fulfilling lives with the help of appropriate medicines. But it’s a condition that you can’t cure: merely control.

And that is the far more realistic approach taken in the otherwise far-from-realistic television series Homeland.

Carrie, brilliantly played by Claire Danes, is a manic depressive mistrusted by her CIA colleagues because of her wild accusations and obsessively gleaming eyes - although her hunches usually turn out to be right. At the end of season two she makes a rather eccentric pact with double agent Brody. She will overlook the fact that he’s a converted Muslim terrorist who has murdered the vice-president of the US and is on the run. And in turn, he’ll learn to live with her illness.

She has found love. But unlike deluded Pat Solatano in Silver Linings Playbook, she’s not going to get better.

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