Monday, September 25, 2006

Beautiful minds?

Stephen Fry's BBC series on mental illness misses the mark, writes clinical depressive Paul Stump

Broadcast around about my nightly ingestion of pills and drink, in Stephen Fry's investigation of bipolarity on BBC2, there is only one person whose testimony I have identified with; she's 'called' Connie. She is one of the few interviewees whose life is unmediated by public recognition or the possibility of acquiring expensive treatment. Tellingly, she is also the only witness who would - like me -unhesitatingly push a hypothetical button to immediately neutralise her depressive episodes. Tony Slattery, laugh-or-you'll-cry cretin Robbie Williams and even Fry himself regard their illness as somehow enriching and enlightening, if periodically irksome.

Tim Lott's not a favourite writer of mine, but the memoir of his own suicidal depression, The Scent of Dried Roses (1996) is one of my favourite books. Triggered by his mother's unexpected suicide shortly after the climax and catharsis of his own illness, it is gently devastating, like the proverbial butterfly's wings brushing a Jupiter-sized ball of steel to nothingness over time.

It's crass to invoke oneupmanship and comparativity in experiences of depression, but in my own experience of the fucker I recognise more of myself in Lott's accounts of total inertia than in the accounts of people like Fry, Belsen-was-a-gas Villa goalie Mark Bosnich and the doggy-style dogger Stan Collymore conducting successful and lucrative careers - which involve considerable investments of emotional and physical energy - when they are meant to be suffering from 'depression'. You only know depression when you are depressed. I passed my safe cycling test at 10 with a 99% mark while feeling like the ugliest and smallest-cocked boy in town. I was sad. I was not depressed; I was just rehearsing for the real thing, which was when I couldn't get out of bed at all. Most of Fry's witnesses are showbiz types; and most of them seem like they are rehearsing or auditioning for something much more serious. Give them a date, and they'll make it.

Seven words that sum up depression.

Let alone take on acting in West End plays or playing Premiership football (even ineptly) or presenting awards ceremonies, or (Oi, Williams!) fucking the brains out of anything that moves. Most 'ordinary' depressives don't even have the first idea how much energy goes into such showbiz undertakings. To suggest that people can expend so many carbs and kilojoules while supposedly 'depressed' grievously insults sufferers of true depressive illnesses, where for weeks at a time we pee in old mineral water bottles and force ourselves hard into the angle of the walls in the silent rooms where our stale beds are stowed. I am not depressed at the moment, because I can sit here and write this article. If I was, I couldn't even imagine writing it.

Lott's wise description of depression is 'a crisis of faith'. That's anthology stuff. I suspect Fry gets cut up and vacillates about which contract to sign next; this is quite different to being unable even to reach out and pick up the fucking pen, to even acknowledge the pen exists. Fry and his chums are surrounded, even engulfed by possibilities, promises of maybe-redemptions; friendly editors, agents, directors, well-connected mates - networks that constantly refresh the possibility of change unthinkable to most sane people, let alone the afflicted. Their whole world seems full of prompts to faith in rejuvenation and regeneration. Fry tells of 'booking himself into' a clinic after his ludicrously over-publicised crise de nerfs in 1995 - I challenge any reader of this article to ask their GP for any kind of comparable specialist consultation. Usually, the doc's reaction is straightforward - 20migs Fluoxetine or nowt. That is the difference between faith and no faith, that between Fry's world and that of the average mentalist (as most of us call ourselves now) - who has the greatest access to hope?

Right now, I am 40; I have a great journalistic CV, but no job, skypiling debts, no friendly media contacts; I might get a shag in seven years or so. I've heard the word 'no' more than thirty times a day for two years. I am losing; realising that serial losing, and the loss of hope and faith is what depression really is all about. Nobody has asked me to make a programme of my experiences, or even write about it. I somehow don't think anyone in Fry's two-hours will have this background, save for Connie, and the untold millions like her. Four or five million, at last count, so it's said.

Fry and his friends, so far, have sounded to those at depression's sharp end like grammar school sixth-formers whinging to coal-miner's sons that nobody 'understands' them. Nobody wishes depression on these box-seaters any more than they would on anyone else; but no sufferer in a different tax bracket would want them to be the ones giving a 'guide' to what depression, and bipolarity, are actually like to endure.

It's absurd to assume that earning seven figures a year automatically precludes irrationally envious glances at the pearl-handled revolver. But the bullet or the bag of barbs are less a temptation if you've an agent to field the offers of renewal and redemption than if you're a bankrupt on a Stoke sink estate or a Northumbrian farmer barricaded against the bailiffs.

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