Stephen Fry, suicide, and the cycle

Stephen Fry (who I hope is feeling better now) has opened up in a podcast with Richard Herring and spoken of a suicide attempt he made last year.  I won’t link to the text as it’s a rather hardcore description and, as much as I could be, I felt triggered by it as I had a similar physical reaction (convulsions and a seizure) during my own suicide attempt and I get flashbacks which aren’t nice.  Here’s the podcast, though.

I have the utmost respect for him for speaking out on this.  I have sometimes, as many others have, attributed the oft-glamourisation of manic depression to Stephen Fry.   But none of that was ever his fault.  Our mental health is ours, so intensely personal yet so common, that when someone talks, publicly, about their experiences, we feel aggrieved that they are not exactly describing our own.  We bear different pasts but the same diagnosis. If we are struggling, unwell, lost, I think there’s a sense of feeling cheated that someone else isn’t.  Especially with celebrities who may speak out but not have to suffer through the NHS, money problems, social services and all the insidious intrusions you have to live with when you have a mental illness. But pain is pain. It may be dimmed by money or fame, and it may not.

The recovery narrative of mental health can forget that people die because of their mental health problems. Not solely, of course.  Sometimes it’s everything else that can kill; the mangle of the benefits system, the guilt and shame of knowing you’re being judged when you’re buying groceries, the isolation from those who no longer know what to say to you, whom you might have hurt, or whom may have hurt you. And this is getting worse and worse, with the benefits system crueller than ever, seemingly trying to make people kill themselves, the stigma becoming more and more, and harder and harder to live with.  And not much is being done to help. All that can kill you, too.

All that, or nothing.  Stephen Fry said,

“‘Fortunately the producer – I was filming at the time – came into the hotel room and I was found in an unconscious state and taken back and looked after. ‘You may say, “How can anybody who’s got it all be so stupid as to want to end it all?”

“That’s the point, there is no “why?” That’s not the right question. There is no reason. If there was reason for it, you could reason someone out of it.”

This, for me, is the most uniquely horrible thing about living with a mental health problem.  Sometimes, there is no reason. Last year, just after my wedding, I started to become depressed.  The depression continued, strangling me, slowing every movement down to indecision whether I woke up or not, got dressed or not, moved or not, stayed or went or lived or died and I couldn’t decide.  I locked myself in bathrooms, I was mute or repetitive, going over and over on the same tiny details to avoid the huge one in front of me.  That there is no reason to live, and I wanted to die. The closest I came was one night in November where I stood at the side of road then just walked out in front of a car, which stopped, the driver swearing at me.  I fantasised, selfishly, about an, “accident”, so I could leave and not be blamed, no notes, no reasons. I would be tragic and frozen and immortal as a bride and not as the mess I was.  I was a newlywed and I felt I was standing outside my own body screaming, “THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS.  CHEER UP, CHEER UP, STOP” and it made me feel lower and lower and lower.  My husband wasn’t supportive as it looked like the wedding had caused my depression.  It hadn’t.  The sense that I had let him down, let everyone down, killed me.

I become depressed, like clockwork, at the same time every year.  All my forays with hospitals, suicide attempts or the crisis team have been almost at the same date.  It’s so predictable and yet, every single time, I forget. I think something will save me; a wedding, love, anything.  It doesn’t- it never will.  And it will come again and I find it terrifying.  It is what in periods like this, where I am otherwise mentally fine but having panic attacks, makes me want to step into the road again. To take control.  To end the cycle, once and for all. It is so frightening to see your life mapped out like that.  To be happy and to know that you might be returned to that horrible place, and you might not return from it.

And because there is no reason, it is hard to get help.  It took me a few months to actually admit to myself that I was so depressed I was dangerous. I blog, and talk, and tweet, but getting me to actually visit a doctor and say, “I WANT TO KILL MYSELF” is hard.  Somehow, those words take on a terrible, solid form in that room.  It becomes real and vivid and the doctor has to argue with the person inside of you that wants to kill the host.

This isn’t to be self-pitying. It’s a plain fact. For whatever reason, whether it’s biological, psychological, social or all, people with mood disorders will have mood swings and they almost always will happen again and again.  Some people rumble on for years and are fine, some people, like me, have a seasonal pattern to their moods and tend to become unwell around the same time every year.  I do much better than I ever did, as I used to have good old fashioned rapid cycling and became unwell quite regularly. Now, my high moods are pretty much under control as long as I take medication and sleep enough, but I still get depressed.  I don’t expect to- like I said, I forget I do- but there is it. HOORAY! I feel I am as lucky as I can be in my life, in many ways, and that makes it more frustrated.

Recovery from mental illness is real. People live with it, every day, and although 10-20% may die from suicide, the rest are out there, like you and me, still living their often difficult, sometimes wonderful lives.

I think that, me included, we all thought that when you let the genie out of the bottle, it lost its hideous power. But we were wrong.

33 Responses

  1. Thank you, Seaneen.

  2. I feel for him being in that situation. I truly do. But a champion then president of a mental health charity should be using his role to help everyone, not just talk about his own experiences no matter what his reasons for doing so.
    Half my mates have tried to end their lives at some point, where are their TV programmes and presidencies and god statuses? Disclosing one experience does not deserve a medal.
    I never expected his speaking about mental illness to make that genie lose its power; I never had any expectations of watching a documentary based on himself to change the world. However I do expect Stephen Fry to talk about things that affect more people than just Stephen Fry.

    • Suicide affects more people than Stephen Fry. Maybe he should talk more widely about other experiences and be more proactive, but I’m personally glad to hear someone who people have thought was pretty infallible and from the YAY CURED arm of mental illness disclose this.

      • As I’ve just said on twitter, as a standalone anecdote it IS good to hear that someone with all the resources in the world is still not recovered. But in the context of everything else he does [or doesn’t do] it’s meaningless. It’s merely coincidence that this time he’s mentioned something that does happen to affect a lot of people. I’m angry with him for not using his role to do so much more than he could to truly represent a wider range of experiences.

        • What would you want him, personally, to do? Mind tend to focus on things like depression, anxiety etc, there are other charities like Rethink who don’t.

          • To simply acknowledge the other end of the scale. He could’ve done so much good with benefits, the NHS, the media… using his role as a mainstream famous person that people know and love AND as someone representing Mind. That’s a very powerful place to be but he just talks about himself, all the time.
            He tweeted recently about legal aid, and that is the first time EVER I’ve seen him acknowledge any of the cuts that are currently affecting us all.
            I feel bad he’s been in such a bad place, nothing else I think about him would change that. I just think he’s failed in the roles he’s taken on.

            • I think that’s fair comment. I don’t think any celebrities or public figures do or say enough about that. Like I said up there, often it’s not the mental health problem that kills you.

            • Completely and utterly back all your comments Ali. I’m incensed he [and the majority of the other mental celebs] NEVER NEVER speak of the pertinent issues affecting ordinary survivors such as housing, benefits, inability to access a service, accessing crap services, where stating self-harm [which he did] or suicidal intent can be effectively ignored. I think of all the unpaid activists who have worked their arses off for years for little or no financial reward let alone status, and feel disappointed that he doesn’t speak of the issues and work of others because he isn’t part of any ‘survivor/user movement’ [insert preferred term]. When you take on those roles, you have a duty to.

              • Mind have a sodding news item about it, how about the news items on people who have died unnecessarily, or killed themselves or attempted to in circumstances which are entirely preventable because of government policies – now there’s a real tragedy which won’t get an award, show, or documentary

                • I’m not defending here because I agree celebrities should do way more and speak out in defence of us aggressively (and this post is not about that, it’s about the reminder that recovery, as in being fine and dandy, is largely a myth), but charities do put pressure on governments to change things and do do real, on the ground stuff with people who are suffering. To sometimes not much effect but neither are mental health charities sitting on their arses while peoples’ lives are being destroyed.

                  • That’s a matter of opinion, the charities are more ‘corporate’ than ever before and most are at the trough with the rest of the poverty pimps and rearranging the chairs on the deck of the titanic. There are bloggers and physical disability activists who have been more outspoken than the charities

        • I think I’m softening in my old age!

  3. very well put Seanen, thank you

  4. I’m glad for anyone and everyone to speak openly about their ups and their downs with mental illness. It’s the archaic idea that society holds to … that mental illness is scary and weird … that keeps the progress in research and treatment behind. The more people speak openly, about their creative times, successful times, ‘recovered’ times…as well as their depressed and despairing times… and life threatening times, the more society will come to accept mental illnesses are as important, valid, and deserving of research and treatment as cardiac illnesses, pancreatic illnesses, etc. My son attempted to end his life multiple times in his 33 years…then just died. I don’t want to frighten anyone by this, but I say it to say, the only way I know to remove the stigma that causes such suffering of those already struggling so, is to talk about it. Out loud. Openly. Seaneen, you’ve done a fabulous job of it, and others are more and more now. My heart is with every one of you who suffer and fight to make your life work. And who have the courage to get up and try again when it falls down. IT’s NOT YOUR FAULT. Let’s keep talking out loud.

  5. I don’t know whether medication is lulling me into a false sense of security – how can I feel so good and rational and comprehending only to get caught when I’m not expecting it and every I’ve learned and worked on goes out the window – how many cycles can we tolerate?

  6. Why doesn’t anybody challenge this crap? All the outpouring of sympathy for a famous person when every single day ordinary service users with no resources actually attempt and complete suicide because of government policies [welfare/housing/cuts to services]. ‘Suicide prevention’ should be focussed on those areas.
    Fry, claims to have bipolar disorder, although there are no details of his service use and medications he says he takes.
    The mixture of drugs and alcohol “made my body convulse so much that I broke four ribs”(that’d be a medical first).
    “It was a close-run thing,” [not close run enough to need hospital treatment)
    “Fortunately, the producer I was filming with at the time came into the hotel room and I was found in a sort of (sort of?) unconscious state and taken back to England and looked after.”
    Translate – I got pissed in my hotel room and fell over and cracked some ribs (or didn’t); but that doesn’t make good material or feed the tortured genius myth. Or, impulsive self-harm in a bad moment [I’m not knocking that, but don’t dress it up as suicide]
    Meanwhile people who are suicidal trying to access support from MH services can find themselves turned away, or with Home Treatment medication FedEx for a few days at best.

    • Well put Joanna! The travails of St Stephen must not be allowed to diert attention from the stark reality that successful suicides are on the increase – people have lost the will to live…

      • I don’t disagree with this stuff but I also question the logic of one suicide attempt (or whatever you think it was) somehow diminishing others. I think that suicides as a result of benefit changes (see callumslist) should be high profile but I also think that ANY discussion of suicide-whether it’s Stephen Fry or someone else- should be encouraged.

        That is also not what this post is about- I do have respect for him for coming out on this, whatever you think happened, as I don’t think suicide is an easy topic for discussion. He is, of course, shielded from the shit we will get in our lives if we say we tried to kill ourselves, but I hope that someone out there might feel a bit braver about admitting to it.

        And I don’t think it’s fair to say it was basically put on. If he wanted the tortured genius thing then surely you’d romanticise it more. I absolutely believe the rib breaking because when I took an overdose, a similar thing happened to me.

        • And I also have NO IDEA why public figures don’t speak out on those issues more. I don’t understand why they don’t.

          I think, “president” is an honorary position, too.

        • I’m not suggesting it was ‘put on’, but there is self-harm and there is attempted suicide. Granted there can be ‘overlap’, but I believe this was self-harm [which I take most seriously], but often people are reluctant to call it self-harm because of the greater stigma attached [and association with BPD].
          The rib issue, according to a doctor I asked is very uncommon.
          I’m painfully aware of Callum’s List I’m supporting a friend who’s been in ITU because of all the completely unnecessary pressures the public figures don’t experience.
          The media bonanza and outpouring of sympathy I’m quite certain my friend would not see if she ends up dying and yes the outpourings DO diminish the greater tragedies, the entirely preventable deaths, I have no problem with my bias. I don’t think ANY discussion is automatically good, in fact it quite sickens me. You would think no one had ever spoken of it before by some pedestal placing. I realise your piece was about the cycle, but the reason I leave comment here is because you’re very bright, and can see the wider picture.
          I have more respect for those ‘coming out’ who have everything to lose and little to gain and his unconfirmed illness has to some degree been romanticized, and I think I can hazard a guess as to why public figures don’t speak on issues affecting ordinary people – they don’t care to, doesn’t affect them, too gritty, hosting award ceremonies, documentaries, shows etc much more interesting.
          Many positions involving boring dense work are honorary positions within charities [trustees], that makes no difference. He gets kudos from doing it, and anyone in those positions has a duty to listen to the issues they know little or nothing about and to speak of them.

  7. […] – Secret Diary of a Manic Depressive blog – Stephen Fry, suicide and the cycle (6th […]

  8. Some time ago Stephen Fry wrote in his blog that although he feels for anyone that suffers from mental health problems, he himself did not want to be constantly reminded of his own problem by the numerous people asking for his help and advice via his blog or other social media. He simply wants to try to live with his problem and not talk about it all the time or else it, bipolar disorder, becomes the only thing in his life. As a fellow victim, I totally support him.

    I have not seen the recent podcast but I did read that Stephen said the interviewer managed to get him talking about something he [SF] initially had no intention of talking about. I find it hard to believe the whole thing is not genuine. I’d have thought he wasn’t attention seeking as he would have been getting enough attention just walking down the street, before the interview was broadcast!

    • If he doesn’t want to be constantly reminded he doesn’t have to speak in the public domain. If he doesn’t want to be asked for help he doesn’t have to be president. It is his choice.

  9. not really into ‘celebrity culture.’ i don’t necessarily think it makes anything any better or easier to deal with. the world is saying to you: this sleb validates your condition.

  10. […]    […]

  11. […] Suicide and the Lack of Reason […]

  12. I enjoy when celebrities talk about their own struggles with mental illness. It helps people understand that it effects everyone, no one is immune regardless of social class. What I don’t like is when these celebrities use it to garner more fame. A certain young pop star that I shan’t name, she has been an inspiration to many and I don’t want to take away from that, was ‘diagnosed’ as bipolar and a subsequent talk show interview she did she portrayed it like some kind of new accessory. ‘Diagnosis’ is only so helpful in my opinion.

    I myself am bipolar type 2. Rapid cycling is difficult to diagnose at the current time, the type 1 form is easier to ‘catch’. I’ve fought for years to get treatment for it, most doctors don’t believe me and want to label me with the abhorrent Borderline tag (a more useless diagnosis there has never been) or get too caught up by the bright shiny trauma of my childhood. Thankfully my GP believes me and has finally given me the correct kinds of medication. It helps when at least one person is on your side.

    I wish Stephen all the best and I am glad he had people around him who cared enough to help him. You’re correct, ‘why?’ Is never a question we can answer. ‘Why? Because it hurts. Because the mere thought of living with this pain is unbearable.’ Why is never a question we can answer, not to satiate those around us, because it is impossible to put into words.

  13. I completely agree with the whole, you think it won’t come back but it does like clockwork. Every time I get better, I think of ways to be better so I never get depressed again, and then I do anyway. I wrote a short thing about how it doesn’t feel actually worth getting better because every time I get bad it’s worse than before. I was wondering if you’d read it and let me know what you thought? Thanks 🙂

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