On Monday of this week, 15th February, BBC showed a documentary [still available to watch on iPlayer if you are in the UK] following up on Stephen Fry’s landmark documentary on living with bipolar disorder, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, which was shown 10 years ago. I remember watching that documentary vividly. So much of what I heard and saw from the contributors resonated with me – I didn’t have a diagnosis of cyclothymia then, but I did have suspicions.
This blog is part live blog, part reflection on the show. In bold is the key event/moment in the show, the rest of the paragraph is my commentary which I hope will be intelligible even if you have not watched the programme.
Stephen Fry, post suicide attempt, decides to see psychiatrist – and then he sees one! This is evidence of a BIG difference between private healthcare and dealing with the NHS. And he tells us he was immediately admitted to hospital. Again, wildly different than experience of NHS – with the enormous and unending cuts to NHS mental health services there are no beds. And in most cases there is no possibility of hospitalisation without a section – and a good deal reliable rumours suggest doctors are avoiding sectioning people who need it because they simply have nowhere to place them. Stephen Fry’s experience is (absurdly given how essential mental health treatment is) one heavily inflected by his economic privilege.
Kids in the school talking about how “bipolar” is used as an insult really drill to the heart of living with bipolar spectrum disorder. People do not like it. It’s not charming, it’s not represented as ‘useful’ (however inaccurate that is) and featured in a regular show, it’s not cool. It’s also something I reflect on a lot in terms of disclosing my mental health issues – I am always conscious that once people know my diagnosis they will rationalise or dismiss everything I do or say in reference to that label – enthusiastic? Nope, just bipolar. Annoyed? Nope, bipolar. Inspired? Loud? Introverted? All symptoms. You stop being a person.
Stephen Fry’s psychiatrist is talking about how difficult travel and crossing time zones can be to managing your mood. It reminds me of the difficulties I had whilst I backpacking round the world with my then-partner. She would become furious that I was exhausted by our flights across time zones, and furious my mood would plummet with my exhaustion, and furious I could not explain why I was so unhappy so suddenly. It made me anxious, guilty, furious at myself. I turned her lack of understanding inwards and began to hate myself for all the things I wasn’t; all the ways I couldn’t be. We split up many years ago now, and since then I have learnt a great deal about my needs in terms of rest and sleep – but those experiences burned me and I find it difficult to imagine being in a relationship ever again. Who would live with cyclothymia if they didn’t have to? That’s what dating someone with cyclothymia means; you have it, we have it.
Narrator is talking about frequency of self-medication versus reluctance to take prescribed pills. Sadly, the show seems to dismiss this as bipolar folk simply being unwilling to put up with side effects and preferring to manage our conditions in other ways. This obviously resonates with me – I’ve written before about self-medicating and my attempts to manage my cyclothymia with lifestyle and other changes. But, as I’ve also written, the choice between medication side effects and uncontrolled mood swings is nowhere near as simple as psychiatrists would have you believe, or this program suggests. Medication side effects are brutal. Not enough is done to facilitate good medication choices, not enough is done to help people manage the side effects, not enough is done to acknowledge how destructive side effects can be on every other part of your life.
I note that, in reference to Scott’s experience, the psychiatrist shrugs off his query/anxiety that he will be ‘like a zombie’ on mood stabilisers, exactly the conversation I had with a psychiatrist, and it proved completely inaccurate. I was zombified. It became untenable for me to live like that. No follow-up on Scott after he doubles his lithium dose, I hope it works for him, I fear it won’t. I note also, there’s no discussion of talking therapies or alternative approaches to treatment – it’s ‘medication or nothing’ on the NHS, regardless of how ill fitting that may be for an individual. This issue – and the considerable weight of evidence which suggests medication-as-only-intervention is an inadequate way to manage mental ill health – is offered in response to the show in this blog by Richard Bentall, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Liverpool University.
Rachel’s story of experiencing her worst lows at night, alone, as a teenager resonates with me. The difficulty for parents to identify more-than-average-teenage-melancholia is enormous. The story of medical services failing to identify her mania after she jumped from a balcony is all too common. The discussion between Rachel and her CPN about sectioning her if she becomes a danger to herself in future is really concerning for me, because it’s evidence of fire-fighting rather than working on managing and improving her overall health through a variety of interventions (not just medication, which is all they say she has currently) now. But I may be making too many assumptions with not enough information here.
It strikes me there is an enormous selection bias in this show towards people who believe it is easier now than ever to speak about mental health issues and receive a positive response. Because if you’ve not disclosed to your friends, wider family, whatever, it’s because you are aware (or sure) of the potential for a negative reaction – so you’re certainly not going to blow your cover by contributing to this show. If you’ve experienced negative responses you are not going to keep talking – this idea that ‘we’ can only combat stigma by talking is incredibly problematic for me.
When you are subsumed under stigma, you simply cannot speak, cannot contribute to some ill defined, under funded campaign to combat stigma. Time to Talk Day came and went this year and I did not mark it on here. Why? Because I didn’t talk about my mental health on that day to anyone who did not already know. Had any of my friends who do not know about my cyclothymia asked how I was, I would not have disclosed my difficulties to them – not least of all because my mood was pretty good on the 4th of February, but also because a charity-sponsored day does not make people more prepared to deal with the mental vomit that is chronic mental ill health and the ongoing needs and demands that generates for me.
On Time to Talk Day I asked all my friends how they were and made myself available to them in all the ways I always do. But whilst starting a conversation may be a manageable goal, it’s continuing conversations about mental health that is the hard thing, and it’s continuing conversations which will actually start to change or erode stigma, and generate sufficient public feeling to pressure the government to actually invest in mental health services.
The ‘not so secret life of the manic depressive’? For me, save for this blog, it’s still a secret. Stigma around mental ill health is still enormous. And there is still so little out there to help people like me – and people, perhaps, like you – live with bipolar spectrum disorders including cyclothymia; regardless of well intentioned attempts of shows like this to change that.