It’s only since watching Stephen Fry’s brilliant Secret Life of the Manic Depressive (BBC2, Tuesday) that I’ve begun properly to understand why I am the way I am. Lots of people have suggested to me at one time or another that I should see a psychiatrist. ‘You’re so successful,’ they say. ‘How can you possibly think your life sucks?’ But in the past I’ve always put this down to their pitiful underestimation of just how much success I deserve. Now, though, I’m prepared ever so slightly to concede that maybe, yes, I do have a mild form of mental illness which on some days gives me wildly inflated expectations of how wonderful life ought to be for me all the time, and on others makes me realise that in fact I am utterly talentless and worthless and that everything I do is doomed to fail.
Fry seems to have it much worse than me. In the second of his two programmes, the camera caught him having a down episode, and he was so fearfully gripped by the black dog he could barely speak. His manic intervals are pretty wacko, too. We saw him go shopping during one of them and buying up the contents of a classical music shop (mostly stuff he had already, only in different formats) and a computer store. He owns five sat-nav devices and about 20 iPods. In the Eighties he had 12 cars. ‘But then, why not?’ he opined when a CBT therapist tried to reason him out of it. ‘I work so f***ing hard I deserve it.’
This is an aspect of manic depression (bipolar disorder, as the Americans will call it) that I’d never seen properly articulated before — this idea that ‘yes, it’s a problem. But damn it, it’s my problem. And it’s part of what makes me me.’ Throughout the course of his investigation, Fry asked various sufferers what they would do if there were a magic button they could press which stopped them for ever being manic depressives. Fry’s own conclusion, after barely a flicker of thought, was: ‘I wouldn’t press the button and live a normal life. Not for all the tea in China.’
Quite an odd conclusion, you might think, from someone who’d earlier described how 12 years previously he’d sat in his garage for two hours mulling over whether or not he was going to kill himself with exhaust fumes. And whose condition, too, appears to be worsening as he gets older.
But as a fellow loon I get it totally. Like Fry I’ve never gone for medication — well, not serious medication: just a natural product called Serotone, which I’d really recommend if you want a little helper but can’t face Prozac — because I’m terrified it might blunt my edges. And also because I think I might miss the highs.
Lots of us manic depressives see our affliction as a gift, not because of any of that ‘accentuate the positive’ bollocks but because there’s so much historical evidence to suggest that it really is a precursor to greatness (Winston Churchill) or creativity. And when you’ve recently emerged from the torpor of a sluggardly low, my God it’s fun suddenly being able to zap around like a bee on amphetamines, having lots of brilliant ideas, saying clever things, being the life and soul of the party, multitasking, solving the future: almost like acquiring superpowers.
What I ask myself is, if it weren’t for being a manic depressive, would I have come up with the idea of doing my upcoming series of Flashman-esque romps set in the second world war? Or my — inevitably soon to be bestselling — A to Z of rants against the left-liberal consensus, How To Be Right?
Then what I realise seconds later is, ‘Yes, but if I weren’t a manic depressive, I’d probably never get those periods of paralysing despair when every word I write seems flat and pointless and the whole project seems almost comically beyond my meagre capabilities.’
Fry’s rueful answer is that there is no answer. We met the actor Richard Dreyfus, who, far from being destroyed by the dreaded lithium, found it gave him the strength to reach his Oscar-winning peak. We met, by contrast, a working doctor whose depression was so bad that she had once been ‘sectioned’, but who for years has managed to hold her illness in abeyance with a careful diet. We met the parents of a girl who was so terrified of taking lithium that she preferred to commit suicide. And of course we’ve met Fry, who still doesn’t know want to think.
Nor me. I’ll tell you what’s weird, though. Suddenly discovering — I give the programme complete credit for this — that none of your past life was quite as real as you thought it was. All the times when you were fantastically brilliant and all the times when you were deeply rubbish were in fact just the ordinary you distorted through a prism of mania and depression. It’s a cruel illness: like regularly being offered little glimpses of heaven and then being cast down into hell. I wonder if Milton had it, too.