Last week, in a podcast with lovely comedian Richard Herring, Stephen Fry felt comfortable enough to speak with further candour about his ‘bi-polar life’. Confessing that he had only last year attempted suicide, he went a little further than he has previously done, giving us another intimate instalment of his condition – a duty he takes seriously as the president of charity Mind. It was shocking to hear of such an act, but perhaps more so of such recency; you always naively hope, despite his frankness about his lows, that he has conquered the demons since his famous breakdown of 1995, which saw him walking out of a West-End play to sail for Belgium, (as good a place for dark thoughts as any).
It is something I remember vaguely from the news while I was staying at my Dad’s bungalow in North Wales. I naturally thought it was sad, but it didn’t touch me then as much as it touches me now.
My Dad had bi-polar. At least that was the label that was given to him and which best-fit, which is a scientific salve to me now in the constant puzzle-solving that comes from losing someone you love to suicide. The cold hard facts become a kindness alongside the searing cruelty of too many questions.
When I was 23 my Dad hanged himself, a method he turned to after superficial attempts with pills and razor blades failed. He was found in a doorway with headphones on. Cat Stevens in the CD player. I trawl those lyrics even now, a decade on, for a satisfying goodbye note. Coincidentally, the last place he travelled to was Belgium, a couple of months before. He went on a recuperative day trip with a coach-load of people he had been with in a local mental hospital; a charity event in which I am surprised but glad his lofty pride allowed him to participate. What did he think as he walked around Bruges? Did he know? Was he saying goodbye to the world?
Dad had always struggled with dark thoughts. He was found by his mother with his head in a gas oven aged 13. He considered (and threatened, and perhaps attempted) it many times after that. He experienced the ‘massive highs and miserable lows’ that Stephen has described. He had the characteristic extravagance that is common to manic depressives, resulting in a lifelong dance with crippling and often criminally fraudulent debt. He was a plotter, a calculator, a control freak. At times in his life he was alcoholic, manipulative, violent, and to some pretty damn evil. He was also charming, vibrant, cheeky, eloquent, highly intelligent, witty, and would give you the shirt off his back. He once anonymously paid off my best friend’s overdraft, he once sat with a very troubled man for hours talking him out of going and indiscriminately shooting people. He was adored, dreaded, loved, feared, tolerated, yearned for, and immeasurably grieved for. His funeral book bore thanks from people for the countless kind things he had done, and for being the reason one old friend was still on this earth himself. He was celebrated for his joyfulness. The service was moved, to our surprise, from the small chapel to the big chapel because so many people turned up to pay their respects. He was all things. I was always – even later, in the more difficult times – so proud of him being my Dad, or Papa as he liked to be called, the twee bugger. It still rankles my gut that he never gave medication a chance. I think he was afraid of losing control; of his sharp mind being blunted; of his pursuers catching up with him; of, dare I say, prison.
In 2003, aged 57, he ‘finally went and did it’. Those were the words poor Mum had to use to tell us; the words of no surprise. In October it will be ten years. I cannot begin to describe in one column the various landscapes of my mind in those ten years.
I met Stephen once, in the make-up room at ITV while I was watching a dear friend get ready for a QI record. He was charm personified, said hello like I was a favourite niece though he had no idea who I was, and I watched him being powdered quietly from the corner. Here was the nation’s darling, but for me he was so much more. He was all the things I loved about my father, still walking around, alive. The gentle poshness, the brilliant articulacy, the bright and beautiful mind, the dapper jackets and coloured socks peeking out. The aura that life, perversely, is wonderful.
Seeing Stephen Fry didn’t anger me that Dad had not had a similar fortitude to stick around – I’ve never felt that anger – instead it brought him alive again; shook out the good things from the tight bundle I carry around. It momentarily lightened bi-polar – the ever-present elephant (black dog, tiger, mammoth) in the room. He was still here. Hello Stephen Fry. I wanted to hold him. (But I’m ruddy glad I didn’t. He would have thought me very odd, and no one wants Stephen Fry to shake his head in disappointment at them, do they?)
Bi-polar. It’s such a strange beast to understand. I won’t fathom it here. So mysterious a thing is it that my Mum, Dad’s best friend for many years, isn’t even sure that he had bi-polar rather than some other sort of personality disorder. There is scant ‘knowing’ with it. Certainly not for those who don’t have it.
And it is a constant question running alongside my own moods too. Only yesterday I had the shadow flit through in a moment of sadness; I could end it right now. Could. What a word. What a burden.
I don’t think I am bi-polar, at all. I would not insult its true sufferers by supposing my highs and lows are anywhere near theirs in scope. But having had suicide in your life ushers in the possibility of it, while at the same time taking it away. You fantasise about it, but you (think you) know you will never do it. As Stephen said, you picture the faces of those who love you. That prevents you. I think my lows, my hopelessness, have mainly been born out of a very long grief, but when it’s all suicide-tinged it’s sometimes hard to tell. I feel plagued by unknowable genetics, yet I sometimes conversely crave similarity to the man I lost because even his bad traits are better than none. I keep him alive however I can.
Stephen Fry helps.
Like many people I so admire him for his honesty, but am also more grateful for it than I can express. I borrow from him the sense I cannot always find; the lessons that my pain – at times renewed afresh – sometimes makes me forget. I love him, and thank him, and hug him in my mind for all the bleak moments that might yet come to him. And smile, with a smile that holds more than anyone will ever know, at his socks. His lovely, colourful, hopeful socks.