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Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is one of the most common forms of mental illness in the world, yet it remains one of the least understood in the eyes of the general public. As someone who was diagnosed with the condition a few years ago, one of the most difficult aspects of it was not only fear of how it would perceived by my peers, but also how the biases and stigmas surrounding bipolar disorder affected my own understanding of it. So, when I first learned that I was manic depressive, the first thing I did was google the phrase to see just how common my experiences with the disease really were. That it was lead me to discover a man named Stephen Fry and the Emmy award-winning documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive.

While his name may be as commonplace in England as his former comedy partner and best friend Hugh Laurie of House, M.D. is in the U.S., Stephen Fry is maybe best known to Americans for the small roles he’s played in films like V for Vendetta, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and Alice in Wonderland. In Great Britain, however, Fry is regarded as a renaissance man; he’s an actor, a comedian, an author, and an undeniable erudite. But since 1997, when Fry experienced a breakdown on the set of a play, he has also been known as a sufferer of bipolar disorder and one of the ailment’s most vocal advocates. Fry’s very public struggles with the disorder is what lead him to make this documentary and educate the public on not only what’s so terrible about having the disorder, but also, in what may surprise non-sufferers of bipolarity, what is often amazing about being manic depressive.

In the two episodes of The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Fry speaks to various other sufferers about how they have lived with bipolar disorder, ranging from children diagnosed at an early age, everyday people attempting to live out their lives as normally as possible, and even a few celebrities, like Richard Dreyfus of Jaws and Carrie Fisher of Star Wars, who have had their disease scrutinized by the public at every stage. While the details of each person’s story may vary, they share certain commonalities in both the highs and the lows. The sheer bliss and aura of invincibility that the mania side of the condition brings, and the dark feelings of inevitable depression that eventually follows.

Through talking to these people about their own difficulties, Fry also recounts his own experiences in coping with and gaining understanding of his illness, including his failed attempt at suicide. As he discusses the effects of this event on his life, Fry also considers the most difficult decision that any sufferer must make, and more importantly, the reason why that decision is so difficult: to go on medication and live a more balanced life, or continue on as he has in order to preserve the “positive” aspects brought about by manic states despite the depression.

“After all I’ve seen and heard, I’m still unsure,” said Fry. “I feel reluctant to embrace a life on medication, but I do fear the intensity of my moods, and where they can lead. And yet, as is with all bipolars, there is this other side: I love my condition, too. It’s infuriating, I know, but I do get a huge buzz out of the manic side. I rely on it to give my life a sense of adventure, and I think that most of the good about me has developed as a result of my mood swings.”

While it may be difficult for many to grasp, Fry’s reluctance echoes how many other bipolars view their condition as both a blessing and a curse. In order to cement the point, Stephen mentions a hypothetical choice he gave to the people he interviewed towards the end of the second part of the documentary.

“In this journey, I asked many of my fellow manic depressives how they balance this contradiction,” said Fry. “I asked them, if they could press a button to release them from their bipolarity, would they do so? Most, despite traumatic moments in their life, said no.”

At the documentary’s conclusion, Stephen asks himself the same question. If he could ever undo the effects of having manic depression in his life and relive his life as a “normal” person, would he do it?

“I wouldn’t press the button and live a normal life. Not for all the tea in China.”

Part 1 of The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Part 2.


To learn more about the effects of bipolar disorder and ways of treating the condition, speak to a mental health hotline representative

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