Stephen Fry, HIV, and Bipolar Disorder

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry

I would like to preface this by saying that I realize that some of this may not be “news” to some people. I purposely stay away from the news as much as possible. Honestly? It’s because I’m depressed enough as it is and I don’t need more to bring me down. So I would have absolutely no idea if some of the things that shocked me have been reported by the media. Please keep that in mind as you read.

I have to admit I have a thing for Stephen Fry. Not only is he ridiculously intelligent, but he’s funny, and handsome* to boot. I admit I was more than a little disappointed when I realized he was gay (honestly, I thought he was just stereotypically British, not gay). I’ve been working on a crochet project and I prefer to have some sort of “background noise” – television, a movie, that sort of thing. So I’ve been periodically sitting here at the computer desk, playing YouTube vids. Eventually I surfed my way into some Stephen Fry territory, and found the documentaries he made on HIV and Bipolar Disorder.

I missed these when they were originally aired.  I don’t watch all that much television any more, and what little I DO watch is rarely, if ever, BBC.  Had I known about these at the time, I probably would have wanted to watch them, though.

Stephen Fry: HIV and Me

I originally thought that the HIV documentaries (part one and part two) were just going to be about his experiences with HIV as a gay man.  Because of course, a person’s life experiences are going to color their view of any major event.  A gay man’s experience of HIV is going to be different than a mother’s, etcetera.  What I saw shocked me.

  • The levels of infection in Britain have risen by something like 400% in the last ten years.  (I could be remembering wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Fry said in the documentary.)  There are more people with HIV living in Britain than there were 10 years ago.
  • A large percentage of the population are having unprotected, risky sex – gay, straight, and everything in between.  Fry went out to the bars and clubs in one particular city and found that the majority of women would ask that their partner wear a condom, but most of the men would refuse, even when asked.
  • There are large numbers of young gay men purposely going to sex parties to become infected.  They call it “the Gift“.  (See another good clip about it here.)  One interviewee goes into great detail, explaining how these parties work.  I try my hardest not to be judgemental as a rule, but I have to admit that hearing about these parties made my stomach turn.  Not from the thought of gay sex; from the perspective of why in the hell would somebody want to go out and get themselves infected with HIV ON PURPOSE??? While science and medicine have made it easier to live with, and not such a quickly killing disease, HIV is still deadly.  Why would you want to subject yourself to that?  If you’ve got a death wish, there are other, quicker, and less painful ways of killing yourself!
  • There are African goverments that won’t allow certain types of medications for HIV/Aids because they actually don’t believe that Aids is caused by HIV.  They have huge numbers (one statistic I remember hearing was 300,000+ deaths in one year attributed to Aids alone) of people dying from this disease, people who could live longer, healthier lives if given these medications, and they’re being denied them by their own governments.
  • Also, because some parts of Africa are very Catholic, promoting the use of condoms to help prevent the spread of Aids is actually seen as taboo; abstinence only.  There is one interviewee that has made it his mission in life to educate his people about the truth of Aids and to try to help prevent the spread.  So he took it upon himself to start distributing free condoms to the men in the area.  Because of The Church, he is only allowed to distribute a fraction of what he was handing out just a few years ago.
  • While the panic surrounding Aids might have died down a little bit, the numbers are ever-increasing.  People are constantly putting themselves at risk, thinking it could never happen to them.  Society has become complacent with the idea of Aids and is reaping terrible consequences.
  • I wasn’t alone in mistakenly thinking that the Aids epidemic was getting better.  Because these things aren’t reported as often as they were 10, 20 years ago, people are coming to the assumption that things are better.  When that’s the farthest thing from the truth.
  • There is still a social stigma surrounding Aids, and some of the fallacies that took root 20 years ago are still being spread as fact.  There’s a part about a 60-something-year-old woman who is very vocal about her status and has been harassed several times because of it.  Fry says in the documentary that he would have thought that being open about one’s HIV status would garner sympathy and kindness, not hatred.  So would I.  But apparently we were both wrong.

I’m still reeling in a state of shock over the HIV & Me documentaries.  Some parts made me sad, some parts made me angry, and some parts just made me sick to my stomach.  But I honestly think that this is something everybody should watch.  It’s illuminating, if nothing else.  And I think it’s something people should talk about more.  Because we’ve stopped talking about it, we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking it’s something that’s going away.  It’s not; and it’s not going to until we are honest with ourselves.

The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive

The first time I had an inkling that Stephen Fry had Bipolar Disorder was when I had gone to a doctor’s appointment.  While giving my name to the receptionist, I noticed a little pamphlet on Bipolar Disorder and there was a picture of Stephen Fry on the front of it.  I took one to look at as I waited, and it was one of those “don’t be ashamed!  See your doctor if you think something’s wrong!” kind of things.  Nowhere on there did it actually say that Stephen Fry had Bipolar Disorder, but I thought, “why would they plaster his picture on here if he didn’t have it?”

Then I heard about The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive (see them here and here).  I had missed them when they were originally aired, and I couldn’t seem to find a copy on DVD.  On top of that, we couldn’t find a copy to download.  So I was pleasantly surprised to find it on YouTube, in its entirety no less.

As a Manic Depressive myself, I was quite interested to see what Fry had to say on the subject.  And I was shocked to find out how many celebrities there are that have some sort of “mental illness”.  I was disappointed to see that they never mentioned the link between Bipolar Disorder and brain chemicals.  When I was diagnosed, my doctor explained to me that my Bipolar was caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain; the medication would help with that (and it did, I admit).  I “manage” it all right on my own, but I have to admit that the medication really did help.  I no longer take medication for one basic reason: side effects.  I am naturally the kind of person with little to no energy, and every drug I’ve tried so far would make me even more tired.  With the exception of Prozac; that made me LITERALLY bounce off the walls.

What surprised me was the amount of fear attached to the condition – on the part of the sufferers.  A lot of us fear being seen as a “loon”, to the point of avoiding treatment.  Which, as you can imagine, makes things worse, not better.

It made me realize something, though: while there’s no doubt that I AM a Manic Depressive (/have Bipolar Disorder), I definitely have a “milder” case of it than some people do.  My manic episodes were never as dramatic as what some of the people on there have described.  However, for ME they WERE definitely Manic.

I was a little surprised to hear the one doctor say that going off Lithium (which is the first drug I was ever on) could be disastrous.  Other than the fact that my mood swings came back, I can’t say that my depression was any worse than it would have been had I never had treatment.  And it just so happens that that particular period in my life also happened to be one of the most difficult (I became homeless; had to live in a homeless shelter [just like the ones you see portrayed on television], Number One Daughter became very ill [croup], I met and became engaged to The Little Helper’s sperm donor, and he turned out to be an addict AND abusive).  So you would think that I would have become immobilizingly depressed during that time.  I didn’t.  I can’t say that I was happy, but it felt just like every other depression I’d suffered through before.

And I’m kind of in a quandry about this question surrounding diagnosing children and teenagers with the condition.  On the one hand, I have my own experience: I was diagnosed at 15, and it was the best thing that could have happened to me.  I finally had an answer to WHY I was different, and was given tools to help me deal with it.  On the other hand, I have absolutely NO DOUBT that there are scores of children being misdiagnosed, or diagnosed without REAL cause.  So I can’t really say where I stand on that issue, because I really don’t know myself.  I can vividly see both sides of the argument, and they’re both valid.

I’m a jumble of emotions after watching these.  On the one hand, I’m infinitely grateful that these documentaries were made.  They NEEDED to be made, and now that I’ve seen them, I can’t think of a better person than Stephen Fry to do them.  He approaches the subject with respect and compassion without ever hiding the fact that he wants to learn.  On the other, I’ve seen some things that have shocked and disgusted me.  But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a small price to pay.

* – Stephen Fry is EXACTLY the kind of man that makes my head turn.  As a matter of fact, he reminds me of my high school sweetheart, and I’ve ALWAYS thought he was good looking.


12 Responses

  1. WOW. I have been looking for the Manic Depression documentary for AGES. I didn’t know he made one about HIV aswell. As a Stephen Fry admirer, the stereotypical fattie who has crushes on gay men, and someone who is quite interested on psychiatric conditions, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for posting these links.

  2. Thank you for these links, I will definitely go back and look at them when I have a chance. My husband has bipolar disorder, and is also struggling with chemical dependency, but he hates the side effects of the medications he’s been prescribed for bipolar, so he doesn’t take them.
    I’m hanging in there with him, he’s a great dad and a wonderful person, and right now I am in therapy myself to cope and also to address my longstanding mild-to-moderate depression.
    What’s in some ways hardest for me is trying to differentiate between my husband, who I’ve known for nearly 18 years, and the disorder — which I’ve only understood that he had in the past three years. When he does something that to me would indicate a severe lack of judgement, and he’s not using any drugs or meds, I don’t know, is he seriously lacking in judgement or is it mania or hypomania? And if it is, and he’s not taking any meds, what is our plan of action? We’ve been through criminalization, hospitalization and recovery from that, and I don’t ever want to go through that again if it can be avoided.

  3. Thank you for that link to The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive with Stephen Frye.
    Not only to adore Frye but this documentary is great!!

  4. I am completely with you on that he is a talented and massively attractive man (pun intended). There are other less depressing documentaries of his on Youtube last time I checked – look out for the one on the Gutenberg press:

    And he one where he traces his genealogy (this one is incredibly touching):

  5. Cyn – is it really our fault that a lot of gay men are good looking? I mean, come on – there’s something universally unfair about that, don’tcha think? 😉

    anon this time – I hope the documentary might be of some help to you. I know that my husband has a hard time dealing with me sometimes because of the Bipolar, but that’s something he’s known about from day one. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for you to have only found out about it fairly recently. Best of luck to you.

    Melissa – happy to be of service! 🙂

    Joie – actually, I did watch The Machine That Made Us – that one I DID catch when it was originally aired, but I enjoyed watching it again on YouTube anyway. Who Do You Think You Are? I missed when it was aired on BBC, but I caught that one on YouTube as well. I thought it was kind of funny that his great-grandfather turned out to be a hairdresser! 🙂

  6. Wait…does Stephen Fry *have* HIV? Or did he just make a documentary about it?

  7. BSAG – he just made the documentary about it. He actually does get tested on-camera in Part II, but he comes back clean. 🙂

  8. I love Stephen Fry SO MUCH. Thanks for the links.

  9. This is moderately unrelated, but if you’re looking for more Stephen Fry-y background noise goodness, he narrated all the audio books for the Harry Potter series. Just to let you know.

  10. librarychair, I DID know that, I just haven’t been able to get my hands on a download of it. Hubby is philosophically opposed to going out to a store to buy something you can just download instead. “)

  11. its only when peopel like stephen fry talk about
    there mental illness that public come out and talk about theres ive been a carer from a child caring for
    a parent with schizphrena and manic depression
    its lasted nearly 50 years sectioned many times
    a very long and enduring illness every medication
    going newer and older drugs injections ect
    in our case no cure ive learnt finding a balance
    and learning to live with it is how we have survived
    my mother is like peter exellent sense of hummar

  12. I found this documentary to be incredibly informative and eye opening.
    I’ve been suffering the effects of this condotion for about 15yrs, since my early teens, but it hasn’t really been diagnosed til recently and to finally know that some of the stupid and dangerous things I’ve done aren’t all a product of me, but a condition I have , has helped me to overcome so much and start to rebuild a life I’d almost given up on so many times.
    Not to say that I reject responsibility for my actions, but I can now have hope of things getting better. As someone who has long experimented with self medication of various kinds and struggled with the associated problems of addiction, trouble with the law and relationships and a life destroyed, I now have light at the end of the tunnel in the form of medication when needed, support and therapy to help me cope with the crippling effects of this condition.
    I can’t thank stephen fry enough for helping people to understand this illness and compassionately and intelligently presenting the issues to the general public, who are usually ignorant to this surprisingly common condition.
    Watching it was like hearing a discription of my life in many ways.

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