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.

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BBC: What’s Really in our Food?

The BBC has started a week-long series of shows entitled “What’s Really in our Food?”  Ironically, they have been shown from 9:15-10 a.m., the time I usually have my breakfast, after walking the girls to school.

On the one hand, it’s been a bit of a learning experience.  Even though I’ve lived out here for nearly 5 years, I still can’t quite get a grip on the whole food labelling practices out here.  Until I moved here, I was used to having easy labels to read: everything you could possibly want to know about a particular food product, broken up into serving size portions.  X calories per X gram/ounce serving.  I always knew what I was eating.  Here?  They either break it up into 100 g portions or they just tell you how much is in the whole damned thing – if they even tell you at all.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve bought something to find out that there’s no nutritional information whatsoever on the packaging.  Just a list of ingredients, and that’s it.

Recently, there’s been a bit of a political movement to get the labels changed – into what is considered a ‘traffic light’ type label.  What they want to do is put the label on the front of the food package, with color-coded segments (green = ‘good’ for you, eat it all you want; red = ‘bad’ for you, only eat it sometimes, etc.).  A lot of stores, like Sainsbury’s and ASDA have already done this, but yesterday they showed an exec from Tesco saying that they had surveyed their customers and found that they didn’t want them.  However, the producers of the show randomly surveyed customers in a particular Tesco store and found that over 80% of them actually did want the ‘traffic light’ labels.  So I truly have to wonder: who’s lying?  It’s got to be ONE of them.  And as much as I really distrust MSM when it comes to all things related to obesity, weight, and food, it just seems odd that people who shop at practically every other supermarket in the UK would want the ‘traffic light’ labels but the people who shop at Tesco wouldn’t. 

The one thing that I have to say I DO like about this whole series, though, is the host (presenter) – Gregg Wallace.  He starts out the whole thing admitting to a love of ‘junk food.’  And you can actually tell in his attitude – he approaches the whole thing with an air of curiosity, not one of disdain.  He’s got this whole ‘Oh wow, you’ll never guess what I found out!’ attitude, and considering the way people view food nowadays, I find it really refreshing.

What I don’t like, however, is the fact that it’s yet another way to perpetuate the myths surrounding this whole ‘obesity crisis’ bullshit.  Today’s show, for example, showed a fitness instructor go on a 9-day long diet change, going from eating primarily healthy food to all junk, all the time.  Chocolate cereal for breakfast, kebabs for lunch, chinese takeaways for dinner, etc.  She gained 5 lbs. during that time (and she continued to exercise, obviously, since it was actually her job) and her fitness level went down a bit – she had done a fitness test beforehand, and lasted 12 minutes; afterwards she only lasted 10.  Okay, I can believe all of that – after all, it was a very drastic change she went through.

But then they get this ‘expert in sports medicine’ to say that if she continued like that, she would get fatter and fatter and fatter and her fitness level would go down and down and down.  Those weren’t her exact words, obviously, but that was the general idea.

And there was that thinly veiled undertone of ‘all you fatties, listen up: you’re just going to get fatter and fatter until you die.’  And as we all know, just because a person is fat doesn’t mean they eat like that.  Hell, just because a person is thin doesn’t mean they don’t.  Take my husband, for example.  He COULD eat like that and he’d never gain a pound.  Me?  I swear, I so much as LOOK at food and I could gain weight.  (But then again, before I got my tubes tied, he so much as looked at me and I got pregnant, too! 😆 )  I must be the embodiment of osmosis or something.  😉

And Mr. Wallace went into great detail, trying to figure out whether we could trust the labels to be accurate.

I don’t know… I guess it all evens out, really.  There are good points to this series, but there are bad points too.  But I do think it was a good idea to make the show, regardless.  It was really eye opening to find out that by Gregg Wallace reading the list of ingredients out to people, they couldn’t tell if he was talking about a Lime-based soap or Lemon & Lime squash (American readers: squash is kind of like concentrated liquid kool-aid – you add water to it and !voila! you have drinkage).  Education is always a good thing — I guess I just wish they were a little more objective about it.

Edit Update: edited because I found a better link for the show, and I realized that one of my sentences just looked really out of place where I had it, so I moved it.  That is all.