A Note About Stephen FryThursday, 18 March 2010 17:19
In my post entitled The Death of a Great Little Magazine I said that Stephen Fry, ‘became notorious for abandoning his role in a West End play and running away to France. However, he returned, confronted his demons, and since then he not only produced such magnificent work but he has become a National Treasure.’ I was basing what I said on what the media had said about what Stephen was doing. Also, I had been watching his television programmes, and heard him speak at the Mind Award lunch where he had been given the Champion title. In my clinical work I have know a large number of people who had been plunged into the hideous whirlpool of anxiety, mania and depression but had managed to find something that had enabled them, not only to emerge from this experience, but to learn from it and become a much wiser person. It seemed to me that this is what Stephen had done.
Amongst Stephen’s many achievements since the terrible time when he fled the theatre is his award of an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, something that British psychiatrists do not hand out lightly. Their professional journal The Psychiatrist always features and interview with one of their number. In the March 2010 issue Stephen was the interviewee. He was asked,
What has been the highlight of your career?
Playing Oscar Wilde. Making a documentary series on bipolar disorder.
. . . And the lowlight?
The lowlight . . well, running away from a West End play at the time was a lowlight, but the two above would have never happened without it, so perhaps it was a good thing.
Thus Stephen confirmed what I had surmised.
The poet Gwyneth Lewis wrote the best book book on the experience of depression that I have ever read. She called it Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book about Depression. From her own experience of depression she was able to say, ‘In a sense, depression is a very kind disorder, and will return only if you refuse to learn the lessons it has to teach you. . . Depression teaches you that the only permanent way out is by finding and accepting the truths you have been avoiding, even if you thought you’d already faced them. A relapse shows that you haven’t and there’s more work to be done.’
When you’ve been depressed but have learnt the lessons your depression had to teach you, you might believe that, now you’ve got life really sussed out, bad times will never come again. But life isn’t like that. Very unpleasant things can still happen. Many of my clients told me that, faced with a crisis, they saw that they had a choice. They had learnt a new and much better way of living, but they hadn’t forgotten how to take themselves down the path back into a depression. They could see the seductive power of depression, how it enabled them to shut out all the difficulties there that they should be facing. They could ignore it all, and let somebody else be responsible. Facing up to the crisis was so much harder. However, by then they had acquired what Stephen Fry calls ‘mental wellness’.
In his interview for The Psychiatrist he was asked,
We are used to looking at mental illness, what does ‘mental wellness’ look like?
It is something to do with being able to cope. Things will get bad, but somehow one copes (even after a lot of wailing and moaning and pain) – I think Archbishop Ramsey, decades ago, defined wisdom as the ability to cope, I would say that that is what mental wellness is too.
That is the best definition I’ve ever heard of mental health. And Stephen ought to know.