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Pyjama Girl and the sexy diagnosis

by Liz Main

28th November 2006

In case anyone is in any doubt about it, I'm bipolar. Yes, I am. And if you are thinking of becoming bipolar too, just remember that I got there first.
I say this because it seems that if you aren't bipolar already, you probably want to be, in name at least. If grey is the new black, then the black and white stripes of bipolar are certainly the mood that celebrities appear to be choosing this season.

It's not up to me to decide if celebs really are bipolar or not, but even before Stephen Fry's documentary "The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive", it seemed that bipolar as a diagnosis was on the up and up.

Search for 'bipolar' and 'celebrity' on the web and you'll find everyman and his dog seems to have been diagnosed. It's rather ironic that celebs want to be bipolar when it's not uncommon for us manics to think we are rich and famous half the time.

Bipolar just sounds so much sexier than good old-fashioned depression. And it's certainly sexier than 'manic depression', the term that was previously used, and which is perhaps more descriptive of what the illness really is.

When the term bipolar, or 'bipolar affective disorder', to use its clinical name, started to be used more widely a few years back I was all in favour of it because in some ways it overcame the stigma associated with 'manic depression'. But never mind stigma - it's now positively desirable. Somewhere along the line, saying "I'm bipolar" has become tantamount to hinting at being a temperamental creative genius.

Maybe people get up in the morning and have a bad day, then decide that last week was just terrific so they must be bipolar - especially if they want to big up their own creativity. You can see where that comes from when you look at some of the people who really do experience it. Take Adam Ant, Carrie Fisher, Virginia Woolf, even the aforementioned Stephen Fry - all brilliantly creative. I'd like to be able to say I must be creative because I'm bipolar, but that one doesn't really wash.

We take comfort in Kay Redfield Jamison's book "Touched by Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament" that details links between creativity and bipolar; we want reassurance that we aren't some sort of mad underclass.

But it's not just the stars of today getting diagnosed - those of yesteryear were apparently just as crazy. A few cases were documented at the time, but there seems to be just a tad of retrofitting for the cool factor. Winston Churchill - he was into painting, after all - but I like to think he had it. Abraham Lincoln - er, show me the evidence. Tennyson, Blake... pick a poet, any poet. Check out any bipolar site and you'll find lists and lists of famous "fellow sufferers" from sports people to politicians, with a hefty chunk of arty types in between.

There's another reason for claiming bipolarity - the old "It's not my fault I'm an addict, it's because I'm bipolar" theory. This year it'll probably be the top excuse for getting drunk and snogging your boss at the office Christmas party. It seems that bipolar is being diagnosed not only as a mental illness, but as an excuse for any sort of bad behaviour. Anyone with a cocaine problem - real or reported - appears to have been dubbed bipolar: Sophie "Wonderbra" Anderton, Kerry Katona, Pete Doherty and Robbie Williams, to name but a few.

The mother of Hollywood actor Robert Downey Junior - who has been in the news for most of his adult life for addiction problems - is widely reported as saying he's bipolar. I don't know whether he is or not, but as with Pete Doherty, we the public decide that if he is then we might as well be too, but hopefully without quite the level of indulgence or dependency. No doubt Kate Moss is on standby for diagnosis any day now.

Before I get accused of saying that bipolar and drug abuse don't sometimes go hand in hand, I should point out that dual diagnosis, as it is known, is common. Which to you and me means that people take drugs or booze to stop themselves feeling grim, or because when they are high they just want to get higher. Yes, the two very often occur together, but they aren't necessarily linked. Not everyone who is bipolar abuses illicit drugs or alcohol, and not everyone who does that is bipolar. Really.

Someone who had a very public drug and alcohol problem and is also diagnosed bipolar is actress Carrie Fisher. The most accurate portrayal of the illness I've come across is in her novel "The Best Awful", which tells the tale of her fictional alter ego careening from sanity back into mania and the resulting depression. It's a follow up to her better-known "Postcards from the Edge", in which the protagonist finds herself in rehab and is diagnosed bipolar. "The Best Awful" is funny but honest too. It tells it just like it is, and perhaps anyone aspiring to bipolar ought to read it. Not the fun bit about careening down to Mexico with a tattooist, but the bit about being locked up in the bin.

The thing about bipolar is that it might sound 'sexier' than depression and 'safer' than schizophrenia, but it's not really that much fun. Sure, it has its brief periods of feeling fabulous, but these don't always come with quite the creativity or insight we'd think.

Bipolar is certainly not fun when you are face down on a bed unable to get up because the depression has overwhelmed you, or when the post-hypomania credit card bills come in. Perhaps it is at its worst when mania becomes paranoia, and you go from believing you are God to the terrifying conviction that you will be killed in a horrendous way. Or maybe the worst is when you "come down" and find out what you did. It's not that great when your friends have disappeared because they can't cope with the way you behaved. It's just not all it's cracked up to be.

On the brighter side, my bipolar hubby and I like to play a rather good game of "guess who'll be bipolar next". Our money is on George Michael. He's got the cannabis use, the sexual disinhibition (although he says that's a lifestyle thing so maybe we shouldn't get all clinical about it just yet) and he's got the creativity - surely he's got to be top of the list? Perhaps he is or perhaps he isn't, but let's all play "diagnose the celeb" anyway - it's great fun, and he or she will probably be extremely flattered.


    • 1. At 11:40pm on 13 Dec 2008, bipolarmo wrote:

      Great post Liz.

      It’s nice to see someone being more realistic about the crippling illness that is bipolar disorder. It certainly has gained a glamorous reputation recently and seems to provide some people with a “get out of jail free card”. One more excuse to absolve people from any self responsibility. We all know that there is a spectrum of bipolar depression and some folks have a more severe form than others but it is a bit weird that none of the celebrity bipolars ever seem to run naked through the streets, throwing all their money away while listening to the voice of Jesus telling them they have been sent to save the world. I guess that kind of behaviour is confined to us proletariat bipolar bums.

      Much as I admire Stephen Fry’s honesty and “coming out” as bipolar, I feel his well intentioned confession hasn’t really done much to help things on the coalface. Poor Stephen now defines the public perception of manic depression. My concern is that people look at him and see a successful, wealthy and charismatic, man who has a huge catalogue of work. Fair enough, he gets a bit down now and again but picks himself up and carries on because he’s got “the right frame of mind”. He doesn’t take pills, he’s got the strength and positive attitude to brush off this mild annoyance. They then look at me and say, well you’ve got the same thing as him, why can’t you do that? Why don’t you go to work any more you lazy, benefit-scrounging, good for nothing layabout?

      You’re right about the brief periods of feeling fabulous. For a couple of weeks each year I am ecstatic, all powerful, in a state of bliss. I am very quickly hammered with drugs into a state of misery and spend the rest of the year sedated and down. There is nothing glamorous about this. This is not a life, let alone a lifestyle choice.

      C’mon Britney, let’s swap shoes for a day!


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