Twitchhiker | Paul Smith's travel tales from here and there


Order, disorder – coming out about bipolar
01/11/2009, 11:23
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I really don’t have to write this post. Really. And to be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure why I am. The topic certainly has no place on a travel blog, and it has the potential to do me more harm than good. Then again, that’s rarely stopped me from opening my mouth before inserting both feet.

If you were near your Twitter feed yesterday, you may have wondered why there was so much chatter about the UK’s favourite uncle, Stephen Fry. People were up in arms at the possibility of Stephen putting an end to his Twitter activity for good, after some dastardly Machiavellian type accused him of stealing babies from the womb and devouring them whole. Of course that isn’t what happened at all; an individual of no more social standing than you or I commented that he found Stephen’s Twitter activity a little drab sometimes. Out of the thousands of tweets that fly past his eyes every day, Stephen noticed that comment and in that moment found it so upsetting that he questioned whether he should continue.

Now you may have had one of several reactions when you became aware of this. I watched the fallout occur in real time yesterday, and my reaction was:

– the BBC will turn this into a news story within the day, despite it being nothing of the sort

– this is going to prove why Twitter, despite everything it has achieved and its potential to achieve so much more, is at the mercy of hypocrisy and mob rule

The BBC once more aligned their output with that of Heat magazine and proved me right on the first point, and seemingly everyone else proved me right on the second. Give Twitter a scapegoat and enough rope, and it becomes a lynch mob. Once again the Twitter community embarrassed itself by taking up burning torches and pitchfolks, and hounding some poor bastard for having a point of view; see here and here for examples of the kinder replies, and the staggering torrent of abuse towards individuals from Alan Davies.

Unbelievable. Seriously, I don’t know what else to say. Fucking unbelievable. And then, moving on to the actual topic of this post, the comments took another turn:

Twitchhiker - SF tweet 1
Twitchhiker - SF tweet 2
Twitchhiker - SF tweet 3

There are plenty more tweets saying similar, but why? What has it got to do with anything? Why are people demonising an individual because he criticised a person who has bipolar, as if those with the disorder should be treated differently, or are in some way different themselves? “Calling a bi-polar person ‘boring’ is as stupid as calling an anorexic ‘fat’.” No it bloody isn’t – individuals with bipolar are very capable of boring the face off a clock.

And if these comments don’t do enough to highlight a complete ignorance of the disorder, then plenty more do:

Twitchhiker - SF tweet 4

What stereotype is that, exactly? The one bandied about by half-arsed screenwriters and hacks desperate for a crutch because they can’t write their way out of a wet paper bag? That people with bipolar are hammer-wielding maniacs, thieves or deviants who are a constant menace not only to society, but themselves?

Twitchhiker - SF tweet 5

Sweet muscular Jesus.

As you will have realised, this is a subject I feel strongly about and no doubt some of you will have put it all together as to why. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder three years ago, although I’m aware I’ve lived with its effects since I was 16. It’s not a fact I’ve broadcast in public until now, but then plenty of people know and I’m not desperately worried about keeping it a secret.

Diagnosis of bipolar leads to understanding, and understanding leads to control. I know when I’m likely to be susceptible to its effects because I now understand what my triggers are, and I’m very capable of controlling it. If I do stumble, I have a small circle of friends who’ll pick me back up. Otherwise, nobody is aware of the condition or judges me as a result, and I’d take issue with anybody who did. There may well be several people reading this post who are wondering whether they were naive to invite me into their homes in March as I travelled the world, but that’s the point. Read the blog entries again and I think it’s very evident the pressure my journey put on my health. There was, however, no trail of canibalised bodies left around the globe in my wake. Not that they’ve found, anyway.

By all accounts, Stephen was having a low day yesterday, and in that situation one tiny, irrelevant speck of inconsequential minutiae can plunge you into the depths of loneliness and despair. That’s what bipolar is – it’s manic depression, with emphasis on the mania. A stranger in Birmingham didn’t know his comment would have the reaction it did, but then Stephen probably didn’t know it would either. And it certainly wasn’t a melodramatic reaction on Stephen’s behalf, not once you understand – I’ve come close to deleting my Twitter and Facebook accounts on a whim because I’ve felt threatened or too exposed. That said, a person with the disorder is perfectly capable of being in a bad mood, just because they’re in a bad mood – we’re as likely to feel fucked off at the world for no good reason as the next person.

So why come out now? Am I so desperate for attention I’ll whore my medical history in public? Not at all. Revealing this aspect of my health certainly doesn’t benefit me professionally or personally.

Yesterday’s baying mob proves there is a desperate ignorance about mental illness. At some point, people need to wake up to the fact that like zombies, happiness ever after and CSI Miami, what they see on television and in films isn’t real. Bipolar isn’t necessary some hellish purgatory that damns the inflicted to eternal suffering, but their treatment by others who blindly accept such stereotypes certainly can be.

If Stephen’s open admission hasn’t taught people that bipolar is no more a social stigma than an aversion to using public toilets or a fondness for corduroy, then clearly there needs to be far more discussion about the issue. It was his openness that led to my diagnosis, and I’m now confident enough in myself to be as forthright. Coming out about my illness will barely make a dent in the public psyche as a whole, but it might help a handful of people understand how dangerous, misguided and upsetting such stereotypes are. Bipolar disorder isn’t a condition that demands pity, tolerance or blind assumptions – only understanding and acceptance.


19 Comments so far
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Agrees. Storm in a tea pot. See my post http://jameswdcrawford.wordpress.com/2009/11/01/stephen-fry-a-lesson-in-editorial-values-vs-trending-topics/

Comment by James Crawford

A good, heartfelt post well done. As a society we have a ridiculous attitude to mental illness and more people talking frankly about their own experiences can only help.

I was astounded to see that this non story was making the newspapers and news sites. The main things we learn from the story are that Stephen Fry suffers from depression, people on the internet can be mean and stupid and the press love a sensation. None of this is news to any sensible person is it?

Comment by David

Bravo, Paul. Well done. The “mob rule” aspect of Twitter has gotta be linked to whatever it is that compels people to engage in behaviors that make celebrity gossip blogs & paparazzi profitable.

I am even more impressed with your adventure last March now that I realize how much more challenging it had to be to put yourself through all that stress.

Thank you for “coming out” about your struggles with bipolar disorder.

Comment by Cindy

Great little piece!

Comment by Mof Gimmers

Paul, Your article is a beautiful dispelling of stereotype. I’m glad you wrote it. Bravo! Ken

Comment by Ken Morrill

Well said mate

Comment by John

Excellent piece, mate. Timely, honest, superbly written. Always knew you were a fine writer and you’ve just left me gobsmacked with admiration.

Comment by Neil Davey

Well well well! A fascinating read. This took great courage. The revelation could have been worse I guess….ladyboy springs to mind. Don’t quite know what else to say so I’ll leave it at that.

Comment by questingvole

Wonderful post.

I’m not quite as brave as you to say such things to others as I know some people I speak to would treat me different because of it. Even my work colleagues don’t know.

Only close friends know and understand, but even they aren’t careful about what they say, as you point out, as I don’t know from day to day what my moods gonna be, why should they try and predict it?

Comment by Anona

A great account of the situation (thanks to @FrankieP for posting a link on twitter!). I’m a fellow sufferer (similarly innocuous, I hope, in the canabalised bodies department!), and I greatly admire your decision to write this. I’m still trying to understand how the BBC could POSSIBLY have given this the coverage they have. And how @AlanDavies1 (someone I normally admire and find very funny) could POSSIBLY use his position to vent such a “staggering torrent of abuse towards individuals”. With friends like these, as some might say ….. I cannot see anything in what Stephen Fry or @brumplum said to warrant even 1% of the bile from some quarters, and am very glad they have both risen (or are rising) above it.

Comment by Islander

Beautifully written. I know one or two people who have Bipolar Disorder, and I have been asked once or twice if I have it myself. I have periods of deep depressions and also great highs, but I’ve never thought I warranted a diagnosis, and still don’t. What I’m trying to say is that people get down no matter what, and you only have to catch that person on an off day for it to deeply sting, even though it was never intended to harm. I’ve threatened to cut everyone off on twitter, MSN and in my ‘real life’, and I have cut people off because I’ve been in a dark place. It happens. We all have bad days, no matter who we are and it is typical of the ignorance of many to suggest that because of someone’s mental health condition that it ‘must’ have been the cause for their feeling hurt. It’s akin to saying ‘She’s irritable and snappy. Must be her period!’ That pisses me off! Women don’t have to be on their period to be moody. We don’t need a reason! Sorry for the imagery but I thought it would demonstrate my point. Thank you for sharing.

Comment by Heather

Bi-polar disorder has affected my family for 3 generations, and I understand how it can affect individuals and families alike. A very good friend of mine was diagnosed very late with bi-polar disorder last year after a lifetime of illness and mental health struggles. I have seen people I love struggle with this illness, but I have also seen them making their own, informed decisions about how best to manage their condition, and this is the best thing they could have done. One manages it without drugs, using behaviour modification and exercise to manage, the other uses a very strict medication routine to maintian stability. Both are doing very well, both are studying their chosen subjects successfully, both have their own incomes and both are fantastically intersting people to be around, but they both, like so called “normal” people suffer from momments of boring. Don’t we all?

Thank you for sharing your diagnosis with us, and for being another voice for the reasonable treatment of people with long term mental health problems. Although I haven’t been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, my life is affected by it every day because of my family, and I have been diagnosed with clinical depression, which for some reason leaves people thinking that I am automatically a suicide risk. Even a GP refused to treat me when I attended the surgery, because and assumption was made that I am a suicide risk because I have depression. Such circular thinking is pointless ignorant and dangerous. Lets see mental illness in the same light as, say, diabetes, brown hair or having big feet. Not curable, but not untreatable.

Sorry to have waffled on.

Comment by Sam Dexter

Amazing, honest and insightful post that will make all readers think.

I find abusing or critisising people over social networks completely unnecessary. Agree that some Twitter users did embarrass themselves with the witch-hunt comments which no doubt made @brumplum feel even more awful than he already did. After all, it wasn’t just his comment, there was ‘too much aggression and unkindness around’ and a vulnerable moment when @brumplum became the iceberg that tipped the ship. Stephen Fry has commented that he feels bad for all the comments @brumplum has received http://bit.ly/25gWnC

Great to see the amazing support though from rational tweeters who were more positive in their actions by showing huge amounts of admiration and kindness for Stephen Fry which I hope helped.

Comment by Lindsay Davies

Hi Paul,

Thank you for this post. I first saw Stephen’s tweet yesterday morning, and I (like zillions of others) pleaded for him to stay. I didn’t know the back story till I saw the first BBC News article. I must say that I was shocked and appalled to find this story on the BBC News twitter feed at all. During the course of the day I ended up seeing something like 3 or 4 different articles about it.

Perhaps it’s my American-ness coming out, but everyone is entitled to say what they want. Everyone is entitled to be boring (99.9% of tweets are boring to people other than the original poster. Hell, I can put myself to sleep rereading my own timeline). I think Stephen and his critical follower had every right to say and react the way they did (even Alan).

Your take on the non-situation is like a breath of fresh air in this dank atmosphere Twitter accumulates at times. I’m glad you wrote it and found the courage to explain why you felt so strongly about it. Thank you for writing it and posting it!!!

Comment by Kates

Really well written post. Thanks x

Comment by Judi-mae

industrialized entertainment fucks up the woild.

Comment by perry

Congratulations for writing this, although I’m imagining praise wasn’t what you wanted. Unfortunately society is such that it takes courage to talk about things like this.

Comment by Me

Well said.

I run a website and small forum for people with BP3 (Cyclothymia, or “mild” manic depression). One recurring discussion is trouble with social media. When we are feeling up, social, expansive, we add a lot of friends and like to write about ourselves, but then when we shift into down mode, we can become suspicious, paranoid and over-sensitive. It is even this way for those who are enjoying success with medications.

When I read that Fry had a Twitter account, I wondered how that was going to last (I doubt he is Cyclothymic, as he claims, unless he is Cyclothymic-now-that-he-is-on-medications, and if he i still having such lows that he would react so strongly, his meds need reevaluation).

We tend to encourage people on our forum to get out of Facebook, or limit it to a small number of people. I’ve used Twitter for work now for about two years, but I would never go personal there. What a minefield.

Part of dealing with BP is identifying your triggers and then either avoiding them or learning to deal with them. My guess is that Mr. Fry had been having serious doubts about the Twitter scene for some time and that was just the last straw.

Comment by Milly

You’re a very good man Paul.

Comment by Adrian




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