Bill Oddie: ‘I wanted to end it all until I found out I was bipolar’
By Rebecca Hardy, Daily Mail
Last year doesn’t really exist for Bill Oddie. It was, he says, a ‘ complete wipeout’. Mired in depression, he spent his days staring at walls, sleeping and, at times, he considered suicide. It was a diabolical time, both for him and his wife, Laura.
‘I was in such a bad way that I had to go into hospital twice,’ he says. ‘I spent a lot of time in a room staring at the bleeding wall. I actually got quite skilled at doing nothing.
‘I spent a lot of time asleep. I didn’t get up for days, or if I did it was just for an hour in the evening. Some days I couldn’t believe it myself. I completely lost my confidence. As therapy, I tried to look at some of the programmes I’d made in the past, but I couldn’t stand them.
I just watched myself, thinking, “You’re crap at this. How the f*** did anyone like those? You can’t do it.” It was total self-denigration. It left me wondering, “How am I going to come out of this?” I couldn’t see a way out.
‘I was having suicidal thoughts – a lot of it was just wanting to go to sleep. You’ve always got the sleeping pills lying around. It’s easy to take too many of those and send yourself to sleep for too long. I remember someone saying, though, that they couldn’t take their own life because they were too frightened. I can identify with that. You’re frightened of hurting yourself and hurting the people around you.
‘You say to yourself, “Think, think, think, what it would do to your kids and your grandchildren.” It’s a horrible, horrible thought.’
Bill shudders as he talks about it, sitting on the sofa at his eclectic home in London’s Hampstead. Eccentric doesn’t do the house justice, with its tables and dressers stuffed with plastic farmyard animals and Disney characters.
Having battled depression for much of the last ten years, on which he wrote movingly in his autobiography, One Flew Into The Cuckoo’s Egg, Bill, 68, is now at his most stable.
The presenter, writer, comedian, musician and naturalist, who built a brilliant career out of making others laugh, has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Last year, the darkness and sense of hopelessness overwhelmed him once more and he was placed in a psychiatric hospital for six weeks. Bill hopes that will never happen again, especially now doctors have diagnosed him as having the manic-depressive condition bipolar disorder.
The new diagnosis has, he says, transformed him. Indeed, the Bill I meet today is a warm, witty man – certainly not the rather grumpy, irascible character of which others had warned me. ‘The re-diagnosis has changed my life,’ he says. ‘And the difference is lithium. Within a week of being put on it I was feeling better. I can remember that moment clearly.
I was walking up to the hospital to have blood tests and found myself thinking, “Actually, this is rather nice. I’m enjoying walking up here.” Before, it was a trudge. Then, two weeks before Christmas, my family were ringing each other, saying, “He’s back.” I had a really good Christmas and, touch wood, that has continued this year.’
Bill may feel that lithium has performed a miracle, but it is a controversial mood-stabilising drug, with side effects that include nausea, tremors and loss of bladder control. ‘I have started peeing more often at night,’ he says. ‘But the weirdest thing has been the strange curls I’ve started to get in my hair.’
His unruly thatch does, indeed, contain weird little flicks and curls. Sitting here in his slippers with his curls, he reminds me of a chirrupy garden gnome, rather like the many that fill his cluttered garden. How, though, does the lithium affect his mind?
‘Depression is an awful thing for loved ones to cope with’
‘People have said they hate losing the highs you get when you’re bipolar,’ he says. ‘It’s possible mine weren’t so enjoyable that I miss them. They cer tainly weren’t euphoric. All I know is that it’s turned me around. Last year I stopped listening to music. I might as well not be here if I can’t listen to music, but I stopped buying records. All that has come flooding back. We’ve been to more gigs in the past months than we have in years.
‘Now I get together with musician friends every week for a jamming session. It’s the same with the wildlife stuff. I barely touched that all last year, and hardly went to Hampstead Heath. That cotton wool feeling in my head that was there for most of last year has gone. For Laura, it’s been fantastic. Depression is the most awful thing for your loved ones to have to cope with. One of the worst things is that you’re not quite sure who the person you’re with is any more.
‘With Laura, there is anger, but I don’t think it’s against me. I think she feels that the experts could have perhaps spotted this a bit earlier. It was only when I went into hospital a second time, last autumn, that I was diagnosed.
Laura had actually become disenchanted that I’d been having so much private hospital therapy and it wasn’t working. She felt uncomfortable – resentful, perhaps, I don’t know – particularly as the whole thing was so catastrophically expensive. Put it this way, private psychiatric hospitals are something in the region of £5,000 a week. She said, “It’s not working and we’ve spent all this money. Go back to the NHS.”‘
When Bill’s depression returned in October he did just that, spending ten says in an NHS crisis centre. Bipolar disorder was eventually diagnosed. ‘It does seem to be a strangely fashionable condition at the moment,’ he says with a chuckle-Actually, it’s becoming rather a cliché.
I think, “Oh, I should just leave it to Stephen Fry. He’s written a book and made a documentary about it.” When I was diagnosed and started reading up about it, it rang so many bells.’
There are, it turns out, varying degrees of bipolar disorder. In many cases, the highs are so manic that someone appears to be, as Bill puts it, ‘nuts’. ‘That’s bipolar one,’ he says. ‘There’s also bipolar two, which is more difficult to spot because it’s not so extreme. Most of the highs can be very constructive. In that state you’re very productive with a lot of energy – very creative and confident.
‘But then it goes wrong because, unfortunately, you get to the point where you get impatient with people who can’t understand what you’re going on about.
‘You get aggressive – not violent, but disdainful. “What’s the matter, why the hell can’t you keep up?” That sort of thing. But also you believe you’re right, that you’re invincible.
‘I started looking back a few years and I can think of several times when I was like that. I remember running a quiz at the annual bird fair at Rutland Water in Leicestershire. It’s normally a jolly occasion, but I began to lose my temper at the whole thing, saying, “This is bloody awful, as if anyone f***ing cares.”
‘I was swearing and was well out of order. The organisers said afterwards, “You can’t do this, you just can’t do this.” The next year was fine, but you look back and you know you weren’t in control.
‘One thing that has genuinely puzzled me for 20-odd years are the comments that I was difficult to work with, or that I was stroppy, or intimidated people and that they were a bit scared of me.
‘I couldn’t see it at all. When people mentioned it to me, I’d say, “What? I’m not scary.”‘
The thought of being unbalanced, and being utterly clueless about it scares Bill. He’s never taken drugs, nor is he a heavy drinker, but he’s now having to take medication to control his disorder.
‘Now I’m not sure what’s real and what’s not,’ he says. ‘You can drive yourself mad thinking about it. Am I only all right because I’m taking this medication?
‘I find myself thinking, “Is that all we are – chemicals?” We talk about someone’s personality; they’re grumpy or they’re fun, they’re angry or they’re happy. But all those things can be affected by somebody introducing some chemical into your bloodstream. It means you can create somebody’s personality. Sometimes I’m not sure who I am.’
Although we’re actually meeting to talk about the film George And The Dragon – a fantasy comedy in which he makes a guest appearance alongside the late Patrick Swayze – I’m deeply moved by his candour, which doesn’t stop there.
It turns out that his mother, Lilian, spent ten years in an asylum suffering with what was then believed to be schizophrenia. Now, those who nursed her believe that she was probably bipolar, too.
‘When I went back to the asylum and met a couple of nurses who knew my mother, one of the questions I asked was, “What do you think was wrong with my mum? I was told she was a violent schizophrenic.” One of the nurses said, “I think she was what we would now call bipolar.”
‘I didn’t think of it until the last couple of months. The genetic element of bipolar disorder is considerably stronger than just depression. If somebody had told me 20 years ago, “Your mother was definitely bipolar. Just watch yourself”, I might have done something about it.’
I wonder if the genetic legacy concerns him. Bill has two daughters, Bonnie, 39, a choreographer, and the actress Kate Hardie, 42, from his first marriage to jazz musician Jean Hart; and a daughter, Rosie, 24, also a musician, from his marriage to scriptwriter Laura, 56.
‘It would be naive to say that you don’t think of it at all, and even more naive to assume that they don’t think about it,’ he says. ‘I think the saving grace is that it doesn’t necessarily happen.’
Bill first suffered with clinical depression in 2001. He says the possibility of bipolar disorder was mooted at the time, but dismissed.
He was treated for several weeks in hospital and seemed to recover, but the condition continued to return every few years, requiring further hospital treatment. At the beginning of 2008, he began to write his autobiography.
‘I wrote almost the whole book in two months,’ he says. ‘By the beginning of March I’d nearly finished it but was starting to feel really tired. It came out of the blue – I’d been enjoying writing it so much.
‘Looking back, I think I was in a manic state when I started writing it. Everything makes sense now, but it didn’t then. People said I was hyper and short-tempered.
‘I also said things that were unnecessarily harsh. I don’t remember what, and that’s the truth, I simply don’t. My wife would say, “I remember when you said this or that.” I’d say, “I didn’t say that.” To this day, I really don’t remember it. They could be making it up – that’s what I thought at the time.’
Following the manic stage, Bill says he began to ‘atrophy’ – doing little but staring at walls. When he was admitted to the NHS crisis centre he was taken in as an emergency case.
‘My mind was just stuck on repeat,’ he says. ‘Three subjects kept going round and round – our financial situation, my family and work. I thought, “Is this going to screw up my work completely?”‘
Thankfully, it hasn’t. Bill has three one-hour nature programmes on BBC2 this month.
‘Last week I had to film the links between scenes,’ he says, ‘the first time for a year I’d done anything big in front of the camera. I half ad-lib, and I thought, “Am I going to find I can’t speak?” but it was no problem.
‘This year is about trying everything again. I hadn’t driven for a year. When I got in the car to buy Christmas presents, I thought, “Yes, this stuff really works.”
‘I feel now I’ve been through everything. But my instinct is to say, “The whole thing is chemical. Now you’ve got that sorted, you can take whatever life throws at you without the depressions.” I just hope this doesn’t come back and bite me on the bum.’ ¦
• George And The Dragon is out on DVD.