How can I stop being manic?

SPIEGEL interview with Thomas Melle
"A brain-scorched clown"

Thomas Melle, 41, has been nominated several times for the German Book Prize: In 2011 he was on the longlist with “Sickster” and in 2014 on the shortlist with “3000 euros”. In his new book he reports for the first time unadulterated about his mental illness.

Mr Melle, your book touched me like none in a long time: I read it in a café, among people, because I found it difficult to read in the evenings and alone at home. It made me anxious, sad, then made me laugh out loud again. Some anecdotes are so bizarre that I felt very stoned afterwards.

Then someone said again, literature has no effect! Seriously, I like that and it fits. In fact, smoking weed promotes paranoia and is particularly dangerous for people like me.

Did you get intoxicated by writing it down?

The writing took me back to crazy rooms that I knew but which I entered with a protective suit: the narrative mode. Everything was there again, like a forgotten backdrop. But it didn't put me at risk in my protective suit.

You write about your bipolar disorder.

I don't like the term, it's so lax. Its function is to include all forms of the disease, including the milder ones, and not to discriminate against anyone. But people don't understand “bipolar”, and it almost seems to me that they are happy about it. "Manic-depressive" is more honest. First I'm manic, then I'm depressed.

Photo: Gene Glover
What type of disorder are you suffering from?

To Bipolar I. That is the strongest form, and I have it again in a particularly violent variant, so that my manias and depressions last particularly long, up to one and a half years, and are particularly intense. I also have delusions. I'm in the form of literally going crazy, ruining yourself and your life.

What did you do during your manic episodes?

I was out and about, drank in the morning, ran into debt: for traveling, going to restaurants, crashing into bars. I also liked to buy books to sell again cheaply the next day. Sometimes I had so little money that I would throw Maggi down my throat just to get the taste of food in my mouth.

How did you get money?

As a manic you have incredible energy and persuasiveness, but no inhibitions. You can convince a banker that you will go to Harvard in six months. You are an actor of yourself.

Have you been aggressive?

Sometimes. I once approached my publisher at the time physically. She came to a reception with her arm in plaster, I thought the cast was fake.


The cast was real. The publisher was no longer mine.

You switched from Suhrkamp to Rowohlt Berlin. As a reader, can I laugh at such anecdotes?

You may, should, you must. Despite all the shame and tragedy on my side. Because otherwise it cannot be dealt with at all. There's a scorched clown racing through town, piling catastrophe after catastrophe. Existential slapstick.

As a writer, are you tempted to portray some of your experiences in a more original way than they were?

I don't find anything original about it. Do you mean crazy? No, I haven't portrayed anything crazier than it was. It's all true

You really thought you met Picasso in Berlin's Berghain?

Not old Picasso. Picasso as a young man. The guy I thought was him was sitting on the toilet chatting with hipsters with the gold letters "F.U.C.K" on his belt. I poured red wine on his lap, I never liked Picasso and his pictures.

In Wuppertal you thought you met Thomas Bernhard.

In a McDonald's at the train station, yes. Bernhard ate a Big Mac. He didn't like it.

Really true that you had sex with Madonna?

I was convinced of it then.

And how was Madonna?

I still remember that at first I was amazed at how well it was, almost like in the nudes from the late seventies.

Can you laugh about it yourself today?

The most important thing for me is not to get bitter or cynical in life, in writing, in spite of everything. I find some things funny, but also always insane. I scare.

What was the worldview underlying all these ideas?

That was the cliché paranoid Messiah notion: Everything was running towards me, the whole of human history. In all texts, songs, and documents I could find indications that someone would come, around the turn of the millennium, when the world in its essence would show itself. And that someone was me. In 1999, during the Millennium Hysteria, I had my first manic episode, and two more followed, in 2006 and 2010.

Pop songs have particularly triggered your flare-ups. What predestines it as a gateway into delusions?

It is rather difficult for an acute manic to read a Tolstoy in one go. The thoughts are too fleeting. The brevity of pop songs, on the other hand, is immediately apparent, the catchiness, plus the logic of the implications of the lyrics, plus the form of address: Most of the time, you are sung about. Each you could be an I. That was very suitable to give the paranoia further mini-strokes.

Why were you so fixated on prominent artists?

I am a child of my time. They accompany us all, they tweet their lunch. We project ourselves into it and want news.

Bernhard doesn't tweet. He is dead.

You have to see it in this messianic context: I was the secret celebrity. These people, whose works were all about me, came to my aid. They appeared briefly on the street, looked around, gave me signs. Also dead who apparently weren't dead at all. Somewhere in the Alps, I thought, there would be a resort where Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann and Samuel Beckett are sitting.

That sounds like the initial idea for a fantastic novel.

But it was my life. As you can imagine, the role of such a messiah is not an easy one, suddenly everything turns darkly about yourself.

You ask the question in the book itself: "How do you tell of yourself as an idiot?"

I look at the character that I was like the main character in a wacky TV series - so much that I think: This series, it's my life! And irony is always possible. But it would be wrong, almost obscene, to tell it only as a tragic comedy with a lot of humor. It's already a bitter drama.

You tried to kill yourself twice.

If one thing is certain in a manic's life, it is the depression that follows mania. The stronger and longer the mania, the stronger and longer the depression. It is particularly pronounced because of the shame and horror of not having been yourself, your reputation for ruining your life.

How many times have you been to psychiatry?

Sure ten times. Sometimes for months, during the depression, sometimes only for a few days. In manic phases you have no insight into the illness, so friends have instructed me, sometimes with the help of the police. From today's point of view that was correct, from the point of view of the time it was terrible.

How was it with the other patients?

As a madman you often recognize the madness of others, only your own is completely invisible: I promised a girl who Osama bin Laden thought was her father that that was not true. At the time, I assumed that I was the son of the pop star Sting.

Psychiatry is a place steeped in myth.

Psychiatry, if you already know it, is the most boring place in the world. A great place of tension and yet of emptiness: sometimes the worst frenzies and hostilities, mostly idle and senseless structure. Waiting for nothing. A bit like an evening at the theater by Christoph Marthaler, only for weeks, months.

People who are depressed are viewed obliquely. There is again a tendency to criminalize the mentally ill.

How did you deal with the fact that nobody understands exactly what is going wrong in the head of a manic-depressive?

If the medication works, there is no need for proof, it really is a matter of life and death. Whereby it actually increases the uncleanliness that even the doctors are at a loss when it comes to some questions. With my book I want to take this eeriness away from the disease a little, bring a light of enlightenment to the horror, provide a narrative module for something that is actually completely incomprehensible.

Were you satisfied with the care in psychiatry?

What happens there is partly inhuman. You are mentally switched off, physically fixed, and then there is a quick round. As in the worst cliché. It took more money, more space, more staff. It would be equally important for our society to rethink the way we deal with former patients, the so-called psychiatric experienced. They are currently branded. Many people think: once sick, always sick. In theory, people are oh so open, but in practice they are totally nailed up. This is getting worse at the moment.

What are you up to?

Illnesses are also subject to fashions and hype. When the depression of some athletes became public in the noughties, Sebastian Deisler, Robert Enke, there was a wave of empathy. It's over. Now someone who is depressed is viewed obliquely. Yes, there is even again a tendency to criminalize the mentally ill. Most of these people are just destroyed figures who want to slowly get up again. There is an explanatory hysteria going on that is itself completely manic.

You are referring to the discussion after the rampage in Munich.

Not only. I observed exactly how the discussions about the Germanwings pilot in 2015 went. Suddenly, contrary to its nature, depression is used as an explanatory tool for crimes. This is a direct concern of the person affected. In the current climate, no athlete would come out as depressed anymore.

How do you explain the new fashion?

The people who ran amok would probably be more likely to diagnose narcissistic personality disorders. But such disturbances are not uncommon, and in our selfie times they are even a problem for society as a whole. By emphasizing the perpetrators' depression, one keeps the problem out of society. The problem then belongs in the hospital, is clinically distanced, at the same time an even deeper stigmatization is established in the discourse.

What are the causes of your illness?

Some researchers say that bipolar people have a third more nerve cells in the anterior brain stem and thalamus than healthy people, at the same time they allegedly have less gray and white brain matter in certain regions, for example in the cerebral cortex. There, where the sensory impressions are bundled and the brain activities are regulated, there is too much going on, it is teeming with people. At the same time, this circus is much too porous and open to the outside, not well protected, the bark too thin.

I meant rather: Why did this illness overtake you in particular?

I would have to read you the whole book now. It is just a search for reasons, but in full awareness that I will never be able to get hold of these reasons. A romantic project, in the end.

Many bipolar people, you write, have a history of drugs. They also?

I have a tendency to alcohol, sometimes to excess. Otherwise nothing of the sort.

You call yourself an information junkie. What do Mails, Twitter, Facebook do to a manic?

Constant input, fraying. Above all, however, they offer devastating outlets: It is too easy to follow the impulses and send a confused observation into the world. One boost with internet access and you shit on some people for the rest of your life.

Did you find reasons for your illness in your biography?

I don't believe in monocausal one-way streets that reduce everything to childhood. Otherwise there would be more bipolar people from difficult than from so-called good relationships. That's not the case. Depending on the source, three to five percent of the population who will suffer from one of the bipolar forms in the course of their lives are spread across all social classes.

But there are reasons in your biography.

Of course, monocausality is stupid, but so is anti-causality. I come from a difficult, middle-class background, had an alcoholic stepfather, then went to a Jesuit college in Bonn.

The Aloisiuskolleg, an elite school that Thomas de Maizière also attended, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Johannes B. Kerner.

Yes, the kid among rich and noble people. I was top of the class, went to college, wanted to be a writer at an early age. There is one thesis that bipolarity is related to another tendency towards overadaptation: You want to please your fellow human beings too much until you are overwhelmed by all demands. Between these poles, overfitting and defiance of individuality, there is a bang back and forth.

The boarding school has intensified your longing for belonging.

Oh, now it's getting therapeutic, I'm backing off. To say something about this in a few sentences would be good for you and SPIEGEL, but bad for me. I would have to write literature about it to be precise enough.

A few years ago, an abuse scandal at the Aloisius College made headlines. Were you affected yourself?

No, not directly. But my personal Bildungsroman began with the Jesuits. The scandal has now also shaken the basis of the narrative that is my life. He shredded her.

Your second manic episode came during one of your theater projects. An accident?

The theater is, of course, a booze club, especially in the provinces, and it is otherwise fertile ground for mental disorders. On rehearsals, psychodynamics similar to those of a dysfunctional family are at work only in Hyperspeed. I remember one rehearsal when everyone ticked off and yelled at each other and a well-known actress bared her breasts. Until I, the really crazy one, asked for silence.

How did your illness shape your novels?

Doubles and revenants of myself pervade all my works, including my plays. The journalist Magnus in the novel “Sickster” is manic and psychotic; the homeless, indebted ex-law student Anton in "3000 euros" fell during a mania. Although I don't name that directly with Anton. I wanted to give him his dignity.

Did you write during your manic or depressive phases?

In the years in between. In the depressive phases you do nothing, in the manic you just do nonsense.

I would have wagered that many passages in “Sickster” are the work of a manic: They juggle word meanings, language images, levels of action, a high-speed novel.

Of course, my experiences have flowed into the form. But I have to disappoint you: the texts that arise in the manic phases themselves are at best confused Dadaism.

Literature often blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction, something similar happens in the mind of the mentally ill. Is It Dangerous for a Bipolar to Work as a Writer?

There are similarities, actually. Especially since literature always tries to interpret signs in a variety of ways and to enrich them with ambivalences. When a bipolar writes such literature, it can have strange effects on his porous psyche. Fiction infiltrates reality and marauds there. Excess characters, semantic cancer.

You should stop writing.

Sorry? For me, the difficult thing has always been life, not writing. Writing was more of a technique for bringing order to things. Or to recreate a mess so that it loses its horror.

It is said that there are many bipolar people among writers and artists.

That's probably true, the American psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, who is herself bipolar, wrote about it. Herman Melville is said to have been manic-depressive, Heinrich von Kleist, Virginia Woolf, among the younger ones Sarah Kane.

A few years ago, in a SPIEGEL essay by the writer Sibylle Mulot, there was talk of the “manic-creative”. What do bipolar people and artists have in common?

Perhaps both tend to think big, do everything “larger than life”. You are receptive to ecstatic moments, grand gestures, excessive concepts. Most successful artists who have the disease, however, are bipolar II, meaning they have weakened manias. They are “only” hypomanic, do not harm themselves unconsciously, and can partially delve into their work.
Photo: Gene Glover

I have to reclaim my history. I have to stigmatize myself in order to de-stigmatize myself.

That means: Too much madness is harmful, a little madness helps.

I defend myself against the stereotype of genius and madness. It glorifies and demonizes the sick at the same time. It's like the "mad scientists" in comics and films. It moves them even further away from normal, healthy, functioning people.

A portion of madness is part of the artist myth.

That can be true in the external perception. The myth serves people's longing for intensity, excitement, excess. But they forget that the price is high. I would like to terminate my membership in this illustrious club with immediate effect.

How does your new book compare to the previous ones?

It's literature, but everything is true, nothing is made up. It's not about effect and drasticness, it's about my life, about my illness in its purest form. I have to recapture my story, make it narrative and thus remove the taboo. I have to stigmatize myself in order to de-stigmatize myself.

Did so many know about your illness so far?

The point is: I never knew who knew. I increasingly felt a certain whisper. The disease is a taboo, people are helpless, don't know which questions to ask, or they just judge you from behind. If you want to know something, you can read it now.

And how are you today?

I take a deep breath.

Are you back to normal again?

There never was. But there is a core of embers, a remnant of the ego that was there before all illnesses and to which I hold on. It sounds like a hit, Peter Maffay: Somewhere deep down I stayed the 1999 student. The one before the outbreak of the disease. I don't find that uncomfortable at all. I don't have to grow up the way everyone else does.

Who or what saved you?

There was a friend who was always by my side. There was my agent. For all complications, there was my mother. And there was the happiness of love in the darkest of times. The indie argument, as I call it: a senior doctor pointed out to me that lithium occurs naturally, so that no pharmaceutical company earns much from it. So I thought, okay, then it must help.

What are the consequences of the drugs?

They save my life, but at the same time they are working against me. The lithium caused severe acne, which is why I replaced it with valproic acid. There are also umpteen side effects: weight gain, hair loss, sluggishness, and subdued feelings and thoughts. My sex drive went to zero in the meantime.

What do the medication mean for writing?

I don't know, but I sometimes wonder to what extent my style is downgraded, more "classic". Is it just the age, the end of “Sturm und Drang”, that makes me tell less obtrusively, less garishly and expressively? Or is it valproic acid, which is supposed to cut the peaks in emotional life, up and down? I suspect that the drugs are seeping into my sentences, right down to their structure. But I'm getting better and better. And the possible exchange would be to fly up and possibly burn completely.

Are you afraid of relapse?

I hope and, yes, I pray to be spared. Should I get manic again, may someone give me my book. It could be a salvation.

Thank you for this interview, Mr. Melle.


The questions were asked by Tobias Becker, editor at SPIEGEL.

Copyright: DER SPIEGEL
August 2016

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