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SPIEGEL-Interview with Thomas Melle
“A brain fried clown”

Thomas Melle
Photo: Gene Glover

Thomas Melle, 41, has been nominated for the German Book Prize several times. In 2011, his novel “Sickster” earned him a spot on the longlist, while “3000 Euro” was shortlisted in 2014. In his new book, he gives an unadulterated account of his mental illness for the first time.

Mr. Melle, it’s been a long time since a book touched me the way yours did. I read it in a café with people around me because it was difficult for me to read it at home in the evening by myself. It made me afraid and sad, but also made me laugh out loud. Some anecdotes are so bizarre that I felt completely stoned afterwards.

And some people say literature has no effect! Seriously, I like that and it fits. The fact is that smoking pot promotes paranoia and is especially dangerous for people like me.

Did you find it intoxicating to write it all down?

Writing took me back to strange places that were familiar to me, but that I entered wearing a protective suit: the narrative mode. It was all there again, like a forgotten backdrop. But it didn’t hurt me in my protective suit.

You write about your bipolar disorder.

I don’t like that term; it’s so lame. Its function is to include all forms of the illness, even the less severe types, and not to discriminate against anyone. But people don’t understand “bipolar,” and it almost seems to me that they are happy about that. “Manic-depressive” is more honest. First I am manic, then depressed.

Which type of the disorder do you suffer from?

Bipolar I. That is the most severe form, and I have a particularly intense kind, meaning that my manic and depressive episodes last an especially long time ― up to one and a half years ― and are incredibly intense. I also have hallucinations. I have the type where you are literally insane, ruining yourself and your life.

Thomas MellePhoto: Gene Glover

What have you done during your manic phases?

I was running around frantically, was already drinking in the morning, racking up debt: for trips, restaurants, disastrous bar hopping. I also liked buying books, only to sell them off the next day for cheap. Sometimes I had so little money that I would gulp down some Maggi seasoning sauce just to have the taste of food in my mouth.

How did you come up with money?

When you are manic you have ridiculous amounts of energy and are incredibly persuasive with no inhibitions. You could easily convince a banker that you are going to Harvard in six months. You are an actor playing yourself.

Were you aggressive?

Sometimes. I once physically tackled my former publisher. She arrived at a reception with a cast on her arm, and I thought the cast was fake.

And then?

The cast was real. The publishing house no longer represented me.

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

You may, you should, you must. In spite of all the shame and tragedy on my part. Because otherwise you can’t handle it. There’s a brain fried clown racing through the city creating one catastrophe after another. Existential slapstick comedy.

As an author, are you ever tempted to depict some of your experiences as wittier than they were?

I don’t think anything about it is witty. Maybe you mean insane? No, I didn’t depict anything as more insane than it was. It’s all true.

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

Not the old Picasso. Picasso as a young man. The guy I thought was him was sitting on the toilet and talking to hipsters, wearing the golden letters “F.U.C.K.” on his belt. I poured red wine onto his lap. I never could stand Picasso and his paintings.

In Wuppertal you thought you met Thomas Bernhard.

In a McDonald’s at the train station. Yes. Bernhard was eating a Big Mac. He didn’t like it.

Is it true that you had sex with Madonna?

At the time I was convinced that I had.

And how was Madonna?

I still remember at first being amazed at what good shape she was in, almost like in the nude pictures from the late 70s.

Are you able to laugh about it today?

To me the most important thing in life and in writing is not to become bitter or cynical in spite of everything. I think some things are amusing, but also ludicrous. I’m shocked.

Which world view was at the basis of all of these ideas?

It was the clichéd paranoid Messiah idea: Everything was building up to me, all of human history. I could find indications of this in all texts, songs, and documents that someone would come, around the turn of the millennium, through whom the essence of the world would be revealed. And this someone was me. In 1999, in the midst of the Y2K hysteria, I had my first manic episode. Two more followed in 2006 and 2010.

Pop songs in particular triggered your episodes. What predestined them to be a gateway to your hallucinations?

For someone with acute mania it is extremely difficult to read Tolstoy from cover to cover. Your thoughts are too volatile. The brevity of pop songs, on the other hand, immediately makes an impact, the catchiness, plus the suggestive logic of the lyrics and the form of address: there's always someone singing about “you.” Every “you” could be an “I”. That happened to be very well suited for causing additional mini episodes within the paranoia.

Why were you so obsessed with famous artists?

I’m a product of my time. They accompany all of us, they tweet about their lunch. We project ourselves into their lives and want news and updates.

Bernhard doesn’t tweet. He’s 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 help me. They appeared briefly on the street, turned around, gave me signs. Even dead people, who apparently weren’t really dead. Somewhere in the Alps, I thought, there was a resort, where Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Samuel Beckett were hanging out.

That sounds like the initial idea for a fantastic novel.

But it was my life. As you can imagine, the role of this kind of Messiah isn’t easy; suddenly everything spirals into darkness around you.

In the book you ask the question yourself: “How do you talk about yourself as an idiot?”

I view the figure that I was like the main character in a twisted TV series ― to the extent that I think: This series, this is my life! And irony is always possible then. But it would be wrong, almost obscene, only to talk about it as a tragic comedy with a lot of humor. It is actually a bitter drama.

You’ve attempted suicide twice.

If there’s one thing that’s certain in the life of a manic person, then it’s the depression that follows the mania. The more severe and longer the mania, the more severe and longer the depression. It is especially prominent because of the shame and horror of not having been oneself, of having ruined one’s reputation and life.

How many times have you been in a psychiatric ward?

At least ten times. Sometimes for months, during depressive periods, sometimes just for a few days. During manic phases you have no insight into the disease; friends admitted me, sometimes also with the help of the police. From today’s perspective that was the right thing to do, back then it was awful.

How were the interactions with the other patients?

When you’re crazy you can often recognize craziness in others, it’s just that you are completely blind to your own. There was one girl who thought that Osama bin Laden was her father, and I outright told her that she was wrong. Yet at that same time I suspected that I might be the son of the pop star Sting.

The psychiatric ward is a place surrounded in myth.

Once you know it, the psychiatric ward is the most boring place in the world. A great place of tension and emptiness at the same time: sometimes there are the most horrible tantrums and hostilities, but usually it’s just idleness and senseless structure. Waiting for nothing. A bit like a night at a Christoph Marthaler play, but it goes on for weeks, months.

Depressed people are frowned upon. There is once again a tendency to criminalize the mentally ill.

How have you dealt with the fact that no one knows exactly what is going wrong in the mind of a person with manic depression?

If the medication is working, no proof is necessary ― it’s really a matter of life and death. At the same time, this just intensifies how uncanny it is that even the doctors are clueless when it comes to some issues. With my book, I hope to take some of this uncanniness away from the illness, shed some light on the horror, and provide a narrative module for something that is actually completely incomprehensible.

Were you pleased with the care you received in the psychiatric ward?

Some of what happens there is inhumane. You are mentally turned off, physically pinned down, and then there are quick rounds. Like the worst cliché. There needs to be more money, more room, more staff. It would be similarly important for our society to reconsider how it deals with former patients, the so-called psychiatric survivors – “Psychiatrie-Erfahrene”. Right now, they are stigmatized. Many people think: once sick, always sick. Theoretically, people are oh so open, but in reality, they are totally boarded up. That is currently getting worse and worse.

How can you tell?

Even illnesses are subject to trends and hypes. When in the early 2000s several athletes like Sebastian Deisler and Robert Enke went public about their depression, there was a wave of empathy. That’s over. Now depressed people are frowned upon. There is even once again a tendency to criminalize the mentally ill. Yet most of them are simply just broken people who slowly want to get back on their feet. An explanation hysteria is underway that in itself is completely manic.

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

Not only that. I closely observed how people were talking about the Germanwings pilot in 2015. Depression, contrary to its very nature, suddenly serves as a tool for explaining criminal acts. That is a direct attack on someone affected by depression. In the current climate, it’s unlikely that any athlete would open up about their depression.

How do you explain this new trend?

The shooters probably could have been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorders. It’s just that these kinds of disorders aren’t rare and ― in this age of the selfie ― are even a problem for society as a whole. By focusing on the depression of the perpetrators, you keep society’s problem at bay. Then the problem belongs in a hospital, is clinically distanced, and an even deeper stigmatization manifests in the discourse.

What are the causes of your disease?

Some researchers say that people with bipolar disorder have one-third more neurons in the frontal cortex and the thalamus than healthy people. At the same time, they supposedly have less grey and white brain matter in certain regions, for example in the cerebral cortex. This means that those places where all of the sensory impressions are bundled and brain activities are regulated are teeming with too much activity. At the same time, on the surface this circus is much too porous and open, is not well protected, the outer layer is too thin.

I rather meant to ask: Why has this disease overtaken you in particular?

To answer that I’d have to read the whole book to you right now. It’s really a search for reasons, but with the complete awareness that you will never be able to fully grasp these reasons. A romantic project in the end.

You write that many people with bipolar disorder have a prior history of drug abuse. You too?

I have a proclivity towards alcohol, even to the point of excess every now and then. Otherwise nothing of the sort.

You call yourself an information junkie. What do email, Twitter, and Facebook do to a person with mania?

Constant input, unravelling. But above all they provide disastrous outlets. It is too easy to follow your impulses and send a chaotic observation out into the world. One episode with Internet access and you’ve burnt bridges with some people for the rest of your life.

Did you find reasons for your illness in your biography?

I don’t believe in monocausal explanatory one-way streets that try to reduce everything down to your childhood. Otherwise there would be more people with bipolar disorder from difficult backgrounds than with so-called good backgrounds. That isn’t the case. The ― depending on the source ― three to five percent of the population who will suffer from a form of bipolar disorder during the course of their lives span all social classes.

But there are reasons in your biography.

Of course. Monocausality is stupid, but so is anticausality. I come from a difficult, lower-middle class background, had an alcoholic stepfather, then attended a Jesuit prep school in Bonn.

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

Yes, the proletarian child among the rich and nobility. I became the best in my class, went off to study, and wanted to be a writer early on. There’s a theory that bipolar disorder is connected to some sort of tendency to over adapt. You want to overly please everyone around you until you are overcome by all of the demands. You end up constantly going back and forth between these poles of over adaptation and individual defiance.

The boarding school intensified your desire to belong.

Uh oh, now it’s starting to sound like therapy, I’m getting scared. It would be great for you and SPIEGEL to be able to say something about that in a few sentences, but it would be bad for me. I had to write literature about it in order to be precise enough.

A few years ago, an abuse scandal at Aloisiuskolleg made headlines. Were you personally affected?

No, not directly. But my personal educational novel began with the Jesuits. The scandal also shook the foundation of the narrative that is my life. It had started to shred it.

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

Of course theater is just one big drinking club, especially in rural areas, and it also happens to be fertile ground for mental illness. During rehearsals, psychodynamics similar to that of a dysfunctional family are at play, just at hyperspeed. I remember one rehearsal where everyone went nuts and started yelling at each other; one well-known actress exposed her breasts. It got to the point where I, the actual crazy person, had to ask for peace and quiet.

How has your illness influenced your novels?

Doppelgängers and revenants of myself pervade all of my works, even my plays. The journalist Magnus in the novel “Sickster” is manic and psychotic; the homeless, indebted former law student Anton in “3000 Euro” crashes during a manic episode. Although I don’t specifically call it that with Anton. I wanted to preserve his dignity.

Did you write during the manic and depressive phases?

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

I would have bet that many passages in “Sickster” were the work of a person with mania: They juggle with word meanings, metaphors, levels of action ― a high-speed novel.

Of course my experiences were incorporated into the form. But I have to disappoint you: The texts that were created during the manic phases themselves are, at best, confusing Dadaism.

Literature often blurs the lines between reality and fiction. Something similar happens in the mind of a person with a mental illness. Is it dangerous for someone with bipolar disorder to work as a writer?

There are indeed similarities. Especially since literature is always trying to interpret signs in various ways and embellish them with ambivalences. When someone with bipolar disorder writes that kind of literature, it can certainly have strange effects on their porous psyche. Fiction infiltrates reality and marauds there. Symbolic excess, semantic cancer.

You should stop writing.

Excuse me? Life was always what was difficult for me, not writing. Writing was more like a technique for bringing order to things. Or for recreating a disorder so that it loses its horror.

It is said that there are many writers and artists with bipolar disorder.

That might be right. The American psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, who herself is bipolar, wrote about that. Herman Melville supposedly suffered from manic depression, Heinrich von Kleist, Virginia Woolf, and more recently Sarah Kane.

In a SPIEGEL essay by author Sibylle Mulot a few years ago, there was talk about “Manic Creatives.” What connects people with bipolar disorder and artists?

Both probably tend to think in great dimensions and do everything “larger than life.” They are susceptible to ecstatic moments, grand gestures, overflowing concepts. However, the most successful artists with the illness have bipolar II, meaning they have milder manic phases. They are “just” hypomanic, do not senselessly harm themselves, and to some extent can throw themselves deeper into their work.

Thomas MellePhoto: Gene Glover

I have to reclaim my story. I have to stigmatize myself in order destigmatize myself.

Meaning: Too much craziness is harmful, but a little craziness helps.

I am opposed to the cliché of genius and madness. It glorifies and demonizes people with mental illness. It’s like the mad scientists in comics and films. It pushes them even farther away from normal, healthy, functioning people.

The artist myth has to have a bit of madness.

That may be true in the outward perception. The myth feeds people’s desire for intensity, excitement, and excess. But they forget that there’s a high price. I would prefer to cancel my membership in this illustrious club with immediate effect.

How is your new book related to your previous works?

It’s literature, but it’s all true ― nothing is made up. It isn’t about having an effect and being drastic, but about my life and my illness in its purest form. I have to reclaim my story, make it to where it can be told, and thus free it from taboos. I have to stigmatize myself in order to get rid of the stigma that surrounds me.

Did so many people know about your illness up until now?

The point is: I never knew who knew. I increasingly felt a certain whispering. The illness itself is a taboo. People are helpless, don’t know which questions they are allowed to ask, or simply judge you behind your back. Anyone who wants to know something can now read about it.

And how are you doing today?

I take deep breaths.

Are you back to being your old self?

That person never existed. But there is a glowing essence, a vestige of myself, that was there before all of my illnesses and that I hold onto. It sounds like an old hit, Peter Maffay: Somewhere deep inside me I have stayed the student from 1999. Before the onset of the illness. I don’t think that’s so unpleasant. I don’t have to grow up in the same way as other people.

Who or what saved you?

There was a friend who was always at my side. There was my agent. Even with all the complications, there was my mother. And there was the good fortune of love in dark times. And then there was the indie argument as I like to call it: A senior physician informed me that lithium is found in nature meaning that pharmaceutical companies can’t make a lot of money off of it. That’s when I thought, okay, then it has to help.

What effects do the medications have?

They save my life, but at the same time they also work against me. The lithium caused severe acne, which is why I replaced it with valproic acid. And even that has tons of side effects: weight gain, hair loss, lethargy, subdued emotions and thoughts. There was a time when my libido was practically zero.

What do the medications mean for your writing?

I don’t know, but sometimes I ask myself to what extent my style has been taken down a notch and is more “traditional.” Is my storytelling not as irascible, flamboyant, and expressive simply due to age, the end of “Storm and Stress?” Or is it the valproic acid, which is meant to cap the highs in the ups and downs of emotional life. I suspect that the medications seep into my sentences, down to their structure. But I’m doing better and better all the time. And the potential trade-off would be flying high and maybe even burning up entirely.

Are you afraid of a relapse?

I hope, and yes, I pray, to be spared from that. But if I should happen to become manic again, I hope that someone will put my book in my hands. It could come to my rescue.

Mr. Melle, we thank you for this interview.