A Thank You to Comedian Stephen Fry for the Times He Saved My Life
Dear Stephen Fry,
My friend’s dad delivers the central heating oil to your home in Norfolk. I spent a long time contemplating the idea of asking him to break his oil delivery code (if there is such a thing) and attach my letter to your delivery but decided not to ambush you in such a strange and intrusive way.
Despite not knowing whether this letter will ever reach you from the corner of the internet in which it sits, I feel somewhat nervous about how on Earth I’m going to convey its intended sentiment.
The truth is: you saved my life (and more than once at that).
As dramatic and almost exciting as being dragged out of a burning building or shoved out of the way of an oncoming train by the former host of QI might have been, we both know that isn’t what happened. In fact, it’s really very weird to me that you don’t know what did happen because it is everything to me, and your role (although unknown to you) was so important.
In fact, the only person other than you and I who has done quite as much for my mental health is my very own grandad, but that’s a letter for another day.
The first time you saved me, I was 19. My mother had just suddenly passed away and, despite not being so, I felt all alone in the world. She was 39 and to most people that seemed to be the tragedy, but I knew the real tragedy to be that she was kind and she was gone. The world was darker without her.
Anxiety had haunted me for what seemed like forever, long before Mum died, but now I felt myself in a new kind of hell. Away from my family, away from friends I had known for any longer than the 10 months since I left for University, I found myself in a cycle of insomnia, anorexia nervosa and binge drinking.
Night after night, my friends would come looking for me, only to find me slumped in a smoking area somewhere with ripped tights, one shoe on and gum in my hair (that’s actual chewing gum, not a fancy product). Slowly, they’d coax me home and put me to bed. I would wake up feeling like it was me who had died — wishing it.
The alcohol didn’t numb my screaming soul, and I managed to somehow sober up after a few weeks. In some ways, the months that followed were worse — the endless grey of day, followed by the debilitating anxiety of each night.
I’d lie beneath my skylight, worrying about the universe and its vastness and I’d curse my atheism. “Mum is gone,” I’d say aloud, torturing myself with my own beliefs. My life would be short, I just knew it, and I lay stiff in the early hours, praying to a God I didn’t believe in and asking him to end my suffering.
What was the point of this world without my beautiful mum? I was 19, and without her it seemed as though I had empty years stretching ahead of me, and for what?
Unamused by most of my go-to sitcoms and panel shows, I found myself absentmindedly putting on episode after episode of QI.
At first, I barely noticed it — it was little more than background noise, marginally better than the company of just about anyone I knew, which now seemed shallow and not really worth the energy. There was a little bit of comfort in that it reminded me of Dad, who was some 200 miles away in South Wales, but nothing remarkable happened for a while… until the day it did.
One morning, I woke up to find my bed absolutely drenched and the familiar chiming of the QI theme tune playing from my laptop. It was still dark, so everything had a horrible bluey tinge to it and it took me a couple of minutes to realize it was raining on me through the skylight because I was so distracted by the time: 7 a.m. I had slept through the night.
Tentatively, I turned QI on that night and by some miracle, after an episode or two, I was engulfed by the warmth of facts and funny and my eyelids started to weigh. I was so interested in what the panelists had to say that I was fighting to stay awake, but, once again, found myself drifting into a mostly peaceful slumber. And it became my “thing.”
Night after night, I immersed myself in science and history and art and the universe and in the comfort that was listening to you and Alan Davies tease each other. Up and up the alphabet I went, always learning and always drifting off into a well-earned rest.
Hopelessness became hope. Panic became learning. Tiredness became sleep.
It drove my then-boyfriend “insane,” of course, trying to get some peace and quiet while I insisted on keeping him awake with chiming bells, laughter and the harsh blue light of my laptop. He became accustomed to waiting up until I drifted off and then covering the computer with a thick towel (ensuring to leave the speakers uncovered, he only made that mistake once).
One day though, he’d had enough. After yet another restless night (for him), he bought me a gift: a CD copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on audiobook, read by Stephen Fry. I was confused. How could my greatest childhood love and my most important adult crutch have met in such a perfect way? I felt totally undeserving of this gift from the nonexistent gods.
It was the best £20 anyone has ever spent on me. Sleep became a reality in my life in a way it had never been before, even before my mum died. Something about your voice — clear and refined like Attenborough’s, but warm and gentle and familiar — had me totally immersed in the wizarding world and sent me into an easy sleep.
I spent four years listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks every single night. That isn’t an exaggeration; I even packed them in my case and flew them to Mexico. I couldn’t sleep without them.
I dabbled in other narrators — some Roald Dahl, Sarah Millican and a few others — and although I found a few gems, nothing was quite as effective.
Through trial and error, I configured my nighttime routine: teeth, lights and Harry Potter. And there were minimal errors (there was the time I woke mid-night-terror to hear Voldemort killing Cedric and then another time Ron Weasley cried out “nooooooo” during an otherwise intimate moment, but nothing is perfect). And the audiobooks soon became as essential to me as milk or socks or soap.
As time went on, I became so used to the books that my friends and family who came to stay would curl up in bed with me and listen to my favorite adventure. Every single one of them grateful I could finally sleep, after years of worrying.
Through naivety, loneliness and a misplaced attempt to help, I found myself in a “relationship” with the angriest person I have ever met.
Food, fists and insults were thrown at me on a daily basis and life became unbearable. Never having experienced genuine cruelty before, I became a new kind of broken. And, suppressed by fear, my anxiety crept back in moments of alone.
There was very rarely any opportunity to listen to audiobooks anymore. There was the risk of waking him, the truth I was beyond trying to help myself anymore and the fact the CDs were strewn discarded and scratched around the flat, along with most things I held dear.
At night, when I wasn’t sitting on the stairs contemplating suicide (which to me seemed to be the only realistic escape), I lay still and quiet in the dark, waiting for sleep to come to me. Most nights I would be awake until 3 or 4 a.m., worried sick about how I would get up for work. Almost three long years of chaos, and then suddenly, it was over.
Eerie aloneness pierced my world, and I started to build a little life. I had my dog, my writing and my Netflix account, and one day, when I was scrolling down through the masses of zombie shows and teen movies, I happened upon “More Fool Me” and I pressed play. And I loved it.
The next day, I signed up to Amazon’s Audible and downloaded the full book. Although the panic and flashbacks and hell was still part of the backdrop, my world got a little lighter and a little easier to manage.
With some context then, let me say this: Thank you.
Thank you, firstly, for the openness with which you speak about your own mental illness and for making it less scary for me to do the same.
Thank you for your relentless curiosity and mocking of Alan Davies that made QI such a joy in the days when I had very little.
And lastly, thank you for bringing the Harry Potter books to life in a way I didn’t know I needed, and through that for giving me such a precious gift at a time when I could find no other way of getting it: Sleep.
I am sure people give you regular praise and thanks for your work, but I thought you might be interested in hearing how you saved a 19-year-old girl’s life by reading a book.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
Image via BBC Proms Facebook Page