Claire Rayner: Our favourite aunt

Her own battles with depression and illness have helped to make her the nation's best-loved confidante. She tells Sophie Goodchild how, in spite of her troubles, happiness has never been beyond her reach
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The Independent Online

A guest of Claire Rayner is never left wanting for tea and motherly compassion. The nation's favourite agony aunt has made a career out of solving other people's problems, and her listening skills are formidable.

Cross-dressing, masturbation, impotence - no topic is taboo for this former nurse who for decades has offered reassurance and frank advice to millions of people on the edge through her columns, health books and broadcasts.

And now she has turned her attention to depression with a self-help guide on coping with the illness. "It's about coming through and out the other side, literally the light at the end of the tunnel," she explains in her distinctively breathy voice, the words tumbling out at dizzying speed.

Published this week, the book is, in her opinion, "very upbeat", words that could be used to describe Rayner herself. Nearly every published picture of the health writer, who started out on Hers magazine and later wrote for The Sun and the Sunday Mirror, appears to back up that belief. There she is, beaming out with that same broad, joyful grin.

So it comes as a surprise to learn that the 75-year-old has spent her life battling with mental illness: black moods in childhood, post-natal depression and even post-traumatic stress which set in after a near-fatal reaction to anaesthetic. At one point in the conversation, she bursts into tears recounting the horror of nearly dying during what should have been a routine operation on a tendon.

Even now, she confides, her moods still go "up and down like a yo-yo". The first signs which she has trained herself to spot are physical. "My face is fairly expressive but it's so stiff that I can't smile and that always warns me to watch out. So I get a job of work to get hooked into and step up my exercise ratio."

Her first experience of depression was at the age of 10, which she blames on several factors: the onset of puberty, the reality of living through the Blitz and a fraught relationship with her parents. "I had a rotten childhood. I used to feel so miserable and hated everyone and I was stroppy," says Rayner with her usual candour, adding that she never believed in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy.

"An awful lot of children do get depressed, even babies, but a lot of this doesn't get picked up. I learned all sorts of coping mechanisms when I felt rotten and the most important thing was to keep busy.

"You may want to crawl into a corner and die but you have absolutely got to do something."

This sense of utter despair resurfaced in the form of post-natal depression after the births of each of her three children with increasing degrees of severity. It came hand in hand with terrible guilt about feeling so low when she had everything to celebrate, including healthy babies, an adoring husband, career success and all the support she needed in the form of a daily help and even a live-in nanny.

To illustrate just how low she felt, Rayner tells the story of a night out at the theatre with her husband Des. It was shortly after the birth of her first child, Amanda, and they were celebrating Claire's birthday.

"Everyone was sitting there in the theatre roaring with laughter and the only thing I can remember is sitting there beside Des with tears rolling down my cheeks and I didn't know why. I was so unhappy."

Learning how to get through post-natal depression is just one of the chapters in her book which has been launched to mark the 60th anniversary of the mental health charity Mind. Her sage tips include regular exercise to boost levels of the body's "happy chemical" serotonin.

Her first piece of advice for men and women who suffer from bouts of feeling low and worthless is to recognise that they have a problem. "Until you say to yourself 'this is not the normal me' then it's difficult to get well. Everyone who feels like this is worth care. To pinch L'Oréal's phrase, 'I need treatment and I'm worth it,'" says the women who has been dubbed Britain's "matriarch" and who was made an OBE in 1996.

A combination of pills and therapy has also pulled her through the bleaker times, and Rayner is a fan of both. In fact she jokingly calls her therapist "god". (His name is Theo, which means god in Greek.) The small "g" is deliberate. Rayner is an atheist.

And then there is the unstinting support provided by her beloved husband Des, an actor and artist whose impressive works crowd the walls of their north London home. They still hold hands and she refers to him as "sweetheart" and "poppet". The fact their marriage has endured for more than 45 years is even more astonishing when you learn that Des has been in hospital on several occasions because of his own demons of the soul. Unlike Claire, he has even attempted to take his own life.

When they married, Des did warn her about his "moods", which his new bride was confident she could deal with. What she did not realise at the time was how serious his illness was. "He was trying to tell me what he had but he had no name for it. I realised that we were two of kind; somehow when one of us was down the other one stayed up and looked after the other one."

In the 1950s, when they first met, clinical depression was of little interest to doctors because of the lack of treatments. As Rayner explains, there were no drugs to treat anxiety or depression. High-powered treatments such as sedatives and electroconvulsive therapy were all that were available. Society has come a long way since the days when the first person anyone who attempted suicide would see on waking up in hospital would be a police officer waiting to arrest them. But Rayner believes there is still more progress needed in making the nation's wellbeing a priority.

That is why she says she is "thrilled" at plans by Wellington College in Berkshire to pioneer a scheme to teach pupils how to be happy, something that she believes all children should learn. "If people come from homes where the adults are not bad but preoccupied with their own lives, they think they [the children] are being just bloody minded. They are not - they're presenting symptoms of clinical depression."

There are no signs yet that Rayner is planning to slow down as a social campaigner, despite struggling with ill health. She had a double mastectomy five years ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer. So what makes her happy, I ask, apart from Des, her children and her work.

"It's always the little things like seeing the flowers coming up in the garden and going for a swim and the temperature being just right and books. I always knew that my depression was an illness. My inner core has always been happy."

'Moving on from Depression', £3.99. Contact Mind Publications for copies, 0844 448 4448; publications@mind.org.uk; www.mind.org.uk

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 22 January 1931, Stepney, east London

Education: Rushmore Road School, Homerton, east London; City of London Girls School; Skinners' Company School, Welwyn Garden City; refused to attend Selhurst Grammar, Croydon, when her parents tried to move her.

Career: At 14 left home for a nursing job at Epsom Cottage Hospital, where they thought she was 17. Trained as a nurse at the Royal Northern Hospital, London, and won a gold medal for outstanding achievement in 1954. Studied midwifery at Guy's Hospital before starting a writing career in 1960. Went on to become agony aunt on The Sun and Sunday Mirror. Has written more 90 books and is president of the Patients' Association.

Family: Married to Des, an artist. Three children, Amanda, Adam and Jay, a restaurant critic and novelist.

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