Claire Rayner: Please don't tell my friend Stephen Fry to snap out of it

Depression is always there, waiting for you at the quayside

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The more people who talk about the awfulness of bipolar disease (that is, depression alternating with mania and back again) the better. And who more appropriate than Stephen Fry - a brilliantly talented and respected person - to do so? But it cannot have been an easy decision to say he would make a television programme about it.

I've known Stephen for years. He does fantastic amounts, in a most quiet, unsignposted way, of good work for the Terrence Higgins Trust for people with HIV infection, and has more real friends than anyone I know. In short, he is a terrific bloke, and it is typical of him to put himself out like this.

We think we live in an enlightened age, but psychiatric illness still carries a huge stigma, and he's very brave to take it on (particularly when men, ludicrously, are considered "unmanly" if they have head problems). If someone breaks a leg, in hospital they will receive cards from their friends. But people make different assumptions about mental illness. It's as if it's not a "proper" illness at all. "He's barmy" is the lazy, cruel shorthand. (And while we're being unPC, I would like to revive the word "crippled", which describes very well what bipolar sufferers feel.) The condition can seem insurmountable. I have had it for decades, and when depression comes, my warning is that my face goes rigid, whereas normally it is pretty expressive and revealing of how I am feeling.

Bipolar disease (and that is what it is, a disease) is like a seesaw. You feel very, very low, often you don't sleep and you are filled with guilt or self-hatred. Then the seesaw tips. You find huge reserves of energy. You rush around, you work incredibly hard, you run, say, until you collapse, you go on frenetic shopping sprees for clothes you never wear and can't afford ("retail therapy" is no joke!), before the seesaw tips back again into misery.

People need to understand the power of this illness, and I can only applaud the efforts of this newspaper in helping that cause (and I'm not just saying that). When, 11 years ago, Stephen abandoned the Simon Gray play Cell Mates, shortly before it opened, he did exactly what I did, at the age of 10 during the war when I was evacuated, when depression struck me. He ran away. He was trying to leave the depression behind, but it is always there waiting for you on the quayside - as I discovered as a child when I was beaten for being a runaway. The disapproval of the unsympathetic is the thing least likely to make the ill person feel better.

Stephen has talked of a suicide attempt when he was young. I have never been that low, although my poor husband, Des, also a sufferer, knows that feeling horribly well, and so do I. Like me, my children used to know to phone him when they knew he was alone in the house, which was rare. If he didn't answer, they knew to get round there as soon as possible.

Some of the new drugs have done wonders to help (much better than the old-fashioned anti-depressants, which made you feel like a zombie) and so has electroconvulsive therapy, in the right cases, though it has had a dreadful press from ignorant people. Finally, though, we all have to find our own ways of coping. When I get manic I throw myself into my work, channelling everything into that, and feel much better for it.

Some comedians find a special way of using it, triggering that weird "up" feeling before they go on stage, having been very low beforehand. But don't take that to mean they wouldn't want to be rid of bipolar disease.

I do consider myself basically a happy person, but in that I'm lucky. I have found it incredibly creative. There's one thing that we bipolar patients - including Stephen, I'm sure - agree on. If there is a phrase in the language for which we would lock people up, it's "Snap out of it."

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