Writer and actor Stephen Fry has it. So has pop star Robbie Williams. But what is it like to live with manic depression?

Health Reporter LUCY STEPHENS talks to a sufferer in York.

PARTYING until dawn, frantically spending all the money she had buying presents for friends - but then came the crashing lows.

That was how one woman from York described what it was like to live with Bipolar Affective Disorder, also known as manic depression - a condition which has been well publicised recently by fellow sufferer Stephen Fry in his BBC TV documentary: The Secret Life Of The Manic Depressive, when he spoke to Robbie Williams about their respective highs and lows.

Rebecca, 36, who does not want to publish her full name, was diagnosed with the disorder several years ago, after a highly stressful period in her life.

Coming to terms with being gay, her marriage broke up, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. In an attempt to deal with her problems, she began to drink to excess, and found herself obsessively partying and furiously spending money.

"I was buying lots of CDs, books, clothes, I just spent," she said. "What happens when you're bipolar is your thoughts race. It seems as though your head's going to explode. It's very frustrating because you just have these highs and lows. When you're on a high, it's a really nice feeling. You feel like you're invincible, you're just really happy, you're elated.

"Some people feel like they're superhuman."

Rebecca's periods of manic highs were typical symptoms of being bipolar - as were the plummeting low periods, during which she tried to commit suicide.

"I've tried to take my life on several occasions - I've taken overdoses. If my relationships don't work out, I get very down," she said.

So what triggers bipolar disorder? Is there anything that can be done to treat it?

York GP Dr David Geddes said: "Generally, happiness and sadness are appropriate for what's going on in our lives," he said. "But when you've got bipolar disorder, people tend to get major changes in their mood for no particular reason.

"You're really excited and happy with huge amounts of energy and activity - that's when you're manic. The other extreme is serious depression, lows of energy or constant mood swings, lasting anything from a few weeks to a few months."

The illness can be triggered, as in Rebecca's case, by a stressful period in life - and it is important to get help from a GP. Sufferers can also find it helpful to consult their family in periods when they are not ill, so that those close to them know what they would like to be done when they enter their manic episodes of highs and lows.

Taking yourself out of a stressful situation can also help, as can trying to relax and not relying on alcohol, drugs or caffeine, which can make the condition worse.

Medication is also available that can help those with the condition live a normal life without experiencing frightening mood swings.

Rebecca says she has now been well for three years, but expects to be on antidepressants and mood stablisers for the rest of her life.

"It just keeps me on an even keel," she said. "All I know is, if I don't take my medication, I'll become ill again."

Bipolar facts

Bipolar Affective Disorder affects one in 100 people.

Many artistic people have the condition, including Stephen Fry, Robbie Williams, Richard Dreyfuss and Carrie Fisher. Virginia Wolf and Abraham Lincoln were also sufferers.

Symptoms of the highs include feeling full of energy, full of great new ideas, and having grandiose notions about your own importance.

Symptoms of low periods included finding it hard to concentrate, serious self-doubt, thoughts of suicide and having problems sleeping.

The cause is not understood, although it seems to run in families, which suggests a genetic link.

The Bipolar Organisation, previously called the Manic Depression Fellowship, has a helpline: 0845 634 0540. Or you can log on to www.mdf.org.uk

  • Source: NHS Direct