Doctor Feelgood

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THE WORD "bossy" had been used that morning, so Pamela Stephenson Connolly refrained from remarking on the fact that her husband Billy was setting off on a long hike, accompanied by their children and grandchildren, through leafy woodlands and around a sun-dappled Highland loch, wearing a pair of Cuban-heeled, snakeskin cowboy boots, with lethally pointed toes.

Instead, the wife of one of Scotland's funniest men let him discover the error of his ways for himself, she says, collapsing into a fit of the giggles and laughing so hard at the memory of his stumbling progress that her mascara starts to run.

Billy's sore feet might explain why he has gone AWOL. He was due to collect his wife at 4pm and had threatened to arrive on his trike, a vehicle instantly recognisable to viewers of the various travel programmes he has made for TV.

However, the exuberant 64-year-old is neither answering his mobile phone nor picking up messages on his BlackBerry. Pamela finally establishes that Billy is still languishing at home at Candacraig, the family's 13-acre fishing lodge, near Balmoral, in Aberdeenshire.

"Billy hasn't even left the house yet! Can you believe it!" she exclaims, adding that she had instructed him to come no later than 4:30pm because they've arranged to pick up the last of their three daughters from Aberdeen airport so that the entire Connolly clan, including Billy's son and daughter from his first marriage, can spend the last few days of their summer holiday together before Billy starts a new tour, Too Old to Die Young.

"He now says I told him to come at 6:30pm. I give up," she says, doing deep-breathing exercises. "If he turns up on that trike, when he knows I have all this stuff," she says, indicating the clothes and make-up kit she's brought along for our photoshoot, "I promise I'll call a cab. This is what it's like living with someone with Attention Deficit Disorder."

And Dr Stephenson Connolly should know since she's a respected psychotherapist as well as a bestselling author, whose fifth book is about to be published.

She and Billy have recently set up home in New York, after selling their "funky" Los Angeles house on Mulholland Drive (where their neighbours included Jack Nicholson and David Hockney) now that their daughters, Daisy, Amy, and Scarlett, are all in college. After a dozen years of treating Hollywood A-listers in her private practice, Stephenson has given it up and will devote more time to her writing, although in New York, she's resorted to writing in coffee shops. She favours a Starbucks on Third Avenue, because a certain person frequently demands attention when she works at home.

"We were suffering from empty nest syndrome," she says, before adding, with a wide smile, that she and Billy have been together now for 25 years.

Are silver wedding celebrations in the offing? "Well, not exactly," she replies, "We've been a couple for 25 years, but we didn't marry for quite a long time - 17 years ago to be exact - December, 1989, in Fiji. But I suppose we could mark the first bonk, which was 25 years ago, with a big party. Yeah, we should definitely do that; it was certainly a memorable shag," she says, her eyes misting over at the recollection. It's a matter of record that Billy once disclosed that it took him 40 whiskies-worth of Dutch courage to bed her.

They parted after a year due to his alcoholism. "I had to walk out," she says. "He was fairly self-destructive then. But he's such an incredibly strong person I knew that he could stop himself from drinking. He gave up smoking just like that, too. He's amazing!"

Their quarter-century together has been truly memorable, says Stephenson, whose latest project is a weighty and authoritative 500-page self-help tome, head case, subtitled "treat yourself to better mental health", which she regards as "the true follow-up" to Billy, the best-selling book she wrote about her husband's upbringing in Glasgow, after he was abandoned by his mother at the age of three. Billy tells of the sexual abuse Connolly suffered at the hands of his father, the physical abuse from his aunt, and subsequent fleeting gay encounters, as well as his alcoholism.

The book broke all publishing records for a memoir and she followed it with Bravemouth, about how he'd coped with and survived his pain.

"After millions read the account of the childhood abuse and continuing struggles of my husband, there was an overwhelming outpouring from readers who had suffered similar difficulties, or were challenged by mental illness, substance abuse or past trauma," she writes in the introduction to head case, which includes a number of case studies with positive outcomes to illustrate how people can be helped and healed through self-help and "psychotherapeutic interventions".

At one point, she recalls, it seemed the letters would never stop. She replied to every single one, although she told most that they must seek medical advice.

Therefore, she's produced a book that, she writes, is "a one-stop launch pad to self-help for all those who seek to free themselves of psychological pain and move on to well-deserved happiness".

As she proved in Shrink Rap, her in-depth celebrity interview series on More4 earlier this year, she's such a good listener that you immediately want to confide in her.

Her interviews made mesmerising television, with Stephen Fry confessing to having woken up every day wishing he was dead; the Duchess of York speaking of wanting to be a child; and Sharon Osbourne weeping over the pain of her childhood. All of which, according to Stephenson, is very healthy.

In head case she explains in layman's terms - "away with psychobabble!" - everything from mood, anxiety, personality, eating, impulse-control, dissociative and psychotic disorders, to what to do "when the sandman gets it wrong" and you can't sleep.

She feels there's still too much fear, distrust, ignorance and often a lack of family support for the mentally ill. "Sometimes, unwillingness to seek treatment is based on a sense of shame. Yet more than a third of the British public will undergo psychological difficulties at some point in their lives. So, yes, I think everybody would benefit from therapy," she says. "If you have a physical ailment, you usually consult your GP at once, but far too often when people experience mental difficulties such as depression, anxiety, fear of going out or the onset of panic attacks, they suffer in silence. Inevitably, there's a worsening of symptoms."

Men, especially, find it hard to share their innermost feelings, to talk about their mental health. "It's shocking to me that suicide is now the biggest cause of death of men under 35 years of age in this country. Our prisons are stuffed with people who are suicidal."

Far too much mystique surrounds psychology and psychotherapy, she believes. "Knowledge is power. That's why I've tried to put everything in my book into easier language, although there's also a helpful glossary and a reading list in the book, which I want people to use either to help themselves or others, and to find the courage to seek treatment."

AT 57 years old, Pamela Stephenson Connolly is still drop-dead glamorous, if a little plumper than she used to be. "It's a constant battle, the weight thing," she confesses. She's recently taken up cycling, but puts on unwanted pounds every time the family returns to Scotland because she loves a full Scottish breakfast, minus the square sausage the family relishes. "But as for the oatcakes, well ... I just give in."

The New Zealand-born Australian - her parents were academics and she grew up in Sydney as "a serious, nerdy little girl" - arrived in Britain more than 30 years ago, becoming one of the funniest, most provocative women on TV in Not the Nine O'Clock News. She went on Parkinson and wrapped her legs around a newscaster's neck; in a nightclub she stripped to her underwear; and once, after receiving a bad notice from a critic, she sent him a (fake) cowpat. She dyed her hair pink and stood for parliament for the I Want to Drop a Blancmange Down Terry Wogan's Y-Fronts Party.

For Prince Andrew's stag night, she hired policewomen costumes for Sarah Ferguson, the Princess of Wales and herself. They went to Annabel's, the swanky nightclub, and had a riotous night.

After she fell in love with Billy, they moved to America, where she performed on the comedy show Saturday Night Live. They had their daughters and gained custody of Billy's son Jamie and daughter Cara - now the mother of their two grandchildren, Walter and Barbara, who call Stephenson "Goddie", short for Goddess. Once their daughters went to school, she began looking for something worthwhile to do. She thought about law, but enrolled in a psychology class - and discovered not only that she loved it, but was good at it, too. She got her PhD - her dissertation was on "the intrapsychic experience of fame" - and a licence to practise, which required her to undergo therapy herself, as well as gaining 3,000 hours of clinical experience, and sitting oral and written exams. Her specialist subject became sado-masochism because she felt that people with erotic interests were being ill-served and nobody had done a proper study.

Since Billy reads constantly - "Balzac and Dostoyevsky" - he loved the peace and quiet at home while she was studying. "He still can't understand why I'm always reading vast textbooks, especially the three-inch-thick American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is commonly used in Britain, by the way, and which I quote from in head case. As for Billy, he's always saying, 'Why won't you read novels? Balzac's brilliant'."

Nevertheless, the Big Yin is proud of his wife's achievements. As well as Billy and Bravemouth, she's written Treasure Islands, about her perilous adventures in the South Seas, when she sailed in the wake of Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson for ten months. For her fourth book and the accompanying four-part Sky TV documentary series, Murder or Mutiny, she set off last year on another treacherous, life-changing voyage of discovery to clear up the 200-year-old mystery surrounding the fate of her great-great grandfather, an entrepreneurial master mariner Samuel ("Salty Sam") Stephenson.

In her twenties, Stephenson discovered that her great-grandmother was a Maori - "although you wouldn't think it to look at me; I'm very, very proud of that heritage" - and this added piquancy to her search for the truth about Salty Sam.

Because of Billy's Attention Deficit Disorder, he's in awe of the fact that she can write all these books. He's already dipped into head case and is full of praise. "He doesn't have the ability to concentrate in order to write at length, although he's so clever and gifted. But he'd never get around to finishing a book, which is why I wrote about him. I wanted to get closer to him, using my professional skills to understand him."

While Billy is on his nationwide tour, she'll promote head case and start work on her next book, a sex advice manual, which has grown out of responses to her national newspaper column. But she also wants to bring her skills to bear on those who live in less affluent societies than ours.

"The Third World?" "Well," she hesitates, "I don't like that term, but I'm talking about countries like Africa, where Billy went recently, and where millions of people are suffering mental illness needlessly because of poverty, lack of resources and mistaken beliefs. Some people with schizophrenia, for example, are chained to walls in filthy hospitals when they could be at home with their families leading productive lives. It saddens me greatly, so I plan to do something to help."

Meanwhile, a second series of Shrink Rap is planned, although she insists no names have been decided yet. Will Billy be among them? "Oh, wouldn't that be too weird," she says. Then she goes all coy and says that, after he watched the first two programmes, he told her he thought it was so good he wanted to be on it, too. So will he? "Oh, I don't know, what do you think? Will people think it really strange for me to do an in-depth interview on television with my own husband?"

You said it, Pamela, it's good to talk.

• Head case: treat yourself to better mental health, by Dr Pamela Stephenson Connolly is published by Headline, priced 20.

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