Tea Time Tidbits
Stephanie Cole, part two
Week of November 17, 2014

Before Benedict Cumberbatch broke hearts with the announcement of his engagement, we were "chatting" about one of Afternoon Tea's most popular actresses, Stephanie Cole.

Stephanie Cole
Cole in Waiting for God.

We're so used to seeing 73 year old Cole as a stern, oftentimes formidable, character in such shows as Waiting for God, Doc Martin and Tenko, that it might come as a surprise to learn that she has spent a large part of her life battling anxiety, panic attacks and depression. To this day, Cole, who was number six of seven children in a one parent family, has no idea what might have caused her anxiety, but it began when she was just a child. At the time Cole's odd behavior was put down to "naughtiness". Once, for instance, she threw a Latin dictionary at the Latin mistress who laughed at Cole's announcement she wanted to be an actress. Expelled from high school at age 15 for "constant insubordination", Cole first learned shorthand before auditioning for and becoming a member of the Bristol Old Vic.

Stephanie Cole
A younger Stephanie Cole.
Photo © 2010 Rosie Still Photography.

In 1973, when she was in her early 30s, Cole married fight choreographer Henry Marshall and not long after became pregnant. Sadly, Cole lost the baby at five months, but before long she was pregnant again and the couple welcomed a daughter, Emma. After, Cole suffered debilitating post-natal depression and by the time the baby was three or four months old Cole was also experiencing panic attacks, agoraphobia and claustrophobia. The agoraphobia was so bad that Cole couldn't even go to the supermarket. Instead, she used the local store close to home. At theatres, she had to sit at the end of the row, in case she needed to get out quickly.

"Eventually anything away from home was a no-no," recalled Cole in an interview earlier this year. "My flat was the only safe place for me."

After months of suffering, Cole woke up one morning full of anger that at only 33 years old her life was being "so deeply curtailed". She got her daughter up, made breakfast for everyone and told her husband she was going out running. It proved to be a turning point. When she returned from the run, she rang the doctor's office, made an appointment and threw out the Valium she'd been taking. She was referred to the Royal Free Hospital and given a set of relaxation exercises (similar to cognitive behavioral therapy) which she did every night without fail for six months.

"It retrained my brain remarkably quickly", recalled the actress.

While Cole was recovering, her marriage was crumbling. "We'd been arguing constantly and had grown further apart," explained Cole.

Stephanie Cole
After being awarded an OBE.

The couple divorced in 1988. A decade later, the actress married fellow actor Peter Birrel, whom she had first met when they both appeared in a production of Richard III at the Bristol Old Vic. Sadly, Birrel died of cancer in 2004, just six short years after they were wed.

After Birrel's death, Cole felt herself once more "going down the slippery slope" of not being able to cope. Fortunately this time round she was equipped with the necessary tools to help. Particularly beneficial for Cole is exercise. She has a swimming pool in her garden and she loves to walk. "If I feel myself getting a bit down I whizz off on a brisk walk and when I come back I’m feeling much better", said Cole, who is also very careful about what she eats because she’s “aware that it is going to have an effect on my brain as well as the rest of my body".

To contact Heather:
E-mail: heather@mpt.org
Address: Afternoon Tea
Maryland Public Television
11767 Owings Mills Blvd.
Owings Mills, MD 21117

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