Cookbook writer James McIntosh: 'A bout of depression left me bedridden, but knitting stitched me back together'
Award-winning cookbook writer and China TV presenter James McIntosh, from Tandragee, spent months in a dark haze. But thanks to two chopsticks and some wool, he's on the road to recovery.
This is the man who knitted his way out of terrible depression and is now determined to show the world the health benefits of this traditional home craft. Just eight months ago, award-winning cookbook writer and China TV presenter James McIntosh was in such a bad way that he could not even contemplate leaving his bed.
The 38-year-old, who grew up in Tandragee but now lives in London with his partner of five years - hospital doctor Thomas Ernst - spent six months in bed, suffering severe anxiety and panic attacks, and only starting to recover when he took up knitting.
Up until just six weeks ago, James was unable to leave his home because of his condition. Then he found some wool and two chopsticks and went online to find out how to knit.
Four jumpers later, he is embarking on a 15,000-mile global knitting party, travelling through the UK, Germany and China, knitting a jumper as he goes to raise awareness of depression in association with Sirdar wool.
It was after suffering nine years of homophobia that, completely out of the blue, James found himself unable to rise from his bed.
"In my career, I was on top of the world, but there was a lot of homophobia," he says. "It got too much for me. It is very difficult to describe homophobia when you are on the receiving end.
"It is a very painful thing to go through. You feel second-rate because of who you are. And no matter what you do or how successful you are, it never feels like enough.
"You feel as if you are being seen like a leper. I had it for nine years, and it just got too much for me.
"I didn't see it coming. It just hit me out of the blue. One day, I didn't want to get out of bed, and I stayed in bed from last October until January of this year, which is when I started to knit.
"It is only in the past month that I have been feeling well again and able to leave my flat."
As well as knitting, James, who arrives in his native Northern Ireland today for a visit, is keen to highlight the benefits of just talking to someone.
He is mindful that, in many cases, men encounter mental health problems because they are less willing than women to discuss their feelings.
"I was really a typical bloke and just wouldn't talk about it," James says. "Your strength is your humility, and as soon as I started to talk about it, I started the journey to getting better. It is hard to talk, but talking is the key. My advice to anyone who is suffering depression is to try and talk to someone - a family member, a friend or even a stranger.
"Don't talk to negative people, though. Also, it can be good to talk to other people with depression because they will understand."
The condition left James at his wits' end, frightened he would never feel happy again. He describes how he felt as if we was in a dark tunnel, unable to see any light at the end of it. Ironically, he was riding high professionally before his illness struck, and as a positive person the development took him by complete surprise.
During his career, James has written 10 cookbooks, and in 2008 he won the World Cookbook Award, which led to him presenting his own cookery show on Chinese TV with an audience of 100 million viewers.
His programme picked up the Best TV Show in China Award in 2011 - the first time a westerner has been given the accolade.
Happy in his private life and enjoying professional success, life was brilliant for James, which is why the depression came as such as a terrible surprise.
Looking back on the maelstrom of feelings that engulfed him, he reflects: "It is not about what you have or don't have. Career-wise, I was on top of the world. But what I realised is that if depression can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. There is no shame in it.
"I felt like there was no future and everything was grey. I was in this dark tunnel and I couldn't see any light at the end of it.
"It was only thanks to the support of my family and friends that I finally saw the light again.
"My partner, Thomas, has been brilliant. He would come home from a long day working at the hospital to cook for me and tidy up. The whole experience has been very tough on him. In fact, in many ways, I think it can be even harder on partners than on the person who is dealing with depression.
"I spent six months in bed, and that's not me. I couldn't get out of bed because I was scared and I was taking panic attacks.
"I was so full of fear, and I had never experienced that before. Previously, I had always been Mr Confident, yet I couldn't leave my bed or flat. I had no energy - the depression just drained me. I felt trapped."
The turning point came when the cookbook writer picked up two chopsticks and a ball of wool and started to get into knitting.
James had never knitted anything before, so he found himself searching on YouTube for some straightforward lessons on how to cast-on. Convinced that it was his time spent knitting more than anything else that helped him to recover, he did some research into the pastime - and discovered that knitting is, in fact, a well-known therapeutic tool for depression, as well as being a form of mindfulness mediation.
"I laughed when I thought of the male stereotype of knitting in Northern Ireland," James says.
"It is seen as a bit of fun and yet it can prove to be a very powerful tool. My knitting fundraising and awareness campaign is all very light-hearted, but I also want to get the message across that knitting can help you defeat depression.
"My partner is really into mindfulness and could meditate for three hours a day, but I never could because my brain is so active.
"Knitting was my form of meditation. It just made my brain calm and helped the fear and anxiety to go away."
James is just back from another trip to China, where his TV series won Best Food TV Script at the Gourmand World Food TV Awards. The trip was something that until recently he would not have even contemplated.
"I was petrified of going to China, even though I have done it a thousand times before," James says.
"It was my first real job since I took ill. We all get tired and grumpy when we fly long haul, but knitting really helped me on the 14-hour flight."
As well as presenting a popular cookery show in the Far East and writing cookbooks, James is a proud ambassador for Food NI and travels the world promoting local produce, and also through his website.
He grew up on a farm in Co Armagh, which his brother now runs. His father has passed away, but his mum, Margaret, a retired home economics teacher, was a huge source of support through her son's illness.
James is passionate about promoting awareness of depression, and his 15,000-mile knitting marathon is also being organised to raise funds for a clinic that his partner, Thomas, is building in Kenya.
While knitting may not be the most macho of pastimes, the cookbook writer wants men and women with depression to give it a go.
"One in four people get depressed at some point in their life," James says. "Knitting is a powerful tool that works by getting the right side of brain, which is the creative side, stimulated, to take over from the left side of the brain, which deals with day-to-day thoughts.
"The first ever knitters were men, and my advice to any man embarrassed at the thought of doing it is to close the door and do it in private. Your knitting doesn't have to be perfect - just have fun with it."
James hopes that by knitting jumpers around the world, his blog will go viral, drawing attention to awareness of depression.
He adds: "When you are in a deep depression you can't see a way out. The knitting is giving me a laugh at the minute. And I think after the year I have had I deserve to be able to laugh.
"It is the simple things that are the most helpful - exercise, talking and knitting."
- James will be giving a talk on Thursday, June 16, at 11am. Follow James' hilarious knitting blog at www.globalknittingparty.com.