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'I wanted to hurt people and thought that the best way to do that was by killing myself'

Published 14/05/2016

Troubled times: Chris Packham has battled back from depression
Troubled times: Chris Packham has battled back from depression
Springwatch team: Martin Hughes-Games, Chris and Michaela Strachan

He's the first to admit he's more comfortable with animals than humans, but the path hasn't always been easy for Springwatch host Chris Packham. He talks to Hannah Stephenson about his past.

Obsessive wildlife watcher Chris Packham had a handful of pills and, for a brief moment, considered swallowing them. Eventually, he decided against it - because he knew the pills weren't enough to kill him, but could do some major damage - and it's only now, years later, that Packham has opened up about his experiences of depression and suicidal thoughts.

This period forms part of his memoir, Fingers In The Sparkle Jar, and talking about it today, he recalls the incident with typical clarity, finding descriptive words easily.

The darkest times were prompted by a variety of factors, most notably the death of a kestrel he'd stolen from its nest and formed a tremendous bond with, and later the death of his one-year-old dog, Fish, who was run over and then died in his arms.

"I was clinically depressed. I thought, 'I've had enough and I can justify that (suicide), because I seriously have had a lot'. My life has been extraordinarily rich," the 55-year-old explains.

The Springwatch presenter and conservationist is an intense character - a fount of knowledge about the natural world, but more awkward with humans than animals, a trait that's been with him virtually all his life.

He has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism which affects how a person makes sense of the world, processes information and relates to others. It went undiagnosed throughout his youth, which may go some way to explain why Packham was bullied at school and became an outsider.

"I thought I was normal, and I still think I'm normal," he says, chuckling, "Although my partner Charlotte might say, 'Mmmm'," he adds, shaking his head and grinning.

His memoir, which charts his life between the ages of six to 16 through the Sixties and Seventies, is largely written in the third person, following how the awkward and unusual little boy discovered and became obsessed with wildlife, which marked him out as the "weird kid" among his peers.

Tales of his early life - his parallel universe of animals and insects - are interspersed with more revealing, brutally honest italicised passages relating to the psychotherapy sessions he later had, from 2003 to 2005.

The death of his kestrel obviously had a lasting impact on his state of mind. It caught an infection and died in his hands in 1975, after the family had made great efforts to help it to recover. Even now, Packham seems choked when talking about it.

"In the immediate aftermath the effect on me was catastrophic, because the loss was total. It was a very dark period. I had to deal with it in isolation, but I didn't deal with it, because I didn't have the ability to," he confides.

"My parents were enormously supportive in many ways, but not a lot was said about it. I went into some sort of vacuum, which I didn't understand.

"There was - and still is - a lot of stigma around mental health issues," the Southampton-born TV personality adds. "My parents grew up in the war. A bomb hit my mum's shelter and blew up half her family. She was covered in them.

"They had to be tough. There was no Elastoplast. You just licked the wound and carried on.

"We weren't allowed to cry about anything, we weren't allowed stitches, we just had to get on because everything was just a flesh wound. Things would be very different now and I don't blame my parents in any way, shape, or form."

He's honest about his motives for contemplating suicide. "In 1984, I was depressed about various things, but at that point, the consideration of it was aimed at people that had hurt me," he says.

He won't name names, and it isn't in the remit of the book, but Packham adds: "I wanted to hurt people back. I thought for a short period that the best way of doing that was to make them hurt forever by killing myself. There were individuals who had hurt me and I felt betrayed and very upset."

He didn't seek help; people didn't in those days, he says.

"What would I have done? Gone to my GP and said, 'I'm depressed'? What would he have said? 'Get on your bike'. I was lost, I didn't know what to do."

The feelings arose again years later, following the death of his dog, Fish.

His long-term partner, Charlotte Corney, bought him two miniature black poodles, Itchy and Scratchy, which saved him really, as he couldn't bring himself to leave them.

But in 2003, Packham finally sought help from a psychotherapist, too.

"I had got to that point where I had very seriously considered killing myself and I thought, having got away from that point, I don't want to go back there," he explains. "I needed to find some form of mechanism whereby if, in future, I find myself heading in that direction, I can circumvent ever getting that far.

"After the bird died, there was never any discussion about that. I never spoke to anyone about that, or the impact that'd had emotionally or otherwise on my life, until 30 years later, when I spoke to the psychotherapist about it.

"Initially, the process was very hard and not entirely rewarding. I didn't ever come away from those sessions thinking that I'd achieved my objective. It was only a few years afterwards, when I managed to amass what we discussed, I began to give that some context as to what it actually meant."

Does he worry about the demons of depression returning?

"I think about them, I don't worry about them," he says. "The principal way that those demons might return is when my dogs, Itchy and Scratchy, die, because of our bond.

"However, I've subscribed to the idea that I spend all the time I'm able to make their life now as happy as possible, because I hope that at the point where their life ends, I can be satisfied that I've given absolutely everything to enrich their life.

"It won't be like the thing that precipitated the suicide attempt in the 2000s, which was when my dog got run over in front of me and died in my arms. That came as a shock. He was just over a year old and I hadn't given him that life.

"His life was cut short in a very shocking way.

"Hopefully my dogs will grow into old age. At a certain point, their lives will end, but I'll know I've done everything possible to make sure they are happy, which I hope will bring me a degree of security and satisfaction."

Fingers In The Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham, Ebury, £20.

Belfast Telegraph

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