Michelle Walsh: 'Anxiety stopped me in my tracks, but I have dealt with my demons and music is now my comfort zone'
When Londonderry singer Michelle Walsh suffered panic attacks and depression, she needed medication and talking therapies to get better. Now she tells Lee Henry she is ready to make music again.
A career in music was always a possibility for Derry singer-songwriter Michelle Walsh, who wrote her first song aged just 10.
Her talent revealed itself early on when she sang and played the lead in school productions. Years later, she paid the bills as a hard-working wedding singer, and threatened to enter the charts with her first band, Mosquito, while living in France in her 20s.
Lurking in the background, however, was a condition that would stop her burgeoning career in its tracks and see her abstain from singing for some years. Now 39, Michelle developed anxiety while living and working in London in her early 30s, and has been coping with its debilitating effects ever since.
"I never suffered from anxiety as a teenager," she recalls, "but I was really shy as a child, and even to this day, I can be quite shy.
"When I moved to London, I was living alone and remember feeling quite homesick. I rarely went out of the flat, apart from going to and from work, and spent a lot of time on my own. I became withdrawn and lost interest in socialising.
"It was then that I started to realise that something wasn't quite right."
Michelle experienced her first panic attack during a brief visit home to Londonderry for the Christmas holidays in 2008.
Though in the company of friends, and finding herself in familiar surroundings, it was then that the previous months of silent apprehension and growing dread manifested themselves in a severe and unforeseen attack. At 31 years of age, Walsh was left incapacitated, both mentally and physically.
"I will never forget it until the day I die," she says. "I was only home for a week so I decided to meet with a friend, Anne, to catch up. It was 7.30pm and we were sipping our first cocktails, when suddenly, in the middle of our conversation, my throat started to close over. I couldn't swallow properly. Then my hands stiffened and turned in, and I began shaking so profusely that I thought the ground was moving from under me.
"I was really scared, terrified, and had no idea what was happening to me. Luckily enough, my friend saw it for what it was. Anne knew because her mum also suffered from panic attacks.
"I had heard of such attacks in the past, but never fully understood their effects until I experienced one for myself."
After that initial attack, which Michelle describes as coming "totally out of the blue", severe anxiety and a series of similar panic attacks effectively grounded her work life and musical endeavours came to a halt.
The talented singer decamped to London in an attempt to battle through the trauma, but found that she was unable.
"It was not the place to be when I was so unwell," says Michelle, and so she returned home to Northern Ireland to convalesce and deal with her condition as best she could.
"I kept my health problems to myself and didn't talk to anyone about it. I never wanted to worry or trouble my parents.
"I went from being a strong independent woman to a shadow of my former self.
"I lost all my confidence and now, looking back, I don't even recognise the person I became.
"I stayed at home and wrote music for my band Mosquito, but at that time, my mental health was deteriorating.
"I didn't even tell my band mates how bad I was because I was too afraid to lose the only thing that kept me going, my music."
She proceeded to record an EP in Paris later that year, but, despite her best efforts, and with her condition worsening, she was ultimately forced to quit the band.
It was a tough decision, especially given that Mosquito had just been named "most promising new act" by Zicazic, the French equivalent of the NME, after supporting Simple Minds with a storming set at the Brittany Festival.
Her hopes and dreams so close to being achieved, Michelle put down her microphone and again returned home. "My heart was in the music, but my mind just couldn't cope with the anxiety I was suffering from."
It would signal the beginning of a singing sabbatical that would last several years. But there was hope. Michelle was subsequently prescribed medication by her GP to help with the disorder. She began a course of Citalopram, an antidepressant, which provided some relief. But talking with other anxiety sufferers proved to be the balm she had been searching for.
"I never wanted to depend on medication, or rely on it to get me through my darkest days, so I stopped taking it after about six months. I found that it was only suppressing my anxiety, covering it up, and slowing down my thinking. It was only when I began to speak to other individuals who had also experienced attacks, that I started to feel better.
"Somehow that helped, just knowing that I wasn't alone.
"There are hundreds of thousands of people out there going through mental health issues like this every single day, and for the past eight years I've dealt with the confusion of it, the frustration of it, just trying to figure out why I was feeling the way I was feeling. Talking about the whole process helped immensely."
Michelle also found "great comfort" in Eckhart Tolle's book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, a self-help book promoting the concept of positive reinforcement and living in the present.
"One of my biggest problems is I think too much," she says. "I was stressing so much about my future, my past, wondering if I had let people down.
"Anxiety manifests itself through negative thoughts, so I started to reprogramme my way of thinking, replacing negative with positive. That book really helped my state of mind." Something else that helped was music. Although Michelle took some time out from writing and performing during her "darkest days", it wasn't long before the urge to express herself through music resurfaced.
"Some people might be surprised to hear it, but the whole time I suffered from this disorder, I was never frightened to go on stage," she reveals. "Performing takes me into another dimension.
"Music takes all my negative thoughts and fears away. It's my happy place, my comfort zone. I love what I do."
In 2013, with Londonderry buzzing as the inaugural UK City of Culture, she was finally inspired to get back in the game. Michelle enrolled onto a Music Performance and Technology course at the Nerve Centre in the city and began to write new material. Sadly, like so many other musicians here, she was left "devastated" by the passing of her friend and mentor Tony Doc O'Doherty, that same year, but took his teaching to heart and made the decision to record an EP. Tony was well-known for playing in many local bands and taught guitar, too.
"Tony knew me musically," she explains. "He was a big fan of my original songs and often rang me up to ask if I had booked a studio yet. Those words lingered in my head for a long time, until I finally found the strength and confidence to do something about it. Tony's death put things into perspective for me. I realised how precious life is.
"Thankfully, after working on my low self-esteem, exercising and putting all of my energy into writing, I recovered and started getting back to my happy-go-lucky old self. I cycle for miles every day to clear my head, and picked up my guitar when I got home. It was like a rebirth."
Michelle launched Fire Away in the Playhouse Theatre in her home town last month. It sees her return to her rock roots and is a formidable collection of songs, expertly put together. Remarkably, aside from writing all of the tracks featured, she also performed on, produced and funded the record. Playing the songs live during the launch was the catharsis she had dreamt of.
"It was no doubt the best night of my life. Seeing all my family, friends and the people of Derry turn out, meant the absolute world to me. I was so overwhelmed with the support.
"Even my old form teacher at school, Anne Sands, who I hadn't seen in many years, attended. The atmosphere was electric."
And her EP, Fire Away, is the work of a woman who has fought her demons and emerged from the fight happy and healthy. Having struggled with mental health problems and learned to live with panic attacks, Michelle is now determined to make the most of her talent and "do what I do best".
She adds: "And I would like to take this opportunity to make it clear to anyone suffering from anxiety or panic attacks, that you are not alone.
"There is help out there. Fight it. Get out in the fresh air. Try to start your day with positive thoughts. Do what you love to do. Find a hobby. Work on whatever makes you happy.
"I'm quite a private person, but if telling my story helps even one person suffering with mental health problems to cope with whatever they are going through, I will be happy I told it."
Fire Away is currently available to download on iTunes, Amazon and other online platforms
■ Inspire, tel: 028 9032 8474 or visit inspirewellbeing.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org
■ Aware Defeat Depression, Belfast, tel: 028 9035 7820; Londonderry, tel: 028 7126 0602 or visit aware-ni.org