'I felt so desperate one day when I was driving along a motorway ... I had to resist the urge to veer off and have a crash'
Chizzy Akudolu has quit her role as Mo Effanga, the heart surgeon with a chaotic personal life in BBC medical drama Holby City. She tells Gabrielle Fagan her own life off-screen has been just as turbulent as her character's
Chizzy Akudolu found fame playing bubbly, confident heart surgeon Mo Effanga in BBC One medical series Holby City for five years. But behind the scenes, she's battled her own personal dramas.
It is only now that she has quit the role - her final episode was a romantic ending for her, the father of her child, obstetrician Mr T (Ben Hull), and their baby, Hector, as they left for a new life in London - that she can reveal why she decided to leave.
"Mo's awesome, I've loved playing her and she's has been such a large part of my life that it felt like a divorce giving her up," she says.
"I can't believe I won't be walking those wards with my stethoscope and in theatre stitching people up any more. But I felt it was time for a new era for me and my career, and the last two-and-a-half years have been a challenging roller coaster for me."
While working on the series she's suffered from depression and had a cancer scare, and the disappointment of not finding her own romantic ending.
"At times, when I was suffering the depression badly, I hid behind the role of jokey, bubbly, positive Mo, using her as a mask to conceal what I was going through," says Chizzy, who joined the series in May 2012.
"Mo's character and life's so like me, the part could have been written especially for me. When I went for the role she was described as a 'larger than life character, unlucky in love, who feels slightly inferior to her sisters'. That sums me up," says the vivacious 43-year-old, who lives in East London.
"I'm the only single person among my friends and family. I've had two long-term romances - one of eight years and the last one of six years, which ended in heartbreak just before I joined Holby. I was convinced we were going to marry and live happily ever after. So I'm still looking for Mr Right.
"Mo specialises in transplant surgery and my younger brother has had a kidney transplant, which unfortunately failed, so I really know that process and the emotions involved. I'm at least four stone overweight and have issues about that, whereas my two sisters are very slim and toned."
Chizzy told Hull, her on-screen on/off partner, of her decision to leave Holby before she told the programme makers last August. "I told him because I knew it meant he might have to leave too, as our storyline's so linked, but he was so supportive and said, 'Be brave, do the right thing for you'. Ben left after six years in Hollyoaks, so he understood.
"The producers were shocked but very understanding, and the door's been left open for me to return if I want to one day. It was the right time to leave because, as an actor, you can't stay in the same place forever. I didn't want to get typecast and I didn't want to end up hating what I've loved so much. I want to do more comedy - which is where I started - and drama, and be more than just Mo from Holby."
While she's now looking forward to the future, in 2014 Chizzy had no such optimism as she began experiencing the first signs of depression in September and received a diagnosis in December. "Normally I'm such a positive, upbeat person that it came as a bolt from the blue. I'm the last person I would have thought would ever get this," she says.
"I felt very low - a mood I couldn't shrug off - and was constantly crying or on the verge of tears.
"I don't know whether a combination of a chemical imbalance and a tough year combined to tip me over. I'd had a painful leg injury, gynaecological problems as well as a cancer scare. I had a lump in my breast which, thankfully, turned out to be benign.
"Although I never wanted to seriously harm myself, I did feel so desperate one day when I was driving along a motorway I had to resist the urge to veer off into the lay-by and have a crash.
"Even having that thought really scared me, but it was just because I wanted to end up in hospital so I could sleep and rest and step off the conveyor belt of work and life."
Over the years, Chizzy's been nominated for many awards for her portrayal of Mo. She won best newcomer at the Black International Film Festival and Music Video and Screen Awards and was nominated in the same category at the National Television Awards.
But the demands of working on the series meant that "life outside work was largely put on hold for the five years".
She adds: "I'd leave the house at 5am and not get in until 8pm and then often be learning lines in the evening. At weekends I'd often be so tired I'd just sleep. That probably didn't help my love life. I never even dated while I was on the series."
Chizzy reached crisis point in December 2014. "One day I couldn't even put on my 'scrubs' costume or leave my dressing room as I was crying so much and hyperventilating. I thought, 'What the hell is happening to me?'"
"Everyone on Holby was incredibly supportive and kind. The duty doctor signed me off for a couple of days and put me on anti-depressants, which I still take.
"I never stopped working - although at one point I worried I might have to quit - but it took about six months for me to start feeling better. Nowadays, I only get a low day every so often, and I've had therapy, which helped."
Explaining her brave decision to be open about her illness, she says: "I want to talk about it so we'll get rid of the stigma around it. I hope I've conquered the demon depression - that would be wonderful - but if I haven't, I'll be able cope with it when it comes back. I'm prepared now.
"I wouldn't change what's happened to me in any way because it's taught me so much about myself. Now I just want to open the door to a new life - to sort out my personal life, lose weight, hopefully find my soulmate and get new work.
"Although I think I'm too old to have a baby, I may consider adopting a child, even if I'm on my own, when I'm more settled again in my career. There's so much to look forward to."