Northern Ireland's Mr Showbiz Paul Martin on his secret mental health battle
In a searingly honest account of his battle with mental health, Northern Ireland’s Mr Showbiz Paul Martin on how it remains the ultimate taboo subject among men.
The most shocking thing was, this couldn’t even be described as the rock bottom moment. My son eyed me up uneasily and declared: “Dad, you look like a corpse.”
No wonder. An hour earlier I had arrived at my mother’s home looking emaciated, gaunt and dishevelled, like an extra from Thriller. Bad as I looked, my appearance merely hinted at the sense of desperation I felt.
My mum had a slightly different take, hopeful that my lifelong obsession with Michael Jackson would resonate enough to compel me to find my own salvation — wherever that was.
Sticking to the Thriller theme, she recalled the infamous day the King of Pop turned up to his LA trial, shuffling in his pyjamas and trudging wearily towards the courthouse like a wounded war veteran.
“That’s what you look like!” she exclaimed. “You’ve hardly been able to put one foot in front of the other. You can’t string a sentence together. You look like you could be dead in a few days. All that’s missing is Dr Conrad Murray and his propofol.”
I felt so ashamed, so desperate. Bizarrely, I felt a slight tinge of relief at having been called out. But mainly I felt ashamed.
Shame — that most toxic emotion of all.
I had been here before. Debilitating episodes of anxiety and depression have crushed me for the best part of a decade.
Every two years or so comes a mega meltdown — closing in like a malevolent shadow, striking without warning and destroying everything in its path.
You shout, you cry, you get angry. You forget to eat. People close to you suddenly don’t want to be near you.
You spend a lot of time alone — wondering why you’ve been infected with this depraved curse. Everything turns black. Very black.
“Paul please,” my mum continued to plead.
“Something isn’t right here. You are not you. We need to do something about this... now”
There’s an arrogant misconception about mental health issues in Northern Ireland society.
I’ve been part of the problem, sheepishly indulging countless obstinate viewpoints which assert that people suffering from depression, anxiety or mental health issues are generally selfish attention seekers.
“All they want to do is talk about themselves, their problems, their battles,” more than a few of my associates have lamented during drink-fuelled debates around a bar room table, before spending the next half hour talking about THEIR careers, THEIR finances, THEIR dysfunctional marriage woes. How ironic.
Although I knew better, I was a silent collaborator. After all, how could the guy that runs around with Cheryl Cole, shouts his mouth off every week on the Nolan Show and makes a living writing front page celebrity stories while hopping on jets to far-flung glamorous locations possibly display any vulnerability?
When I’ve suffered from my darkest and most foreboding episodes of depression, my sole objective has been to hide it from as many people as possible, not to seek sympathy or pity.
In the wee small hours I’ve climbed out of bed in the dark, battling crippling waves of anxiety, fear, darkness and panic, only to begin a new day without uttering a word to anyone — not even my nearest and dearest.
You get on with the school run, you smile at your wife and you go on the radio, or write your big showbiz scoop or just, well, act as if everything is normal. You become a great actor when suffering depression.
There were days when I foolishly wished I had been afflicted with a more ‘socially acceptable’ illness. Alcoholics, I would reason irrationally, have a network around them. They pick up a bottle and someone who cares will whisk it away and get them help.
But nobody can remove my brain every time I feel life isn’t worth living or I can’t cope.
I can hide my demons: you can’t hide a bottle of whiskey, not if someone cares enough to stay close and keep an eye on you. My latest panic-stricken meltdown manifested during an Italian holiday, a break I had been planning to make perfect for weeks. The first half of the trip was like a sun-drenched Waltons episode. BBQ on the veranda, holding hands, stolen kisses, yoga sessions. I truly felt a dreamlike joy and contentment.
Then out of the blue came the mother of all implosions. In hindsight, just two events when I couldn’t keep everything perfect proved to be the triggers. An expensive pair of sunglasses lost, the accidental microwaving of the holiday spending money (which might have seemed comical in other circumstances) and, well, the rest is history.
These may seem like surmountable hurdles to someone in a healthy state of mind, but for me they represented unpardonable failures and I took it out not only on myself but on those around me, for which I was utterly ashamed. Among my circle of friends and associates my holiday episode soon became common knowledge, heaping on the embarrassment and humiliation.
As Bob Dylan wrote, at times like this, the silence can be like thunder. The phone fell eerily quiet, fair weather friends and friends of friends retreated, having heard accounts of how I ‘lost it’, if only for 15 devastating minutes on two separate nights.
I felt as if I was playing the starring role in an apocalyptic Edgar Wright movie.
People made excuses to avoid me and it seemed that most of the human race had migrated to another planet.
I clocked hour upon hour without conversing with a single human being. That’s when the paranoia kicks in, another boot in the proverbials, accelerating the descent into a kind of inner madness at a rate of knots.
Where had everyone gone? I wondered this while hiding under the covers and downing endless medication. I imagined clandestine conversations behind my back: “Who would want to talk to an angry maniac? You’re better off staying out of his way”.
For all the glossy advertising campaigns about men’s mental health, the overwhelming emotions I have experienced are shame and embarrassment.
You might have seen the current television campaign in which Jeremy Paxman (below) is filmed with a post-it note on his forehead, bearing the word ‘Depression’.
The man whose intellect is sufficient to strike fear into the hearts of world leaders and who presents University Challenge points to it and asks the most basic question: “Would they say that guy is nuts?’’
Sadly, even in this more enlightened age, some would; but at least the laudable and award-winning Lloyds Bank campaign points to an ever-growing awareness of mental health issues.
There is hope that society will begin to recognise the invisible inner struggles of those who find themselves staring into the emotional abyss.
So back to that rock bottom moment. Sensing things were not as they should be, my father had crossed an ocean just to see how I was. He knocked on my door unannounced in mid-afternoon, unaware that I had been morosely cocooned in my bedroom for three days after everyone else under my roof had fled to Donegal.
That’s where my wife and children were because while you want your family close at these times, they are victims too.
It’s tough for children to understand why things have changed so dramatically for no apparent reason. For many partners during these episodes, it’s a fight or flight dilemma.
Without the tools or professional support networks in place to help them understand these ghastly meltdowns, the only option is usually flight.
When my father knocked on the door I didn’t know it was him and might not have answered, but something told me I should. I was surprised and delighted to see him, but anxious as well.
I knew he knew.
We talked about football, cricket, golf... as men do. And in the evening I gathered enough mental strength to visit an Indian restaurant, the first time I had faced the world for more than 80 hours.
I felt I should: it’s a father and son tradition, an Indian meal wherever we meet — poppadoms, chutney, curry and beer.
During that meal, there was just this one thing he said, though what he didn’t say was just as important.
He didn’t say, why did you do this, why did you do that, why has your family deserted you, why are you lying in bed all day, why are you pushing your food around the plate as if it was laced with poison?
What he did say, in the most gentle way, was “Paul, tell me how you’re feeling’.’
I didn’t have to tell him. I tried to answer that simple question, but couldn’t. Instead, in full view of staff and customers, I felt the tears streaming down my cheeks, bubbling like a baby in a public place in my own home town. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.
It was as if something deep inside me, something beyond a voice, was speaking for me when I couldn’t find the words to convey my overwhelming sense of desperation, despair and sheer and utter hopelessness.
Perhaps in a previous time, they might have whisked me off in a white van right there and then, but there’s one good thing about hitting rock bottom — the only way is up.
Somehow, amid the utterly lonely bleakness, tiny imperceptible rays of light started to penetrate the once dark and desolate horizon.
Mum ordered me to temporarily up-sticks into her spare bedroom. You don’t argue with mums. She put an arm around me as I sobbed my heart out. By the third day she had me on a strict diet plan and a regime of rest, medication and meditation. She listened. She cared. Mostly she was just there. And mostly I continued to sob my heart out. But at least I wasn’t on my own.
My doctor called me every morning and changed my medications promising “This will get better my man, just hang in there and I’m here for you”.
He then promised robustly: “‘These outbursts are not you. They are a common symptom of your condition and you can bounce back from this. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise and if they do send them to me and they better be armed with seven years in medical school”.
I made a vow right then and there that I was taking back ownership of my life — not that anyone else would have wanted it at that point.
I would own this illness. I would own the recovery and most importantly I would own the hard work that would have to be endured. It was a powerful release. I banished shame from my psyche and opened my heart and humility thresholds to accept help from every avenue of compassion, while erecting blockades on the streets of negativity.
I self-referred for cognitive behaviour therapy, a mentally exhausting process but a game-changing revelation that will arm me for life.
My sisters surprised me one night with a bagful of gleaming new gym gear and dragged me to the weights station every other day, armed with protein shakes and motivational quotes.
I’ve put on precisely a stone in weight (all muscle of course!) since that munificent gesture.
I haven’t felt physically stronger since I signed up for Barry McGuigan’s celebrity boxing show on RTE seven years ago. From Michael Jackson in his PJs at the courtroom steps to Mike Tyson in just five weeks.
I’m all too aware that this is a bigger fight than anything Barry McGuigan threw at me. But I’m learning to roll with the punches, block the dangerous blows and stay on my feet even though this opponent wants to floor me.
The stark statistics show that many people of all ages and backgrounds are fighting the same unrelenting battle and it’s often a lonely and painful place to be, but with the help of true friends and family and the expertise of compassionate professionals, it can be won.
My dad has always felt dubious about my Michael Jackson passion, just as I have sometimes felt dubious about his admiration for Bob Dylan.
But there is one Dylan lyric that resonates with me in the dark days, when he sings about finding a place ‘“far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow, with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves... let me forget about today until tomorrow’’.
No matter how tough one day is, there is always tomorrow.