To keep himself ‘busy and broadly sane’ Alastair Campbell set out on a series of conversations about mental health that revealed as much about him as the subjects
So, we have all been in it together. Covid has been dominant in all of our lives, and every single one of us has had to adapt to lockdown rules and restrictions.
Why this story?
It only dawned on me as I was doing the edit, that this piece is about all of us.
How are you? It’s a small question and also a massive one, freighted with so much meaning. All of us – everywhere – are living through a common experience, yet our responses to it are uniquely our own. At first glance this is an article about how some quite well-known people have been coping while everything was upended. But it’s more than a lockdown special episode of Through the keyhole.
The author, as well-known now for his candour about his mental health as he was for being a sweary spin doctor for Tony Blair, reveals his own troubling lockdown journey. Stick with it and you’ll discover that you’ll soon be reflecting on your own lockdown and all of the unresolved, unknown consequences of what we have all endured. David Taylor, editor
Actor David Harewood put it well: “It is the first time in our lifetime, maybe ever, that everyone in the world is dealing with the same issue at the same time as a priority… but we will all deal with it in our own different ways.” How true.
I have been speaking to some well-known figures from sport, culture and politics, about how they have coped during lockdown and what the inevitable adaptation of their lives has meant for them.
I admit it, there is an element of personal frustration. You see, I wrote a book on depression, called Living Better, which was due to be published in May. Events, signings, interviews, serialisation – even a launch party, (and I hate launch parties). All organised, all scrapped, publication postponed to September. The sudden stop was not good for my mental health. More on that anon.
So I decided to do a Living Better in Lockdown series of mental health chats, to keep myself busy and broadly sane, whilst spending roughly 23 hours out of every 24 in the same place, my house in north London.
I like talking to interesting people, and I love talking about mental health. But it left me doubting my own judgment of the character of people I thought I knew.
I thought Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher, possibly the most football-obsessed man I have ever met, would have been bouncing off the wall… I imagined rugby star Maro Itoje would be climbing up them… I was sure double gold-medal Olympian Kelly Holmes wouldn’t know what to do with herself… I thought Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker and Jeff Stelling of Soccer Saturday would take it in their stride … I felt Deborah Meaden would not enjoy being stuck in Somerset when most of her business and Dragon’s Den TV work was in London … I doubted comedian Josh Widdicombe would have coped well having to cancel a nationwide tour… I thought David Harewood, who like me has a history of mental ill health, would slump into a deep depression… I was confident Labour MP David Lammy would just love hanging around his Tottenham constituency… I was sure the frustrations of dealing with the UK government would have made Nicola Sturgeon more tribal…
…I was, pretty much, wrong about them all.
The only one I got absolutely spot on was sailor Sir Ben Ainslie, one of the most competitive men I have ever met, with a reputation for being a very nice guy off the water, and relentless on it. I was expecting him to be fretting that the New Zealand government was dealing with Covid better than ours, because it meant his Kiwi rivals in the America’s Cup would be able to get out onto the water when he and his team were stuck on land. And yes, he was fretting badly.
He could recite to the day, to the hour, how much less New Zealand had been in lockdown, compared with the UK, and give a very clear assessment of the possible disadvantage. “We are essentially in a race against time. The New Zealanders are our main competitor and so if they get more time to do the things they need to do, it helps them. But on the other hand, we can’t control that; we are not running the government, can’t make the decisions, so it’s about dealing with the things we can do.”
Of all my interviewees, he was most agitated at the way Boris Johnson’s government had been handling the crisis. “We were training in Italy when they were going into lockdown there, and we could see how serious it was, it was just obvious. Meanwhile back in Britain, we had people going to rugby matches and the Cheltenham races, and I thought, ‘this is NUTS! What are we doing?’ ”
Though he supported lockdown, every day away from the water hurt a little.“Since the age of the eight, this is the longest time I have been off the water. The first time out, the sensation of the water rippling on the hull of the boat, that recognition was a powerful moment. I hadn’t realised how much I missed it.”
Missing the things we take for granted… everyone had a bit of that. For the three sports presenters I spoke to, Carragher, Lineker and Stelling, they have missed football in very different ways. Carragher’s missing of it was tempered by the fact that it was the only thing he missed. “I feel a bit embarrassed to say this, but I have quite enjoyed lockdown, I have enjoyed the stillness of it. It has slowed me down.”
More time with the family, walks on the beach near his home in Crosby, lots of time to stay fit; he grew a beard and his wife liked it. Once he got a structure into his days, he said he was ‘sorted’.
“That’s what I said to the kids, have a structure, when you get up, know what you’re going to do. Get the things out of the way that you need to do, make a phone call, stay in touch with people, eat at regular times, just get that basic routine and structure and build your day around it, even if you’re kidding yourself sometimes.
“I have massively, massively missed football. It is my absolute passion, was as a player, still is now. Football takes you to places nothing else can, the joy when you win, the dejection when you lose, there is an emotional rollercoaster that you just don’t get in other stuff. Well, now we know what life without football would be like. And I don’t like it.”
Gary Lineker says something very similar about missing the sport he loves, and which has given him fame and fortune, first as an England striker, now as the BBC’s highest paid presenter. “I’ve often wondered how dull life must be without live sport – and now we know – it is really, really dull. Sunday’s my favourite day of the week and normally here, it is football, football, football. I’ll get back about 3.30am after doing Match of the Day in Salford, have a bit of a lie in, then the boys will come round for lunch, and then we just watch match after match. I don’t mind admitting, I have really, really, really missed it. I can’t wait ‘til I can ‘stick to football’ again,” he adds, a reference to the regular refrain thrown his way when he tweets to his 7.6 million followers his views on social and political issues.
Lineker, twice divorced, lives alone in Barnes, west London, and not long before Covid replaced Brexit and football as the most common subjects of conversation in his and millions of other people’s lives, his dog died, so he has more excuse than most to feel lonely from time to time. “His picture is over there, and he is like the Mona Lisa, his eyes follow me wherever I am in the room. I always liked his company, but of all the times I would have liked to have him around, this is definitely one of them. Quite a few times I’ve looked at those pictures and got a bit weepy. I’ve thought about getting another dog, but I was married when we got Snoop, and I’m not sure it is fair to do the kind of work I do, with a fair bit of travel, living on my own, and have a dog.”
Like many of my interviewees, he says structure and keeping busy have been key to his survival. “I spend way too much time on social media, but I have to have a routine, get up, have my coffee, go to the little gym downstairs, watch the news. The highlight of the week has been the trip to stand in the queue at the butcher’s.”
He has also found himself watching old games he played in. “I’ve never actually watched a whole game back in my life before, but I watched the games against Cameroon and Germany in Italia ‘90. I tell you what – I was a better footballer than I thought I was. OK, I wasn’t dribbling past people but I was all right, I could play.”
There was one part of the experience he did not enjoy, however. “The game against Cameroon, I have scored two penalties, and late on, there is a half chance; I dummy to Gazza, Gazza puts me in, I’ve done the keeper, but it goes just wide. I had no memory of that at all, none, and for the rest of the day, I’m thinking, ‘I could have had a hat-trick’. Ruined my day.”
Lineker, famously even-tempered, says he has never had depression. “I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been anxious, like when George was ill [his son had leukaemia], that was horrific, or when my divorces were happening, but I have never had the kind of mental health issues that you have had and talked about and made films about. Life is just ups and downs, isn’t it? Happiness is fleeting, it comes and goes. My personality is such that I am fairly stable, I don’t get too up when things are good, or too down when they’re not. I can get upset, like when my parents died, or when Snoop died, I cried my eyes out, but there is a big difference between being upset and depression.”
His big release has been cooking, and especially making desserts. “I have been a keen cook for years, but I have never been into desserts, and I just decided to give it a go. I wish I hadn’t. If you make desserts, you have to eat them, so that’s meant back into the gym.”
If you had asked me before I spoke to them who I thought would have coped best in lockdown, I would have said Stelling first, Lineker second, Carragher third. Having discussed lockdown with them, make that Carragher first, Lineker second, Stelling third.
“How are you?” I asked, and I could tell from the look on his face that the Soccer Saturday presenter Stelling didn’t really mean it when he said: “Fine.” Shortly afterwards, he admitted he was struggling.
“I get up in the morning, and I totally lack motivation. Monday is the same as Tuesday, Friday is the same as Saturday, and even when I have things to do, I don’t want to do them, because I lack that motivation. It feels like a premature retirement, but you can’t do the things you might do if you were retired, can’t go for a drink, can’t go for a bite to eat, can’t go abroad.”
I have known Stelling a fair few years, I have joined him on the amazing charity walks he does, and more recently enjoyed his twitter rants at the government’s wretched Covid briefings, but I realise my sense of him is entirely driven by his TV persona, and it is hard to square the man on my laptop screen now with the man who has since 1994 been the main presenter for Sky Sports’ Saturday football show.
I remember in 2005, ahead of the general election campaign, taking part in a brainstorm with Labour’s advertising agency, in which we were all asked: ‘If the campaign was a person, who would it be?’ Mandela, Clinton, Blair, Brown were all among the answers. To the bemusement of some, I said Jeff Stelling… my argument – the campaign should be humane, professional, passionate, steeped in detail, committed, energetic, innovative, and appeal to working class and middle class people alike.
He admits, however, there have been times when the Stelling front has been just that. “As a public figure, living your life on TV, you are obliged to show the positive side even if you’re not feeling it. I’m not there to air my moans and groans and grievances, I’m there to make them smile, give them information, and hopefully improve their days.’
So have there been Saturdays when he just hasn’t felt like it? “Oh yes. So many people go through issues, physical or mental, and to be honest, in the times when I have struggled, those Saturdays have been an absolute godsend for me, a focal point for the week, and then when it comes, it’s something that can take me away from things that are getting me down. I don’t know where I would be without that.” Only, well, now he does.
At times, he doesn’t just echo concepts I know about from my depressions, he uses the same phrases I use. “Knowing why you’re in a low mood doesn’t help… things which ought to be nice feel monotonous… things which ought to be fun just aren’t… you start to question your own worth.”
All three of his children are home, sons Robbie and Matthew in their early 20s, and teenage daughter Olivia, so the family has had time together. “I’m trying to do what Dads are supposed to do, keep things ticking over, trying to be reasonable. I’ve been focusing on that, not always successfully,” he says.
“It’s just this general sense of malaise, this lack of motivation. They are more motivated than me, doing their online lessons, online exams.”
He is now back at work. I watched his show on his first Saturday back, and he seemed to have recovered most of his mojo. But I will also from now on be on the lookout for signs I recognise in myself, when the external signals might not be matching what is going on inside.
Football, or more specifically Burnley FC, came top of my own missing list. Second was Parliament Hill Lido, still closed at the time of writing, despite a couple of trial sessions to see what Covid-secure swimming looked like. My partner Fiona and I have been travelling ridiculous distances to find open water swimming venues.
I’ve missed travelling. This is the longest I have ever gone without being on a plane. Sorry, Greta, I am going to try harder, that is one of the changes likely to flow from my pandemic reflections. But I’ve missed real meetings with real people – and random chats with random people.
Let’s turn to a couple of people I was sure, because of their history, would really struggle with lockdown who haven’t – Kelly Holmes and David Harewood.
They have both had well-documented troubles with mental health, and that made me assume they would do so again under this new pressure. Maybe I am guilty of the kind of stigmatisation of mental illness that the campaigning I do is designed to break down.
The last time I shared a platform with David Harewood, he and I were both part of a series of BBC documentaries on mental health. Mine was on depression; his was on his psychotic breakdown thirty years ago.
As his face comes up on the screen, behind him, I see a picture of Martin Luther King on the wall. Well, not King, but Harewood playing King. Why wouldn’t he… black actor plays famous civil rights campaigner, and has poster on wall? There is more to it than that though. When Harewood was being gripped by psychosis, one of the first voices he heard was Dr King telling him to ‘wake up’ and go to Camden, north London, and put on a suit that would be hanging up at the back of a shop. As psychotic voices go, that is quite a name drop. In my own experience of psychosis, in 1986, I had Elvis, and ABBA, but they were singing, not telling me to go to Camden.
Harewood’s documentary has been nominated for a Bafta. The Ben Ainslie in me, though pleased for him, was jealous that mine wasn’t.
But it took it out of him. “I’m not going to shy away from the fact that doing the documentary, and then talking about it, was a lot tougher than I gave credit for. It was exhausting, emotionally. It took me four months at least to recover.”
He discovered, as I have, that once you are out there as a mental health advocate, you have joined a fairly small band and the demands from causes you feel inclined to support grow and grow. Harewood had not yet learned to say ‘No’ … lockdown came at the right time.
“It was getting on top of me, work, the documentary, all these demands on me…something inside me was saying “just say no,” but I didn’t most of the time, and on it goes. So thankfully lockdown happened which meant I had to say no, I had no choice, and I have benefited so much from resting. I’ve gone for long walks with the dog, and I don’t take my phone, I reduce the stress on my mental capacity, on my mind, on myself and my centre.”
He is not the only one of my interviewees to put social media at the heart of the mental health challenge, but he is the only one who has dramatically acted to deal with it. “I don’t look at it ‘til midday, and even then I just dip in and out, I guard against taking too much in. We are drowning in opinions, social media, TV round the clock, a culture that feeds off opinions rather than policy, or leadership. We are all chipping in, in this really bizarre leaderless place we exist in.
“Leave your phone, learn to use ‘do not disturb’, go for a walk, go for a run, put your headphones in and listen to music, try to find a place of peace that is free from worry, free from stress, find that island for yourself where you can decouple from stress and worry.”
Kelly Holmes – or Colonel Dame Kelly Holmes to give her the full whack – is one of a very small number of people, outside me and Fiona – who has been in our bathroom.
She has, as she reminds me over Zoom, sat on the toilet there, with the seat down, and listened to me playing my bagpipes! The reason was that when she decided to join the podcasting revolution, she opted to do a series not on sport, but on mental health, and especially recovery. I was one of her early interviewees and when I mentioned that I played the bagpipes in the bathroom whenever I felt low, she didn’t hesitate…”Let’s have a listen then.” There is something about Kelly Holmes that makes you say yes to the strangest things.
So we carried on the interview in the bathroom, and I remember telling her what it feels like when you are in that state where death seems preferable to life, and suicidal thoughts feel like they are overwhelming you, and she said: “Yeah, I’ve been there… you look in the mirror, you just don’t want to be here.”
Anxiety, depression, self-harm, she has known the lows alongside the highs of sporting greatness – winning double Olympic gold in Athens towards the end of a troubled, injury-racked career. A few hours before we were due to speak, I had a call with some of the team at Mind, the leading mental health charity, who had been telling me that for all the talk of the crisis being a levelling experience, in which everyone was to some extent feeling anxiety and mood swings, those struggling most were people with pre-existing mental health conditions. “That’s you Kelly,” I tell her.
But she seems to be not just well, but Kelly Holmes-on-full-cylinders-well, one of the most energetic forces ever known.
I had earlier also been speaking to Deborah Meaden who told me she was ‘enjoying lockdown too much,’ adding: “I remember when it all started, once it settled down, and we got used to it, I asked myself, ‘what are the gifts in this?’ There is always a gift to be found somewhere. I felt I had to think – what can I discover? What are the things I am going to do which I couldn’t before? They are usually there, something good always comes out.”
That has definitely been the approach Kelly Holmes has taken, sufficient for her to say that she actually feels she has discovered a new purpose to her life. “I thought my destiny, the purpose of my life, was always to win Olympic Gold after 20 years of dreaming about it, and working hard for it, and eventually doing it, which I did. But I really believe now that this is what I am here for.”
By ‘this,’ she means motivating others, and fighting the mental health cause, making it ‘normal to be abnormal’.
“I had my first breakdown in 2003, so it’s not new to me, I am not jumping on a bandwagon. I believe my sporting success has given me a position in life to be normal with things that some people think are abnormal. It’s normal to have problems and be different, and then what counts is how do you deal with it. You can struggle in life but also you can work out how to navigate around it, find brightness and lightness somewhere, and help yourself through it.”
The next morning, I checked in with her 7.30am Zoom exercise class, in which, lying on a rug in front a fireplace at home in Kent, she was taking 300-plus people through some gentle warm-ups before raising the pace. “I knew as we went into lockdown that a lot of people would struggle with their mental health. When we lose all the things that we take for granted, the things we love doing, it’s inevitable. What are the things I need to stop that happening? Connection, communication, and fitness. So I focused on that, for me, and for others.
“I’ve never done these live feed sessions before, but I have done 148 since lockdown (this was a month ago by the way, she is heading towards 200 now, despite an achilles operation) and we have built a whole community of people out there, and they come on, and the thing they expect from me is positivity and give them a kick up the arse, so that’s what I do. And the thing is it has been such a help to me, because it has given me that connection too. I do the big sessions with lots of people, I do smaller groups for coaching, and then we have an online party at the end of the week, and all dress up and it’s in a safe haven and a few people can get to see how mad I actually am. So last week I dressed up as Tina Turner. Before that I was Madonna. I’ll send you the pictures, you’ll love them.” She did. I did. She is a total life force.
Out of the fitness groups has grown a kind of therapy group too, when people stay on at the end, and she stays with them, and they just talk. None of these people have met face to face, but some open up about feeling low, others chip in with similar feelings, advice and support. “It’s human connection,” says Holmes. “That’s what people are missing… hugging… seeing friends and family…
“So many people are struggling with mental health problems and I am giving them a bit of ‘come on, let’s go’ in a place they feel safe.”
I’ve always loved Kelly Holmes. As I often tell her, she gave me one of the best nights of my life – I was in the stadium in Athens for her second gold! I love her even more now. When you’re in the right frame of mind, you come away from talking to her feeling like you have had an injection of energy and enthusiasm.
Deborah Meaden, she of the ‘look for the gift’ advice, did not find the gift immediately. She went through various phases before reaching a place where her only worry is that she is enjoying lockdown too much. “I went through scary, then reflective, then settled, and now paying attention to how I am going to come out of it.”
The scary phase was the worst, and perhaps made worse, she says, by her lack of experience of things that Harewood, Holmes and I have been through. “I consider myself very robust mentally, and I thought ‘Gosh! If I am going through these wobbles, what is it like for people who are really anxious, or really depressed?’ ”
Maro Itoje has been on a similar journey. This softly spoken giant of a man, who is as thoughtful off the rugby pitch as he is brutal and strong on it, says: “I have overall enjoyed it, but I have gone through waves. At first, I lacked purpose and direction, but then I became at ease with the new reality, kept myself occupied, and I have enjoyed the downtime. Usually life moves at such a pace, so it is hard to reflect, and take stock. Lockdown gave me the opportunity to do that.
“In professional sport you are always working to a goal and as soon as it is met, or not met, or the event is over, the focus switches to the next one, then the next and I have been on that journey since 2013, since turning professional…winning trophies with Saracens, England, World Cup, switching, switching, switching, and then with the season suddenly halted, it has given me time to reflect and properly analyse everything…my family are healthy, my friends are safe, I have a lot to be grateful for.”
England manager Richard Hill asked me to spend some time with Itoje when it was clear he was a rising star, to discuss media, and pressure. It also led to me last year spending a day with his Saracens squad and talking to them about mental health.
I sensed at the time that one or two players were struggling, and asked if he felt lockdown would be making it worse. “It’s a real mix. Some people have found it hard, some people are thriving, it’s not straightforward, people respond to things in different ways. This is such a change for people in professional sports. If you live your life as part of a team, so much of that is about the day in, day out, face to face contact, and that’s gone. The whole pattern and rhythm of your day, your week, it’s gone, and not everyone can deal with that.”
Intensely political – he managed to combine studying for a degree in international affairs while establishing himself as one of the biggest stars in world rugby – he thinks having interests outside sport has also been important for his mental well-being. “You need to understand yourself, and that takes time and reflection. What makes you tick, what makes you angry, want makes you fulfilled? It is not always easy, but once you know, you can create a plan. Also, it is so important to talk to people you trust, people you know have your own best interests at heart. It might be family, it might be a friend, it might be a boss or a team-mate. Knowing who is important, but I have often had problems and as soon as I talk to someone the weight seems lighter when I have spoken about it.’
Maro Itoje is 25. A very wise star in the making.
Now back to Deborah Meaden, without doubt the winner of any ‘Most Enjoyed Lockdown’ medal. She has spent the whole pandemic period in Somerset with her husband. As to why she has enjoyed it? “When was the last time we could be quiet and at home and have all this time to think about yourself? Normally we are all dealing with so much other stuff. I have learned I can do it, I can enjoy being quiet, on my own. What helps is we have animals, pigs, sheep, horses, not many, like three sheep, one pig, but it means I’ve got things to do, animals to look after, and a husband to look after me. Other demands on me have stopped, and it’s been nice.
“I have allowed myself to be reflective and worried and not beat myself up for it. I have felt things closing in one me once or twice, and I just allow the moments of worry, then the routine helps me through. The animals need feeding, they don’t know a thing about coronavirus, they just know they need to eat, so that gets me out, and I’m more accepting of things for what they are, worrying about the things I can change, not so much the things I can’t.
“I want to be part of how that future is shaped, as a nation, as a world, but also as an individual – what have I found out, what am I going to change in the way I live my life? I am going to do more of the things I want to, based not just on what I want for myself, but whether they’re going to make a difference to the world. I am a business person at heart and always will be, but I am going to be much more focused on how do I want to behave, what do I want that to look like, how will my behaviour feed into the change ahead? If I get 50 percent of it right, that will be OK.”
If comedian Josh Widdicombe has found a gift, it has been in an unusual place … Zoom and Skype. I am closer to the view, that for all the convenience of Zoom, hours of screen calls are exhausting, and I am definitely with Kelly Holmes in missing hugs.
But Widdicombe, who lives with his wife Rose Hanson and their young daughter in Hackney, says Zoom has been a saviour. “I know it sounds weird but lockdown has definitely brought me closer to my friends. As we have a two-year-old, we don’t go out that much, and so we have been doing these Zoom call quizzes, and I am seeing a group of friends I would not see normally, and it has made me value them more.”
I’m too competitive. Of course, I ask if he has a second laptop to help him cheat by looking up answers on the internet.
“It’s not that sort of quiz. My generation is so self-involved, the questions are basically all about each other.”
When I asked ‘how are you?’, he went all bashful and said: “I’m actually fine. I worry about saying ‘I’m good in lockdown,’ but I am.”
That small talk question ‘how are you?’ has taken on real significance, he says. “It has changed from meaningless greeting to meaningful question.” And now, he starts to answer it. “I found the first two weeks tough. Then a comedian friend told me she had found lockdown a lot less stressful after her friend told her not to see it as a pressure, not to feel it was like a writers’ retreat, where you had to bang out your thousand words a day.”
Mid a manic phase of my own at the time, I pointed out I was banging out more than that before I got out of bed.
“People like you are a problem for people like me,” he said. But then he is back to guilt again. “I have not felt personally vulnerable, what has been weird is how different I see the experience for my parents and my wife’s parents, or my friend, who has much worse asthma than I have. You feel guilt for that, this two strata thing going on, with old people feeling they have been written off by society, that makes me feel the guilt more so, I feel it is much tougher for them, it’s horrible.”
I suspect there has been a bit of guilt in trying to find comedy potential out of a deathly global pandemic.
‘We carried on doing The Last Leg, and it’s not easy when the news is just doom and gloom and death and worry. Thank God for the Dominic Cummings story, because that was a lot easier to satirise. We have been doing The Last Leg during the worst eight years of political history, so we are used to awful things and being funny about them. You have to be respectful when so many are dying, what isn’t funny isn’t funny, but you find stupidity in the details. The government messaging has been so piss-poor. There are always funny clips of Matt Hancock struggling, so you end up mocking the personalities and the coverage of the people flailing to save their careers in a career-defining disaster.”
He has friends who have struggled more than he has, and his advice to them has been not to worry, not to feel they had to write the great novel, but work on something that doesn’t matter so much, a hobby.
“They say the way to get through prison is routine…We have our routine, we both exercise, separately so one of us is with our daughter, then we chill out, and at midday I go upstairs and work in my office. I need structure, I need to be working. I’ve lost lots of work, but it will come back. In terms of my mental health I am definitely living a healthier life than if I was still on tour, eating crap on the move, not sleeping enough, all that.”
I have saved the politicians till last, though David Lammy was one of my early interviewees, and Nicola Sturgeon the final one. But both, unknowingly, had a significant role with regard to my own lockdown struggles. David Lammy unwittingly helped take my own mental health to a bad place; Nicola Sturgeon unwittingly helped to take it to a better place.
It is never just one thing with me, it is a mix, and usually, when a depression first kicks in, I have no idea why. When I spoke to Lammy, I was already on a bit of a slide. When I spoke to Sturgeon almost a month later, I was finally feeling like I was re-emerging from it, and for various reasons our chat helped cement that feeling. Carragher is right that football provides a never-ending emotional rollercoaster, but wrong that is the only thing. Depression has done it on and off all of my life. Lockdown has done it with knobs on.
So, my phases… I went into lockdown ahead of government advice. I could see things were worse than Johnson and Co were pretending. I am asthmatic, and I have two brothers who died in their early 60s from respiratory issues, so that was enough for me to play safe. I guess this was my ‘feeling superior’ phase.
Then I had an ‘enjoying’ phase, the realisation that I liked my house, loved my dog, and that if there was one person in the world I could actually tolerate for 24 hours a day, happily it was the woman I have lived with for the last 40 years.
Then I had a ‘novelty’ phase, when it was just really interesting to be living so differently.
I was fairly quickly into a ‘manic’ phase. When I look at my output for that period a few weeks in, even I get a little bit frightened at wondering what I must have been like to live with. I was rarely sleeping beyond 4am. I wrote literally hundreds of blogs and articles, one of them 35,000 words long.
One day, I knocked off 20 versions of broadly the same article, but tailored to 20 different countries, all of whom had handled Covid better than the UK. I finished and then rewrote a novel. I composed several bagpipe tunes, and played as a guest on a Number 1 charity hit single by the band Skerryvore. I was advising various leaders and governments, and bombarding them with thoughts and ideas and observations, not all mad, or bad, some of them good, some of them which were followed. I did seven essays for the Goethe Institut advance German course Fiona got me for my birthday in May. I could go on and on and on. I knew I was getting out of control, but I was so productive, I was blind to my own concerns, and those of Fiona and friends, that I might be overdoing things.
There were two turning points which made me realise I needed to calm down. First, my sister Liz calling me, and dropping into the conversation that a friend of hers had seen me on TV doing an interview, raging at the government’s handling of Covid, on the lines of a long piece I had done for Tortoise, and had asked if I was OK. So? Well, the friend in question worked at Rampton, one of the country’s three secure psychiatric hospitals!
My brother Donald – RIP – was involved in my next big warning sign, amid the furore over Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown rules. I found myself re-writing the lyrics of various national anthems, singing them, and posting them on social media. When it came to God Save Our Gracious Dom, Long Live Our Noble Dom, I did a not very good impersonation of Boris Johnson, wearing my brother’s Scots Guards tie and two of his military medals. Cue ‘furore’ headlines and an ugly online row with the defence minister. Fiona ‘had a word’. A couple of genuine friends called, and asked if I was OK. I decided, on balance, I probably wasn’t, and I needed to calm down. So I did.
The trouble with manic episodes is that they tend to be followed by dreadful plunges. I could sense I was on the precipice when the time came to talk to David Lammy a couple of weeks later. I have a scoring system for my moods – from one (deliriously happy) to 10 (suicidal), and I was definitely on the wrong side of the mid-point. As Lammy is a friend, with a lot of positive energy, I thought he might help me get back from the precipice. It is in no way a criticism of him to say he pushed me the other way.
It started fine. I kicked off with the same question with which I had started every interview, ‘how are you?’ and sensed a fair bit of ‘on the one hand, on the other’ in his ‘OK’.
“There are bits I have enjoyed, and bits I haven’t,” he confirmed. “On the plus side, it turns out I quite like my wife and kids, and they quite like me. I have enjoyed feeling like that child who grew up in the 70s, stepping out into the street and being reminded of Sundays in those hot balmy days back then, when there were not so many cars, there was a quiet and you could hear birds, there was less pollution; and it all evoked in me a warm safe feeling, that made me think of my parents, and an age before all the technology.
“What I’ve not enjoyed? I am very good with my own company, and I suppose I have not enjoyed the intensity of being at home the whole time, constant Zoom and Skype and Teams meetings. I adore the kids but the struggles with the homework, and trying to balance the family and work, I have not found the time for moments for myself. Even just putting headphones in on the tube on the commute to work, or finding moments to read and reflect and be on your own, you need that. There has not been much of that, and it has got me down at times.”
Lammy is someone with a history of getting down. “My down periods come in episodes that go on for months. I have had four or five times in my life when I got very down, and for one or two I have had to take medication because I got so down. Touch wood I have not been very down for a while. I embrace the blues, I love the blues, I love jazz. The blues can come over me, and sometimes it’s the big black cloud. I have had the blues in this time, but no big black cloud.”
As to how he has staved it off – long walks, nature, and staying plugged into his friends.
It was not, however, this chat about our respective depressions that helped to turn my dip into a plunge. It was what came next… politics.
“Is it not just doing your head in, how shit this government is, how badly they are handling things?” I asked.
“Alastair, I have talked to you about this before, the politics of where we are has been a growing nightmare for several years. For me it started with the referendum and Brexit, and Trump and populism, and Farage and Rees-Mogg, and now Johnson and coronavirus. Now the other thing is grief. It is impossible to be black and not know someone who has died of Covid. I have lost an uncle and we couldn’t go to the funeral. The funeral was on Zoom. I’ve lost a classmate. I’ve lost many friends. It is horrendous and the nightmare continues.
“But the tough thing for me has been coming to terms with the fact that the Labour Party is such a long way from power, because the Tory majority is massive. They can do anything, Alastair, anything, and as an MP I feel impotent. They can do anything, or, you know what, Johnson can do nothing… Black Lives Matter? Nada, he is doing nada apart from banging on about Winston Churchill’s statue to take Covid off the news. That is tough stuff to come to terms with, when you give up your life to this. In the last Parliament, Brexit, a tiny majority, MPs felt powerful. But there is nothing now, they are in for four more years, and they are not on an agenda you and I share. That is so tough and challenging, so you find yourself focusing on the things you can control… family, friends, appreciating nature. The rest is just reacting to events.”
I’ve quoted it in full, because it hit me like a bullet. Powerless. Whistling in the wind. Impotent. For all those weeks I was writing and tweeting, creating and agitating and raging, when confronted with the reality laid out like that by someone you like and respect, and who is in there in Parliament fighting every day, I had a total ‘what is the fucking point?’ moment, and when you’re on a dip, that becomes an existential challenge right in front of you. More than the blues. Way more than the blues now. Big black cloud, and it stayed with me for weeks.
As I said earlier, I am not blaming David, no way. He did not create my depression. It was cooking away nicely like one of Lineker’s desserts. The egg whites and the sugar had been lying around for ages. David just provided the whisk.
The next period was a bit of a nightmare, for me and Fiona. My 4am wake up was now eight or nine, and then I would stay in bed well beyond that. The intense suicidal thoughts came after a couple of weeks. The sense of getting through it started another week or so later, and then, one Wednesday afternoon in early July, it was time for my chat with Nicola Sturgeon.
She is a busy woman, what with being Scotland’s First Minister, and it had been postponed by a week, which suited me because I spent most of the original allotted day lying on the sofa staring at the ceiling.
When the rescheduled time came along, I at least had the energy back sufficient to want to do the call, though when she came on and said ‘how are you?’ I found myself unable to do meaningless small talk.
“Do you want the bullshit answer, or the truth?” I asked her.
“Let’s go with the truth,” she said.
“Pretty shit to be honest.”
“You’re struggling, yeah?”
“Yeah, it’s been a bad one.”
But the interview was good, something that was acknowledged by plenty of people when I posted it a couple of days later, and that helped get more energy flowing.
As for the content, I did sense that she had been genuinely reflective about the significance of recent events.
“I have a really strong sense inside me, that I am not going to come out of this the same as when I went into it,” she said. “It is shifting my perspective on things, making me re-evaluate what is important in life and what is not quite so important and probably lowering my tolerance to some of the nonsense of politics. I am a politician to my fingertips, I know how important rigorous debate is, and the battle of ideas, but a lot of modern politics is not about that, it’s just about chucking mud at each other and forcing yourself to believe the worst of your opponents. My tolerance of that is definitely lower. Who knows, I might get over that, but I hope not. This is an opportunity for us all to re-assess things a bit.”
Sturgeon fronted every one of the Scottish government daily briefings, and somehow managed to avoid the formulaic lack of empathy of UK ministers. “At a very early stage, when the number of deaths was rising, big numbers, I remember making a conscious decision to stand at the podium through there, and every day as I read out the number, I was going to think about people in my own life that I love and, if they died, it would devastate me. That has been important to me. We can never normalise what we have been through, and nor should we, because behind every one of these numbers is a family grieving the loss of a loved one.”
It is the constant presence of death and sorrow that has made this crisis so much more intense than anything she has dealt with before. “You would have to be a particularly strange human being not to have that deeply affect you… You know this, being in government there is always a sense that what you’re dealing with is important and vital, but that’s as nothing compared to how it has felt over the past three months.”
Though she doesn’t regret the decision to front all the briefings, when I ask if she has been psychologically changed herself by the experience of the pandemic, it is to the briefings that she returns. “I don’t want to overstate this but nor do I want to underplay it… That has involved every day reporting on the numbers of people who have lost their lives and answering questions on whether that level of loss of life has been impacted or affected by decisions I have taken, and could it have been changed by other decisions? That is very hard. Maybe there are some people who can be unaffected by that. I am not sure I would want to be unaffected by that. I have felt the weight of that much more than anything else, and I always will to some extent.”
Now, as the death toll falls, and the lockdown eases, a new set of challenges emerge, above all economic, but also the mental health policy implications of the crisis, the Royal College of Psychiatrists warning of a ‘tsunami’ of psychological distress arising from the pandemic.
“It’s a big priority for us anyway, especially around child and adolescent mental health, but coming out of this crisis, the need to understand the mental health impact, and respond, is going to be massive. People like me are going to have to talk about this more openly and change the way we organise services, get the focus more on prevention, early intervention.”
There is perhaps another reason why she is being more reflective, and that is a significant birthday, on 19 July, when she turns 50.
‘“I have my ups and downs like everyone. I have days when I feel things are more on top of me than others and days when I feel a happier disposition than others, but generally I am able to keep a reasonable equilibrium. But I don’t underestimate the impact of something like this for any leader that the constant pressure can have and the need to remember you are only human, and need to take steps to look after yourself.”
The final subject we cover in our run around the mental health block is social media and abuse, which in politics, seems to be targeted at women more than men.
“It is absolutely targeted at women more than men,” she says. “How do I deal with it? I try not to focus on it, try not to allow it to enter my world. Social media companies still have a lot to do to get on top of it. I would say particularly to young women thinking about going into a profession or a walk of life that puts them in the public eye, you have to ignore that, challenge it where it needs challenging, because perhaps the downside of someone like me saying ignore it is that it is still there and doesn’t get challenged.”
Yet, when I posted clips of our chat on twitter, amid a few inevitable war criminal jibes at me, and trolling of her, the vast bulk of comments were supportive. Some of my Labour friends made clear they were not happy that I gave what they saw as an easy ride to the leader of the SNP. But as a mental health advocate, I am hardly going to turn down the chance to talk about the issue to the leader of a government with responsibility for health.
It was certainly a much friendlier chat than our first encounter years ago, when she was Health Secretary and we were both taking part in a charity bike race on what was the wettest of wet Scottish days. As I recorded in my diary, ‘she could not have been less friendly’.
I reminded her of it five years ago, when I interviewed her for GQ.
AC: Do you remember? We were on a bike ride.
NS: I was cold. It was freezing. It was pissing with rain. That’s not fair Alastair, it was freezing. (Turns to her press officer) This was Pedal for Scotland, he is on a bike, it is so wet, pissing with rain, we are at the starting line, I am shivering, the firing gun goes and he is away, like you know, within five seconds he is out of sight…
AC: You wouldn’t talk to me.
NS: I was cold… The real story of that day is this… I am quite a shy person. In my younger days that manifested itself as cold and overly reserved …you were this terrifying spin doctor with a fearsome reputation, I thought I would get a mouthful of profanities.
So why did Lammy get me into the hole, and why did Sturgeon help get me out of it? In part because their interviews book-ended the two extremes of my depression – the deep plunge, and the feeling that finally it was lifting – and that fact underlined that there is no permanence to how we feel.
There is a core to all of us, but it doesn’t mean we can’t change. Experience changes, learning changes us, events and how we react to them change us. Talking to David Lammy that day, the overwhelming thing which stuck with me was not his candour about his own bouts of depression, but his painful observation that right now neither of us could do anything significant to stop Boris Johnson doing what he wanted. My overwhelming sense of Nicola Sturgeon at that event 13 years ago, was of coldness. My sense when we talked pandemic and mental health was of someone with the kind of empathy sadly all too infrequently on display from ministers in London. Same people, different times, different circumstances, different moods.
And maybe that day in 2007 she was cold, but there is more to her than that, just as there is more to me than the sweary spin doctor, more to Kelly Holmes than scars of self-harm, more to David Harewood than a psychosis episode 30 years ago, or his reflections on it now, more to Jamie Carragher and Gary Lineker than football, more to Jeff Stelling than who we see on screen. More to Nicola Sturgeon than shy… indeed it never ever crossed my mind that she might be shy. How can you be shy and lead a government? But you can. People still think you can’t be chronically depressed and do a serious pressured job. But I did, and got a ‘fearsome reputation’ to boot.
What the lockdown experience has shown is that even in this relatively short period of time, mood, mine, the mood of plenty of others, has changed and adapted. Add to that all the reflection and soul-searching that has been going on, and there is no doubt the change wrought by Covid on the world, on all of us, has barely begun. David Lammy is right that, for now, I can do next to nothing about Johnson and the Tories. Nicola Sturgeon is right that there has to be real change in our approach to mental health. And I am sure, even when, perhaps especially when, I am depressed, that I can continue to do something about that.
Living Better, by Alastair Campbell, is published September 3, by John Murray books.
Photographs; Sarah Lee/Guardian/eyevine, David Sandison/eyevine, Justin Sutcliffe/eyevine, Graeme Robertson/eyevine, Andrew Testa/eyevine, Sebastian Rabbas/Films of Record/BBC and Getty Images
Tomorrow in the Tortoise App
The first chance to listen to our Slow Newscast as Alastair Campbell joins us to discuss his Living Better in Lockdown project. Hear from Gary Lineker, Kelly Holmes, Nicola Sturgeon and more.