I am old enough to remember Philip Schofield when he only had a broom cupboard and Gordon the Gopher for company. He now commands audiences of millions and all the adulation and fame that goes with modern-day celebrity status.
Yesterday, he had an even bigger audience as he came out as gay live on television. This deeply personal, intimate moment was shared in real time with the world and then for hours and no doubt days later on social media. His message clearly resonated with people of all ages and backgrounds – it led to many sharing their coming out stories and a wonderful sense of togetherness, understanding and support.
He spoke movingly about his family, their support and the internal agonies he has endured whilst – as he said – he came to terms with his sexuality. The same message came out loud and clear from another high-profile and much-loved celebrity this week as Frankie Bridge, embarked on a book tour to discuss her recently-published, ‘Open’ – the story of her battles with depression and anxiety, which she fought in secret whilst trying to project the perfect pop-star lifestyle image.
It is this hidden pain – the pain that only the sufferer can really feel – that got me writing today.
Since speaking and writing openly about my own depression, anxiety and use of anti-depressants, I have lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with friends or colleagues who say something like “of all the people to have depression, I would never have thought it would be you”. They usually talk about how confident I seemed and all the things I have done which people often see as inconsistent with someone who gets depressed. I understand why they said this – and in some ways it’s a tribute to your ability to get on with life – but it also highlights the reason why so many people can suffer in silence without anyone asking them the question they are dying to answer. Sometimes those of us who have built a reputation for being a positive, successful, person find themselves having to play up to this impression and always take on this role. We can become our very own Robert De Niro-style method actor, staying character all the time when inside we just long to offload our inner feelings; our pain; our fears; our worries.
It is of course possible to be someone who looks happy, is chatty and is succeeding at school, work and home and still be someone who at times has been crawled into a ball on the floor crying; trying and failing to resist the onslaught of a panic attack that leaves them breathless and pale; and so wracked with doubt that they question who they are and why anyone would like them, sometimes for hours a day. It is too easy to see people at face value and see their lovely house, car, job, wife/husband/partner and assume they are living the perfect life. This is especially true in the age of Instagram and the endless corrosive comparisons that people can make between themselves and others.
I wonder how many people watched Philip Schofield on This Morning, The Saturdays in Concert, or Frankie Bridge killing it on Strictly, and really looked beyond the image put in front of them. How many wondered whether there was some sadness behind their eyes; some trauma behind closed doors; something we couldn’t see that was creating pain and despair. I am not saying that we all need to become mind readers, or question everything we see, but there is something in remembering not to judge a book by its cover.
Take a second to think now about someone you know who you would never think of as depressive, anxious or suicidal. Perhaps it’s one of your friends or family who you would consider to be always positive, successful, happy. Put their face in your mind’s eye. Pause for a second, imagine that you are looking right at them. Straight in the eye. Can you truly – without any doubt – say that you know what is really going on for them? Is life as good for them as it appears? Is it all as easy as it looks?
Have you ever asked them? Have you ever looked past their most recent posts on social media, or their “I’m great, thanks” response to the “how are you?” question we go through the motions with dozens of times a week and properly checked? Have you ever really pressed the point about how they are – I mean, how they really are?
If the last few days tells us anything it’s that life has a nasty habit of sneaking up and surprising us. That first impressions are not always right. That assumption is the mother of all – well, you know the rest.
In the week of #TimeToTalkDay, there is no better moment to do some great listening – to let someone you care about talk about how their life really is – to ask them some meaningful questions – and to truly listen to the answers. Who knows you might get a few surprises. You might find out something that’s been hidden for years. You might lift a great load for them. You might even save a life. It was Philip and Frankie this week; it could be me or you next.