In this series, Lucy Nichol proves you never know who mental ill health will come after next by celebrating the diverse qualities and eccentricities of her lovable friends and acquaintances. This week, she’s taken her work home with her.
When I saw Chris Connel on stage in his underpants it was love at first sight. Covered in fake marinade and lipstick, he had audiences in stitches every night as Stuart the hapless baker in Lee Hall’s dark comedy, Cooking with Elvis.
Don’t worry, that’s as Mills and Boon as I’m going to get. Put simply, I fancied the arse off him, fell for his terrible chatup line at the theatre Christmas party and the rest is history.
So it’s fair to say I got to know him pretty well over the years. And we have lots in common. Our obsession with Homeland and Gary Sparkles bingo; our love of Cat Stevens, big dinners and garden centres – and a shared experience of debilitating panic attacks. See, the thing is, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, anxiety doesn’t just strike the wallflowers. Proud, loud, blokey actors get it too.
When I went to seek help because I thought my throat was going to close up and kill me aged 19, it was explained to me that I was suffering from anxiety, and I was offered a combination of medication and talking therapy. I took the talking therapy. It kept things pretty manageable for many years.
When Chris went to seek help because he thought his heart and lungs were going to kill him aged 19 (spooky eh?), he was told it was anxiety and sent away with nothing but propranolol (beta blockers). No explanation, no conversation, just drugs that didn’t even touch the sides.
For a bloke from the east end of Newcastle, that was pretty much that. He didn’t know what an anxiety disorder was, because nobody talked about such things – even after several trips to A&E with what he thought was a serious physical problem. And of course, he was far too proud to beg for help.
It all started at college. He was telling a friend he was having trouble falling asleep, he kept jumping as he drifted off. His friend mentioned that it might be dangerous, she knew of a sleep condition where people stop breathing in their sleep and it could be fatal…
Within an hour of hearing that, during a class exercise, Chris felt like he couldn’t breathe.
“I felt, as I breathed, nothing was getting in. I wasn’t able to get any air in my lungs,” he says. “My body flooded itself with adrenaline, I felt like I was tripping. Colours looked strange, my vision blurred, sweat was dripping off me – and there is a part of the whole experience that I don’t even remember. Like a blackout.”
“I felt that being angry was more acceptable than being scared. It made me feel stronger. Of course, I know now that I wasn’t the only bloke from Walker who lived with anxiety, but back then no one I knew talked about it.”
One of his college mates rushed him straight to A&E where, after much panicked pleading, he was taken into a room and his heart was monitored. He was informed he’d had an anxiety attack and was sent home, armed with the aforementioned propranolol.
The upshot was, Chris still believed he was going to die and still believed there was something seriously wrong with his heart. He didn’t believe the anxiety story because he had no idea what it meant, and the physical symptoms he experienced were so intense it surely couldn’t all be in his head.
He didn’t tell his family, because he didn’t know what to tell them. So he kept quiet. And being an up and coming young actor, he became seriously good at hiding it.
“I felt like a fraud because I was going on stage and people were telling me that I’d put in a great performance, done a good job. But sometimes I could be on stage in front of an audience, delivering my lines while the whole time thinking, ‘God I really hope I don’t die in front of these people,’” he says. “In the middle of the performance I could be having a debate with myself about just how close to death you need to be to justify walking off stage and dying out of public view.”
Chris managed to keep his anxiety at bay just enough to keep functioning as an actor, putting in loads of stage performances around the UK, ram-raiding Byker Grove in a mini and regularly appearing in Crocodile Shoes. His front was so believable that he also blagged a role in a TV drama as Tim Healy’s motorbike-riding son when he’d never set foot on a scooter. (Disclaimer: lying about hobbies at castings is a thing of the past; he truly does enjoy fishing and playing the guitar as his CV now states.)
Part of the act also involved falling into the trap of going out, having fun and drinking, thinking it would solve the problem. But the relief was short-lived and it only made matters worse the next day.
After six or seven years of being in the throes of panic for about 50 per cent of his waking day, Chris began to get angry with himself. The anger diluted the panic, but he was in essence swapping one negative emotion for another, rather than dealing with the root cause of the problem.
“Because I was a young man, I felt that being angry was more acceptable than being scared. It made me feel stronger. Of course, I know now that I wasn’t the only bloke from Walker who lived with anxiety, but back then no one I knew talked about it. So to deal with it I just kept moving. I was always on the go, never turning down a job, never allowing myself to stop and think about it.”
Chris reckons that talking about it would have saved years of excruciating panic and pain. “It will always leave a bitter taste because so much of my life was lost to it. If somebody had done more than simply saying, ‘It’s a panic attack,’ my life might have been different.
“If someone had been able to offer me the services to talk through it and understand it things might have been different. I needed the science behind it, to understand what was happening in my brain. I didn’t have that so I thought it was a personality flaw, a weakness.”
“Access the services. If they’re not presented to you, go and find them. Remember no one is infallible. Look at the people around you – the bloke who lives over the road who is always smiling, the successful managing director, the bubbly call centre operative. They’re not immune to these problems either. You’re not on your own.
“Or to put it another way, if you want to learn how to fix a car you can sit in your garage for weeks getting frustrated, or you can ask someone who knows and get it sussed immediately. From experience, I’d go with the second option. Talk to someone. Save yourself from years of pain.”
Wise words dear husband!
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Neurotic hen-keeper, feline friend and mental health blogger. Prone to catastrophisation and over excitement at the garden centre. Caution: do not give Diet Coke after dark.