“You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here…” ACTING, DEPRESSION & ME by Brendan Purcell

Here’s a wonderfully open and honest GUEST BLOG by actor BRENDAN PURCELL on the stresses and strains of forging an acting career while dealing with depression. 

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BRENDAN PURCELL

An actors life is crazy. Uncertainty, constant rejection, frustration, poverty, lack of security with the continual need to be positive during all of this and pretend it doesn’t bother you. It does. All of us on every rung of the ladder. It takes it’s toll. The mental health charity, MIND, suggest 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem throughout their lifetime. This number rises to 1 in 3 among artistic people. I know this statistic because I suffer from bipolar disorder.

Many people believe bipolar disorder means you are either incredibly happy or sad but it’s more than that. You effectively become two different people, which for your own sanity can be a jagged experience. Constantly being unaware of which “you” you will be from one day to the next is incredibly difficult. Utter elation mixed with impending come downs and all beyond your control. I’ve been out of drama college for 9 years with mixed success and like the majority of us, with very little financial reward to show for it. I can honestly say that for the times I’ve been working, creating a character and telling a story have been among the best experiences I’ve had. The times I haven’t have been among the worst. It’s not an attitude, it’s a chemical imbalance in your brain and not something you can merely switch off or snap out of. The most difficult facet I’ve found with my situation is finding the energy. Getting out of bed on a “bad” day is a victory in itself. When you’re off to a casting, you have to forget that you feel worthless and shit compared to everyone else, something that isn’t possible when your brain is wired to believe nothing else. You shake hands, put on a smile and throw on a air of confidence to get you through it. It’s often the same just for simple meetings or bumping into somebody. You’re not trying to be disingenuous but it is a safer bet than being yourself in those moments. The stigma you face when people know you have a problem is very real. The end result of all this is that you get home to the people closest to you and they get the brunt of it. They get the version of you that is exhausted from being sat in front of a casting director for five grisly minutes where you pretended to be functional and is now a sullen, erratic, snappy grey cloud looming around the flat. It isn’t great for keeping close friends, which in turn isn’t ideal when you’re also living in London and have spells where you’re very much alone.

 

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Depression isn’t about feeling a little sad, it’s more feeling nothing at all. Earlier this year, I stood on a platform on the underground and seriously questioned if I should jump in front of the next train. I’m not saying this for sympathy or to shock you but I think it’s something people need to know. I was working in a different field at the time, totally separate to acting. A well paid job with a great boss and work I could do well and knew would be there for me come Monday morning. However there I was on the Jubilee line, exhausted and numb to everything. I didn’t particularly want to die, nor did I have a decent reason to, but I didn’t want to spend the next fortnight feeling nothing at all. The only reason I didn’t do it was because I knew it would mess up everyone’s day. Besides, imagine the indignity of being referred to as “a passenger incident” to everyone on their way to work. You can’t even get a star billing in your own sodding suicide.

In the following days I set out to think of the least painful and quickest way to die. I won’t bore you with the details or the research I conducted, largely via google, but safe to say if Britain allowed access to guns, I can imagine I may not be here today and writing this. There are a plethora of people within our industry who struggle with this. Some openly and very publicly. Stephen Fry often talks about his struggles and uses his profile to raise awareness. We all remember the global sadness when Robin Williams took his life. Paul Bhattacharjee’s death several years ago resonates deeply with me even today. I’ve watched with utter disbelief as the press have started to hound Sheridan Smith, a national treasure one week and a mess the next depending on which story the editor believes will make more money. I have no idea if Sheridan has any illness but she’s a human being and that alone deserves a lot more than pages of vitriol but a lot of love and support.

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The stigma is something we can be proactive about. People battling depression are not monsters and aren’t at constant risk of suddenly killing themselves 24 hours a day. Stigma is exacerbated by the media. Reports often link mental illness with violence, or portray people with mental health problems as dangerous, criminal, evil, or very disabled and unable to live normal, fulfilled lives. This is far from the case. We are a community of artists, a very volatile existence that lends itself to paranoia and fickleness. A breeding ground for self doubt and a dark cloud to escape at the best of times. We aren’t asking for special treatment or pity, just a tiny bit of your patience and understanding. Maybe a hug every now and again. Then again, wouldn’t that just be a sweet thing to do for everyone? On the whole, people are compassionate, important then not to forget that.

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