Depression & Mental Illness

Tom Robinson 2002

Photo and text from Mind Out for Mental Health‘s 1 in 4 project, 2002.One way of looking at mental health problems is as a gap between the way we view the world internally and the way we experience it externally. If there’s too big a gap we get into trouble.I went to a co-ed boarding school in the 60s and fell in love with another boy there. This was a time when people were sent to prison if they were gay. I was so ashamed, I would rather have died than admit to anyone I was queer – in fact that was the option I chose. I took an overdose at 16 and having failed to kill myself, emotionally I fell to pieces.Mental illness was treated like a variant of physical illness in those days. I was bundled off to a mental hospital and made to sit in bed wearing pyjamas, having my temperature taken. The doctors and psychiatrists showed me inkblot tests and stuff and didn’t even get close to what was really bothering me.What saved me was being referred to Finchden Manor, a therapeutic community for disturbed adolescent boys, run by the great visionary and healer George Lyward. He had already understood and foreseen the growing crisis of masculinity which has since overtaken us.

When I first arrived I was shown into an oak paneled study where this stooping old tortoise of a man clasped my hand in both of his, for rather longer than was comfortable, and looked deep into my eyes. “Hmm – you’re very lonely, aren’t you ?” he said. And that was it – after all the drugs and inkblot tests back at the hospital – here at last was somebody actually understood what it felt like to be inside my skin. He talked to me for over an hour with complete perception and understanding, and it felt as if the whole of my life had been transformed.Finchden looked quite scary and unsettling – with forty or more “maladjusted” boys running wild all over this rambling Jacobean manor house. But I knew instinctively it was my one chance to choose Life, with all its uncertainty and vibrancy – rather than going back to the slow suffocation of boarding school. For the next six years Finchden Manor became my home with George Lyward protecting all of us from the pressures of the outside world – even (maybe especially) from our own parents.At 23 I left and moved to London, where I joined a band and eventually had my 15 minutes of fame in the late Seventies. I desperately wanted celebrity, to win the unconditional love and approval of a large mass of people, to validate my existence. I didn’t feel worthy or capable of winning that love one to one.

My self-esteem became inseparable from my career. If you’d asked me how I was, I’d have said “the new single’s doing really well, thanks.” But in fact the pressures of fame proved intolerable and everything soon fell to bits – the hits stopped happening, the bands broke up and the money ran out.And when a journalist wrote that I was crap, I believed that too. Disaster followed and I became more and more withdrawn, not answering the phone, seldom going out. By 30 I had started collecting painkillers for another suicide dose.

But then I had a second chance of choosing life. Reading Joe Orton’s biography (“Prick Up Your Ears” by John Lahr, later a movie) I was suddenly struck by how clear it was – years before the event – that his lover would eventually kill him. The warning signs were there for anyone to see, but he simply let things slide. So I flushed my collection of pills down the toilet, phoned my manager and said “Find me a shrink, any shrink – now.”

I kept quiet for a long time about the fact that I was in therapy. Having a public career profile, I didn’t think it would help my work prospects or dignity to admit to depression. Above all I didn’t want anyone to imagine I was seeking to be “cured” of my bisexuality, which was very far from the case.

I was in therapy for ten years. At the beginning, I couldn’t have sustained a relationship with an ant, but within a couple of years I’d started seeing lovers again. Having had relationships with both men and women, I could easily have fallen in love with someone of either sex at this point. In the event it turned out to be a woman. By the time I left therapy we’d been in a steady relationship for four years and our first child was born shortly afterwards. Although people like Woody Allen poke fun at it, there’s no question – psychotherapy works.

FACT: Homosexuality was not removed from the official register of mental disorders until 1973. (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual)
For more information see the Mind website.

Tom Robinson

London-based broadcaster & songwriter, born 1950. His best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby; he has also co-written songs with Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. Read More...

1 Comments

  1. Good man yourself Tom, that’s a very brave and important post.

    For men to admit to having mental health problems, from feeling a bit down to very serious depression, is still seen as a big issue.

    I believe women form supportive networks of friends who talk about their feelings much more easily than men. No fair! We should be ok to talk about more than football.

    So well done for helping us do that!

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