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 panelled study where this stooping elderly man clasped my hand in both of his, for rather longer than felt 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 Joe’s unstable and jealous lover would eventually kill him. The warning signs were there for anyone to see, but Joe simply let things slide. So I flushed my collection of pills down the toilet, phoned my manager and said “Please 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 about to be born. Psychotherapy isn’t the only – or neccessarily even the best – option for helping distressed people inhabit their own skins. But I’m here to tell you that, in my case, it worked.

For more information on getting help with mental health issues see the Mind website.

FACT: Homosexuality was not removed from the official register of mental disorders until 1973. (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual)

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...

17 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!

  2. This is a wonderfully honest account Tom. Thank you so much for sharing and for opening up. I’m sure it will help many many people. RESPECT

  3. Thanks Tom. It’s so important that people talk about this. And it’s equally, perhaps even more important, that people listen…

  4. Elijah Wolf

    Having just gone into therapy thank you for this post x

  5. Moving and informative piece, thanks Tom. I’ve spent the majority of adult life coming to terms with and trying to offer appropriate support to close friends who have lived with and continue to live with varying degrees of mental illness. One particular friend is clearly never going to be able to lead what most of us loosely refer to as a ‘normal life’. But he is one of the sweetest-natured and kind people I know and it touches me that he values the little time we get to spend together so highly. In truth we are all mental health sufferers to a greater or lesser degree whether or not we choose to acknowledge the fact. Unfortunately we still live in a society that stigmatises mental health and mocks the idea of people having therapists. One of my hopes for the next twenty years is that, now that mental health is much more widely talked about, we will see attitudes change and access be made easier for those who want and need help. So every little we can all do to raise awareness has to be worth doing in the meantime.

  6. Emma Miller

    Thank you for sharing this! It’s so helpful to hear open and honest accounts of people’s experiences of mental health (especially in the music industry!). Xx

  7. Insightful and honest as always… this is why I admire you, Tom – you understand and have overcome anxiety and misunderstanding, do and say the right thing whether or not it is pleasing to your audience and fight back exactly how I want to – the “right-on and righteous” verse you added to Glad To Be Gay in response to the attacks you received in the 90s is one of my favourite things you’ve done.

    I’m interested in the definition of the gap between the internal and external world, particularly when trying to fit in with the standards of the external world only to find it isn’t what you were told it was either. I’m anti-fame to the point of self sabotage (I’ve always found the sideshows more interesting than the marquee attraction) which is why I’m interested about how you were “desperate for celebrity”, though not, I believe, at any cost… had Big Brother been a thing back then, would you have applied? Once you became famous, did you discover your actual goal was something else?

  8. Me G

    Total respect Tom
    Great article.

  9. I am a medical doctor. If I have found something particularly difficult in my professional practice it has been to define normality. Tom is right, until not long ago homosexuality was framed in the DSM3 as a pathology; After arduous debates, it was condoned that egodistonic homosexuality could be considered pathological and not ego-syntonic homosexuality. All this is anachronistic now, but it is not such an old debate. The “normal” concept is used frequently and indiscriminately in our society. On many occasions we hear that certain things or behaviors are or are not normal. Now, when we try to define the idea of ??normality, the issue gets complicated. It is difficult to define what is normal and what is pathological, strange or rare.

    A really dangerous aspect of the concept of normality are the associated connotations. Since it is used on many occasions as a meter of what is or is not correct.

    As far as I’m concerned, I’ve understood for a long time that definitions are only an unjust and arbitrary artifice and everything we are, whether common or rare, is the essence of the unique human being that we are and therefore a source of pride.

  10. Sue

    Wow, I have so much admiration for your post Tom. I have very sadly lost both a cousin and a close family friend to suicide. And the Black Mirror comment is so right. I have found, as an academic researcher, that a key feature for the survival of our world and us as humans is valuing and recognizing the importance of diversity.

  11. Richard Lane

    Thankyou

  12. Sarah Thompson

    Heartfelt and insightful – many thanks for sharing. It is just such a pity that here we are revisiting and highlighting issues that should not be issues. No doubt one day we will refer to MHI’s as a three-letter abbreviation and discussions will be commonplace. I can only hope that is in my lifetime.

  13. Jon F

    Thanks Tom it’s a wonderful article. Important, very important, to let people know “you are not alone”.

  14. Ari Andricopoulos

    Tom, lovely article. Ari here from Atsitsa many years ago. Just wanted to say hi! Hope all is great with you.

  15. I have so much respect for you Tom. I have heard you speak of this before but not with such detail, honesty and feeling.
    This is a brave piece of writing.
    Thank you. And thank you for sharing.
    Debs x

  16. Finchden. Such an important place for so many of us. Saved me as well but I should have stayed longer. I had very similar feelings on meeting him in the Oak room in 1970. Life would have been very different without him.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. George Lyward | Fresh On The Net

Comments are now closed for this article.