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Sunday 11 December 2016

'It was like my happy-go-lucky side was turned off' - Al Porter

The comedian speaks about depression after his TV confession reaches more than a million people

Published 20/11/2016 | 18:00

Al Porter. Photo: David Conachy
Al Porter. Photo: David Conachy

Al Porter has done a rare thing. He has shown his complete and utter vulnerability. In a short speech on Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge, he held his prescription medication aloft and spoke candidly about his battle with depression.

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Now hailed as the television moment of the year, people in homes across the country stopped what they were doing and listened to that rare mix of truth, courage and openness.

Sitting down last Friday afternoon, after the footage went viral, reaching more than a million people in the first 12 hours, he is straight out of the traps with a provision.

"This is probably one of, if not the last time, I'll do an interview on this. It is important to me that I get on with my job now. The reason I said it was for the benefit of openness and authenticity and maybe a bit of good could can come from it. I'll do charity events and help out where I can but it's not going to become a part of the theme of what I do."

The most notable aspect behind his decision is that it is of no personal benefit to himself: "I have no book, I have no DVD, there's not one coming out soon and all of my shows are sold out. I've nothing to sell and nothing to gain by doing this."

Only hours before the award-winning RTE show on Wednesday, he decided to talk. He was due to launch an event highlighting the suicide rate among young men in his local area of Tallaght.

Three boys from his former school alone have taken their lives.

He realised that if he was going to open the event he had to tell his own story.

It is his description of his struggle with the everyday nuances of life that may hit home hardest with people who are in the same position.

"I can describe moments of feeling really down, like really, a kind of despair," he said. "It's that feeling of a huge exasperated sigh, head in your hands, at the kitchen table not necessarily crying, but just going 'how am I going to do another f*****g day of this?'. And it was only from dealing with minor things. This is what I realised. Where a phone call to the agent is like, 'Jesus!!'. You know? Every conversation with your mam, every time you are going to meet your mates for a pint, there is the whole debate of: 'Do I really want to get out of bed and put on my clothes and go down and smile and chat to them while I'm actually not in the mood?' Just the whole drain."

What worried him even more than these moments of utter despair were periods where he just felt nothing.

There is, he says, a "healthy sustenance" and "release" in times of sadness. "You could listen to very sad music like Nina Simone and go, 'yeah there's richness in the texture of life'," he said.

"But numbness? That's completely different. That's worrying."

The feeling first hit him when he was 18 or 19 years old. "That was the first time where there was a big switch in my mentality," he said. "It was like something was turned off which was the 'happy-go-lucky, optimistic side I always had. And it was replaced by a cynicism.

"Ever since then I was always on this quest trying to find a kind of happiness, some contentment."

I ask if it could be linked to what French philosopher Blaise Pascal touched upon: the idea of a 'God-shaped hole' in the soul. Porter has previously spoken about his desire to become a priest until he lost his faith at 18.

"It was around a similar time, yeah," he said. "Maybe there is a link there. Maybe I was finding comfort in the idea of a third party who says 'those who suffer are the closest to God'... that was a crutch for me. If I was feeling down [back then], there was always prayer or something else there.

"When you don't have that and you admit to yourself that you are an atheist, and acknowledge 'I'm alone in this chaotic, meaningless, mistaken chance of an existence', then you ask yourself: 'what's the crutch? What do I cling on to?'

He references his favourite philosopher, Albert Camus, and cites his philosophy of the absurd: "Life is completely meaningless and then you have to live it."

It seems ironic that this year, the most successful year in his career, he hit breaking point.

"I realised this feeling had lasted longer than ever before," he said. "There are times where you go, 'Oh this is seasonal affective disorder (SAD),' then you go - 'maybe it's because I haven't dated in a while; maybe I need to have more sex or maybe I don't'.

"I've been through all that. Believe me. I've done the drink, I've done the sex, I've done all that stuff and this year it's lasted the longest that it ever lasted."

He was away with friends in June when the need to seek medical help finally hit home: "It was sunny, drinks, great craic and just none it amused me, none of it stunned me, none of it made me smile, it didn't matter that it was really sunny. Like you'd have normal reactions to things - if it's gorgeous out and you walk out in Florence or wherever, you go, 'Wow look at this etc'. I had nothing."

He came home and his doctor diagnosed him with depression and prescribed him medication.

Since then he says the vast majority of his symptoms have disappeared. He feels more positive and able to deal with life than he has done in years.

"There are growing pains that I'm negotiating and working out," he said. "Although, because I've got a handle on it and it's all very steady I'm kind of rocking and rolling with it and everything's going very well. I would say that I do feel very happy and I do feel that in my friendships with the kind of core group that I have - now it's more positive than ever."

He is adamant, given his profession, he does not want to be classed as a 'sad clown'.

But perhaps what is most poignant is that his on-stage presence reminds us how people around us can suffer with depression without us ever knowing their struggle inside. For Al, he was lucky he found his release in the passion of work. "I remember when I was in the Civic Theatre and I was bent double and feeling, 'Jesus here we go again'. And then I hear the music and the voice goes: 'It's Al Porter' and the cheer went up and I went out, upright, no pain, no nothing and just wanted to make people smile. It's really important for me that people don't think 'when he's on stage 'is he really feeling sad?' I'm not. I'm never happier, never more at ease and just at one with whoever the f**k I am and whoever the f**k the universe is. And I'm hoping - in those two hours - the people who come to see me are almost feeling exactly how I'm feeling on stage, which is pure and utter bliss."

Sunday Independent

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