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Tuesday 23 September 2014

'That day, I cried and cried like never before and I couldn't stop'

In an exclusive interview, Michael Graham talks to Niamh Horan about his depression

Published 19/04/2009 | 00:00

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'COME here and give me some love." Michael Graham walks over, arms outstretched, and pulls me into a tight bearhug.

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We've never met before and it catches me completely off-guard -- demolishing every preconception I've ever held about the so-called quietest member of Boyzone.

I was warned to treat him gently. That this "tough as nails" lad from Dublin's northside wouldn't take kindly to being probed on sensitive issues. That he would simply turn on his heels if he felt the interview wasn't going his way.

Instead, I meet a sensitive soul who has gone through the despair of deep depression and has come back to tell the tale.

For the first time, he has found the courage to talk openly about his nervous breakdown and how the day he found himself crying for hours in front of his wife has made him more of a man than ever before.

He readily admits that he is the last "frontier" of Boyzone, "the darkness that has to be explored". A trawl through dozens of interviews with the band produces only a few lines attributed to the pop star, who spent years staying in the background as the other members took centre stage.

So who is the real Michael Graham, the artist formerly known as Mikey Graham?

"Who am I?" he asks, echoing my question. "A rainbow. Many colours, many facets. But there's a streak of black in that rainbow."

He explains how that one dark streak consumed his world.

"I don't know if this was my surrender, but I just remember one day I cried and cried like I never had before and I just couldn't stop.

"I was at home and my stress levels had been building and building and I was fighting and fighting them inside myself. I had been saying to my wife a couple of weeks beforehand that I was really uptight and stressed. I could feel this rising [anxiety] happening inside me and I didn't know what it was. All I knew was that the anxiousness was overtaking me and the panic attacks were beginning to return which I hadn't had since I was a kid.

"So I began to get really frightened and wondering when everything I had ever learned [about controlling my emotions] would come into play. That day, I'm telling you, I just cried and cried and cried for hours and hours and hours on end. My wife was hugely supportive, but that was a moment of surrender and from then on I began to understand completely how this [depression] works."

"Was it a nervous breakdown?" I ask.

"Yeah, you can call it what you want. You can put whatever label you want on it but really it is an emotional overload. [People don't like the words 'nervous breakdown'] because that means there's something wrong with you," he says.

But he adds, "My wife thought it was the bravest thing I ever did. I broke a barrier and she thought it was courageous and the manliest thing she'd ever seen me do."

Looking back, he believes the root of the problem stretches as far into his past as his early childhood.

"Anyone who has experienced low depression will understand the feeling inside . . . the emptiness," he says.

"The people who have experienced it more than others are the people who have been in environments which have been negative, particularly during the first seven years of their life. That's when you're most impressionable," he explains.

"Without a doubt [my depression stems from childhood]. At the time, I didn't know what it was, I didn't understand it. I was having panic attacks at seven years of age.

"I would keep ignoring it but it would keep coming back, knocking on my window. But nobody else would have known because I was socially conditioned to keep it well hidden," he explains.

Years later, his days touring with the world's biggest boy band afforded him a window of escape. The roar of the crowd, the fanaticism and party lifestyle allowed him to reach moments of elation where the pain of depression was the furthest thing from his mind.

But inevitably the pendulum would swing back, and as the stage lights dimmed and he found himself all alone in an empty hotel room, the darkness would find him once more.

"There were many, many low points. Particularly when you are full of drink and the party is over and you are left sitting on your own with your own thoughts.

"When you're in a famous band, you learn an awful lot about the nature of human beings and how everybody is attracted to the flame and wants a bit of heat off the fire. People are willing to do almost anything to become a part of that world," he says.

Having seen the excesses that go hand in hand with celebrity, the 36-year-old musician says he "finally reached a point where I said 'this can't be what life is all about', where you think you have everything yet you don't have yourself".

By his late 20s, he had all the materialistic trappings he believed would bring happiness and yet they still left him yearning for more.

"Why is that?" He reasons, "Because you're living from the ego point of view and you're chasing these things all the time. The new car and the new house only contain so much energy, so after a while you become bored with it and you're looking for the next high."

And so he says he set off on a "spiritual journey", reading everything from CS Lewis to Sigmund Freud.

"The journey has taken 12 years, and in the last two years I've reached a point where I have awareness, but I'm still trying to reach the place of complete surrender and enlightenment. A complete letting go of the egotistical way of living."

And yet he has the wisdom to know that this searching, along with his struggle with depression, is a battle that he will fight his entire life.

"It's not a case of overcoming it, it's a case of accepting it. When I accepted it as part of my humanity, it wasn't so bad anymore" he says.

I ask him if a low point ever left him on the brink of suicide. He gives a hauntingly honest reply.

"You'd want to be very brave to do that. I don't have the braveness to do that. I'd be too scared."

Still, he has seen three friends lose their lives to suicide and knows the pain and devastation of such a loss.

"I would never do it. I've witnessed it three times and it's like an atomic bomb going off. It's not the intention of the person, it's because they're lost in such a negative thought pattern. They are so tired and beat up."

Now he wants to use his experiences to help others. Aside from penning a book on the workings of the mind, he has plans to set up a centre to help others who are in the throes of depression.

"I can spot people a mile away who have that potential [to self harm] and it is my intention to try and help people who suffer from mental illness. I'm hoping to shine a light on the problem. With the economic climate that we're in at the moment, I hate to say it but these types of cases will become a lot more prevalent, particularly with the younger age group, especially younger males."

And it's the 'tough as nails' image that he believes young men need to shed.

I ask about the image he projected for so long. "That's the social armour," he says with a shrug. "I think a lot of people see me as that because it's the only way I've presented myself until this point. Until I became comfortable enough in myself to realise, 'Well, actually in being a man there's nothing wrong with being human as well.'

"I learned from my father, because his generation taught him that boys don't cry and

you've got to be tough as nails. I took up kickboxing and I had all the scraps, and I did all of those different things trying to prove my manhood to myself more than anybody else," he says.

"I'm tired of trying to hide emotion or thinking it has to be subdued and I grew up with that and was tormented with that until I realised, no that's not the way it's supposed to be.

"We've been socially conditioned to believe there's some kind of weakness if you do. But if you don't face your fear, you'll never be a man."

As the interview draws to a close, he's keen to point out that I shouldn't forget his rainbow analogy and the many other colours running through his life.

His relationship with his wife is now stronger than ever, and he describes the moment he wakes and hears the chirpy voices of his two young daughters as being "what life is all about".

It seems such a long way to have travelled for a man who described the lowest ebb of his depression as "lying in the bed in the morning when you're in the blues and you don't want to open those curtains and you can't get out of bed. You can't really see the point in going and having a shave or shower or doing anything else. You just want to close your eyes and go back asleep because you don't want to think about things and you start thinking as soon as you wake".

As he stands up to leave, he sends another big hug my way and expresses his hope that his honesty about his struggle will help others who have experienced the same.

It seems Michael is still on the journey to self-enlightenment, but these days he's enjoying the trip.

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