Michelle Doherty on post-natal depression: 'All I did was cry - I just couldn't get my head around anything'
With a handsome partner, a successful media career, and a much-longed-for baby, Michelle Doherty appeared to have everything. So why did she feel so sad? She tells our reporter about her battle with the baby blues
Michelle Doherty strolls down Oxford Street looking like someone who has stepped down off a billboard, her long hair swinging, her smile almost as broad as her wide-brimmed hat.
The smile is something of her trademark - conveying instantly an easy, laid-back approachability which, combined with the husky Donegal accent, has made her a familiar face in Ireland.
But for the last year or so, since the birth of her son Max, Michelle has been largely off the radar. Or at least off the airwaves. Recently though, she was back again with a bang, on the big screen this time, following up her breakthrough acting role in the critically-acclaimed What Richard Did, with her first leading lady part in the indie Irish flick, The Hit Producer. She plays the eponymous producer whose shambolic approach to her career leads her into a shady underworld where, she says "her whole life is turned upside down." It was an action role and a meaty complex character for her to take on. "She's a real tough cookie but she's got a real vulnerable side to her as well," Michelle explains. "I didn't think about it too much," she says of how she handled being the star of the piece. "I just got stuck in and I took it each section at a time. . . I kept doing my little scenes every day." She focussed on breaking the thing down into parts rather than on the bigger picture, "because it would have completely overwhelmed me and I think I could have panicked."
Though it's great to see her back, in fact The Hit Producer was filmed some three years ago "just before I moved to London," she says. It's taken some time to reach the cinema. "I was still single, I still had my own life," she says looking back with a smile. "It's just amazing how much has changed."
She moved to London almost on a whim. She'd had enough of her regular job on morning radio and so walked away without a backward glance. The hours were getting her down and she was feeling the strain. "To be putting on a performance at that time in the morning I found really hard," she says.
She was in the market for an acting agent and, frankly, a bit of a change. So in search of both, she relocated across the Irish Sea.
In the end, she got that and a whole a lot more than she expected out of the bargain. Within three months, she'd fallen in love, and had moved in with the man who is now her partner and the father of her 15-month-old baby.
She first met Mark O'Shea (handsome, blue-eyed, bearded) through one of her best friends who did an acting course in LA seven years ago, where Mark was living at the time. This friend came back and told Michelle, "I met the perfect man for you." But Michelle took a little longer to be convinced. Her first impressions were that "Mark was living life to the max, I was like, 'he's a party animal, are you mad?' But it's obviously all about timing," she explains.
She and O'Shea had stayed in touch in the intervening years. And when they both found themselves living in London, it soon became clear something significant had changed between them. "We met again," Michelle says, and this time she realised immediately, "there's something different now, something has clicked into place." And that, quite simply, was that. O'Shea works as a product developer. "Thankfully he doesn't do this for a living," she says airily, with a nod to her own freelance presenter-slash-actor-slash-model existence.
"Otherwise the two of us doing this would be some craic, we'd be like, what are we doing tomorrow? How are we paying the mortgage this month? He's had his own businesses and stuff as well." Ultimately, she thinks their different attitudes are complimentary, "Mark is a very driven person, he likes to have his five-year-plan and he's very ambitious. Whereas I just tend to swan through on a wing and a prayer going, 'ach sure why not?' I do kind of throw stuff out to the universe and say if it's meant to be let it come to me. And maybe that's not the right attitude either but it's been working for me so far," she says.
Perhaps because they had already known each other for some time before they got together, things moved pretty fast. They talked about getting married, but Michelle, now 38, clearly a bit of a pragmatist, said immediately, 'Look, to be honest with you I'd prefer to have a baby." Happily, Marks immediate response was "brilliant, that suits me too." So they had a baby instead of a wedding. "I can't justify spending the money that you'd spend, when I could have a little baby. And we've an apartment and we're putting our money into that as well," she says.
All in all then, her stint in London has been busy and productive. Soon after she arrived she landed a job as a regular presenter on Xpose and commuted between the UK and Ireland until she was seven months pregnant.
But since the arrival of baby Max, professional concerns have taken rather more of a back-seat. There was a period when she tried to juggle the two, bundling up her baby and bringing him with her as she went to castings around London, but overall, she has made the decision to spend as much time as possible with him at home. "I wanted a baby for so long," she admits, "and I was just so happy that I was blessed to be able to have one. I just wanted to spend every minute with him," she says.
There's an unaffected, heart-on-sleeve quality to Michelle that is rare among presenters and those in the public eye, who quickly become used to presenting constructed versions of themselves to the world. She beams while talking about her little boy, saying, "I could just eat him up, he's a wee dote. He's really entertaining now, he never stops talking and he's a real little character. He's a really friendly, outgoing little baby". But she is equally authentic when talking about the challenges she's faced, most especially how a totally unexpected run-in with post-natal depression some time after Max's birth left her feeling floored, and wondering how she would cope. Even now, she admits, that she still struggles, despite the cheery demeanour and the big smile. "I'm still going through it to be honest with you. You just have to learn to deal with it, or, I suppose, you just get stronger," she says.
She'd had a blissful pregnancy, and after Max's birth, initially, all seemed hunky dory. Though she was perhaps a little isolated, having moved to a new city and having had a baby, far away from her closest friends and family.
"It didn't happen to me until about eight months," she says. She had felt a bit low before, perhaps. "But I thought it was because I was lonely and I didn't have my support network. But it really kicked in at eight months. All I did was cry. I just couldn't get my head around anything."
The hardest part, she believes, was not understanding what was going on. As someone who was previously so "full of life and so outgoing," she couldn't get to grips with why she felt so bad. The overwhelming feeling was, "I don't know this. I don't know how to deal with this because it's not me. . . I kept thinking to myself, 'I've got an amazing partner. I've got an amazing, healthy baby boy. What more do you want? What's wrong with you? And you're giving out to yourself saying 'cop on'.' But it's out of your control. There is nothing you can do to stop how you feel . . . I was trying to be really strong for Max on a daily basis when Mark was at work . . . I want him to think life is great, everything is great. I always make a conscious decision, no matter what's happening, I'll always have a happy head on around him. . ." But she says that, in itself, the effort to suppress things takes a heavy toll. "It was just this constant battle, you think, 'Oh my god, is every day going to be like this? Am I always going to feel like this? Am I ever going to be able to shake it off?' That's the scary thing about it."
In the end, she went to speak to her doctor. It was taking this step that helped her to recognise what she was going through, how common it is, and, most importantly, to realise that she wasn't alone. "Nobody ever spoke to me about it, and that's what I found really hard," she says. And I went to talk to the doctor then and I knew that I wasn't on my own, and that it happens to loads of people. It's because of this she thinks it's vital people speak about their experiences. Eventually, she decided to talk about hers. "I spoke about it then because I thought, 'if I can just help one person feel like she's not on her own . . .'" her voice cracks and she trails off, the struggle suddenly close to the surface. She's still going through a process of recovery, and there are days when she still finds it hard. But it's a fleeting moment and she rallies bravely, pulling out a copy of the seminal self-help book You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay, and waving it with conviction. "This my bible," she says with a grin." It's all about positive thinking. I need that every day."
The period after the arrival of a new baby can be fraught, and Michelle was always adamant she'd try to keep a level head and not submit to external pressures. Having fought a genuine setback, the rather more trivial 'baby weight' issue is one she takes particular exception to. "It took me ages to get back to my own shape - ten months," she says. "But I made a conscious decision that I wanted to just see how long naturally it would happen. I think there's so much pressure on people. I've been to hell and back getting this baby into the world, and you think I should be worrying about getting into my skinny jeans? Get a grip," she says. "Each to their own, but it certainly wasn't a priority for me. And I made a conscious decision and I wanted to see how long it would take. Eventually I could see it coming back. And then I started going to the gym. I just thought who am I doing it for? People are obsessed. Every interview I did I was asked, "Are you putting yourself under pressure to get back in shape?'" At which she'd be thinking, "No, I'm not, but thanks for asking me that."
She and Mark would like to have another baby eventually. But for now, she's taking life as it comes, focussing on trying to do the things that help her feel happy, including exercise and building some time for herself into her daily schedule. Her new role as a mum is her main focus these days, but she's keeping the fires of her career burning too. "I now have a little baby who relies on me all the time. I can't be as flippant as I used to be. Work does definitely take a back seat," she says, while adding. "He is work. Do you think I swan around the house all day? I have friends who say it's actually easier to go to work than it is to be a mom, which is 24/7, no escape."
In the meantime, she's pleased to have acting as a relatively new and rewarding strand to her career. Her first break came unsolicited, and pretty much out of the blue. It seems to have taken her a little by surprise. She has had no formal training, winning her first role after she was talent-scouted by the casting agent Louise Kiely who offered her a role in the RTE TV series Trivia. She initially thought of it as a bit of a fluke or a one-off. But the show's director, Tom Hall, told her he thought she was a natural and strongly encouraged her to keep going. Clearly he wasn't alone in recognising her talent. Kiely cast her for a second time, this time in What Richard Did, directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
Her approach to learning a new craft was to simply hand herself over completely to the director, and it's a strategy that seems to have worked really well for her so far. "I'm in their hands," she says. "I'm like, 'you're directing me, you tell me what you think. I'm relying on them to tell me if I'm doing it right or not.'"
It's been a happy new discovery, this unexpected talent she's discovered, though she's by no means consumed with ambition to become a cinema star. "Growing up I would never have been a performer, never even enjoyed drama," she says. "What I found was just because it came naturally to me that I enjoyed it as well. . . I love challenging myself, and I think that's what drives me in life, what's the next challenge for me? What I love about acting is that you are taking on a completely different person. It's not you. Whereas the presenting is all about you. I love taking on a whole new role and life, and you're thrown into this completely different world that you would never otherwise be in."
She hopes there will be more to follow, both in acting and presenting, but for now, in work as in life, she's content to go with the flow and see what comes up.
Website for post-natal depression: www.pnd.ie.
'The Hit Producer' will screen at the Omniplex in Cork, Wexford and Limerick for a special one-evening event on January 13.