Linda Nolan's brave journey back from the brink
A true survivor, Linda Nolan has faced bereavement, cancer and depression. But she's still here, and is back on stage joining a new production of Menopause the Musical. We met up with her
Linda Nolan is having a hot flush. "Excuse me," she says as her cheeks go delicately pink, and she reaches for a tissue with which to dab her brow.
It's a result of the tamoxifen, she explains, that she takes following her breast cancer and mastectomy in 2007, and the chemo she had at the time, which put her into menopause immediately at the age of 47. But there's a silver lining to everything, as she points out with characteristic Nolan humour. Especially as she's about to return to the Irish stage playing one of the lead characters in the smash hit show, Menopause the Musical. "It's the first time in my life I've been a method actress," she jokes. "I will be bringing my hot flushes home with me."
It's an anecdote which encapsulates well the two sides of Linda Nolan's character; the survivor, often under fire, who has faced more than her fair share of trials and tribulations in her time. And the consummate entertainer, practically born into show business, never missing the opportunity for a one-liner or a laugh.
She has, by any standards, been through a hell of a lot in the last decade. But today, when she opens the door of a small detached house in an unassuming, salt-of-the-earth part of east London she seems in good spirits. It's the house of her step-son and his young family, and she seems perfectly at ease here, among the toys, fancy dress costumes and general paraphernalia of domestic life. "I am well actually, at the moment," she says, settling onto the sofa, cuppa in hand. "I'm feeling, you know, better." Certainly she looks glowing, and not just because of the hot flush. Dressed in a shade of turquoise which matches her wide, bright-blue, kohl-lined eyes, she looks like a 60's starlet in her later years.
In fact, Linda's own starlet era was the 1970s and 1980s. Born in Blackpool to Irish parents Linda and her sisters - Anne, Denise, Maureen, Bernie and Coleen - became famous from a young age as an all-singing, all-dancing family performance troupe. As a group they sold 25 million albums worldwide and toured internationally with superstars like Frank Sinatra. Linda's formative years were defined by life on stage. Later, with the help of her manager and husband Brian, she branched out on her own, forging a successful career as a solo-performer, and in musicals.
It had all been going pretty much swimmingly until 2007, when, in quick succession, catastrophe after catastrophe struck, leaving Linda reeling and ultimately, suicidal.
First came her own diagnosis with breast cancer in 2006. Then, her beloved husband was diagnosed with skin cancer and succumbed to the disease less than a year later. Not long after, her mother also died, tipping Linda into a downward spiral. "They call it complex grief," she says, which led into a period of "depression."
The most profound blow was the loss of her husband of 26 years, without whom she found herself absolutely rudderless and lost. "He was my first love. We got together when I was just 20, we got married when I was 22. And we just spent 24/7 together," she says.
Their marriage was unusually robust for a couple in the entertainment industry, as a result, Linda believes, of the fact that they were "together all the time. "I'm not naive in the fact that I know that there are temptations either side for people in this business. ... But when we weren't working we enjoyed going out together."
It was this intense level of dependence that, in part, made his loss so hard to bear. "It's a desperate loss for anybody that loses somebody that they love," she says. "But he completely spoiled me ... I don't drive, because I met Brian when I was 20 and he drove, so I didn't need to." All their lives together he had looked after all the practical matters, "all the paperwork and banking." She felt entirely helpless without him. "It was like losing half of me. When he passed away I thought, I don't know how I'm going to get through the next hour, never mind the next day, or month or year. And the girls and my brothers were amazing. They all offered me to go and live with them. But I wanted to stay in our house. We had a little house in Blackpool, but we loved it and we put our soul into it."
It was her family - her siblings - who got her through, rallying around in the way that only big Irish families can. "They just came in shifts," she says. "Brian used to say that we were like the cavalry. He said when something happens good or bad, your family come from every corner and then they close the circle around you. Just to support and love and be there." There have been disagreements between the siblings in the past, including a very public one when they fell out following a 2009 reunion tour, but Linda insists that "when it came down to stuff that mattered, everything else pales into insignificance."
Seven months after Brian's death, under financial pressure, she tried to go back to work. "It was just horrendous," she says, "because every dressing room I went to was a reminder that Brian wasn't there. Eventually I got ill, ended up in hospital in Northampton with a skin infection."
It was this event which precipitated a long stretch out of full time work and a long recovery. Today, following lots of counselling and with the help of anti-depressants, she is out of depression and working again. There have been setbacks in between, including the death of her sister Bernie in 2013, and a rough ride in the press last year after she was accused of benefits fraud during the period of her convalescence. But she's got through them and is here to tell the tale.
"When Brian first died," she recalls, "the third night in I phoned the Samaritans, because I just couldn't see any life without him. How could there be any life without Brian? And they were amazing. They've helped me a couple of times. First, I did the thing of phoning four times and hanging up. But they're not judgemental, you just tell them what you want, they will listen. I think they did maybe save my life that night." That phone call was the first step towards creating the support system that has eventually put her back on her feet. But there were further setbacks to come. Most markedly one in 2011 to 2012. "I don't know what happened but I just fell into a downward spiral and I woke up one morning and thought "there's no hope. And apparently, when you lose hope, you know...," she says trailing off.
"I did go to see my doctor and my counsellor and they put the crisis team onto me who came round, three of them. I thought they were going to take me away, but they were amazing, and they knew I was suicidal."
She'd gone so far, at that point as to write a suicide note to all her family, which now that she's better, has since become the subject of some family humour. "It sounds a bit crass to say we've laughed about the letter now, because I've showed it to them since, and I'd said: "None of you will have expected me to have lasted this long without Brian, I know you'll understand," she says, going through the broad points. "And then at the end, I put, 'PS please look after Hudson' who is my little dog. When I showed it to them my brother said two things," 'one, we will never understand, and two we're not looking after Hudson. Because we know that'll stop you doing it.'"
She credits her family, the crisis team, and timely medical intervention with bringing her back from the brink.
"There's still such a stigma about talking about mental health issues," she says. "I think it's a shame. My sister Maureen, her big thing is to get me off tablets ... I'm on two anti-depressants, and they help me sleep at night so I'm off my sleeping tablets, and I said to her, 'you know what, Maureen, I could be on anti-depressants for life. Because they now know that it's not just that you need a kick up the backside to get out. It can be a chemical imbalance. And yes, there are things I can do to help it, but somebody who is HIV positive or diabetic, nobody says you must get off your tablets. It's not that there's a stigma there or they think it's terrible, they just think, 'we'd love you not to be on tablets.' That's great but, somebody takes tablets for their high blood pressure or high cholesterol or whatever. I think that's why I haven't been frightened to talk about it."
Making the decision to stop work and focus on getting well was one of the hardest decisions she's made, especially since she'd been raised to adhere to the mantra that "the show must go on."
She first tried to go back in 2011, doing pantomime alongside her sister Maureen. "I thought, I can do this, because we're together, I've got support there, but I wasn't ready then, I was having panic attacks on stage. (Maureen) was amazing, although she was nearly a basket case by the end."
In the end she decided to bow out again until last year, and it was then, back on the road again, sitting in her dressing room alone at Christmas time, with a little Christmas tree that she'd set up herself, that she realised something significant in her had finally changed.
"I remember sitting down, talking to myself - well, talking to Brian really, and I said 'I think you'd be really pleased with me now with me little tree and lights, bless me. I went out and bought it, put it up' - all the things that he would have done if he'd been there. And I sat down and I thought, I feel different. I think I can do this again. It used to happen that when I was on my own, I would be desolate. Not really able to function, thinking of Brian. And it was this panto last year, a couple of nights I sat in my dressing room after rehearsals, and I thought, it is lonely. But I thought, everybody gets lonely. It was different - it wasn't the loneliness that was killing me - where I couldn't cry. And I had to tell myself, it's not because I don't miss Brian any more. It's because I've turned a corner in being able to deal with it."
She felt at risk of relapsing again when, last year, after an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother, she hit the headlines when she was accused of overclaiming for benefits during the period when she wasn't well. For her part, she has always claimed that it was a genuine mistake, and the authorities seemed to agree - eventually dropping all charges.
For someone who had been a grafter for much of her life, being called a cheat was a huge blow to her pride. "I was devastated. People were saying, 'you haven't robbed a bank,' and I was saying, 'you don't understand, I have never had anything to do with the police in my whole life. I've always respected the law'. I felt like I was a loser again. People want to say, no smoke without fire ... It was a bad time in my life." Ultimately, however, she was able to be philosophical about it.
"I am a believer that you have to take the good with the bad - I'm delighted if I'm in the paper and it's a lovely article and people are being nice and so, as hard as it is, because it becomes very public, you have to take the good with the bad."
Despite being "frightened I was going to topple again," she held firm. "I bite my hand. It's kind of a self-harming, I suppose, and I started doing that again when this benefits stuff happened. And the girls said, 'oh Linda'. And I thought, you know what, I haven't done this. So I'm not going to let this bring me back to where I was - that terrible place."
Ultimately, it's the strength of her family that has helped her survive. Even when, they suffered collectively when Bernie Nolan died of cancer in 2013, leaving behind her husband and teenager daughter. When she was first diagnosed, they had all believed she would pull through especially because Linda, and her eldest sister, Anne, had both suffered from the disease and survived.
"I used to say to the girls, it's just so unfair, because I don't have a 14-year-old daughter, and I don't have my husband. And I've wanted to be with him. So why didn't she survive and I didn't. It's just illogical, such a cruel thing."
But she's optimistic about the future. There's rewarding work, of course, the love of her family, and recently, a new passion discovered - being a respite foster parent to children in foster care. "I love kids," she says. "we never had children, and the only reason was because I let my career get in the way. And it is my only regret in life."
She decided to foster after someone noticed that she lit up when talking about her nieces and nephews. So far she's looked after two little boys and loved it. After all this time, she still finds reason to count her blessings.
The nationwide tour starts October 8 and includes two dates at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre Dublin on 13th & 14th. For full tour dates visit www.menopauseireland.com
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