Revealed: The real Denise Welch
As she prepares to appear in 'Calendar Girls', actor Denise Welch bares all about post-natal depression, the drink-and-drug years and feeling fabulous at 60
'I feel now that I've changed my mindset. It's not 'oh my God, I'm 60', it's 'I'm only 60!' That's how I feel. Of course I have days, like everybody, where it's hard to think that, but in general that's the viewpoint I take."
So says Denise Welch, actor and presenter (Coronation Street, Waterloo Road, Loose Women), adding: "I feel better now at 60 than I did at 40 or 50, and if I want to wear an effing bikini, I effing well will."
This last is apropos of social media trolls who try to tell her that the pictures she occasionally posts up are somehow inappropriate - "I get a lot of flak for posting a bikini shot here and there, but it's not about going 'hey, look at me, I'm 60 and wearing a bikini!' It's about saying 'I'm 60 and nobody's going to tell me whether I can wear a bikini or not!'"
And the outburst is particularly apposite now because Denise is appearing in Gary Barlow and Tim Firth's production of Calendar Girls: The Musical, a show that is, of course, about a bunch of middle-aged women taking their clothes off for charity.
The play, she says, "feeds totally into what I'm about. It shows this bunch of extraordinary older women who did something 20 years ago, and we're still celebrating them. It's about the empowering of the older woman.
"You see, a lot of women of a certain age, they feel they become invisible. This show wouldn't work if we were younger or had nubile bodies. That's the whole point of this: That it was a group of ordinary women. Older women. And older women should not take their clothes off - that's always been the thing, hasn't it? And why the hell not? The proof is in the pudding as it were. They set out to raise £500 to buy a sofa for the relatives' room in a hospital, and 20 years later they've raised millions for Bloodwise."
Denise's enjoyment of the triumph of these women of the Yorkshire Women's Institute is very obvious. As is her sincerity when she says she feels better now than she did 10 or 20 years ago. That's because 30 years ago, within seven days of having her first child, Matthew, she became "incredibly poorly."
Which seems to be an upbeat north of England (Denise is from Tyneside) way of saying frighteningly depressed.
She goes on to describe "unexpected and very severe post-natal depression, on the verge of puerperal psychosis. I had no history of clinical depression, no psychiatric illness of any sort and then, this. I was the typical blooming woman in pregnancy - absolutely everything was amazing. Everything went wrong afterwards."
Post-natal depression is, she says, almost the worst. "Getting clinical depression is horrendous anyway, but when you are the sole carer for this baby… it robs you of your ability to love." During that time - the worst of it lasted around six months, she thinks - "I didn't know who the baby was at first. It was a very odd time for me."
Thank God for family. "My saviour was my family," Denise says. "My mum used to say to me every day 'you will get better, you will get better'. My family were just incredible. I can understand why things go awry for people, because if I hadn't had that, I don't know where I would be.
"My mum had to take time off work and stay with me, poor Tim [Denise's then-husband, actor Tim Healy] was doing two jobs, it was an awful time. At first I could hardly even talk, I was sort of catatonic.
"The lactation process stopped with a panic attack; I had no breast milk at all at seven days. I remember, we had this long kitchen in Highgate in London, where Tim and I lived, and I can remember to this day, the thought of going up this kitchen to put the bottles in the Milton and start all that sterilisation stuff, was like someone had said to me to climb Kilimanjaro."
By a stroke of luck, Denise's mother was a psychiatric nurse, and "very clever," Denise says. "She used to put Matthew in my arms every few hours so at least I was keeping up the physical bond with him, even though I wasn't feeling anything."
How long did that nothing-feeling last? "The ability to love, it comes back. That's something I need to tell people. It comes back. I started to get some feeling back in my life after about six months. But, people say to me 'how long did you have post-natal depression for?' and I say '30 years'."
Until now, Denise has been composed, even upbeat, in her description of what happened after Matthew was born, but that goes when she starts to describe a song which Matthew, who is lead singer with rock band The 1975, wrote. "The last song on his second album is called She Lays Down and it's a wonderful song about his memory of how, when he was older, I explained my depression to him. I told him I used to lie down next to him - it gives me a lump in my throat, saying this - praying."
Her voice breaks as she speaks, with tears clearly close by, but she pushes on: "I'm not religious, but I was praying, pleading with something, to help me love my child."
There is a moment of silence, and then she rights herself. For all her admirable honesty, I get the impression Denise doesn't like to show too much vulnerability. Instead, she tries to find a positive. Any positive.
"Thirty years ago, nobody in the public eye was talking about mental illness," she says. "I decided - I wasn't very well-known then, but I had done bits and bobs - I decided I would. My agent at the time said 'darling, you can't talk about this, people will think you're mad!'
"But I decided, against all professional advice, that I would speak out. At the time when I was first poorly, I would have given anything to turn on the TV and see someone saying 'I was where you are now, but I've got two children and, yes, I still suffer from this illness but most of the time life is great.' There was nothing and nobody to say that to me. I was like a lone voice in the wilderness."
That episode of post-natal depression, although she came through it, sparked off "my lifetime relationship with clinical depression." And, initially anyway, there wasn't much professional help. "My GP said 'well, I had five children dear, and I just didn't have time to get depressed'."
Denise also later found out that there is an oestrogen component to her depression - "I said to so many doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, I think the origin of my depression was hormonal. If something as monumental as a baby comes out of your fou-fou, it's quite a big thing! But they'd say it's got nothing to do with hormones…
"And then, after 20 years, a doctor found I was so deficient in oestrogen - he didn't know how I survived."
Supplementing with oestrogen "hasn't made everything go away, but it has made a huge difference. I will remain on oestrogen forever, I will take an anti-depressant forever, as far as I'm concerned. It's like, to me, if you are diabetic, you take insulin. That's how I feel. That's how I survive."
However, in the short term, Denise turned to what she describes as "self-medicating. I had a very well-chronicled battle with drink and drugs. I never excuse my behaviour, but there are reasons for it, although I take full responsibility for what happened.
"I became like Party Spice, Drunk Spice. I started to drink too much and that led to other things. I started to spiral. And that was quite public - at the time, I was doing Coronation Street (she played Natalie Barnes from 1997 to 2000), and that was watched by 25 million people at the time. My life was quite public."
Unable to take time off - "I think if I had something physically wrong with me, I would have had to. But with a mental illness, it's amazing how frightened I was to say anything" - she battled through, never calling in sick.
And, she is quick to point out, "it's not like I was staggering around the house with a vodka bottle. I have brought up two amazing children, so it was almost like I had a double life. I was functioning, I was going to work - albeit sometimes straight from being out. I didn't ever not go to work. I didn't ever not perform. But I was terrified of the come-down, so it's perpetual, and it was just awful."
During this time, she and Tim, who was her second husband, separated and divorced, and Denise met Lincoln Townley, her third husband.
"He was running Stringfellows nightclub and we met at six o'clock in the morning in a nightclub. We formed, amidst this madness, as he sometimes calls it, a very special bond."
Did she fall in love?
"Yeah, I did. Immediately. And the only thing that was going to stop the marriage that we have now was our lifestyle. As Lincoln said, 'nobody ever got up at an awards ceremony and said I'd like to thank alcohol and drugs for getting me to where I am today'."
They decided, together, to quit. "He stopped drinking first and two months later I followed suit, and that was nearly seven years ago."
What kind of difference has that made?
"Our life is wonderful and our marriage is great, and the ripple effect of course is how it impacts on your family and the people who love you because they're the people who suffer the most. There were a lot of hangers-on in my life, people who wanted me to be the leader of the party, and same with Lincoln. And now Lincoln is a contemporary artist of international reputation. He didn't start painting professionally until he was 40; he's now 46. It's been a complete turnaround for both of us."
So Lincoln is younger?
"Yes, by 15 years," and then she laughs, "well done me!"
She is quick to point out, "giving up alcohol does not cure clinical depression, but it stops compounding it. My episodes are now much shorter-lived and I deal with them better. But my depression is endogenous, so I don't know when it's going to come. It's not reactive.
"When my mum died - when you would think it might happen - it didn't, but last year it happened when I was sat on a beach in the Caribbean. Mine usually starts with a slightly metallic taste in my mouth, a tingling in my palms, and the colour starts to go from my life, and I know - it's coming."
And then what?
"There's nothing I can do about it. I think 'here we go,' and I just have to hang on." Then she adds, "I'd like everybody in the world to have clinical depression for 15 seconds, and then for it to go. But just to see what it is, the difference - it's an illness, not an emotion. It's not sadness. You feel sadness, whereas depression depresses everything. The clue is in the word. It depresses every emotion so you lose your ability to feel happiness or sadness. It's a nothingness."
Her illness "determines every professional decision I make. This show for example, my commitment is nine months, eight shows a week, and I am aware that during that time, my illness can happen.
"So I have an understudy, which is always a good security blanket, but I prefer to be on stage if I can. I have to think it through: 'will I have the support? If I go there, will Lincoln be able to get to me, will I be able to get home?'"
Looking back now, Denise says "I have guilt to this day. But my eldest son, Matthew says 'mum, the fact is, you gave up drinking and you've given me and Louis wings to fly. If you weren't in the place you are now, I wouldn't be able to travel internationally because I would be worried about you…' So I feel grateful that Tim and I raised two great kids, who love me regardless."
And, she is adamant, "I wouldn't swap my life for anyone's. There were really serious episodes, but even so I wouldn't swap my life because I've been able to learn and give back and become a better person. Also, not many people appreciate feeling normal.
"People always want to feel happy. I just want to be normal. Normal is good. Content is good. The highs are great but I like having the ability to wake up and feel normal - that's my happiness."
Calendar Girls The Musical is at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin from January 22 to February 2. For more details see bordgaisenergytheatre.com
Sunday Indo Living