'I'm sick of the toxic positivity' - Holly Carpenter opens up about finding a way out of darkness

Influencer Holly Carpenter tells Liadan Hynes why she has no regrets about going public with her mental health struggles, how she manages her phases of depression and how she is sick of 'toxic positivity' during lockdown

Holly Carpenter at home in Dublin. Photo by Steve Humphreys

This is the picture Holly tweeted to let her followers know that she was not feeling well that day and the lockdown was taking its toll on her mental health

Holly Carpenter was Miss Ireland 2011

thumbnail: Holly Carpenter at home in Dublin. Photo by Steve Humphreys
thumbnail: This is the picture Holly tweeted to let her followers know that she was not feeling well that day and the lockdown was taking its toll on her mental health
thumbnail: Holly Carpenter was Miss Ireland 2011

Just over two weeks ago, above a picture of herself smiling and holding a coffee, Holly Carpenter posted a tweet to her 31,400 followers which read: "Kept my sunnies on for most of the day yesterday because my eyes were bloodshot from crying. I've struggled with my mental health since I was 20 and I've been on anti-depressants since the age of 24. Sometimes depression looks confident & happy x."

The former model and Miss Ireland had in the past referred to difficult phases, to feeling anxiety, but this was the first time she had specifically described suffering from depression.

"I wasn't expecting to get such a big response from it," she says now, sitting in the kitchen of the Dublin home she bought early this year. "Sometimes with Twitter and Instagram, I'm very cautious with what I say. I just had a moment where it all felt too much, and I was really honest in that moment."

She also, she recalls, had felt a sense of frustration at the fact that in conversation, everyone was saying how hard they were finding this lockdown.

This is the picture Holly tweeted to let her followers know that she was not feeling well that day and the lockdown was taking its toll on her mental health

"But then I'd go on Instagram and I felt that there was a lot of positivity, but it's this kind of toxic positivity, where people are like 'no bad days, only good vibes, come on let's get on with it, we can do this'. And I know that people are trying to help, but I just felt a bit sick of it. I thought 'I don't want to come on my Instagram, and do that, and say to everyone, hey, we're going to be fine', because I don't feel like that."

She's glad now, she says, that she posted about how she was really feeling. There was a huge response, of friends checking in, and strangers confiding that they too were struggling. But given she was having a difficult week, it also felt a bit much.

"I had to take a couple of days where I didn't reply to anyone. I just had a really tough week. I think you have to be accountable with yourself as well. Look at the way you're living, and go, 'is this really helping the situation?'. I think I'd been burying my head in the sand too much, and then I was suffocating."

Holly Carpenter was Miss Ireland 2011

It isn't a spur-of-the-moment decision to open up about her depression, she says. "There have been definitely times over the last few years where I've wanted to talk about stuff more openly. But I've felt like we have had a bit of a wave over the last couple of years, with a lot of people coming out and talking about their mental health.

"And it's brilliant, but I just was cautious of looking like I was trying to hop on any kind of bandwagon - I think especially more so with women, people are quick to say that they're looking for attention. I feel like if a sports star comes out with a book, people say 'oh, he's so brave'. Whereas women are expected to be stronger than men, I think. Otherwise we come across as being emotional, or dramatic."

Holly adds that she was reluctant to seem as if, by sharing what worked for her, she was trying to push a certain course of action on others; the un- asked-for responsibility anyone who speaks openly about mental health and mental illness will recognise.

Now 29, Holly first saw a therapist at the age of 19, the age that she entered a very public stage of her life. A student in the National College of Art & Design, she won the Miss Ireland pageant.

"It was such a big change for me. I went from college nights out to being at the VIP Style Awards, or the opening of something." The fact that Holly is the granddaughter of social columnist Terry Keane only added to the attention she received.

A lot of it was fun, and exciting, recalls Holly, who grew up in Raheny, with her parents Karl and Jane, and younger brother Ben. But a lot of it was detrimental.

"Things that I wanted to do, like Miss World, and Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model, were amazing, but they also messed with my own self-worth a lot. I always felt that if my skin was clear, and I was thin, then I'd be making more money. I'd be doing better. I kind of thought that that was what would make me happy. I was always trying different diets, comparing myself to other people. And it was just a rat race that was exhausting."

She began to obsess about her weight, and to over-exercise at this time. She trained so hard her periods stopped for a year. Her doctor told her she was underweight. She says that modelling agents commented that she had "gotten big again".

Close to tears, Holly talks about the weekly cycle of bulimia she suffered, unbeknownst to most around her.

"With eating disorders, you think that you're going to see someone who is tiny and skeletal. But I know so many girls who've struggled with bulimia, and all of those kinds of things, behind closed doors, and it's not written across their face. So I think the most detrimental things have been those that people haven't seen. Like I haven't had it written across my face that I was making myself sick, that I was depressed," she says.

From the outside, all appeared to be fine, she explains.

"That was when I was really trying to pretend to be OK. I was still able to walk into a room full of strangers on a shoot; I'd be grand. But then I'd still be so hyper-critical when the pictures would come out.

"I would starve myself during the week, and then I'd have these big binges, where I'd eat loads and loads of food, and I'd feel so sick and guilty straight away that I'd want to get rid of it.

"It wasn't something I was doing every day," Holly adds, "but it was kind of every weekend. It became a cycle. 'Monday, I'm not going to do that…'"

She recalls becoming frustrated with her own fixation on her body. "I got to the stage where I was like 'is that all I care about? I don't want to be a person where all I care about is what I weigh.'"

Therapy helped with this, she reflects. It made her realise her feelings weren't really about the scales, but an underlying unhappiness.

Now, she's in a much better place about food and her body image, but she doubts she will ever get to a place of neutrality about these things. Accepting that, rather than struggling against it, is what helps.

"Rather than thinking 'how am I ever going to change my thinking', it makes me feel a bit more calm if I know that this is something that will probably always be there, but I have to just kind of manage it and watch it."

When she was 24, she decided to go on anti-depressants. "A big part of it was admitting that I actually needed the help," she says. "Even though I have no problem getting upset in front of people, and talking about stuff, I have a big problem with looking like I'm not coping. So then I was like 'this is actually me saying I need something literally every single day that's going to get me through the day', and that's a big statement to make about yourself. Especially in your 20s."

She had always been the person others turned to. Therapy pushed her out of that comfort zone.

"It made me talk about things that I was so uncomfortable with. And be really honest. That's so scary. Because I think I have this thing with my friends where I don't want to lean on them too much. I'd be much more comfortable if someone was crying and telling me things, and I felt like I could help them. But then last week I just fell apart."

She has suffered from phases of depression since her teens. Now, she sees a pattern. When a depressive episode comes on, she begins to care less about things that matter to her.

"I don't really care if I snooze my alarm, or if I've washed my hair, or got back to that person. What I'm eating, or if I'm having a glass of wine at four o'clock. I don't give a shit. And when I don't care, that's me telling myself I don't care about myself. It's like I have a 'f**k it' switch. And once that goes, I don't actually care about anything. I think telling myself I don't care is actually being afraid to face things. So that's when I'm at a really dangerous place. Because I ignore everyone.

"When you don't look after yourself at the core, so many things start to fall apart a little bit. And then when you try to help it, it feels like too much."

There's a contradiction that anyone who has struggled with mental illness will recognise, she points out, that the time you most need help is when you are also most likely to retreat from the world.

"I live on my own, and I love my own company, but sometimes I notice that I'm getting into a bad place if I start cancelling a lot of plans. You can tell yourself 'it's fine, I'm just having a bit of me time', but it gets to a point where people are like 'we haven't seen you in ages'."

Social media, a huge part of Holly's work as a brand ambassador, can feel challenging at these times.

"I have this pressure of needing to keep people updated on my life on Instagram. Which I love most of the time, but sometimes I'm like 'I really don't want to go on and talk about stuff'. I can tell 100,000 people what I'm doing that day, but then I can't actually be honest with myself. So it's just this really weird Catch-22 where you start to feel like you're living a double life."

In fact, after she tweeted about her depression, she felt a weight lift.

She believes lockdown is particularly hard for many of us. "It's just such a tough time and I think it's OK to go 'this is shit'. I don't want to put up a picture of me doing yoga in my kitchen, with a slice of banana bread in my hand, pretending I'm OK, because I'm not," she laughs.

Holly, who now runs her own accessories company Lovelift, stopped modelling when she was 24. Despite the perks of the job, "it was kind of exhausting," she recalls. "You can't clock off. It's not a nine-to-five job, you're still worried about everything at the weekends."

Afterwards, she experienced something of a crisis of confidence. "What do I want to do? I'd left NCAD for that."

Launching her business was hugely beneficial in mending her self-esteem.

"I realised that everyone is to some degree winging it. You look at people and you put them on this pedestal, but I think that everyone kind of doesn't know what they're doing. That makes me feel calm too. I went through a phase of thinking everyone in the country had their shit together except for me."

In the past, Holly has dated soccer pundit Richie Sadlier, and the frontman for the Coronas Danny O'Reilly, but she's currently single. She stresses the importance of good friends in helping you through tough patches. One good friend and neighbour, who is in her 'compassionate' bubble for lockdown, has been a rock.

"I think the most important thing for me is that you just don't give up on your friends. I know that I'm not easy to be around when I'm depressed. I'm probably snappy, I cancel plans, I'm flaky, I talk about myself, my own problems, too much, and I'm not asking them about themselves, because I get into this cloud.

"It would be very easy for them to be like 'D'you know what, Holly? F**k off'. No one wants to be around that. But he persisted and persisted. And was like 'I'm here'," she wells up at the memory - her friend phoned repeatedly, only to be ignored, then let himself into her house to check on her.

"The good thing is that people are aware of looking out for each other at the moment. When you know that people aren't giving up on you, that makes me feel so much better. The dialogue I would tell myself would be 'everyone has enough on their plate, Holly, don't stress them out, you can deal with this on your own'. But that's not going to help anyone. You have to let people in."

The mantra of 'this too shall pass helps', she reflects. Right now, she points out, it's important to remind yourself of the extraordinary strain of our everyday circumstances.

"Sometimes it's OK to be still in bed at 11 o'clock and just take that rest. I find it hard to get the balance of letting myself rest, but not feeling guilty about it either."

And while the fact that the conversations around mental health and mental illness have burgeoned is, of course, a good thing, Holly points out that it can give rise to a notion that these things can be packaged up and tidily expressed on a person's social media - sometimes a pressure in itself, if what you're feeling cannot be summed up with a pithy little post about self-care.

"There's all these buzz-words around mental health. Like 'it's OK to not be OK'. But there's nothing glamorous about it. Sometimes it can be gritty, and painful, and embarrassing. You feel raw. And it's scary. But once you just wade through that, there is light at the end of the tunnel; you just have to push through.

"It's not all about sitting cross-legged trying to meditate. It's not Pinterest, it's not Instagram, it's actually real life and it's shit.

"Don't compare yourself to anyone, because everyone is struggling right now, even if it looks like they're not. Not everyone has their shit together right now, and that's OK. And it's OK if I feel like I don't.

"'I've actually cried three times today and it's not even nine o'clock'," she laughs about her reaction to seeing an Instagram post about someone's yoga routine.

"I feel like when I say that, I feel lighter. Because it doesn't make me broken if I'm having a shit time and it's not cute for anyone to watch. You will have times when it's good again, so it's just about remembering it passes, accepting that it's shit, but it's not always going to be shit."

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised here, contact the Samaritans Ireland 24 hour freephone on 116 123 or Aware's freephone helpline 1800 80 48 48