The influencer and businesswoman talks about triggers, coping mechanisms and opening up about her illness to boyfriend Jamie
The last time we spoke, in late 2020, former model and Miss Ireland Holly Carpenter had just met someone, and was contemplating telling him about her depression.
“Obviously, because I have talked about it in interviews, it is sort of out there. But it is not really the same as sitting face to face, telling someone.” She was nervous at what her now-boyfriend Jamie Hunt (33) might think, nervous that she would get very emotional, and possibly scare him off.
It’s now over two years later, and her relationship is going strong — the pair have been living together for six months — and Jamie, who works for a wine company, has been hugely supportive since Holly told him about the depression she has experienced since her first episode in her early 20s.
“It’s like anything that you feel really vulnerable and scared to tell someone. My biggest fear is that they’ll look at me like they don’t understand, or they might laugh.”
One of the reasons she wanted to tell Jamie, even though at the time they had not been dating that long, was that she was worried if she didn’t it might seem as if she was pushing him away when she began to experience her next period of low mood.
“I think sometimes when I am depressed, I get very insular, and I worry that it comes across like I’m being rude or lazy or flaky because I’m cancelling plans. Whereas it’s more that I’m overthinking it so much that I’m bringing myself to a point where it’s easier to just not see people until it passes.”
“But I was so lucky that he was really understanding,” she says of Jamie’s response. They met during the pandemic, a time when it felt like everything “was so stripped back,” Holly recalls now.
“It wasn’t like our dates were nights out or dinners, we were doing sea swims, walks — it was a really nice way (to get to know someone) because I was so stripped back to myself. I wasn’t trying to impress him by having a big schedule of events and photo shoots.”
Holly, who won Miss Ireland in 2011, first experienced depression when she was 24. “It got to a point where I couldn’t pretend that I was just having a rough patch. I got so depressed that I couldn’t feel anything. I was numb. That was the first time I ever felt like that.”
The first people she told were her parents, with whom she was living at the time. “They could see it. It was just so hard for me to get up in the morning. I think I was kind of lashing out at people around me because I wanted them to understand, but I also wasn’t helping them understand. I wasn’t letting them.”
She went to her GP, who suggested the option of antidepressants. “At that stage, if she had told me anything was going to help, I would have done it. I tried those for a while, and at that time I think they did help. (But) they didn’t really help me with the numbness,” Holly says.
Now 31, she explains that an episode of depression can be a different experience depending on the circumstances of her life. “Sometimes when life is really busy, that’s when I try to just completely mask it because you have to still turn up. Having depression first of all is exhausting. There’s nothing more exhausting than pretending you don’t have it. When life is really busy, you’re putting on a show every time you leave the house, and then coming home at night exhausted.”
When she experienced an episode of depression during the first lockdown, it was different. “I was single, I had just moved in on my own to a new place, obviously we all were stripped from our usual crutches. I couldn’t go out on a night out with my friends, to the gym, I couldn’t busy myself, which would be a big coping skill for me.”
It’s hard to know, she adds, when a healthy instinct to give herself a push out the door turns into busyness levels that are masking her symptoms. One of the hardest things to deal with is the catastrophizing about her day, which can begin the minute Holly wakes up.
“Everything’s going to go wrong, what’s the point of this?” She describes of the thinking that can begin first thing. “You go on social media — everyone’s obviously putting their best foot forward online, and I know that but you kind of feel, ‘Oh my god, look at everyone else, they’re just not struggling the way I am’. I kind of get angry with myself.”
You would never show this lack of compassion to anyone else, Holly adds. “But when it’s yourself, you’re just like, ‘Come on, get on with it. What’s wrong with you?’”
At times, she can predict a crash in her mood. For example, after a fun, busy period, like the months leading up to Christmas. “There’s so much going on, you’re socialising, you’re drinking more, you’re eating more and then January, no matter how hard I try to work my way around it, is always the toughest month.
"I think because of my background with modelling, and because I did Miss World and Britain’s Next Top Model, obviously for a long time I based my worth around my weight, my image, and how I looked. Which sounds really vain, but I suppose it was hard not to in that industry.”
At other times, depression is “an unexpected guest knocking on your door. You’re in such a good mood, and that feeling just creeps in.” When this happens, she can get angry with herself. “This isn’t fair, I’ve been doing all the right things, going to the gym, eating healthy. And now I’m still left with it. That can piss me off. Because it’s like, if you try your best, sometimes it’s going to happen regardless.”
Part of living with depression is having to accept that she is possibly going to have to deal with it for the rest of her life. That it may keep coming back. “I think I’d be setting myself up for disappointment if I told myself when the times are good, ‘You’re never going to feel like that again.’
“Every time that it has happened, I’ve been capable of getting through it. You just remember that you have gotten through your worst days, then you’re like, ‘OK this is here again, I know what happened last time’.” There can be a sense of panic at how bad it might be this time. “I try to keep myself calm, and think, ‘It’s not the end of the world, you’re safe, everything’s OK’.”
She was nervous initially about talking publicly about depression, for fear that given her loving family, stable career and good health, people would think, ‘What does she have to be depressed about?’
“Because I feel like I am quite privileged, it made me feel like a really ungrateful person. You should be grateful. You should be happy all the time. That’s kind of hard. But it’s not about your circumstances all the time.”
Trying to recognise that the voice inside your head is not real is important, Holly explains. “But it is so hard when it’s just continuous throughout the day. You have a really bad thought, you remind yourself it’s not true, you have an even worse thought, you tell yourself it’s not true.
“It’s quite relentless and it’s chipping away at you. It’s easier to put your hands up and go, ‘You know what, this is all true, I’m a horrible person’. You have to persevere,” she adds, “you could be nearly at the end of it.”
Depression is exhausting, and at times when you are least able to do the things you know can help, it can be difficult for those on the outside to understand.
“It’s a different exhaustion than you get from being at the gym, or being busy,” Holly explains. “I feel like I have this weight, even walking up the stairs I feel physically heavier. That’s the part that’s the hardest bit. Because everything you should do for yourself takes energy.”
Holly lists some things she does to help: “Give yourself one power hour, where you do a few things that you know are going to help. For me, I feel like it’s my space and my face.”
She will give herself 30 minutes to clean the house. “Get your space feeling less overwhelming. It makes me more present, because I’m giving myself little tasks.”
She says she knows people laugh at the beauty side of self-care but that a five-step skincare routine, having a shower and blow drying her hair, help her to feel better. “Just the feeling of having looked after myself.”
Avoiding perfectionist thinking is important too. “When things aren’t perfect, I would think ‘I’m not good enough’,” she says. When she was younger, Holly explains, she had an unhealthy relationship with exercise. “I was going to the gym to punish myself for what I’d eaten over the weekend. Whereas now, I can feel it releasing the tension.” Her foster dog Max has also been a huge help, ensuring she gets out for a daily walk.
Holly was worried that even though she had told Jamie about her depression; revealing the reality of it up close might be a different matter, with aspects that were “still like a dirty little secret to me.”
What would he think about the times she stayed in bed all day, or ordered McDonald’s to the house? “Things that I think I should be ashamed of. I was really nervous that there was going to be this side of me that he was going to find out — the truth.”
In fact, living with Jamie, who works 9-5, has given a certain structure to Holly’s days that has helped. She gets up with him, and enjoys his good mood in the morning. “I think he can see when I’m getting into my own head. Having someone to give you a hug, and all that kind of thing. It keeps you accountable,” she adds of living with your partner.
“I felt like when I was on my own, I could do little secretive behaviours that no one would know about. I’m more accountable with myself. That is not to say I’d fall back into these things (if the relationship ended). I’ve learned a lot.”
That said, she is careful not to make her well-being Jamie’s responsibility. “I can’t put all that on him. As much as I love that he understands it, it is not his job being my therapist or my doctor. It is vital for the relationship that he understands it but it is my job to do the things.”
“I try not to be negative about my depression all the time,” Holly adds. “I believe that it’s something that will always come and go in my life, so I try and kind of look at the positives of it, in a weird way. The fact that I’m always hyper-conscious of what could derail me, the cheesy way to say it is protecting my energy,” she laughs.
“Because I’m hyper-aware of that, I feel like I make better choices. And I don’t know if I would naturally be that way if it wasn’t for my depression.”