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He Had Everything

‘Why would you kill yourself when your life was that good?’ I’ve seen so many tweets like that, the past week or so, that I’ve decided to write this. I don’t presume to have a clue what drove either of last week’s high-profile suicide victims to their decisions, and it feels pretty irresponsible to speculate about it in the way plenty of people already are. Nor do I liken myself to either of those far more prominent people. But I do know what despair feels like, and I’ve decided to revive this blog to say a couple of things about it, in case it helps even one person out there.

I’m writing it because I’m in a public position, with what plenty would consider a decent level of success, so I’m one of these people who would provoke an outpouring of ‘oh my God but he had everything!’ if I were to do some violence to myself, as I have frequently been tempted to do. It isn’t meant in the spirit of ‘look, I’m famous and *I* also get sad!’. We have Stephen Fry for that, for a start, and he’s much more famous than me. What I hope to add to the conversation are some specific insights about what it’s like working in TV/comedy/writing/other conspicuous spots, and why a large number of people in that world might struggle more than others imagine.

(DISCLAIMER: None of what I’m going to say is meant to suggest that doing stand-up or writing novels, or indeed being a designer, chef, footballer or celebrity-cake-judge, is some sort of nightmare that people are kidnapped into. Almost everyone I know who holds any sort of job in an attractive or kudos-filled industry is grateful to have it. I say ‘almost’ because there are, of course, always some pricks; I can name you five in comedy alone. But on the whole – although we might moan, like anyone – we feel lucky lots of the time.)

The first thing to say about jobs on TV or elsewhere in the public eye is that they’re filthily, unhealthily competitive. When you start out, the competition is as bluntly expressed as THIS GIRL WON THE AWARD, THIS GUY WASN’T EVEN NOMINATED FOR IT. As you proceed through your career, the competition is more insidious. You hear that there’s a sitcom slot to be pitched for, you don’t get it; your mate pitches an identical idea, gets a series. A panel show mysteriously stops booking you and a really similar act begins appearing on it. Sky launches a show called ‘TONIGHT WITH MARK WATSON, STARRING MARK WATSON, ONLY HIM, DEFINITELY’ but when you tune in, two other people are co-hosting it (NB this is a satirical example). I’m not saying this is unique to my field of work, far from it. Everyone’s had someone promoted above them, or missed out on something they deserved. I’m just saying that if your self-worth is tied too closely into these ups and downs, it is a pretty damaging mental plane to exist in.

On top of this, entertainment is an industry in which you’re forced to maintain even more of a game face than others, because people assess your suitability for work by how well you SEEM to be doing. Try asking a comedian how things are going. They’re extremely likely to say ‘yeah great, I’ve just come back from the States, where…’ not because they’re a dickhead (unless, see above, they are) but because you might be someone they need to impress in order to eat. If they say ‘tough, actually; I’ve been knocked back so much I feel like throwing myself into a river’, they’re making themselves less of a proposition. I suppose it’s a bit like dating. You try not to give the impression you’d absolutely love to meet someone, because life can be lonely or love is enriching, all these things that are absolutely normal to feel; it feels like that would make you less of a catch. You imply instead that you have dozens of options and you don’t particularly mind how this one plays out. It’s an exhausting act to keep up. Being in my job is like if you did singles events every day for 50 years.

And the last thing I’d say is that writing, in particular, involves a demoralising number of rejections. Very often, these rejections don’t even take the form of a ‘no’, because a lot of commissioners don’t even have enough respect to do you that basic courtesy. You have a meeting with someone; they’re enthusiastic, they say this is exactly what they want; you send and they acknowledge it, they say they’re excited to read it; then you never, ever hear from them again. I’ve had people pretend not to recognise me at parties when a month ago they said they couldn’t wait to work with me.

Once more, all of us know this is the price of the job, and it is perfectly possible to laugh at it, the nonsense of it. But you feel it; it’s a scar. Over the years, there end up being a lot of scars. If there are enough of them without an upturn, your confidence is eventually shot to pieces. You feel like a lesser person than those who’ve heard ‘yes’ a bit more often. Once more, I’m not saying this is as bad as, say, doing 100 unsuccessful job interviews and not knowing how you’re going to eat. I’m just saying that being turned down, being ignored, remains equally painful no matter what career rung you appear to be on, because it chimes with a voice you already had in your head that says: I told you. I told you you weren’t good enough. But you spent six months on that project anyway, you prick.

Enough generalisations: here’s where *I* am, this evening. I have a good life, I tour as a comedian to reasonable audiences; I’ve published novels. I have a decent standard of living, certainly measured against a lot of the country (as I’ve acknowledged throughout this). Most of the work I do is rewarding either financially or in some other way. All the same: I’ve felt like I’m failing for very long periods of the past 15 years, including now. I’ve had, easily, a hundred scripts or script ideas fail to make it to any sort of stage or screen. I’ve written, at the last count, three novels that never reached an audience (it looks like becoming four). I’ve been to well over five hundred meetings that didn’t come to anything, and that count will be at a thousand in another decade’s time. In the meantime I’ve seen more and more people emerge and perform the kind of comedy I do, just as well or better.

Every time I go to bed, all the failures are crouched in the corner of the room, waiting to shake me awake at 3am. Every time I wake up, I remember them before I have another conscious thought. When I think about my career in its totality, when I picture it, it looks like 95 percent failure. Unless there’s a remarkable turnaround in my market value I doubt that will ever go south of about 90 percent.

Now, of course, you learn to live successfully alongside these thoughts. Only recently I tweeted about how much I was enjoying my life, and it was true. I have people who love me, I have other things than writing to devote myself to. I understand I’m exceptionally lucky to be here at all, and one day I won’t be, so it’s advisable to enjoy as much of what happens as possible. And in case you’re reading this at Channel 4, I am actually in astonishing demand and I’ve, in fact, just come back from the States.

But the thoughts are there, they can swoop at any time, they’re tremendously persuasive. They’re resistant to medication because they come a place of real and profound disappointment with myself. Like I said, I can live with them – especially with the support that I have around me – but they’ll never leave.

People who get to a position of repute, who look like they’ve succeeded, will have paid some sort of tax on that success. Sometimes they’ve sacrificed family life or relationships. Sometimes they’ve screwed people over, intentionally or not. In many cases, what they signed away was their long-term mental stability, at least a part of it. And that is why it shouldn’t be surprising that ‘high-achieving’ people run into mental ravines at least as much as anyone else. And are as worthy of your support and concern as anyone else.

‘You never know what’s in someone else’s brain.’ That comes up again and again when there is a tragedy of the kind we’ve seen recently. But it isn’t just a slogan; it’s a rule to live by every day. It can inform all our little actions and make us kinder, or least more curious, more inclined to give someone the benefit of the doubt; more like a human dealing with another human.

I hope this has been interesting or useful, or at least a pleasant-enough diversion, to someone. It certainly did me good to write it, and maybe that’s really all it was about: not really a wise worldview to share at all, just a chance to be honest, at last, about what it’s like in my head.

Mark

PS I’m going to continue blogging regularly-ish, I think. But they won’t all be like this, don’t worry. Next one will probably be about football or something.

23 Responses

  1. Andrew Graystone says:

    Hi Mark. I get what you are saying because i’ve worked in TV and depend on writing to pay my mortgage. Just want to say i) thank you, ii) I really enjoy your work, and iii) keep your head up. I’m cheering for you. Andrew

  2. Hayley Warne says:

    I wish I could think of something eloquent to say but I can’t. I’ve often thought it was unfair that you don’t seem as recognised/valued for your work as you should be. You are my favourite comedian & I have read & love all of your books (including the online material for Hotel Alpha). All I can think to say is that while it must be frustrating at times, remember you make so many people happy. Also, I’m gutted that there are potentially 4 of your novels that I’ll never get to read.

  3. suzie lockhart-smith says:

    Heart warming Mark – identifying suffering with honesty and humour – it’s what makes you an attractive comedian. x

  4. Chris Stewart says:

    “…it looks like 95 percent failure. Unless there’s a remarkable turnaround in my market value I doubt that will ever go south of about 90 percent.”
    I wish you had said “five percent success” and “north of 10 percent”, as that, it seems, would be a subtly more positive representation of the difficulties presented by the world of work in which you operate. If you also calculate the percentage of the population which engages with intelligent comedy like yours, then that success rate is significantly increased. Without comics like yourself willing to try and willing to keep trying, we are left with … Jim Davison et al. So, in summary, it is the patriotic duty of you and all other clever comics to save the United Kingdom from such a prospect. Best wishes, Chris.

  5. Stephen Morris says:

    I appreciate you did not write this to get validation from someone you have never met (me). But I do understand the worth of writing things down whether made public or not. Hopefully someone somewhere will read this and it will help them as it has helped you. What I can say is that I look out for your work and have always loved it. Take care buddy.

  6. Annie says:

    Hi Mark, I’ve only recently started following you on Twitter and I’m so glad I got to read this column. I work in the TV comedy industry, though in a different country, and what you have written has really struck a chord. Especially the bit about how the industry suffers from a basic lack of courtesy (and, let’s be frank, balls). Being left hanging without a yay or nay can chip away at your self-esteem more than an outright rejection. And my output is miniscule compared to the incredible volume of scripts/script ideas you mentioned you’d put forward (which makes me think that you must have pretty impressive reserves of persistence and self-belief?)
    I’d suggest that what makes you a good comedian – the ability to observe nuance, to be able to articulate things other people can’t articulate themselves, to be able to say the truth about something – is the same sensitivity that makes you more vulnerable to rejection and criticism. It sucks and it’s hard.
    I too am a middle-of-the-night-waker and self-flagellator. I think what you are writing here is really valuable. Many comedians lay their lives bare but I can’t think of anyone else who has been honest about how the industry itself affects your mental health. Maybe you can though – let us know!

  7. Chloe Ballagh says:

    I work in a very different career to yours, and yet your comments about looking back and seeing the 95% failure rang a clear bell in my head. It’s something I’ve been slowly realising about my own approach to my job as I struggle with the idea I’ve chosen the wrong path. Yet when I speak to the people around me I often get such positive comments. I just assume they’re wrong, they don’t know enough to know how bad I’m doing. But seeing this in writing has made me think to take the time to view myself from their shoes from time to time. Maybe you could do the same? It’s easy to smile and shrug those compliments off but in next time you get one, step into their view and see what they see. I plan too. Also, hugs from across the world.

  8. Jenny says:

    Thank you for your honesty Mark. As someone who has depression and anxiety (14yrs and counting) it is truely heartening to hear that these thoughts are not mine alone. Thank you and please stay strong

  9. Martin says:

    Thank you for this well written piece. I’m a GP and despite all the training we receive I honestly think that like the lay person- unless we have experienced mental health issues ourselves we still struggle to get our heads around it. I advise people to read “The Bell Jar” or things like this for some perspective because what we learn about mental health is a list of symptoms to diagnose and a cluster of dubiously effective treatment options that we try.

    We can understand physical illness because we’ve all experiened physical pain or can imagine what a non functioning limb would be like. But we can’t imagine depression because we’re wired to feel sad when we are sad and life is beating us. The concept of having a good life and feeling worthless, hopeless and empty is so alien to non sufferers.

    Pieces like this are utterly vital in getting the perception of depression/mental health problems for the non sufferer away from the cause and effect model we understand.

    So thank you.

  10. Angela Holmes says:

    I’ve always enjoyed watching you on TV, listening to you on the radio, and reading your books. I’ve not seen you live, yet, so that’s something for me to look forward to.

    I’ve sympathised at a distance when I’ve read your tweets of frustration and disappointment. I admire the way you can willingly stand up in front of a group of strangers and try to make them laugh. (If I had to do that, not only would I need a gun at my back, I’d want them to shoot me with it rather than try).

    Your work gives the rest of us the respite we need from *our* struggles and the 3 am sessions of panic and self-doubt. I run a business, I’m responsible for other people’s wages/mortgage payments/food bills, and my livelihood depends on people continuing to buy what I sell. I have customers who have used me for years who will switch to someone else to save 5p. It’s horrible. It’s rejection. It’s loss of business and the ‘where am I going to find work replace what I’ve lost’ panic.

    But I still wouldn’t swap my pressures for yours. Keep listening to those who love and support you. And if there is some way that we, the audience, can give you a boost online, then give us the name of the person at Channel 4….. 🙂 xx

  11. Pete says:

    Excellent article Mark. Thank you for begin so honest and open about your struggles. My wife suffers daily from depression but the majority of the world only sees how smiley, happy and beautiful she is. It takes a lot of emotional energy putting on a brave face and I can’t imagine how how that might be when you have such a public profile, have a common experience of rejection as the norm and everyone expects you to be a comedian 100% of the time. I have always been a big fan of yours, but never seen you live, so I’ll keep checking your website for future tour dates etc and bring a load of mates also!

    I don’t expect you need my advice since you are incredibly hench and enjoy marathons, but fresh air and good exercise and surrounding yourself by compassionate people that care for you and love you seems the best way of dealing with it all. I am unsure what help SSRIs give in the long term, they seek to provide relief, but also a numbing down of everything, so I hope with more and more open discussions and recognition from society – and everyone in general – people battling mental health problems can have a better time with their short but incredible life on this finite planet.

    We have still got a long way to go, but I have faith in the next generation carrying on the good work and helping each other more. You’ve gotta stay optimistic about some things!

  12. Ian Fyfe says:

    Thanks for writing this, Mark. I have wrestled with anxiety and depression for most of my adult life for similar reasons to those you talk about here. I’m not in show business or anything, but I’m reasonably successful by most standards, and those failures in the corner of the room you talk about really resonate – they don’t even have to be ‘real’ failures, just perceived failures. I know exactly what you mean by the ‘profound disappointment in myself’, and feeling this despite the knowledge that I have a relatively successful and comfortable life leads to terrible guilt that adds to the problem.

    I also think it’s so important that prominent men like yourself talk about mental health, because the stigma makes it so difficult for men to ask for the help they need, which I’m sure is the reason that the suicide rate in men is so high. So thank you for adding your voice to the conversation, and I really hope you continue to do so. Just this one post has helped me a little, and I’m sure it’s helped many others.

  13. Hayden Wilkinson says:

    Such a shame to hear you struggle with these thoughts in a daily basis.

    I’ve seen you perform twice and I’ve bought a book at each of these performances. You’re a brillaint comedian Mark so don’t ever think you’re not.
    I struggle with thoughts of not being good enough and it’s horribel when your own mind seems to be against you all the time. Try and remember that you are good enough, for your family, friends and fans.

  14. Evie says:

    Get this. Perfectionism; feeling what you’re doing is crap, resenting others success and lacking confidence. Plus taking knock backs & rejection personally. Put it all in a pot and think about it for hours and hours and hours…

  15. Hannah says:

    I too have felt like a failure most of my life, whether true or not (still undecided!), so your post has been a really helpful read for me. I hope the enjoyment and help you give others (as is evident on here and Twitter) is enough reason for you to keep trying. I saw one of your stand-up shows last year and thought you were brilliant, one of my favourites.

  16. Bruce says:

    Hi Mark – thank you for sharing that with us. I always say that if you hit your thumb with a hammer, it’s going to hurt – and if you have a different kind of blow, it’s going to hurt you in a different way.

    And, taking the analogy further, even if your thumb is only being lightly tapped, do that enough times over a period of years and it’ll end up black and blue. It’s exactly the same when experiencing the constant, repetitious rejection that goes for anyone working in comedy. It’s really, really ok to feel bad about it, and I hope you start to feel better soon.

  17. MarkP says:

    Sounds like it’s the flipside of the aphorism that “successful people are the ones who fail twice as much”. The idea behind it of course is that you have to work extra hard, and deal with more situations that don’t pan out, to have a decent shot at meeting with those that do. And it’s put forth as a positive message … don’t worry about the things you fail at, so long as you keep trying, some of them will pan out.

    But of course, you still can’t get away from the fact that there’s still twice as much failure to look back on, even if your success is greater as a result. And depending on your natural disposition, or even how you may have been trained into thinking as you grow up, it can be all too easy, even entirely automatic, to dwell on those in the lulls or other downtime … I could have been doing *even better* if only I hadn’t… etc etc.

    Which I think maybe gets right to the heart of the matter of why extremely successful people can still feel like they’ve missed their true potential and are a massive embarrassment to everyone they know and that their continual litany of also-rans and almost-wases won’t be missed. Even though, really, everyone happily ignores those (apart from a few who actually still appreciate them for what they were anyway) and just concentrates on the things that did work and loves you for it.

    tl;dr Keep up the good work. Try to forget whatever bits of bad might be hidden inamongst. Their weight is so much less in reality, as heavy as it might feel.

  18. Excellent piece Mark! Finally got to see you live recently (Norwich – hoping you’ll come to Lowestoft too) and you more than fulfilled my expectations. I’ve liked you since you were Welsh, for heaven’s sake! I know your blog wasn’t for a sympathy vote and you’re very clear that you have a fortunate life. However, it would be remiss of me to miss the opportunity to say, every time I’ve seen you you’ve made me laugh and smile. Every time I see you’re on TV I have a sense of excitement and look forward to seeing you again. Quite simply, I too have a life that I appreciate, while not always being easy but you are from a select group of people, famous or otherwise, who make my life brighter. Thank you ?

  19. Christa says:

    Mark, I have followed you for years and years (since you had the Welsh accent!) and have seen you live more times than I dare to mention – you are without doubt my favourite comedian, for so many reasons. Your honesty, your silliness, your intelligence, and, perhaps most importantly, your integrity. I wish you wouldn’t see your career as 95% failure. I think the truth is that you appeal to a more discerning crowd and I’m very proud to be part of that! Entertainment is so dumbed-down these days because, unfortunately, that’s what the masses want, and it’s their loss quite frankly. You are so much better than that. You may not be selling out the O2 but you’ve got a select group of true fans who love you and stick with you because you are you. I’ve always been too nervous to speak to you after gigs but rest assured I have loved every one I’ve seen (and there have been many!) and can’t wait to see you again in Edinburgh. Please keep doing what you are doing. You are true to yourself and it works, despite what you might think. You touch a lot of lives with your work, don’t ever forget that.

  20. Liam Fernandes says:

    Hi Mark-
    Thanks for this very honest post. Very eloquently put.
    I have been coming to see you live since Edinburgh 2012 and read your novels since Eleven and all have had a such a positive impact on my life. I really look forward to seeing you live and reading your next book.
    Thank you so much.

  21. JOHN WOJTOWYCZ says:

    Thank you for sharing Mark. It helps to ‘get it out there’ and not bottle things up. Talking about these issues (for me) is the best therapy, far more effective than medication. I can’t pretend to know how you feel, although I too am struggling, I haven’t been able to work for two years. During this time I’ve been lucky enough to read your wonderful books, I bought Hotel Alpha to give as gifts, such a brilliant book. Your gig at Mawnan Smith last year was the funniest show I’ve seen. Such great memories of you hiding in the shed and looking rather bemused at the lack of roof at the venue.Also, your advice to male members(!) of the audience to p*ss behind the trees! You give happiness and laughter to so many of us, thank you x

  22. Jackie M says:

    Hi there, I live a life of complete anonymity, financial security and I still have some anxiety (not a problem because I can talk myself around a lot). It’s so true you can’t comment on people’s happiness based on what they ‘have’ – they carry themselves with them. I am often very happy, I can’t induce that moment any more than I can regulate being sad. So thankyou for writing this blog, it reflects a reality that is more nuanced than popular culture allows for.

  23. Josephine says:

    I don’t work in entertainment/comedy, but so much of this rings true. In my field, similarly, you have to ‘look’ like you are doing fabulously well, all the time, and I constantly have to pitch myself to buyers. To not project endless success means seeming like a risk to those who might hire you – and maybe people don’t want to be around what they see as failure (perhaps because it in some ways forces them to confront private fears within themselves?) We live in a world of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and all that…so we all go on, so many of us, concealing the reality of our experiences, because we feel we must. These days I find myself actually far more impressed by those who can be open and speak about their fears, their insecurities, their inner monologue – as you have here. It’s authentic and human and real. It *ought* to actually make you more employable actually, because in that honesty we can really connect with others – something that is at the heart of good comedy too?

    Sorry for the ramble – you have long made me laugh when I have seen you on tv etc and your timely post struck a chord. Thanks for writing it.

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