‘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.
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.