How clinical depression led author Tim Grayburn on the adventure of a lifetime
(5-minute read) Tim Grayburn took the unconventional route to manage his clinical depression, quitting his job in media to tour Australia and perform a play. Here, he tells Sylo his inspiring tale, from love, dickheads and first-night nerves to accepting who he really is.
“The first play? I was shitting it, yeah”
How do you tell somebody you have clinical depression? For some, it might be a chat over a quiet coffee, a WhatsApp sent in the early hours of the morning or perhaps face-to-face during a country walk. For others, it might be a tweet, a blog or a Facebook post. And a considerable number of people may never tell close family and friends what they are really going through.
Tim Grayburn went about it another way, creating a play about his illness, and a book about his personal discovery. In an interview with Sylo Magazine, he talks about:
How he’s managed clinical depression for over a decade
Why he quit his job to work as an actor - despite having no drama training
How his play "became his therapy"
How we can beat male conditioning, and how Dads can help their kids with mental health
Why men should listen to women (I thought that might get your attention...)
Ultimately, how you too can manage depression
Introducing Tim Grayburn -- author, actor and father
I first stumbled across Tim and his book ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ at an event at Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road, London late last year. It was a small, intimate event, with authors Tim and Suman Gupta discussing the personal and even political nuances around depression and suicide.
I must confess that I didn’t know too much about Tim at this point, but it transpired over the course of the evening that he had kept his depression secret for nearly a decade, leaving him on the edge of suicide.
After years of experimenting with medication and therapy, his route to managing his depression was unconventional yet bold - he quit his job working in media, upped sticks and went to tour Australia with a play he had written with his girlfriend, Bryony Kimmings.
His book, 'Boys Don’t Cry', chronicles the experience and, on reading it after the show, it is an eye-openingly honest appraisal not only of depression but also of modern masculinity. It’s a story of self-discovery, experimentation and bravery, and as such a journey that will surely resonate with plenty of others, too.
Clinical depression, suicidal ideation and missing tablets
But before we get to the book and ‘Fake It Till You Make It’, the play he authored and performed with Bryony, and one which went onto win the ‘Best Theatre Award’ at the Perth & Adelaide 2015 Fringe festivals, we need to go back a few chapters.
Because before the book, and the play, came an illness that lay dormant for the best part of two decades.
On one particular cold and miserable winter’s evening, I caught up with Tim over the phone to learn more of his backstory. He started by saying that both the play and book were essentially stories of “falling into depression and not understanding what it was”, and it’s clear here that for many years his issues remained undetected and perilously dangerous. For some time, it appeared that depression was running him, rather than the other way around.
“The worst for me was when I first got depression because I didn't know I had depression and so I didn't do anything about it for a long time. I didn’t talk to anyone, or go to the doctors, so it got progressively worse.
“It’s a classic male situation where you brush it to the side for too long and then it gets dangerous.
“All the symptoms came flooding in; insomnia, doubting myself, hating myself, thinking I couldn't do anything in this world and that the world didn't need me.”
In particular, he says he began to be “very short with family” and was often deemed moody or angry. He didn’t suffer fools either, once getting into a scrap with a close friend.
“Depression led me down a path and it got me to the point of suicidal thoughts. I started taking my dog for a walk, and there was a young lad who killed himself in my village when I was a kid growing up. He hung himself from a tree down our local park. Every time went for a walk with the dog I thought if I do it, it will be on that tree.
“Every time I walked the dog I thought more about it. I was not a pleasant person to be around. It was then that my mum took me to the doctors.”
Diagnosed with clinical depression, he battled internally with the condition for nearly a decade. And he kept it secret. Fortunately, an unexpected discovery forced Tim to confront his illness and change his outlook on the illness.
After tipping out the contents of his bag, Bryony noticed a box. It had the words “Citalopram, 20mg” printed on it.
Citalopram belongs to a family of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and is most commonly used to treat clinical depression and anxiety, conditions Grayburn had been secretly battling since his early twenties.
This is not only a pivotal moment in Tim’s story but it also marked slightly uncertain terrain. After all, having broken up with a previous girlfriend who seemingly didn’t understand what Tim was going through, it wasn’t guaranteed that Bryony would be accepting of Tim’s illness.
Speaking to The Guardian back in 2015, he said: “It was tough talking about depression with her. I had never done it before. I felt it was my problem and nobody needed to know. If you tell someone you think about ending your own life, there’s a big chance they might run away.”
Almost four years on, one play, one book and a son later, it’s clear this intervention was his saving grace. “It’s hard to tell what I’d do now if she didn't find those tablets,” he says.
Nonetheless, the emptying of a rucksack would ultimately help Tim unload his own problems, and open up for a new life chapter.
The start of an Australian adventure
Tim and Bryony would spend hours thrashing out his problems and they soon made a plan for a recovery and fresh start. They did their research, stopped drinking and started to exercise.
And then an idea came from Bryony, who was already a well-established artist at this point; they would create a play about depression and masculinity.
The play’s rough outline followed; it was to be based on personal recordings of their conversations around depression and mental health, but bolstered by songs, singing, dancing and generally “being stupid.”
“It’s actually quite a funny show,” says Tim.
But, before that, he had to be convinced it was a good idea to do the play in the first place. And who can blame him? After all, it’s not every day you swap a job working in media sales in your hometown to touring Australia singing about an illness you’ve rarely discussed.
“I was up for it. I was at the point where I would do anything other than the job I was doing. It sounded like an adventure and I had got bored of everyday life. I thought about it for one night and then the next morning I thought, ‘Sod it, let's do it.’
“We decided [the play] had to have an injection of comedy, or it would be an hour of violin playing misery. So we looked at how we could crowbar humour into it, and we obviously understood we had to be quite careful because [depression] is not really a laughing matter.
“But it's funny that we’re not talking about these things, it's funny that humans fuel any stigma, and it’s quite a funny trait of humans just to think someone might think something of them [because they have depression]. We messed around, played around and generally took the piss out of ourselves really…”
This isn’t to say it was easy.
“The first show? I was shitting myself, yeah. I was absolutely petrified, to be honest.”
This was complicated by the fact that, at the time of the first show, he had become “a bit of a hermit.”
"It wasn’t depression, it was the nervousness of never performing before and also the risk of being a 30-year-old man and telling strangers that I was depressed.”
That soon changed, however. “It became like any other job really. I went in, did it and I really enjoyed it actually. The nerves went completely after about the first ten shows.”
“I think it was [the play] coupled with changing something in my life. My job was a big thing, you’re doing it eight hours a day….and in my case, it was one of the things that brought me down into depression. In that sense, the show was definitely therapy.”
Breaking the news to friends and family
While his show was a resounding success - and the book is, judging by early feedback -- it’s interesting to note how friends and family reacted to Tim’s career change.
After all, Tim comes across as a popular and sporty guy - one which could well be in circles where men’s emotions weren't to be discussed, let alone displayed. But he says most friends were largely supportive of his decision.
“I told them I had quit my job to do a show about depression. They were like, ‘why, what’s up?’”
“I told them my story and they were like ‘cool, we thought you were the one who had the shit together out of all of us’. They took the piss out of me, and that was what I wanted really.”
“It allowed everyone to open up and talk. It added a layer to our friendship group.” One friend went onto admit that he was addicted to gambling, an issue he dealt with on his own before Tim spoke up.
This isn’t to say he hasn’t come across barriers along the way; at that small event in the basement of Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road, he admitted some mates still question what depression is (“There’s still a job to get people to feel exactly how it feels like”) and he seems to suggest too he’s faced his own share of cynics, even if he has found a novel way to ignore them.
“The way to tackle it is I don't have anything to say anything to [the cynics] and that's the best way to look at it. The way to think is what they say doesn’t matter to you. Let dickheads be dickheads and get on with your own life.”
Men's mental health: A conversation for adults and children
Perhaps this is half the issue; men historically are not comfortable with the discussion for fears of being seen as weak and vulnerable. After all, suicide remains the biggest killer of men aged 18 to 40, even if it was recently revealed suicide figures are at its lowest level in some thirty years.
“It is difficult to bring up. I think it's years and years of conditioning, isn't it? Our parents' generation, they wouldn't even talk about having a cold, let alone having depression, and humans are sheep, we go in herds. If no one is talking about something, then people want to follow that. Now it's popular mental health, that will slowly pick up pace…”
“The difference between men and women is that men are stupid really! I guess it's the alpha male thing, isn't it? The macho bravado doesn’t want to show any weaknesses to fellow stags. I think that’s the problem, but obviously, we see a shift in that now. There’s a realisation that the alpha male isn't the way forward.”
But there’s also experimentation, with Tim admitting that his clinical depression has seen him try an assortment of tactics, from therapy to tablets and exercise. It’s particularly interesting that he cites love as a really fundamental piece, with regular exercise also key. Certainly, in his book, it becomes clear that Tim’s journey to managing his clinical depression was a journey of experimentation and patience.
If people - and men, especially - need to speak up and experiment, there’s the question to what extent men are equipped to deal with their own children, not least with mental health in schools worse than it has ever been before.
With both of us dads to young boys, I ask how men stop pushing the same vision of masculinity down onto younger generations.
“It all comes through communication and talking. I guess it’s about being less conservative with how someone is supposed to be. Let someone grow organically. Let them do or what their emotions want them to do.
“We all know once we all have a good old cry, we feel much better. Suppressing that is only going to do more damage. That’s an example of trusting what the body and mind tell us, and let it flow.”
And it’s here that, again, men can learn from women.
“We need to listen to women more because the proof is there that women do talk about their emotions more, and have less rates of suicide. The proof is in the pudding that they know what they’re doing, and they know how to be emotionally mature.”
Has his depression influenced parenting? He’s not sure, even if he believes his son is the purpose he was looking for in the past.
“He is the purpose, to support him and love him. I had no idea he was the answer before I had him.”
What’s next? And Tim’s top tips for managing clinical depression
Having started a job that’s “a bit less damaging to the soul”, Tim’s in no rush to get back to acting but says ‘never say never’, though he’s got his hands full with his son (he and Bryony have since separated).
“I don't think it will ever happen again. I am at work and the priority is to get money and support the little one because it’s expensive to live in London and survive happily.
“We’ll see. I am a bit of a floater and drifter through life I’ve come to realise, and I am happy with that…”
But he seems happy with his lot: “The whole experience has changed me, its given me a bit of confidence that I was always lacking.
"I think I never really had anything to really shout about, I didn’t like my job, I wasn't the man of the match every week at football, do you know what I mean? There was nothing to say ‘Tim Grayburn, he's really good at that’.
“This gave me a confidence boost and definitely changed me. It also made me think of art, putting yourself on the front line and taking a gamble - it can help others. And that, essentially, is what makes you feel good.”
What does he recommend to others in the same boat, battling clinical depression and looking for support?
“I’d always say just talk, talk about it, talk about everything on your mind, no matter how ashamed you are of it, or embarrassed. You have to talk to your nearest and dearest about it first and love yourself. Appreciate who you are.
“Talking is the most important thing but there are other things you can do; exercise, diet and generally just looking after yourself.
"I know it sounds cheesy, but be totally honest and truthful to yourself and hopefully, you can turn it around.
“Love is definitely key for someone who is depressed. If you have a support network around you and feel loved, that makes it easier.
“But also take the advice of loved ones and professionals. If you need medication, you need medication. If you don't need to work, don't go to work. Your health is the most important thing.”