Just after 8am on a spring morning in April, television presenter Gail Porter crouched under a tree on London’s Hampstead Heath and sent a text message to her boyfriend that read: ‘I can’t carry on. I feel suicidal.’
Hours later, the former pin-up girl – whose image was once famously projected on to the side of the House of Commons – was being bundled into the back of a police van and taken to a psychiatric unit where she would be sectioned and forcibly held for nearly a month.
The 40-year-old star’s personal troubles – which have included a battle with the eating disorder anorexia, post-natal depression, being diagnosed bipolar, an acrimonious divorce from her musician husband in 2004 and being left bald by the hair loss condition alopecia – have been well-documented.
But in a searingly honest interview, Gail, a single mother who rose to fame on Saturday-morning children’s television in the Nineties and who was at one time among the highest-paid women on television, today tells how she hit rock bottom four months ago.
It’s a fall from grace almost unimaginable when compared with the fame she once enjoyed.
After being taken to the Royal Free Hospital in North London, Gail’s mental welfare was deemed so unstable she was placed under a 28-day section order which forced her to remain as an in-patient at the Grove Clinic, the hospital’s psychiatric wing, alongside paranoid schizophrenics and violent patients on suicide watch.
Three months after her release, and talking about her ordeal for the first time, the star is still shaken and emotional. She says she has turned a corner in her recovery after leaving hospital and embarking on an intensive counselling programme at The Cabin, a private rehabilitation centre in northern Thailand, which she completed last weekend.
But despite her positivity, her darkest moments still haunt her as she recalls the heavily medicated weeks in hospital with nothing to pass the time except a single television shared between the unit’s 50 patients and cups of instant coffee.
‘The worst part about being sectioned was the lack of structure,’ says Gail. ‘There was no treatment programme – we were just locked in the unit and basically forgotten about.
‘When you are suffering from depression as badly as I was, you genuinely believe you will never come out of a place like that.
‘It felt as if I was in the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I had been forced into this place with some very, very ill people and we were left to our own devices and to fend for ourselves.
‘I had no idea how long I had been in there because each day followed exactly the same pattern as the last.
‘In the morning I was woken at 7am. We would have cereal for breakfast in the common room then the nurses came round with our medication. I was given 5mg of diazepam in a little pot to swallow to keep me calm. I didn’t even know what it was but there was no point complaining because you had to take what you were prescribed.
‘That was followed at lunchtime by clorazepate, an anti-anxiety drug, and in the evening another 5mg of diazepam and 7.5mg of zopiclone for insomnia.
‘It seemed to me that the nurses didn’t really know what to do with us so it was easier to give us lots of drugs so we were calm and quiet.
‘In three weeks I saw three doctors for ten minutes each. Each time all I was asked was, “How are you feeling?” I told them I felt depressed, they wrote it down and a week later another one came back.
‘There was no treatment programme and nothing to do. It meant patients just focused on their problems instead of getting better. My ex-husband came to visit me and said recently, “You got madder every day you were in there. You were dosed up to your eyes with nothing to do.”
‘I kept myself to myself but there were some very ill people in there. The woman in the room next to mine would get up at 3am every morning and flush the toilet in her room for three hours and talk into the cistern. She said it was her contact to God.
‘Two patients believed they were Jesus and on another occasion a male patient burst into the common room naked because he said he was better.
‘I was desperate to get out but because I had been sectioned it was illegal for me to leave the hospital. I honestly believed I would never leave.’
t’s an incredible story and one that is all the more shocking given the success Gail once enjoyed.
At the height of her fame she hosted some of the most popular shows on television, including Top Of The Pops, Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast and the BBC’s flagship Saturday-morning series Live & Kicking.
Her success led to a relationship with musician Dan Hipgrave, guitarist with indie band Toploader, whom she married in 2001. The couple had a daughter Honey, now eight, a year later.
But despite having a seemingly settled home life – the couple lived in a £500,000 two-bedroom flat in trendy Belsize Park, North London – and a successful career, all was not well.
In 2003 Gail, suffering from post-natal depression, tried to commit suicide for the first time. It was the first of many cries for help in the intervening years that reached a dramatic climax earlier this year.
After a week of sleepless nights and increasingly erratic behaviour, which saw the star lock herself in her house and cut off all her phones, Gail says she suffered a complete nervous breakdown on April 22.
Gail’s mother died of lung cancer in 2009, and two close friends and her grandparents have also died in the past two years.
She says: ‘I hadn’t slept for seven nights, except for a few hours here and there.
‘I was drinking a bottle of wine every evening and then spending the night on Twitter, messaging people on the other side of the world, and other insomniacs.
‘In the morning, if I had slept at all, I would get up, go downstairs and lock the front door and take the phone off the hook so no one could contact me. I would change my pyjamas three or four times a day and go from eating nothing one day to gorging on junk food the next.
‘After a week I couldn’t cope any more so I went out for a walk early one morning. I walked up to Hampstead Heath and that was when I texted my partner Johnny. I was sobbing under a tree for an hour-and-a-half but I was hidden by the branches so no one could see me.
‘He was so worried he called the police who later found me in a pub on Hampstead High Street. They asked me to go with them and I was put in the back of a police van which panicked me and I was kicking and screaming to get out.’
Gail says she was taken to hospital for assessment when it was decided she would be sectioned for her own safety. An initial section order, which has to be signed by two medical experts, or a doctor and a family member, allows a patient to be detained for up to 72 hours for emergency treatment.
If doctors believe further treatment is necessary they can detain a patient for up to 28 days to undergo a full psychiatric assessment. It was this option the doctors chose for Gail.
Ironically, Gail’s breakdown came as the star had begun to turn a corner in her personal life. She was in a settled relationship with Johnny Davies, 25, a guitarist with band New Vinyl, and her hair had started to grow back.
‘On the surface I was telling everyone I was fine but underneath I felt as if I was struggling to keep my head above water.
‘There was little work and no job offers. The only work I had was as a panellist on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff, but that was only once every two months and not enough to cover my outgoings. Credit-card bills were mounting up and I had no way to pay them.’
In March Gail, who now lives in a rented two-bedroom flat in Swiss Cottage, North London, says she was encouraged to seek help by Johnny and visited her local GP.
But she claims she was told she wouldn’t be able to see a psychiatrist for up to five months.
It was too little too late and on April 22 she was admitted to the Royal Free Hospital. ‘At the hospital I was in my own room and there was a police officer guarding the door. I was there for about eight hours but only one consultant came to speak to me. He asked if I was depressed and I said yes. I asked what was happening and he said, “It’s nothing for you to concern yourself with. We will come back when we have finished discussing your case.”
‘Then he came back 20 minutes later and said, “We are taking you to The Grove Clinic. It is the psychiatric wing of this hospital.” I said, “Well, I’m not going.”
‘Then the doctor became quite serious and said, “You have to go. You have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. We have the signatures we need and it is illegal for you not to go.”
‘Being told I couldn’t leave the hospital was like a nightmare. I’d heard of people being sectioned and I thought I knew what it meant, but I thought it was what happened to crazy people, not people such as me.’
Gail describes the 52-bed ward, which has since been closed as part of the Coalition’s NHS cost- cutting measures, as cold and clinical, with patients locked in to prevent their escape.
‘The doors to the ward were locked and visitors had to be swiped in and out. You couldn’t just leave,’ says Gail.
‘The nurses were based in an office at the centre of the unit surrounded by floor-to-ceiling Perspex. All the staff were behind it and if you wanted to speak to someone you had to get their attention and they would come out and speak to you, then go back into the office.
‘Patients’ rooms were either side of the office, with the men on one side of the ward and the women on the other.
‘I was taken to my room which had pale blue walls and one small window which overlooked another building. There were no bars on the windows but they were all locked.
‘A nurse came in, handed me a pair of plain white pyjamas and said, “Put these on.” It was the only conversation I had. After that I decided not to speak.
‘A nurse sat outside my room all night because I was deemed at risk of harming myself.
‘Inside, the room was spartan and bare. Each room had its own toilet and shower. There were no decorations in the clinic except a painting of a tree hung on the wall which a female patient ripped off and hid under her bed because she told me it was a bad picture.
‘I laid down in bed the first evening and rocked back and forth, sobbing all night long.’
She adds: ‘People were constantly coming in and out of the clinic at all times of day and night, so it was difficult to keep track of how many were in there. It was chaotic and frightening and there was no one to ask what was going on.
‘Patients would be brought in late at night, some covered in blood, by the police. They ranged from the seriously mentally ill to those similar to me with depression, but we were all lumped in together.
‘One patient tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists. Another man would sit in front of the television in the common room and put on MTV and rock backwards and forwards for hours. When you hear about mental health patients and what they do it can sound funny, but when you’re in somewhere such as that you are surrounded by that behaviour 24 hours a day and it’s very frightening. It’s not a joke and you feel very vulnerable.
‘You have no idea who these people are or what they’ve done but you are expected to share a small space with them 24 hours a day.’
On May 17, three weeks into her sectioning, Gail was told she would be allowed to go home after a third doctor assessed her and decided she could continue her treatment as a day patient at the Tavistock Centre, her local mental health centre.
This she did until the end of July when she felt her condition hadn’t improved enough and she decided to fly to Thailand for a two-week rehabilitation programme at the £285-a-night Chiang Mai clinic.
The clinic, which specialises in the treatment of addiction, offers counselling for 27 patients at a time and is set inside a luxury resort.
Gail said it was the process there that allowed her to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
After returning to the UK from the clinic last Monday, she now feels better than at any time over the past two years. ‘The treatment was focused on talking through our problems and looking towards the future. There was exercise every day and a programme of activities,’ Gail says.
‘But it seems ridiculous that I had to go to Thailand to get better treatment than I received in a hospital ten minutes from my house.’
Gail says she decided to give such an honest interview to help highlight the treatment of depression in Britain. ‘I want to break down some of the stigma associated with mental illness. I’m not ashamed about what happened to me and I think I have a responsibility to talk about my experience in an open way.’
Three months on from her breakdown, she is looking to the future with daughter Honey and plans to train as a counsellor to help other mental illness sufferers.
Indeed, life couldn’t be further from the showbiz world she once inhabited. ‘My life is so far from that world but I wouldn’t swap it for anything,’ says Gail. ‘I’d always wanted to try something different to being a television presenter but I was worried people would say, “Look at her, she’s not on TV any more.”
‘Now I think that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I’ve had a difficult time over the past few years but it finally feels as if my life is getting better.’
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