British TV star and author Denise Welch has lived her life in the shadow of clinical depression, which also led her to alcohol abuse and over-eating as a coping mechanism for a complicated life. But with a gritty determination, she has given herself the tools to find a new direction.
Climbing back into a bikini for the first time since her 30s was a wonderful moment of self-determination for British TV star Denise Welch.
Earlier this year Denise, one of Great Britain’s most beloved celebrities, slipped into a swimsuit and turned her camera on herself before defiantly posting it on her social media feed, baring her bikini clad body to the world and almost daring the feeding-frenzy realm of the internet to take her on.
“It’s an act of defiance more than anything else,” says Denise, the 62-year-old former Coronation Street regular who has spent almost four decades as one of Britain’s most popular TV, film and stage stars, and managed to turn her celebrity into a successful and enduring reality TV career as both a host and a participant.
“People come up to me now in the street and they say, ‘Oh, my God, you are still posing in a bikini at 62.’ But I don’t do it so people will look and me and say, ‘Hey don’t you look great’ I’m doing it because I have the confidence to do it and because I won’t be dictated to by the press or by the horrible trolls on social media and to whether I should be wearing a bikini at 62 or not. What I am saying to others is if I can do it then you can, too.
“I don’t think I look too bad for a 62-year-old. Yes, I have a tummy; I’ve had two children. And I’m a size 12 not some skinny little size eight but I don’t think I look half bad and that’s because I am now in control of who I am and that means a lot to me. All I’m saying is don’t let anyone push you around: if you want to be out there, then get out there and be as sexy as you like. And if that inspires others, then that’s a wonderful thing.”
Of course, Denise recognises that she is still a work in progress. And that is also the point of both her now-famous bikini posts and her latest book, The Unwelcome Visitor.
Her book is testament to her endurance and her transformation, detailing her long battle with post-natal depression and ingrained anxiety. For years, she used over-eating and alcohol as the coping mechanisms that helped her face the world.
Denise says her struggle with clinical depression came after the birth of her son Matthew 31 years ago and has remained as the backdrop for much of her professional success. Denise says that she has written her account of her private battles because she found there was little help for those in similar circumstances.
“I would have given anything to see somebody on television talking about this illness.”Denise Welch
“I’d had crippling postnatal depression, and I was losing weight at that time – two and a half stone in three weeks,” she says. “I couldn’t eat or drink; I was a complete catatonic zombie at the end of the sofa. I remember, there was an association for postnatal illness you could write to, but I couldn’t even pick up a pen and my GP at the time, a woman of about my age now, said to me: ‘I had five children dear, and I just didn’t have time to get depressed’. I’ve always remembered that.”
Denise is speaking on the telephone from her home, outside London, where she lives with her husband and 48-year-old former PR manager Lincoln Townley, who has established himself as an internationally recognised artist. Their lives are busy and full but also sometimes prey to her depressive episodes which come and go.
The star says her depression is of a type that isn’t influenced by the world around her, rather coming from somewhere inside. As such, mentally she is in a good place, but she also knows that the illness can come back at almost any time.
“It’s endogenous; it’s not about the situation I’m in, so I’m lucky at the moment because I don’t have my illness,” she says. “I know that if I did, then life would be pretty horrendous.”
And there have been times for Denise when life was horrendous, yet she always managed to come through. “I’m not saying I was always depressed,” she says. “Unhappy and depressed are two separate things. When you’re depressed, you don’t have the ability to be unhappy or happy. There is just a void. I was drinking because I was unhappy and it was compounding my depression, so I was in a mess.”
Over the years, her depression, although entrenched, came and went but her ongoing battle with alcohol and over-eating gradually became a constant in her life.
At first, her depression helped her keep slim because she avoided food when she was having an episode but slowly she came to depend more and more on alcohol, which she says became her replacement for food, again helping her keep her figure.
But when she finally realised that alcohol was controlling her life and she gave it up, her eating simply took over and her weight ballooned.
“I felt bad that I couldn’t control my appetite,” she adds. “I would have a pudding or dessert with Louis and Lincoln, and then I’d sneak out and have another piece of cheesecake later. If they came into the kitchen while I was munching, I’d be like the cartoon character with chocolate around my mouth, trying to look innocent. ‘What have you been doing?’ ‘Nothing!’ It’s comical when I tell the story, but in fact it was desperately unhealthy.
“It had already dawned on me that if I didn’t change my approach to eating, I would spend a lifetime battling my weight, yo-yo dieting, stressing about it, emotional eating and using food as a crutch, in the same way I had done with alcohol.’
That was when she discovered CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Thinking. I felt that CBT was offering me a lifeline and I grabbed it.
CBT, Denise says, gives you an alternative to giving in to the urge to eat something unhealthy. “It teaches you to think, ‘Okay, I’m hungry, and I’m going to eat, and I’m going to go to the fridge and I’m going to make myself something really tasty and nutritious, and I’m going to eat it. It may not be as gorgeous, going in, as that pizza, but when I’ve finished it and my tummy is full, I’m going to think, ‘Bloody good for you.’”
That’s not to say that giving up either alcohol or takeaway food is easy. Life is a lot more complicated that that, Denise says. “We are all frailer than we admit to,” she says. Sometimes, it’s just too hard to resist temptation. I’ve fallen off the wagon a couple of times but you it’s OK because I have the tools to let myself get back on it again.”