Billie Piper Opens Up About Mental Health: 'I Was Aware Of That Scratching White Noise Of Anxiety'

Billie Piper
·10-min read
Photo credit: Chloe Mallett
Photo credit: Chloe Mallett

From ELLE

Give me a familiar biscuit. I want to remember myself.

I want to be still. I want to feel safe. I want to eat my biscuit in this white room, while a nurse makes their checks and tells me I’m fine, for now at least. No questions, just statements. Soft, unthreatening, concise snippets: ‘I’ll be back in an hour.’ ‘I’ll bring some water.’ ‘Enjoy your biscuit.’

I will, I think. The stomach pain that landed me here is starting to pale into insignificance. My eyes and heart are turned by this ordinary, often-ignored British staple biscuit. It’s stealing me back, wrapped in blankets. ‘God, it’s good.’ I’m almost home. I could eat another. And another. And another.

You’re ill, I think. This must be what it’s like to lose your mind. Am I losing my mind?

I’m 34 but this feeling isn’t unfamiliar; this spiralling soothed by the strange comfort of a sterile white room. I felt the same thing when I was just 17, enduring another – albeit entirely different – physical crumpling. Awful, in many ways. But, my God, the enforced pause. That was welcome. Even more so now. Recently I’ve thought of poisonous mushrooms and oncoming traffic. The kind that just clips you but puts you down enough to enjoy an achingly slow passage of time, statements not questions, white rooms and malt biscuits.

This need to rest had started a few years ago, not long after I’d had my second child – the younger of my two beautiful buttery-haired boys. Becoming a mother had brought me home. I was burning with love for them.

Yet I was also aware of that scratching white noise of anxiety, which won’t lay dormant in your thirties. An old-school interference still cracking away and a manic preoccupation with ‘do more, be more, try harder, be better’.

Photo credit: Chloe Mallett
Photo credit: Chloe Mallett

These were familiar female tropes. Indeed, I wasn’t the only rager. I was watching women around me combusting, too. Brilliant, bold women fizzing out like dud fireworks on a wet night. Those who had bought into the modern-day myth that we can have it all, no compromise necessary.

And so, Mandy, the protagonist in the first film I’d written, now known as Rare Beasts, but an untitled idea then, became the second entity I gave birth to that year. A woman written into the crossfire of dysfunctional relationships and struggling against the demands of modern-day feminism.

You don’t always know why you write what you write.

Rare Beasts has taken seven years to travel from mind to screen. And although at the time of writing it, and even filming, the film meant something very different to me, I now see clearly that this is a film about what it means, and what it costs, to be female. As I entered my thirties and the stakes of all my life decisions became so much greater, I felt restless under this new pressure.

The pressure to not just do your job and live your life and keep your kids content – but instead to exist in hyper 4D. To have an established, successful career that’s making an impact. Daily meaningful, golden-hued interactions with your children. Perfectly attended-to intimate relationships.

Look, I understand these pressures affect men, too. I’m well aware of how this movement has left men scrabbling. But this very particular issue is, in my opinion, an acutely female epidemic. Longing to understand where your loyalties lie, hustling through what still feels like a man’s world. All the hiding, the cover-ups, the loss of self can, not-unsurprisingly, make you feel quite scorched, quite unwell.

So unwell, it would transpire, that four years later, I found myself in that hospital room, strangely moved by a packet of biscuits. All that pressure had twisted and grinded and burnt away within me so that I was in pain daily, suffering from a stomach condition triggered by stress, which was affecting my social and professional life. It would eventually take a f*ckload of steroids and even more therapy to get under control.

Of course, I’m not blaming my illness solely on the stress of being a working, and by-then divorced, mother-of-two.

Yes, it had been an unforeseeably tough time but, in a way, I’d been here before – a physical breakdown being the symptom landing me in hospital, but a mental crisis being the cause that required more permanent treatment.

It was 2000 when I passed out in a Covent Garden club – ‘foaming at the mouth’, apparently, but I have no reason to believe that. Bit inflammatory, bit hysterical eyewitness.

My PR rang through to my hospital bed to fill in some blanks – I’d been carried out of the club by a man, apparently. A hero or a pest? I wondered. It’s always hard to tell. (Later, I’d find out his name is Paul, like my dad. He’s Welsh, works at GQ and will, in time, become a dear friend, a blinding success and Kylie Minogue’s fiancé. Hero, not pest. Kylie knows.)

My ‘dramatic turn’ – as I liked to call it – was a result of days of Diet Cokes and Marlboro Lights fuelling a very active eating disorder, cystitis that crept up my back and into my kidneys, a goblet of sweet white wine and a mind and body dissociation that I feared for the very first time.

Photo credit: Chloe Mallett
Photo credit: Chloe Mallett

It was also the start of my fetishisation of white rooms.

Following that sojourn in hospital, my mother dragged me to a local therapist. I took immediate offence when the therapist asked me if my not eating was because I wanted to be a boy. Ridiculous, I thought. I left. I think about that comment a lot. Maybe I did want to be a boy. Maybe we all did on some level. Or maybe she was sh*t at her job.

In any case, that was the end of therapy for me. Until I was 34. It was at that second hospital stay that I finally found a psychotherapist who would take me on. She felt like a parent. A really good one. She would later transform things for me. Small things, but significant ones.

Indeed, three years on, there’s probably a book to write on the things I’ve discovered from talking to a mental health professional. Too much to share here, even if I was willing.

But let me confidently say: it’s because of therapy that I can connect those two hospital stays. Because rarely are our mental health issues an anthology of unconnected short stories, but rather different chapters of the same book. And my anxiety, my need to achieve, my obsession with outdoing myself at every juncture has been a running theme in my life.

I’d always considered myself quite a chilled-out child, especially given the madness I’d entered at 14: the surreal world of underage pop starlet. But actually, it had been there all along. As a child in the town of Swindon, I was obsessively neat and, it seems to me now, strangely ambitious. Homework would be completed way before its deadline. I avoided inviting other kids over to play, in case they messed up my bedroom. Of course, this was all rewarded: the adults in my life congratulating my parents and me on what a good, conscientious girl I was.

Later, this need to achieve and control and be the best version of myself morphed into an eating disorder, then later into what I can only describe as an addiction to work. Different points on the same graph. Now being aware of that propensity means I can, to an extent, do something about it. (Although not always. I failed at this just last year.) Some of these things are seemingly small.

I don’t have to-do lists anymore. For me, they’re as unhealthy as a set of scales. I can’t be normal or moderate around either so I don’t have them. I limit my phone time for the same reason – no device should have the power to dictate my mood. But it does, so there goes another toxic relationship.

I’m different in partnerships, too. A bit. I learnt that I have a habit of forming codependent relationships – my mood and self-worth dependent on my ability to make the other person happy. Like other codependents, I’ve been drawn to narcissists and the emotionally needy. When my therapist asked, ‘What are your boundaries like?’ I genuinely asked, ‘What’s a boundary?’ I had no idea. I just knew that for years I’d felt inexplicably angry.

And so inevitably you see some of this in Rare Beasts’ Mandy. At the end of the film, she admits to wanting an easier life, but with all the plaudits: a five-hour workday and a man to share it with – the forbidden thoughts of the modern woman. I can admit I still don’t know what I want in life. I’m 38 and, beyond the essentials – my partner and my children – I still don’t know. I read scripts all about women who are confident and clear about what they want and I don’t relate at all.

And so maybe I still find myself trying to exhaust all options. I filmed Rare Beasts when I was pregnant with my daughter Tallulah. I was editing when I went into labour, had two weeks off, then took Tallulah into work with me. Part of me looks back and thinks, Well done you. But mostly, I just think, What a f*cking idiot.

Therapy does not change who you are. My inner workaholic is still there. So is that white noise at 3am. Most nights I have to fall asleep with Friends on in the background, its well-worn script so known to me that I don’t actually listen to it; it just helps drown out the scratching of those creeping, anxious thoughts. My point is, I’m not a paragon of mental stability, I haven’t found the secret elixir to mental health. Because one thing I’m certain of: it doesn’t exist.

I suppose it’s why Rare Beasts ends the way it does – no huge, life-changing moment or definitive realisation. Just a still-struggling woman making a seemingly small decision. Because that’s my understanding and experience of change – it’s subtle. It’s a slow burn and it’s not always fully achieved.

Working on my mental health is about awareness. Being aware when I’m behaving in a certain way or being overly critical of myself or living for someone else. The change is awareness. I wish it could be more fantastical than that, but the reality is that it just isn’t. All the therapy in the world, all that money spent, and I’m still drawn into behaviours I wish I’d been cured of – but I don’t think I ever will be and that’s OK. Or at least it has to be. What’s the alternative?

Rare Beasts is due for release on May 7. This article appears in the March 2021 edition of ELLE UK on sale now.

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