From fighting 'the cloud' to accepting it - Alastair Campbell on living with depression

  • Listen: Alastair Campbell opens up about depression on the Britain Get Talking podcast

A cloud above his head, feeling empty and sick or spending the day feeling as though he is swimming through treacle.

Those are just some of the ways Alastair Campbell says his depression can manifest.

Every morning, Tony Blair's former spin doctor wakes up and grades his mood from one to 10.

"One is out of control manic and 10 is suicide," he told host of the Britain Get Talking podcast Kylie Pentelow.

In his book Living Better: How I Learned to Survive Depression, he explains how a five means he is entering the danger zone, at seven he starts to cancel meetings and an eight or a nine sees him spend as much time sleeping as possible.

To mark the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, the first episode of series three of the Britain Get Talking podcast has been released.

In the episode, Alastair speaks openly about his depression, the impact it has had on his family and how he exercises every day to cope.

  • Listen to the Britain Get Talking podcast

'The cloud'

For Alastair, his depression usually starts in the morning, particularly if he has not slept well.

He told Kylie: “I will wake up and I have this sense of a cloud up there. It's shaped like a rugby ball but it's bigger than a rugby ball.

"I used to try to fight it. Now, when I feel it coming on, I just say 'oh let's get it over with, come on then'."

Then the feeling becomes physical. He said: "I feel like something is being injected into me and as the thing is being injected everything else is going out.

"Then I either feel physically sick in my stomach... just like a numb pain. Then I feel my legs get very heavy, my head gets very heavy.

"Once I'm accepting it, then it's just like this swimming through treacle."

Alastair Campbell says talking has helped him cope with his depression.

Alastair says while his depressive episodes have similarities, they are never 100% the same.

On the podcast, he speaks of one particularly bad episode while he was visiting Scotland and wanted to die.

"It was instant," he said. “We were actually at a dinner table, we were having some dinner with friends. It was bang - and I went from feeling ok to feeling utterly desolate.”

Alastair took himself away from everyone and ended up staying alone in a barn for the night.

Despite having a psychotic breakdown at the age of 28, Alastair was not diagnosed with depression until years later and he admits failing to confront his depressive episodes.

Alastair's brother Donald was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which he says impacted how much he opened up to his parents about his own illness.

"When my parents were alive, I wouldn't often tell them how I was feeling... I didn't want to worry them,” he said.

"I love both my parents but when I had my breakdown, I think [I didn't tell them] mainly because I know how much of an impact my brother's schizophrenia had on their lives."

Instead his partner Fiona became the only person he could be “utterly emotionally naked” with. “If I wanted to cry, I cried. If I wanted not to speak, I wouldn’t speak," he told Kylie.

It is Fiona - as well as the couple’s three children Calum, Rory and Grace - who Alastair says gave him a reason to keep going even in his worst moments.

Now a passionate advocate for mental health, Alastair uses tools like exercise, music and spending time in the countryside to help him cope when he starts to slide down on his scale. 

He has also had professional help from his psychiatrist David Surgeon and talking helps him enormously.

Now as soon as he feels "the cloud", he tells Fiona.

"It's helped me and it's helped Fiona that I've talked about it and she talks about it with me," he said.

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