'It's okay to be depressed and stay depressed'
Years of undiagnosed depression filled actress Mary McEvoy’s life with anxiety. Now, she has learned to live with her condition and accept who she is – she doesn’t even mind people asking after
Miley these days
PEOPLE STILL say it, even now, years after she was last seen giving out yards to husband Miley in her TV kitchen. “How’s the mushrooms?” or “How’s Miley?” No matter what she does in her career or personal life, to some people, Mary McEvoy will always be Biddy from Glenroe. For a long time, the public perception of her as the character she played for 16 years on TV was the cause of much angst and anxiety, exacerbating what was then undiagnosed depression.
In her new memoir How the light gets in, McEvoy writes about her condition and the philosophies she formed to help her cope. “It is not a book about how to cure depression; it’s about how to live with it,” she says. “That is all anybody can do”.
The Biddy identity is no longer a source of irritation. “I always liked being Biddy,” she says. “I was grateful for the work, I loved my Glenroefamily. I just didn’t like being perceived as her. Even though I grew up on a farm, I was very up my own arse at one point, trying to prove I was this posh Bohemian and running away from my farming background. I suppose it was an effort not to be typecast – which happened anyway,” she laughs.
There is a lovely irony in the fact that, after all these years, she has ended up on the family farm in Co Westmeath, where she lives with Garvan, a musician, her partner of 23 years.
She had a “eureka” moment about this recently. “It’s only when I admitted to the world ‘yes I am a farmer’ and ‘yes I am depressed’ that I had a chance to be more myself than I have ever been. I spent years trying to get away it but now I can say I love farming. I love the earthiness of it. The dirt under the fingernails. The visceral reality of that life, the richness of the culture. I have nothing to hide anymore and the ‘how’s Miley?’ thing doesn’t bother me.”
Anyway, these days since she’s been back on television (she is a regular on a TV3 chat show), it’s just as likely to be “how are ye, Mary?”
We meet in the cafe of the RHA gallery in Dublin where nobody says “how’s the mushrooms?” to the small woman tucking into a plate of pasta. She is wearing jeans, pretty pumps and an asymmetrical blue T-shirt, that reveals a small flowery tattoo below the shoulder of her right arm. “I am showing off my arms for the first time in 20 years,” she says.
The book details her issues with food and weight, which began with what she calls “competitive dieting” in boarding school.
She has recently been taking part in a new health regime for TV3 and has a personal trainer. “I think there is a tendency as we get older to fade into the background because that is what society expects. I don’t buy into that. I like the idea of older women as warriors. I want to be healthy and independent for as long as I can so this has given me a new lease of life,” she says.
Last year, while working on The Matchmakerwith her friend, the late actor Mick Lally, she hurt her back in an event that triggered the most debilitating period of anxiety and depression she has experienced. “The only peace I got at that time was between 7.30pm and 10.30pm, when I could get out on stage and make people laugh. I knew what I was doing then. The minute I came off stage I ran out to the car so I wouldn’t have to see people. Looking back, I was taking too much on, driving up to Dublin for two hours every day in chronic pain, I hope I am never in that place again.”
In the last couple of years McEvoy has started to open up about her depression and, by extension, her Buddhism, which is a source of peace in her life. She is, she says, one of the “drinking, farting, swearing” Buddhists. She also eats meat and raises lambs for slaughter in “five-star hotel” conditions on the farm. Although, if she had enough money, “I would just give the lambs blow dries all day. I love them.”
GROWING UP AS an only child on her parent’s farm in Delvin, hers was an idyllic childhood. She was a “spirited” youngster, running free around the farm, exasperating her mother with her ability to get into trouble.
As she got older, a feeling of not fitting in, of not being good enough either for her parents or for the world in general began to take hold. Her parents’ expectation that she would take over the farm, settle down and become a farmer’s wife clashed with her desperation to escape to Dublin and immerse herself in the acting world where, unlike in real life, “everything was scripted and there was always a measure of control”.
“My parents never, ever said to me ‘you are not good’, that was a conclusion I came to myself,” she says.
“My father was in his 50s when he had me, my mother was in her 40s, so for that time and age, I think they did very well. They let me go off to Dublin when other parents wouldn’t have, for example. I was a very sensitive child, I always had extreme reactions to things. I would take all the normal pass-remarkable stuff to heart, and being an only child I had nobody to tell me not to mind it.
“I was always reflecting myself back to myself. I always felt defective and from that point of view, depression is inevitable. It’s only relatively recently, as an aul’ wan, that I am beginning to realise I am not a complete oddity. That the things I felt and feel, other people feel too.”
McEvoy’s official diagnosis by a psychiatrist in the Blackrock Clinic came as something of a relief, after years of not knowing why she had panic attacks or was crippled with anxiety during what for other people were normal social encounters.
She writes about taking anti-depressants for the first time and a night out in Paris – where she has a home – where she discovered it was possible to feel “normal”. She advocates medication as a last resort, a coping strategy which she knows is controversial for some.
“I’ve been told I am lazy for taking tablets. I’ve been told to go cold turkey. All I know is that I feel better on medication. I can’t explain why it makes me feel better, it just does. The other thing is that people with depression are hard work, we really are, and I don’t think I have a right to expect people to constantly cope with me.”
McEvoy was approached about writing a book after she appeared in an RTÉ Would You Believedocumentary. The book’s title comes from a Leonard Cohen song Anthem: “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” It was something she had been thinking about for a while.
“I’d read a lot about depression but never anything that said ‘it’s okay to be depressed and it’s okay to stay depressed but here’s how to learn to live with the disorder’. I just felt there had got to be some way of making people like me feel alright. Forget perfect, with or without depression, we all just muddle through.”
Since talking about the condition and in the course of writing the book, she has met many more people like her.
“I haven’t yet spoken to one person who isn’t suffering themselves or who doesn’t know one person who is, so it’s just this awfully prevalent thing. I am not advocating a big moanfest about depression but I really believe the more people feel safe to speak about it, they can relax a bit more and hopefully feel more accepted”.
Mary McEvoy will be signing copies of How The Light Gets In – My Journey With Depressionin Eason’s tomorrow at 12.30pm