“I feel wretched and guilty” – Chris Packham opens up about his new TV series Earth
The moment I knew I had to investigate why I’d gone through life feeling so different from everyone else came during a row over a box of Milk Tray.
It was lockdown and my anxiety was raging, over both this terrifying disease and my work as a comedian, which had vanished overnight. I’d been trying my best to mask my panic in front of my two children, but when I saw them squabbling over opening the box of chocolates, a switch flicked.
I hurled the box across the room, burst into tears and ran out of the house with no shoes on. In my friend’s garden, I sobbed as I realised that now my children were cooped up with me, I had to get to the bottom of why minor irritations caused me to have such over-the-top reactions – for their sake.
The transformative path that moment spurred me to take is the reason that now, having recently turned 50, I feel more self-acceptance, peace and optimism than I’ve ever felt before.
After a lifetime of chaos with a brain that never stopped whirring and would frequently fizz out of control; of impulsive behaviour; of trying to mask the way I felt and self-medicate with compulsive eating, bulimia and binge-drinking – I finally have a diagnosis that has made sense of the way I am: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
Like many people, I’d always thought ADHD had something to do with naughty boys being disruptive in class. That was nothing like me. At school in Ealing, west London, where my family lived after being exiled from Iran during the 1979 revolution, I loved reading and was well-behaved. Somehow, though, I could never concentrate and, despite my best intentions, never did any homework.
Anxiety churned constantly in my mind, even in my dreams at night.
Certain actions gave me a moment of respite: shoplifting was one. The danger of slipping an eyeshadow into my pocket in the supermarket made my heart beat faster, but also slowed my mind and focused it. It was a euphoric feeling that was soon replaced by a rush of shame at what I’d done.
Having recently turned 50, I feel more self-acceptance, peace and optimism than I’ve ever felt before.
Bulimia was similar. From early childhood, I had a compulsion to eat and keep eating. Through my teens and twenties, thinking about food, eating, then panicking about getting fatter and throwing up dominated my life.
It was a dark, destructive secret that nobody knew, and, like shoplifting, it allowed me to pause the motor of my brain for a moment. Back then, though, I had no idea of the link between my disordered eating and my chaotic thinking.
Meeting new people was always fraught with stress, particularly if it was a social situation with lots of people and noise. My brain would spiral, and I wouldn’t be able to understand what they were saying, so I’d interrupt or babble or go completely silent. I didn’t know how other people navigated those moments; how they just spoke to one another calmly.
As a teenager I learned that alcohol made me feel more normal, but I could never stop until I was trolleyed. Combined with the people-pleasing tendencies I’d developed to mask my ADHD, it put me in unsafe situations as I began my career in comedy.
One night I met a comic in a club and went home with him. When I told him I didn’t want to sleep with him, he left, locking me in. I had to shout out of the window to the waiters in a Turkish restaurant across the road, who fetched a ladder so I could climb out. There were other men I did sleep with, despite not wanting to.
It was my children who made me determined to finally get help, because I knew there were times I’d failed them.
I went on to meet and marry Christian, another comedian. And in 2005, we had a baby boy a few days after our first wedding anniversary. My impulsiveness meant I would change plans at the drop of a hat and react with extreme emotions whenever we rowed.
When our son was two, Christian left me and I broke down. For me, it was a catastrophe that proved I wasn’t lovable. Instead of taking time out to heal, I hurled myself into work, sabotaging myself by not preparing properly for big, important gigs such as Live at the Apollo.
My spiral of shame and self-loathing continued and I found relationships extremely difficult afterwards, because I would expect to be left again and end them before they could get that far.
Both my children (I had a little girl the day before my 40th birthday) have seen me at my worst, shouting, crying, feeling ashamed and then apologising. My speciality was taking them on wildly over-ambitious, spontaneous trips to the forest or seaside, during which I’d have a meltdown and we’d all end up exhausted.
It was my children who made me determined to finally get help, because I knew there were times I’d failed them. Prior to the Milk Tray incident, a few people had mentioned ADHD to me as a possibility. A former boyfriend once told me, “You have 10 conversations at the same time. Do you think you might have ADHD?” It made sense, but it wasn’t something I was ready to confront yet.
This time, I Googled ADHD therapists and found one, Ian. He and the psychiatrist who later confirmed my diagnosis helped me begin the painful but cathartic process of understanding how ADHD has underpinned all the emotional dysregulation – the huge outbursts and feelings of shame – I’ve experienced through my life.
I know now that ADHD involves a deficiency in the brain’s neurotransmitters, which messes with your executive functions – the processes that help you plan and organise.
As a result, concentration often becomes impossible and impulsive behaviour unavoidable.
The sessions with Ian have been so helpful. But I’ve also learned other strategies that help my ADHD, like leaving my phone at home and walking the dog, healthy eating, good sleep and medication (I take an amphetamine that wakes up the sleepy part of my brain). I’ve rediscovered my childhood love for doing things with my hands, so I do adult colouring books, which help soothe my brain.
A friend helps me with my paperwork and emails – one of my Achilles heels. In return, I’ll offer to look after her kids for an evening or help her put up some shelves; I’m better at valuing what I’m good at instead of focusing on what I’m not. I hardly drink alcohol now and I’m much better at knowing when to rest.
One of the biggest changes has been learning not to make jokes at my own expense all the time. My friends knew me as ‘scatty Shappi’ – because that’s how I presented myself –, but now people are more compassionate and understanding about my mistakes, because I am too. I’m not an idiot, I’m just wired differently.
My own empathy for others has soared and I’ve found my relationships with other women, in particular, have deepened. I invest in my friendships and no longer have anxiety around new people. Crucially, I’m far calmer with my children, too.
Having experienced the incredible benefits of therapy, I’m now – alongside my comedy – retraining as a psychotherapist so I can use that knowledge to help others. I’d never have imagined I’d be 50 and feeling more excited about the future than I’ve ever been. But now I’ve accepted that this fizzing brain of mine is who I am, there’s so much less to feel anxious about.