Dane McDonald opens up about how he was forced to take time out of his TV career to deal with his crippling depression.
As we’ve all no doubt discovered during our twisty turny life journeys, nothing ever comes easy. Our hearts get broken, we worry about what people think about us and sometimes the outside world plays havoc with our minds and leaves us spiralling out of control.
On paper, Dane McDonald looks as though he has it all. Although he is suavely handsome, with a good circle of friends and a hugely successful career in TV, he is the first to admit that life hasn’t always been hunky dory. In spite of speedily climbing the ranks within his industry, a series of unexpected life events led the 31-year old Irish born fella to experience a severe mental breakdown that filled his fragile mind with suicidal thoughts.
Luckily, counselling and understanding his problems has helped Dane successfully to overcome that dark period in his life and is now able to look out for any triggers that could set off his issues again.
Here, in an incredibly frank chat with GuysLikeU, Dane opens up about coming-out in a small Irish town and reveals how in spite of a happy childhood, his life suddenly got out of hand as he achieved phenomenal success, resulting in him falling into a dark hole that he struggled to escape from …..
First of all Dane, take us back to when you first started to realise you were gay?
This question always cracks me up – because the honest answer is I really do not know. But I think I have always known, I suppose. The first time I felt an attraction to men was watching WWF [now WWE] wrestling but in a non sexual way. I kind of found myself drawn to the male wrestlers probably around the age of 5 or 6.
So when did you start to feel comfortable enough to open up about your sexuality?
As I got older, 7/8, the boys in my year, ‘the bullies’, found a way to trick a gay answer out of me and that was the start of eight years of bullying. I was called ‘gay’, ‘batty boy’, ‘ gayboy’ and all the other typical juvenile insults. So, going through this, and developing an idea about sexuality – as it was something that was not discussed among my friends, family, peers etc – I realised that I wasn’t interested in girls which went against heteronormative conventions. This stopped me coming out for a long time as the bullying continued through primary and secondary school. I guess I wanted the easy life and not exacerbate bullying. So I didn’t say anything until I was finishing my A-Levels.
What was your first gay experience like?
Throughout my childhood, I was experimenting with others around my age the way all kids do, you know, like kissing, body contact etc. It was fun and harmless. My first sexual experience was with an older guy I met online when I was almost sixteen. I fucking hated it. It was so awkward and uncomfortable and then he had the nerve to tell me that he was actual straight and had a wife. I felt so unwell afterwards, went home and showered for half an hour. As uncomfortable as the experience was, I knew then for sure that I wasn’t interested in women.
Growing up in a Catholic household and having to deal with bullying at school, was being gay something you didn’t want?
I was lucky that I never experienced any thoughts about not want to be gay, though my main concern then was not getting outed or being bullied. I just didn’t want others knowing about me or leaving myself in a vulnerable position.
So who were you most concerned about opening up to?
Coming from an Irish Catholic family, I suppose I prepared myself that none of my family would take it well. I was particularly worried about how Nanny and Grandad would take it as I was very close to them. I used to see them almost every day. When I told my nan, she was a bit shocked and she cried. But my aunty told her to wise up and to stop worrying about it and she’s been fine ever since. But my family wasn’t the only problem! Back then, I lived in a small town with a population of around 1000 where everyone knew everyone’s business, so I was concerned about everyone finding out about me. But I have to admit I was lucky and didn’t experience any problems whatsoever, except for a few ‘jokes’ from the young lads in town, but nothing aggressive.
That’s good. What about life at school?
I was actually pretty shy at school and kept myself to myself although some boys tricked me into saying something gay that they ribbed me for front then on. To be honest, I didn’t really like being there as I’m not an academia person. That said, I really enjoyed art and hated PE with passion as I was constantly worried about people expecting me to look at other fellas in the changing rooms and get bullied for it. I just wanted to avoid it.
Some guys go through some terrible mental health issues when they are trying to stifle their sexuality. Did you experience anything like that?
Absolutely not. I was happily out during my time at uni and my mental health was always fine. In fact I was always in in control of my emotions throughout my childhood and into my teens. At uni I got to meet a lot of gay people and found many of them quite intimidating. One of my close friends in first year used to wear girls clothes. I remember thinking how brave, confident and outrageous he was. I mean, it wasn’t the way I wanted to act, but I found myself becoming comfortable with myself by watching him being totally unphased he was. It was inspirational.
When did you finally throw yourself into the gay scene?
My first experience was on Canal Street in Manchester. I went out with one of my first gay university friends at a time when I was in a relationship back home in Ireland, which meant I was on my best behaviour. I was so petrified going to a gay bar because I just didn’t know what to expect – I was bricking it. But in the end, it was actually a good night.
You don’t sound like it was exactly your cup of tea…
While I was at uni, the gay scene wasn’t for me. I found it all a bit outrageous. I only went to Canal Street twice throughout my time in Manchester. Also I didn’t really drink much and got my head down instead. During that time, The X Files took up my free time. I was a bit of a weirdo, to be honest. I was more sociable when I moved to London and started out in TV. When I move there, I had a close friend called Damian who took me to all the gay clubs and it was then that I started to genuinely enjoy it. The London scene was probably more eclectic, more fun and I actually found it less intimidating than Manchester.
The TV world is one where being gay is so accepted. Was it hard for you to break into?
I was lucky with my TV career. I started out doing work experience on The X Factor at the end of my first year at uni and that was a real eye opener as it was such a huge show to be part of at the time. After my last year at uni, I was a runner at Talkback Thames – the company that made The X Factor – and started to really build a good network of friends.
Was it an easy career?
Not exactly, to to start with. I had moved to London for that job with enough money to cover rent for a week, food and travel. Like most runners in TV, I went into my overdraft and lived hand to mouth. I remember there was days where I had three jobs in one day to make money to survive in London. I really did work hard. I bent over backwards for companies and impressed people who thankfully continued to rehire me. I really started running with my career, self-shooting and directing small parts of TV shows as a researcher. I was just really keen to learn. Looking back it was huge responsibility for me at that level, but I learned on the job and took a lot on board. My whole career was like this. I coped well, I eventually made good money and I had a really nice life. I worked hard, but played harder.
TV can be a tough line of work, can’t it, as there are so many people fighting for a limited amount of roles.
Yes. The competition is rife at the top. You are fighting for jobs, taking on people who have had years of experience. That means you really have to prove yourself. So I put myself out there, working all the jobs I could, not taking much time off and being away from London a lot. I went from junior level to shooting PD – a senior and responsible level within six years. For me, that was success. I had worked incredibly hard to get to that point, but the pressure I put on myself led to me burning out and suffering a deep depression.
So what happened?
I was working on a job that was a year long project. The first three months went past okay, even though I was working stupidly long days, weekends and pretty much sacrificing my social life. In February 2016, an uncle I was close to growing up died totally unexpectedly from complications with diabetes. He was just 42 years old. Two months after that, my grandad passed away. I was devastated but I threw myself into work and found myself working through some days and not really knowing what I was doing. I was ignoring what should have been signs that should have rung alarm bells.
In what way?
I was working stupid hours, was trying to get my head around the death of my loved ones and was drinking and partying heavily. Work got busier and the hours seemed to increase. I wasn’t looking after myself and was burning the candle on both ends. It felt normal for me so I didn’t think I was behaving any differently.
Did your friends notice?
I am sure some may have noticed the warning signs but they never flagged them up to me. That said, for all I know, they probably did and I didn’t realise it at the time.
So when did you speak out?
I was at the end of that year long job. It was a difficult job. I was working on my first edit, which was taking up a lot of time and impacting hugely on my sleep. I was watching and cutting footage which brought back memories of my uncle and my grandfather. As a result I wasn’t concentrating as fully as I should have been. I wasn’t sleeping, I started spiralling out of control, crying myself to sleep some nights, and feeling numb. Then I dropped the ball and that was a real wake up call for me.
What happened next?
After the edit, I went back on location to cover a shoot for a couple weeks. Four days in, having just two hours of sleep every night, almost crying every day at work and having suicidal thoughts, I lost it and broke down. I had to stop. I called a psychologist friend in the middle of the night, feeling absolutely lost. I felt numb, I didn’t understand why I was feeling like this. I wanted to end it all because at the time it felt like it was the only way out of what I was going through, which I now understand was quite a deep depression. I messaged one of my best friends who happened to be my production manager at the time and told him I needed time out and did so for the next five months.
Why did you feel there was no way out?
I really don’t know. It was just a feeling of deep loss. I had everything. I had a boyfriend, I had great friends, my career was going incredibly and I was financially comfortable. On paper, I had it all going for me.
What stopped you from doing anything drastic?
Three things stopped me. One, I was sharing a house with someone who I had only just met. He was young, researcher level, keen to start a great career in TV and totally enthusiastic. The idea of him finding me stopped me. I also had a niece, who was just four years old at the time and knew I codlin do that to her. I also thought of my mum, who I know wouldn’t have coped if I had done something like that.
Did you seek medical help?
My psychology mate JC recommended talking therapies so I spoke to some psychs over the next couple of days who decided that I was quite high risk. We spoke about everything and they thought CBT was the best way forward for help deal with my depression and suicidal thoughts. And it did.
How long did it take to get a grip of what was going on?
It took many months. I locked myself in my room often and didn’t want to face anyone. JC helped massively. He checked in with me from time to time and was a huge support. When I started to speak about it openly, my closest friends and boyfriend were checking in and being more aware of my situation. That really helped me understand that it was okay to be feeling like this.
Were your bosses understanding about taking time off?
I was a freelancer and contract-based self employed worker, so I just didn’t take on any long term contracts. I took some days here and there to have some kind of income as I was massively broke then. When I messaged my friend and told my series producer my situation they both dealt with it incredibly well. They were sympathetic and even offered numbers and other support. Over the next few days and months my SP did check in occasionally. Even that went a long way!
How do you view mental health these days now you’ve experienced such tough times?
The stigma for me is gone. This is absolutely normal and many people do have good days and bad days. For men especially, we really need to talk about stuff like this. All my male friends have experienced mental health issues, and it wasn’t until I spoke honestly and openly that I realised how many of my friends went through it in silence. It shouldn’t be like that. If I know someone is being quiet I reach out to see if they are ok. You just never know what people are going through until you’ve been there.
Has your view of work and the pressure you put on yourself changed?
Yes, I have learned that life isn’t all about work, play and money. It’s what you make it. I think since my breakdown I have learned the importance of mental health, but also not to take life too seriously. I try to avoid any unnecessary stress and I am quick to nip behaviours that have a negative effect on me in the bud. In the grand scheme of things, if you don’t have your mental health, what else really matters?
If you were to suffer a similar experience again have you got ways of coping?
I know my triggers now. I find that I am quick to look at my emotions more rationally and work through them. Not everything is going to be within my control and accepting those moments is often incredibly difficult. I have realised I challenge behaviours towards me more than I used to – if they have a detrimental effect on my mental health. l like taking me time and enjoying doing nothing or going for a walk or exercising really does help. I am more aware of the jobs I take on. The people I work with and the companies that I want to work with. The TV Industry was shaken to the core recently by a mental health report that revealed that TV freelancers have at a higher risk of suffering from depression and mental health issues. Nine thousand industry people were asked if they had suffered from a. mental health issue and 87% said they had, which compares to 65% of the rest of the UK population. Over half of workers had had suicidal thoughts compared with one with nationally. One in ten media workers have tried suicide, again above the UK average.
What have you learnt about yourself that others may take inspiration from?
I have learned that I am not a robot. In TV, as a freelancer, you tend to work hard and bounce from one job to the other. It’s very high energy. But you also need to look after your mind. I am much more open now and more aware of other people’s moods. I find I’m reaching out to more people to make sure they are okay. Since I’ve been so open about my mental health, I have had lots of people asking for help or advice or simply to discuss their mental health issues. We just need to be more open. There should be absolutely no embarrassment or shame about having a mental health issue.
We’re all going though a mad time right now. How are you dealing with self isolation during this Covid-19 nightmare?
I am coping okay. Sadly my industry has shut down and because I am freelancer I am not eligible for any help financially from the government. Companies can’t provide either. I had two days during which I just felt like crying, similar to the depressed states I have been in during my break down. But CBT is really helping me. I am analysing my emotions more quickly and trying to rationalise everything. I am also doing a CBT practitioners course, training to really grasp that side of psychology. It’s really for my own self development, but also to learn how my mind works and how best to manage my own mind. Because I have had people come to me for advice its always good to know the workings of the mind and help more effectively. CBT worked for me, and if I can help one person [in a non professional way – this won’t be a career change for me!] or to be equipped with the tools to advise people based on my own experiences then that’s one less person suffering in silence
If you are experiencing similar experiences as Dane please visit Calm, Mind, Samaritans