I’ve never been very good at dealing with rejection. I mean, is anyone? Rejection is a rude and ungrateful experience. But as a child who had a parent with mental illness, I had to deal with a lot of rejection. When I was 10, I saw my dad depressed for the first time. Only I didn’t know what depression was, so when my dad got sad and hid away from the world, my natural response was to think he hated me.
My dad, Alastair Campbell, started working for Tony Blair a month after I was born, in April 1994. For the first nine years of my life, I only experienced him as a loud, charismatic, confident, smart force of nature who I didn’t see as much as I wanted to. While he was flying around the world meeting important people like Nelson Mandela, I was busy trying to emulate his energy at home.
When he left Downing Street in 2003, I thought I would finally have him back, and that I could make him watch all of my Britney Spears-inspired performances. But not long after he returned, he fell into a deep state of darkness. He was an energy vampire; Edward Cullen from the Twilight saga. He would lie in bed all day with the curtains closed, and a glazed look in his eyes. As a 10-year-old, my only conclusion was that I must have done something wrong.
I remember going into his room one day to ask him if he would take me to the cinema.
‘I can’t today, darling,’ he said, his voice weak. I couldn’t understand why; it wasn’t like he was busy, he was just lying in bed.
‘Are you angry at me?’ I asked, sure it must be my fault that he was so low.
Not long afterwards, he sat me down and spoke to me about his mental health.
‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘I’ve been feeling very depressed recently.’
‘What does that mean?’ I asked.
‘It means I’m sad, and there’s a sort of dark fog over my brain.’
‘That sounds s—t,’ I said. He cracked a smile; I always knew when I swore it would make him smile. (He did, after all, inspire the fictional character Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It.)
‘But Gracie, you have to know this, the way I’m feeling is not your fault. I love you very much.’
After this first bout, I got better at not taking my dad’s depression as a personal attack on me. This was no easy task. Even as adults we find it hard to compute when someone we love is so depressed that they can’t, just for a moment, cheer up for us. But as a child? It’s virtually impossible not to question what you’ve done to make this person you idolise look like their life has been ruined.
For most of my teenage years I got my dad without depression. Of course, for some of it he was, but I never saw this version of him as the worse version. It was just the more vulnerable him. The him who wanted company, but couldn’t talk much.
I’d carry on trying to make him laugh and comfort him, and eventually, the fog would lift – some bouts lasted just a few days, others weeks, and in bad cases, months. I learnt slowly that all I could do was be there, and not ask too many questions.
My dad’s frankness with his own mental health is what helped me become so open about my own. In 2013, I had my first panic attack on the Metro in Paris and was diagnosed with anxiety and OCD. I developed my own ways of coping – yoga, watching reality TV and talking endlessly to friends and family – and I went on medication and had therapy.
When I was diagnosed, for a brief moment I was terrified to talk to anyone about my own madness. But then I realised my dad was never ashamed to talk about his diagnosis, so I never would be either. Thanks to him, I see talking about my own mental health as a sign of pride, not shame.
Grace’s debut book, ‘Amazing Disgrace: A Book About “Shame”’ is out now (Hodder Studio, £14.99)