Hello, I’m Dan. I might like to think of myself as tall, dark and mysterious – the truth is that whilst I am long, I’m definitely a nerd, an introvert and one of those people that spends too much time on the internet. I do only wear black though. I’m still trying to work out the psychological significance of my light-absorbing choice of clothing, but there’s other stuff for me to work on first.
As an annoying child who screamed ‘look at me’ before doing an underwhelming backflip into a pool, naturally I wanted to become ‘an entertainer’. A professional storyteller, whatever that is. Someone that can make other people laugh and maybe make a change – or at the very least have an excuse to go on a rant about something, inspired by righteous fury. I’m one of those quite sarcastic, cynical ones with a tough shell, which I always chalked up to being British, with that small and stiff upper-lip. When I was eighteen, I started posting comedy videos online to amuse myself, then people started watching them. As this accidental freight train picked up speed, with more viewers and followers coming with every rotation, I found myself (often with my friend and partner-in-crime Phil Lester) hosting a show on BBC radio, writing books, performing in theatres and standing in front of seas of people at festivals. Always self-deprecating, shamelessly sharing my worst moments for others’ entertainment, (definitely to a fault and extent that sometimes elicits a laugh followed by a concerned look) – you can obviously learn a lot about my mental health from my sense of humour, but really I just want to make people happy. Other people.
I’d always been seen on a stage or a screen with a smile on my face. To everyone in my life I may have appeared fine and thriving, but under the surface I was struggling. It was easy to forget, as I tumbled forward through life, to pay attention to how I felt. I try not to think of all the time I’ve spent indulging in the bleakest impulses of my brain and accepting my most negative thoughts without question. I found myself wading aimlessly through a dense fog of stress, panic and low energy, which eventually sent me sliding down into a black hole that I couldn’t climb out of.
I came to learn that I wasn’t looking after my mental health, and in reality I was stressed, anxious and severely depressed. I went on a journey to find help, to learn about myself and my mind, and I discovered that life didn’t have to be this way.
There were times in my life that seemed so dark and inescapable that I thought I had no choice but to give up entirely to escape them. The truth is that there was so much I could have done to lift myself up and out. I just didn’t understand mental health, or know how to help myself. Now, I feel like I do.
THE ORIGIN STORY
From a young age, I experienced conflict, both in and outside the home. It’s easy to look at two large humans shouting at each other with flailing limbs and think ‘ah yes, I, the tiny child who only understands basic shapes and how to scatter Lego on the floor for people to stand on must have caused this.’
The emotions I witnessed were volatile and inconsistent. I didn’t understand it, or why it was happening, so I assumed it was my fault. This led to me concluding, quite early, that this is simply how life is. So when I encountered hostility amongst the other hyperactive and impressionable children in a class, I simply accepted it and didn’t push back. I had no reason to question it or that I should feel otherwise. I never really learned the concept of ‘asking for help’, or ‘sharing feelings’, so I unknowingly suffered in silence. And so, years of my life went by, unquestioning, feeling perpetually scared and hypervigilant, with a deep sinking feeling that I was ultimately unliked and a burden. This deep feeling became familiar to me. It became my normal.
As life started to get more complicated – and hormonal – the whirlwind of conflict escalated both internally and externally. Basically, I’m gay. Teen-Dan didn’t have a great time with that. It was an unsurprisingly grey and generic world growing up in Winnersh – a glamorous series of housing estates built next to a motorway in the south of England. ‘Gay’ at that time was a synonym for bad. I realised I must be ‘bad’. I felt bad. This general g-word that existed throughout the world: TV, music, the school yard – meant anything from ‘boring’ to ‘awful’, and I internalised that definition of who I was under the surface. Trying to survive the Battle Royale post-apocalypse hellscape of an all-boys school, in a society that was broadly homophobic, drilled into me that I was essentially defective. I felt guilty for being ‘bad’, so could not turn to anyone to talk about how I felt about this shameful part of myself. Without getting into too much traumatic detail, it was pretty terrible. Constantly outcast, tired of the constant physical and verbal abuse I suffered everywhere I turned, every day, feeling like I was fundamentally flawed and there was no escape in sight – I attempted to take my own life. Thankfully, it failed.
It turns out life can be slow, but it’s long, and change is inevitable. I did not stay trapped in that environment, I did meet new people and, thankfully, the world did change, if only a little bit. To think that my story could have ended because I thought I had seen everything that was left for me in life? I was wrong. I am grateful to be alive.
At the time, no one knew of what almost happened, other than me. I carried the burden alone as another shameful secret – but now I had a mission. I told myself a story that if I could just escape, ‘get a proper job’ and build a life for myself, on my own terms, everything would be okay. This became a target that would define the next decade of my life. I knew my skeleton was in its own figurative closet, but there was way too much to deal with in all areas of my life to come to terms with that, so I buried it – instead choosing to just focus relentlessly on my escape plan.
It was at this time in my life, purely out of chronic boredom, that I decided to post those homemade comedy videos on the internet (absolutely horrifying please don’t search), joking about things like procrastination and annoying people who walk too slowly. I found this fun, but it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Surely? Despite having passionate interests in a dozen different directions, I was so convinced that I shouldn’t question how I feel or the way the world works, that I decided the only plan was to play it totally traditionally and aspire to one of those jobs a grandparent would be proud of. I went to university to study Law. That sounded like a ‘real job’ a ‘normal functional human’ would get! No offence to successful lawyers who are happy with their careers, it really just was not my personal passion at any level. It was just another lie I was telling myself.
Aside from my default mindset of feeling invisible and afraid, and the bones rattling in the metaphorical wardrobe on wheels following close behind me, a new, slower and more creeping feeling started to develop within me. It was telling me that instead of the usual high-energy panic, I should just slow down and give up. Don’t get out of bed. Don’t eat. Don’t look forward to anything, what’s the point? It was the first twinges of inauthenticity starting to erode me from the inside like the acid frothing from a battery.
I decided to take a ‘year out’ from university to consider what to do with my life. It was during this year of staring at blank walls questioning my choices that the BBC called out of the blue, to offer Phil and me the chance to create our own show on the radio. It was happening. The thing I wanted to do! I was lost in life on so many levels, but I at least understood the importance of doing something that makes you happy, so would I finally get to experience this ‘happiness’ thing now? It turns out nothing slaps you down to earth quite like paying rent in London – and thusly living off Supermarket Value ramen noodles for several years. It was an exciting and incredibly stressful time. Suddenly my homemade content was opening doors and getting kinds of attention I could never imagine. In my desperation to chase the ephemeral concept of ‘a career’, however, I was not living a lifestyle conducive to good mental health. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I had no friends, I never went outside, my work was my life, my home was my work and my priorities were whack. Any down-time I had was spent face down on the carpet having an existential crisis.
This is when my life got thrown into the pit of the very new psychological phenomenon of social media. Sure, technology brings all kinds of joy and connectedness to our lives, but it can reveal the dark side of humanity along with it, and I experienced a lot of both sides. I enjoyed the middle – suddenly all these followers of my work were sending me messages, recognising me on the street, and sending me slightly creepy but well-intentioned mail. This actually made me feel accepted, appreciated and for the first time grateful that it appears there’s some nice people in the world. I was thankful, it was fun! Even if someone told me, ‘I went to your show and I respectfully decided I dislike you and your face,’ at least it was cordial and I loved and cherished the interaction. However, as I’m sure we all now know from daily adventures on the net, it’s hard to ignore the extremes. Having an encouraging cult contingency that says ‘you are perfect and I will gladly kill for you’ can blow up your head so big your brain is a blimp. Thankfully, my cripplingly low self-esteem never quite let me believe it. On the other hand, there were the people who decided on that particular day that I would be the sole focus of their seething rage and resentment, as all the frustration of their bad day at work was taken out on me in the DMs. Thankfully, my cripplingly low self-esteem never quite let that sink in either; I’d told myself a lot worse.
As my following grew, so did the pressures and peering gazes that were put on me. What I wasn’t braced for were the invasions of privacy. I hadn’t accounted for the rainbow-elephant in the room that I’d have to address one day, and that if I stumbled into a ‘public career’, suddenly other people would say ‘hi, what’s with that giant elephant you’re clearly ignoring?’ I was suddenly dealing with speculations on my relationship status, people trying to find evidence that I was ‘lying’ about who I was, the constant fear of my identity and loved ones being used as objects for entertainment or fuel for headlines.
I started to feel those same urges to escape that I’d felt as a teenager. It was too much. This clown career I’d chosen telling jokes on the internet just wasn’t paying the extortionate bills. The pressure that it put on my personal life was too big to handle. I chose to take jobs that I didn’t want, and do things on my own platforms that I felt were what people ‘wanted to see’ rather than what I was passionate about. If I wasn’t doing what I wanted on my own terms now, surely I was just as much of a fraud as when I convinced myself I could be a lawyer?
I was completely caught up in the storm. Any worries that entered my mind would overwhelm me. I ceased to exist in the physical world as I was captivated by the chaotic thoughts in my head, summoning my worst memories, prophesying my own doom, imagining the enemies that I thought were waiting for me out in the world, with the worst intentions. My physical health started to deteriorate: I was tense, short of breath, tired but wired with anxious energy. Even as positive opportunities in my career started to present themselves, the pressure and attention that came with them started to boil over.
I just became a machine. Push it all under. Bury it. Head down, hide the evidence, march forward, deal with it later. ‘One day’ my mission will be successful: I’ll reach the surface of financial freedom to secure my independence and I can take that first breath of air. After spending most of my twenties in this state of relentless chase / escape, there came a time after my first book was published, having just done a comedy world tour performing from Stockholm to LA, where surely I had finally ‘made it’? I took stock of what I had – and the shelves were empty. Life was grey, much like my entire sock drawer. Even after ‘achieving’ what I had, I didn’t have the emotional capacity to enjoy it. This initial moment, however, of really just admitting that I was not okay, gave me a spark of hope – it made me feel for the first time that I was allowed to think about my life and try to make it better.
DAN AND DEPRESSION
I went to a doctor, she said I might be depressed. I didn’t really understand what that meant. I saw a therapist, she pointed out I clearly had several issues I probably had to deal with. I was prescribed a course of antidepressants so I could get through a day without tripping into an emotional pit, and for the first time I looked around at my world and questioned the balance. I started to try and separate work and life, actually get a hobby, find some friends – and all of this helped. It gave me a stronger foundation. Therapy helped me understand my emotional reactions and reframe my thoughts. Eventually, I found I didn’t need the meds anymore. I had gone through all of this in secret, trying to keep up appearances and be professional, but eventually I felt like I had to be honest about it. The people in my life and my supporters deserved to know what I was dealing with. I felt they had a right to know why I wasn’t appearing as my supposedly sunnier past-self. So I decided to open up about my mental health for the first time in a video titled ‘Daniel and Depression’.
The day I shared that I was suffering from depression was terrifying. Sure, I did it in my own way that poked fun at the more ridiculous sides of the struggle, carefully treading that line between letting people feel they have permission to laugh and making them wince (sorry), but the fact I was talking about this at all scared me. I didn’t know whether people would understand, if they’d accept it, or if I was making a mistake admitting this vulnerability that would inevitably result in judgement. At the time ‘mental health’ was still a mystery to most and total taboo, so I feared I was making a mistake. I shared how I felt, explained the misconceptions of depression and how I’ve tried to make myself better, and braced for impact. Then people surprised me – this time, in a good way.
Sitting back looking at my screen, I saw laughter, understanding and encouragement. Old friends reached out in support. Strangers told me that they felt represented by my story and could now explain their situation to their loved ones. Some said they finally understood others in their lives that were in my position, and I realised the power of talking about these taboos and how it can help so many people.
This was the first step, but I knew there was more waiting for me on the road ahead. I’d go out on tour and people would open up to me about their struggles, emotionally sharing how I ‘inspired them’ by sharing ‘my story’ about depression, and I felt like a fraud. After all, I was still in denial about that thing I’ve known since I was a child. Despite my hard work to make my life better for my mental health, there was a final hurdle dragging it all down. I knew I wasn’t being honest with myself and until I was living a truly authentic life, I would never be happy. I couldn’t keep going any longer. I couldn’t create, I couldn’t perform, my body was pushing against the current of my mind, forcing me to finally confront it. It was time to go on a journey – an internal one to Narnia and back. If I wasn’t living my truth, feeling happy being myself and doing things I felt passionate about, I would never be free. The time had come, to come out.
I knew that as long as I was so busy working that I had no energy left at the end of the day, I could never step back to get the perspective on my life that I needed to grow, so I took some time out. To the outside world, it probably looked like I was abducted by aliens. There were definitely a few good conspiracy theories that I must have flown over a triangle or got invited into the illuminati. The truth was that I just stopped running for the first time, and when I turned around, there was a lot waiting for me. Trying to untangle my past, like that box of miscellaneous wires that we all have at the bottom of some box, took time, but it would take as much time as I needed. After everything I’d been through, it was literally life or death.
Safe to say there was a lot going on, wading through decades of trauma while under the spotlight, but lurking at the back was the skeleton. The fundamental fact I’d been afraid to look at my whole life. I’d never been homophobic, or any kind of hateful towards others in life, but society’s ‘gay is bad’ brainwashing that I was subjected to directed all of it inwards – in what I understand now is ‘internalised homophobia’. I thought I was broken. I hated myself. I believed this bullshit to be self-evident. Recognising that this self-hatred was, in fact, not ‘true’, and something I could let go of, was like the first beam of light piercing straight through the clouds that had been descending on me all my life. The lightbulb moment for me was stepping back and saying ‘it’s okay to be the way you are.’ I gave myself permission to exist. The moment I felt comfortable actually acknowledging and accepting my sexuality, and that I was ready to be honest with the world, felt like the beginning of my life.
If I was going to finally confront this, there was a lot of busy work to do just sharing the news. I learned from being open about my mental health that part of the hard work (of someone struggling with a stigma) is managing other people’s emotional reactions and preparing for the bad ones, so a whole heap of fun awaited me for dropping this bombshell. I struggled so much to ‘come out’ to my family, that after months of procrastination, I literally just emailed them saying ‘Basically I’m Gay’ – which while being an unconscionably ridiculous subject line, and way too on the nose for someone as socially awkward as me, actually did the job perfectly. I then spent months in a deep hibernation cave, writing an epic and dramatic coming out comedy piece called ‘Basically I’m Gay’ in that email’s honour. You can search for that one if you want.
The moment I shared this with the world, it actually felt like a weight lifted. I never truly understood that saying until now – it felt like my whole life had been held down by this chainmail that I instantly shed. Finally, for the first time, on a personal level, I felt free to just exist in peace moment-to-moment.
Here I am, finally living. Now what?
I’ve seen in the world and experienced for myself how much there is to learn about mental health. Understanding how our minds work can totally change, even save, our lives. It has personally blown my mind to learn all of the everyday behaviours I didn’t appreciate were harmful, all the unhelpful attitudes I held towards myself for no reason, and what I can do to support my mental health going forward. This has helped me. I hope this book helps you, I hope it can then help others.
This is not a memoir. It’s not spiritual self-help. It is a practical guide, founded on science, that can help you understand and manage your mental health. I’m just the guy who’s here to make it fun along the way and say that I know working on yourself can feel like work, so if laughing at my pain can make it easier for you, I’m happy to. I’m used to it.
You Will Get Through This Night by Daniel Howell is out now in hardback, eBook and audio.