LINDA ROBSON: My shattering breakdown. In a soul-baring memoir, Loose Women star describes how she became so addicted to alcohol she was reduced to a mortifying habit and was banned from looking after her grandchildren
I was the last person you’d expect it to happen to. Not me, Linda Robson.
I was one of life’s strong people. I soldiered on, no matter what. Whatever the world threw at me, I could cope with it. I was the least likely candidate for a breakdown.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few turbulent years, it’s that mental health issues don’t discriminate — and that they have nothing to do with how ‘strong’ you are.
If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone, and I hope that sharing my experience might help someone who is suffering similar problems. Because I wouldn’t wish any of it on my worst enemy.
I’ve thought a lot about what might have triggered my mental illness, but I don’t think it was ever just one thing.
Linda Robson has written about her struggles with OCD and alcoholism in her new book Truth Be Told: Tales From A Baggy Mouth
Jane Moore, Maddie Sawalha, Stacey Solomon, Linda Robson, Nadia Sawalha and Kaye Adams at a VIP launch party in 2018
Linda, with Loose Women co-panellist Nadia Sawalha, said she always considered herself ‘one of life’s strong people’
It possibly dates back to the anxiety I began to suffer after the horrific murder in 2008 of 16-year-old Ben Kinsella, a close family friend who’d grown up with my kids. The tragedy made national headlines, and perhaps if I’d got help for it at the time, rather than allowing it to fester, things might have turned out differently.
Then there was my sleeping pill use, which I’d deluded myself for years into thinking was fine because it cured my insomnia. And alcohol, too. I’d always enjoyed a glass of wine, but by 2017, when I was nearly 60, this had escalated to a bottle a night. There’s no planet where this is fine.
I’ve always had OCD — more than just liking my house to be spick and span — although I’d managed to stop it from becoming an issue. It was only when everything else started to implode that the OCD went into overdrive.
I thought I had things under control. But over the next year my grip on everything grew weaker and weaker until I was finally heading for a complete breakdown. A breakdown which would see me forced to quit work, check into rehab and be put on suicide watch.
The real deterioration started with an episode of Loose Women in January 2017, when they showed me the calories and sugar in the bottle of wine I was having a night. It was the equivalent of something ridiculous like 100 doughnuts a month.
I found that really shocking, because you don’t think of wine as being fattening, do you? But I had gained a lot of weight and was worried about diabetes and the other conditions which can develop when you’re bigger than you should be.
The producers had asked me if I would go on a sugar-free diet and they would follow my progress on the show. They said they’d get me a dietitian to monitor everything, and we’d do some sort of big reveal when I’d lost the weight. So I stopped drinking my bottle of wine that very night; I effectively went cold turkey.
With grandchildren Betsy and Lila at Trolls premiere in 2017. Star says she now loves nothing more than picking them up from school and receiving cuddles
Jane Moore, Linda and Nadia Sawalha get some Dutch courage in the pub ahead of their Body Stories campaign shoot for Loose Women in 2017
Ruth Langsford had suggested replacing it with elderflower water but I wasn’t keen on that, so I’d make myself smoothies and cups of tea at 10 pm, which was the time I’d usually be breaking out the booze.
There was a major problem with the new regime, though. I found I wasn’t able to sleep, and so to combat the insomnia I upped my zopiclone sleeping tablets to one-and-a-half every night. I went to the GP to try to get some more sleeping pills but she refused me and instead prescribed diazepam, which she said would help me come off the zopiclone, calm me down and get me to sleep.
I was hyper all the time and my OCD was at another level. I was having five baths a day and constantly washing the bedclothes. As soon as the bin had been emptied, I’d have to change it again, even if there was only a teabag in it.
After stopping drinking the wine, I went down to a size eight and everyone was telling me how good I looked. But inside I was falling apart.
Desperate for a solution, I went back to drinking, hoping to find some peace there. I drank until I passed out. As I sank into what I now know was a deep depression, passing out was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to get through the rest of the day.
On days when I felt OK, we sometimes used to go for lunch at a nice restaurant on Upper Street, Islington, near where we live and only a mile from where I grew up. I’d say to the family that I was going to the toilet and then secretly ask for two glasses of white wine at the bar on my way there. I’d neck them both and then go to the loo.
Then on my way back I’d order another two glasses and neck them as well before going back to the table, having downed the best part of a bottle of wine in the space of a few minutes.
I started taking my toothbrush and toothpaste with me everywhere, which was partly to do with my OCD, but also to try to disguise the smell of alcohol on my breath.
My husband Mark and the kids would ask why I’d brought my toothbrush out and I’d get nasty with them.
‘What? I can’t even bring my toothbrush out without being interrogated?’
So the pressure was making me snappy and irritable with the people I loved. I hated that.
Actress with Birds of a Feather co-star Lesley Joseph at London’s Savoy Theatre in 2015
Linda with her husband Mark Dunford at the British LGBT Awards in London in 2017
Star, on the Loose Women Tour Live in Newcastle last year with Jane Moore, Denise Welch and Charlene White, said she used to eat oranges to cover up the smell of alcohol
I used to eat oranges to cover up the smell of alcohol, but I don’t think it worked. I now know it’s almost impossible to disguise, and the girls at Loose Women must have smelled it on me when I got into the make-up chair, because I can smell it on people now.
You can’t kid a kidder. It was always going to reach a crisis point, and everything came to a head while I was away on a break with some of the girls from the show in Ibiza in July 2018. It was an annual trip and we’d been three years on the trot.
I’d taken vodka in my case, which I’d drink alone in my room. I never drank alcohol in front of the others because I was still trying to disguise how bad things were.
But my OCD was completely out of hand. I had to have my phone charged at 100 per cent all the time otherwise I’d go into a fluster that the battery would run down and the kids wouldn’t be able to contact me.
So I’d take those portable chargers everywhere and if the phone went down even to 96 per cent I’d start panicking and have to plug it in, unable to settle until it was back to being fully charged again.
In previous years we’d been up on the tables dancing and having a great time, but I wasn’t enjoying myself on this trip at all. The girls were worried and they confronted me in my bedroom one night.
‘You’re not right, Linda,’ said Nadia Sawalha, who took the lead. ‘Something is really wrong and we think you need help.’
I agreed and for the first time admitted that I couldn’t cope.
Nadia said later it was like my dimmer switch was fading, and they had actually thought it might be the start of dementia.
Back in the UK, I went straight to a clinic for six weeks before finally being allowed home. But things were quickly as bad as they’d ever been.
I hadn’t had a drink in all the time I’d been at the clinic, but now I was more than making up for that and downing whatever I could get my hands on.
I went back to work at Loose Women where I managed to keep how bad things were at home under wraps by willing myself to hold it together for long enough to get through the show. Then I’d revert to self-destruct mode as soon as I was finished.
I’d come out of filming and on the way home I’d ask the driver to stop so I could pop out and get a little bottle of vodka, which I’d get into bed with and drink until I passed out.
My family had to go round to our local shop and tell the man he wasn’t to serve me alcohol any more. So I started going to a shop a bit further away where they didn’t know me. In the end the family had to start locking me in the house, which was the only way to stop me.
I know that sounds like drastic action, but they were at the end of their tethers. Even that didn’t rein me in. I would try to climb up the wall of our roof terrace to get out over the other side.
Or I would go and stand at the gate and beg strangers passing by to go and get me some vodka.
The most heartbreaking moment of this whole period came when Lauren, my eldest, told me I couldn’t look after my two little granddaughters on my own any more.
The final straw for her had been when I’d had the kids in the car and had left them there while I ran into a shop. I thought it would be OK because I could see the car the whole time, but she happened to be walking along the street and she saw the kids on their own. I’d left the keys in the ignition and she was saying someone could have driven off with them in the back.
Linda and the Loose Women crew take a selfie on the way to the National Television Awards in 2017
Linda, pictured with Saira Khan, Nadia Sawalha and Andrea McLean in Ibiza in 2018, said things came to a crisis point while she was away
Christine Lampard, Saira Khan, Stacey Solomon and Jane Moore celebrate with Linda at her 60th birthday in 2018
She was also becoming concerned about the thought of me doing harm to myself in front of them. Some days I’d walk into a shop with one of them, buy a little bottle of vodka and then secretly drink it when she wasn’t looking, which I feel awful admitting to now.
By the Christmas of 2018, the situation was intolerable. The police had been called to the house on quite a few occasions, as I’d been going to the gate and screaming ‘Help! I’ve been kidnapped! They won’t let me out!’
I was spending whole days crying and I looked absolutely terrible, really skinny like a skeleton. When I look back at the pictures from that time, I’m horrified. It was as if I was at death’s door, with hollowed-out cheeks and lines etched across my face.
Even on family trips out with the grandkids, my mind was fixated on getting hold of alcohol. We went to see a show at the Hammersmith Apollo and I said to Lauren that I was popping to the toilet.
‘Don’t drink, Mum,’ she warned.
I didn’t have any money on me anyway because they wouldn’t let me have cash in case I sneaked off and bought alcohol. So instead, I drank the dregs from other people’s glasses of wine left on the bar or tables.
How bad is that? But I didn’t care. I was behaving in ways which were so far removed from who I was, I might as well have been a different person.
By now the family were having discussions about getting me sectioned under the Mental Health Act. They were frightened. I was frightened, too. They decided against it in the end because they knew I would hate it and besides, I was willing to go back into treatment voluntarily. We couldn’t carry on like this and I knew that.
The family secured me a place at the Nightingale Hospital in London and I went there, not knowing if I’d ever come home again.
I hated myself. I told myself I was just a burden to Mark and the kids and that I was ruining all their lives. I couldn’t even be trusted with my own grandchildren.
That’s when I started to think I’d be better off dead. At least without me around they’d be able to get on with their lives and wouldn’t have to worry about who was going to be looking after me.
I told the Nightingale staff that I wanted to kill myself. I was immediately put on a suicide watch with someone sitting outside my bedroom door the whole time.
I thought about how I could do it and considered saving my diazepam up and taking them all in one go. I imagined getting a knife and slashing my wrists. I had started self-harming.
The staff did their best to make sure I didn’t have access to anything I could use to do it, but someone who is determined to hurt themselves will figure out a way, and I managed to find things which would work.
I’d even use the plastic knives and forks, and I became very skilled at concealing what I was doing because there’s basically someone watching you wherever you go. I’ve still got the marks all up my arm. It makes me shudder when I catch sight of them — they are a reminder of how horrific things got.
I was trapped in a hospital bedroom, where death felt like the only way to escape the pain I was in. I wanted nothing more than to die. This was it — I’d hit rock bottom and I had no idea how I was going to crawl my way back up again.
I tried to escape so many times, but I was never going to manage it. The security would always catch me and take me back while I was kicking and screaming. I was so heavily medicated, I wasn’t able to think straight.
Lesley Joseph [my Birds Of A Feather co-star along with Pauline Quirke] came to visit me while I was in there and I used to try to run out with her on to the street as she was leaving.
‘I’m coming home with you, Les,’ I’d say, pleading with her. ‘You can’t, Linda. You’re not well; you need to stay here and get better.’
She was such a tower of strength for me while I was in there. Lesley might be like a little princess but she’s the sort of person you need on your side in a crisis. I know she’ll be there for me no matter what.
I had so much love and support on the outside, although I wasn’t in a position to appreciate it until much later.
All the Loose lot — Nadia, Kaye, Stacey and Jane — phoned Mark and the kids every day to check on me.
Janet Street-Porter did too, and I remember my sister saying, ‘I thought she was hard as nails!’ But she’s got a soft side, has Janet. She’s a real darling.
After a few weeks in the Nightingale, one of the nurses suggested I was well enough to go into the outside world for a walk and a cup of coffee. I was so happy to be getting out but also felt quite vulnerable, because I knew it was a test and I was far from 100 per cent.
While we were out, I asked if we could pop into Marks & Spencer and while the nurse was having a little browse, I went up to the alcohol counter, asked for a bottle of rum and then immediately started necking it right there in the middle of the shop. I didn’t care who saw me.
The nurse came running over (as did the M&S security because I obviously hadn’t paid for it) and I was hurriedly taken back to the clinic where I stayed for another month. By the time I finally went home in March 2019, I was feeling a bit stronger. But it was only after checking into the Priory a short time later that things started to improve and I saw glimmers of hope for the first time.
It was Dr Neil Brener there who really helped me. He was the first person to consider that it might be the diazepam that was causing a lot of the issues, so he took me off that and introduced sertraline instead, which I responded to much better.
And then at night I’d have an antipsychotic drug, and that worked for some reason. My sleeping improved and my state of mind felt a lot calmer and clearer.
After a couple of weeks, the doctors said I was well enough to have some freedom to go home every now and again, and having that ‘escape’ was a big part of my overall recovery. I’d have a few days with Mark and the kids at the house and then head back to the Priory for further treatment.
I started the AA’s Twelve Steps programme while I was in there and I began attending meetings whenever I was out of the clinic. I never felt able to speak, but it helped me being around other people who knew what I was going through.
It didn’t matter who you were or what you did for a living; we were all the same there. I’d have counselling sessions and was encouraged to write lots of my thoughts and feelings down, which I found really helped. I’ve still got my diaries and it feels emotional reading them now because they transport me back to a harrowing time.
I had a look through them to help me write this and it wasn’t easy, although they also show me how far I’ve come since. And that makes me proud.
There’s no going back now. I’m doing really well and I’d say I’m back to where I was before this nightmare began. I’ve been off all my medication since the end of 2020, and my OCD is much better.
I still have two baths a day and I’ll always be a clean freak, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming any more. I haven’t had a drink since that episode in M&S with the rum and I’m absolutely fine to be around alcohol. I’m never tempted.
The first time my daughter Lauren and her husband Steve left me on my own with my granddaughters again was really emotional. I was away with the four of them on holiday and Lauren said she and Steve were going out for a drink — would I mind staying in with the kids?
Would I mind?! I was ecstatic. And so thankful that she trusted me with those precious girls again.
Now I look after them all the time and there’s nothing I love more than picking them up from school and having them come running up to me and giving me the biggest cuddle. There’s no feeling that can match that.
Truth Be Told, by Linda Robson, will be published by Penguin Books Ltd on February 15 at £22. © Linda Robson 2024. To order a copy for £19.80 (offer valid until February 24, 2024; UK P&P free on orders over £25), go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.