In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley Holt, Mike King and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Today we chat to Robyn Malcolm.
Robyn Malcolm is absolutely in national treasure territory, starring in some of our best homegrown series like Shortland Street and Outrageous Fortune, as well as international productions like Black Bird. But now she’s on our screens for a different reason, talking anxiety with Aotearoa and taking us on her own personal journey of debilitating anxiety and panic attacks in the documentary You, Me & Anxiety, as well as chatting to other well-known Kiwis like Jenny-May Clarkson and Todd Muller about their experiences with anxiety. She talks to Capsule about the mental & physical health warning she ignored in her early 40s, why self-compassion is life-saving and why there are no gold medals for trying to be super mum.
Hi Robyn! You’re on our screens tonight with the Documentary NZ: You, Me & Anxiety how are you feeling about being on TV in a very different way than you usually are?
Completely fine, because I’ve been having breakdowns on-screen as characters for 30 years, or however long. So this is a lot less stressful, because I just talk about instead – I don’t actually do it [laughs]. And I’ve discovered during the more challenging moments of my life, like when I got all that shit for my stance on The Hobbit dispute, that actually if you believe in what you’re doing, you don’t tend to feel bad about it. No matter what.
That’s a great thing to learn!
And this documentary… every single person that I’ve spoken to about this, about anxiety, most people’s eyes just light up – actually, except for one person, who said she was never anxious! This is such a common thing and it’s one of those common experiences for so many of us that we don’t talk about. If you’re in the public sphere at all, it’s a really good position in which to start some conversations. And I’m really proud of it, too.
When did you first become aware of your mental health?
When I was in my early 40s. I think for so many of us, it’s about noticing. We quite happily live in denial, or live in a place where there’s no need to self-reflect, because we can deny and redirect until something happens and you eventually have to sit down and say ‘okay, what the hell is this about?’ I probably asked that question in my early 40s and then didn’t do anything about it until I was completely debilitated. But these journeys are life-long, aren’t they? Whatever builds up for us in our childhood and our teenage years and early 20s, whatever coping mechanisms we put in place… it all comes home to roost in the end, doesn’t it?
So how was that journey for you?
It was a few years of learning to stay in the room with it, and work it out. And the minute you start doing that, you meet so many lovely people who are doing the same thing. My sister Suze, who’s a wonderful clinical psychologist, she said this brilliant thing: ‘Anxiety is just an emotion, but we’ve pathologised it.’ We don’t say we have a happiness disorder, or a sadness disorder. But we do with anxiety – we put it in other place, but it’s like all the others. It’s a response that comes from an old ancient place in us, which exists to keep us alive and keep us safe, but we’re not being attacked by sable-toothed tigers anymore so we probably don’t need it in the same way.
For some women, anxiety can kick in with hormonal changes – after giving birth, after going through menopause. Does any of that ring true for you?
Oh, menopause, absolutely. About 10 years before I really crashed, a psychologist said to me ‘You are heading for an endocrinal meltdown… you are living on so much cortisol and so much adrenaline, and you need to be careful.’ And – of course – I didn’t listen. All I heard was ‘Ooh, I’m a battler. Look at me, working really hard and putting myself at risk. I’m going to go to heaven.’ And then, absolutely true to form, that’s exactly what happened. I crashed. And we’re all like that, aren’t we? We won’t be told. Particularly if we have a vested interest in being a certain way – and I had a vested interest in being a super mum. So, so bad for us.
And it’s the same for men. I had such an interesting conversation with [Former National Leader] Todd Muller. He’s the absolute diametric opposite on the political spectrum from me – he’s a privileged white man – and he just couldn’t get up. He had so much pressure on him to be ‘That Guy’. So for him to say, ‘I can’t do this, I need help,’ is really massive.
You talked about the pressure of being a super mum – you were a solo parent, and I think when we talk about ‘self-care’ or ‘taking time out,’ it can be very hard for people who are in that solo parent position and do not have the time or the resources to do so.
Somebody said to me, years and years ago, and it made me cry, ‘Nobody gets how tough being a solo parent is until you’re a solo parent.’ It doesn’t matter whether your partner goes away a lot, or works a lot; you have a partner and you have someone to share a certain responsibility with.
When you’re on your own, you don’t. The buck stops with you and it is incredibly stressful. ‘If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.’ I had two young boys that were fantastic but I wanted to be a good mum to them, but I also had to earn the money to keep us going, in a job that is hugely insecure. I did get to a place where I was able to be quite self-compassionate, which changed a lot for me.
How do you practise that self-compassion now and if you could talk to the Robyn who was told she was heading for ‘endocrinal meltdown’, how would you like her to practise self-compassion?
Ten years ago, if you had said to me ‘practise self-compassion,’ I would have said ‘No, I don’t want to, ew.’ You know, I could respect myself but I wasn’t going to be nice to myself, are you kidding me? That whole idea of ‘You should be your own best friend,’ I was like ‘F—k off, that’s what your friends are for; I’m my own worst critic.’
What I have learned is that self-compassion is life-saving and vital and me 10 years ago was not very good at it. I would tell her that she needed to take it seriously, that it was important to take my health seriously. But there’s also a challenge in that – because what are you getting out of not taking it seriously? Is it some kind of Protestant work ethic pride thing?
There’s a certain currency to so many of the conversations we have, when we sit down at the end of the day with friends and you say, ‘How are you?’ And everyone goes, ‘Oh my god, I’m so stressed, it’s so full-on.’ And we all get gold medals if we say that stuff, because it means we’re really hard-working people. Well, recently I’ve learned to say things like ‘Wow, I had a really great day. I really chilled the f—k out. Do you know what? I put my feet up today and I loved it.’ I had to learn to do that and it’s so great.
Because you don’t go to heaven by being stressed and overworked – you just get stressed and overworked, and then 10 years pass and you go ‘what the hell happened?’ It’s all about trying to live a good life, which we are perfectly capable of, particularly in a First World country where we are incredibly privileged. So alongside self-compassion, you need to have that stern self-talk of ‘Stop. Take care of yourself and take it seriously.’
Documentary NZ: You, Me & Anxiety screens tonight on TVNZ1 at 8.45pm and will then be available on TVNZ+