Skip to main content

‘I feel like I’ve been playing some sort of relay race with different anxiety disorders over the years’

By October 25, 2020No Comments

Patrick Freyne
Photograph: Chris Maddaloni

Patrick Freyne talks to Liadán Hynes about his new essay collection…

In an interview recently, Patrick Freyne commented on the fact that he was aware that he can “present as calm.”


Revealing what is behind that seemingly calm demeanour, was, he said, one of the influencing factors in the content of his new book, OK, Let’s do Your Stupid Idea.  

For the first time, Freyne, a nationally beloved interviewer and commentator, has written about himself in this beautiful collection of personal essays that cover everything from mental health to childlessness, to being in a band in his twenties to the time Freyne worked as a carer.

“I realised that nobody’s lives are straightforward,” Freyne tells me. “In Malcom Gladwell’s book recently, he talks about that, and I’d never thought about it before; when we look at other people, we kind of imagine all these things about their lives. But you can never see someone’s interior monologue. So you never really know how confident, or calm, or together somebody really is. And because I’ve a bit of a public profile, I kind of realised that you could read my stuff and think I was always very together.”

Showing that he isn’t, Freyne rightly reflects, is a useful thing to do.

“I’ve always kind of liked the idea of people knowing what’s going on with me. I kind of don’t mind; there’s nothing in the book I’m uncomfortable talking about.” Which is not to say he included everything about himself, he adds. The filter was that anything that went in must be helpful, or entertaining.

An essay called Brain Fever (a catalogue of mental-health difficulties), has sections about loneliness, bereavement, hypochondria, OCD, depression and narcissism. 

“When I first wrote that essay about mental health, I was kind of a bit raw, and consequently I don’t think it was useful to anyone to read. But then I went back at it, and saw it from a slightly different angle, and wrote it again really. I think it sometimes happens with younger writers; they’re encouraged to bleed on the page. And I don’t always think that’s great for people. Or for the reader. I keep saying this, because I really felt it with Emily Pine’s book of essays; she was writing about very troubling things, but I felt safe reading it. I didn’t want to be unsafe when I was writing for other people, and I wanted them to get something from it.” 

The essay was structured almost as a list to underscore the fact that Freyne has suffered with anxiety and depression, but they have manifested in numerous ways.“I feel like I’ve been playing some sort of relay race with different anxiety disorders over the years.”

For years, he thought how he felt was just how everyone felt. It is only in recent years, he explains, that he has come to realise he suffers from depression. “The reason that I wrote that essay as a catalogue of things is that everyone thinks that their base normal state is normal for everybody, and slowly over the years I’ve kind of realised that. And I think because I’ve been functional when I’m depressed I hadn’t really realised that I had issues with these things. I kind of compartmentalised it into these incidents in my life. But actually there’s a continuation of problems, you know.”

Writing the book was at times cathartic, he smiles. 

“There’s a number of essays in the book where writing them kind of sorted it out for me in my head. And I think writing them made me feel better for a chunk of time afterwards. Then you kind of rewrite the narrative again, and new problems come along,” he laughs. 

Freyne’s descriptions of depression should resonate particularly with anyone who has or is struggling.

“I never know it’s happening when it’s happening.  It’s kind of when I’m getting out of it that I realise ‘Oh God I was really depressed’. When it’s really bad, it’s like I don’t fit, and the whole world is…every sensation is annoying me. And annoying’s a soft word. It’s tormenting me somehow. And there’s no right way or place to be. That’s what it feels like; that everything is wrong.”

“When I’ve a load of work to do, I just get on with the work. and then I’ll have time off, and I’ll just be hit by this wave of not fitting in the world. Everything is off and wrong, and everything’s too bright, and everything’s too loud. That’s kind of what it feels like and then you start recriminating with yourself. Why can’t you do this? Why is this so difficult for you? Why aren’t you doing these nice things you feel you should be doing for your family? So you get into a cycle, or I get into, a self-destructive cycle.”

In the book, he describes a child having a tantrum. “That’s what I feel like,” he says now, laughing. “You know when a kid’s like, ‘it’s wrong’.” 

Patrick’s grandfather and other family members also experienced difficulties with their mental health at times. “I’m kind of conscious that there’s a melancholy trait that I have that I think kind of goes back in my family. It’s melancholy mixed with humour as well, which I think isn’t unusual. I think melancholy is funny, darkness is a bit funny. Maybe this is a really Irish thing? Tragedies feel kind of self-important when they’re happening, and that always makes me giggle a bit. ‘You’re not that important’. But when you’re going through it you feel like a tragic hero and Greek myth.

He initially wrote this part of the book when he was quite raw, and was trying to put down in words how he felt. “I’d a bad couple of years, a few years ago. Maybe about a year and a half before I wrote the book. And my first attempt to write that was then.” 

The past few months haven’t been too rough on his anxiety, he reflects.

“This is kind of terrible to say, and I’ve noticed people with chronic illnesses saying this in different contexts, horrible as this is, there’s something about everyone being in something all together that I always find slightly comforting.”

“Depression and anxiety are really unpredictable,” he adds, smiling. “They tend to hit you when you’re least expecting it. When I’m bracing for something, I’m fine.”

The book is peppered with portraits of men in Freyne’s life, his father, the children he tries to pull about him in various gangs as a child, the friends he travel with as he gets older, and those with whom he spent much of his twenties in a band, at times it feels like an examination of manhood. 

“I don’t buy into the idea that there are huge differences between men and women. I buy into that there’s huge stereotypes,” he says, adding that he did not want to be dogmatic about masculinity in these essays. “Even the idea that there is a different way to be a good man and a good woman; I think being a good person is kind of the same. And in certain environments you’ve got more power than in other environments, and then your duty is to not abuse that power, and to be nice, and help equalise things. My dad was a good model for that. It’s something I think about a lot. Like it’s a no brainer for me that feminism is really good for men. I’m really interested in the supposed crisis of masculinity that younger men are having. I don’t really understand where it can be coming from. Because from what I can see, my generation hugely benefited from feminism, and hugely benefited from the opening up of what gender was and what emotions were.”

With some of the essays, the story was outlined fully in his mind before he sat down to write. Others had a more exploratory nature. “That’s where you kind of go ‘I know I have a lot of feelings and thoughts about this, but I don’t know what they are exactly’, so I just started writing them. And in the process, which is why I think it’s kind of cathartic to do it, you kind shape the narrative for yourself, you figure out some things. And sometimes when you spot a pattern, you break it,” he laughs.

As this was his first time writing about himself, there was a lot of stuff waiting to come out, he reflects now. 

“When it came out it felt like the full stop on a lot of things. Like, I felt better for a good bit after the mental health piece. It didn’t fix me,” he laughs.  “But I felt better. And I felt more secure in my life after writing something else like the piece about kids. Because I had been kind of depressed about that, but by the time I was writing it I think I’d come to a good place. And writing it helped me realise I’d come to a good place.” 

In the essay, Something Else, Patrick writes about the fact that himself and his wife, writer Anna Carey (both were nominated for An Post Irish Book Awards this week, Patrick for this essay collection, Anna for The Boldness of Betty) have not had children. He describes finding oneself off the map of what is expected, of being out of kilter with where all your peers are in life.

“It made me realise how non-individual we are, and I am. You think you’re making your own choices, and you’re not really. In loads of ways we go with the herd, for better and worse. It’s kind of important to be aware that we’re kind of herd animals. And that can be a really bad thing. And that’s not always a bad thing. It’s when you’re separated from the herd, not by your choice necessarily, that you start seeing that.”

He also identifies the moralising that often centres around having children, the notion that parenthood bestows a sort of moral superiority. 

“Which is really annoying to people who don’t have kids,” he laughs now. “That idea, and I now find it hilarious, because it actually says something really bad about the person saying it, usually a man, ‘I never really cared about sad news stories until I had children’. And you kind of go ‘what sort of monster were you?’” 

“And then there’s the other thing; ‘children stopped me from being selfish’. And I kind of go it actually makes people genetically very selfish. If children made you a better person, there probably wouldn’t be private education. Private education exists so that people can give their kids something better than ordinary kids. Which means that the children didn’t make them better, it made them worse,” he says, bursting again into laughter.  “But that’s just me ranting; I think I put it more compassionately in my book.”

OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea by Patrick Freyne, is published by Sandycove and is available nationwide, see this week’s issue for an extract.