From breakdown... to burlesque dancer
Growing up in a strict religious sect, PRISCILLA SILCOCK led a double life that ended up with a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Here she tells of her escape…
PRISCILLA SILCOCK, 41, lives in north London with her husband Andy, 49, a music producer
AS I stepped on to the stage in a cloud of blue sequins and feathers, I beamed with delight. When I was performing, I left my problems behind and became a glamorous showgirl under my stage name, Sapphira. I could dance, sing and shimmy to my heart’s content.
Ever since I was a child in Australia, I’ve always loved music and dancing. But when I was growing up, I felt like a square peg in a round hole.
I was raised in a strict Christian sect called the Brethren and lived in Melbourne with my parents.
In some ways, growing up in the Brethren was like growing up in any Christian denomination.
We read the Bible and prayed, and went to church on Sunday.
But the Brethren were much stricter than most other churches – especially for women, who didn’t speak in church or do any of the Bible teaching.
On a Sunday, we had to cover our heads as a sign of respect.
Sex was never spoken about, and anything which was sexually suggestive was seen as shameful.
If anyone behaved in a sinful way, they were excommunicated and were not allowed to see other members of the church again.
As a child, the Brethren church was all I knew. However, when I was 11, I started going to a non-religious secondary school.
I made lots of friends but I began to realise they lived in a very different way to me.
They were allowed to watch things I wasn’t allowed to on television, and eat lots of sugary treats.
I began to feel like something wasn’t right.
And as I became a teenager, my feelings of unease began to grow.
As far as my parents and everyone in the church was concerned, I was still following the Brethren way of life.
HOWEVER, when my parents weren’t around, I was doing things I knew they wouldn’t approve of. I started listening to songs with suggestive lyrics and dancing around my bedroom.
I knew my parents wouldn’t like what I was listening to and felt incredibly guilty.
I also started to develop teenage crushes on boys at school and at 17, I met my first boyfriend and started staying over at his house.
At the same time, I stopped going to church on Sunday. The conflicting emotions I felt were hard to manage.
On the one hand, I loved my parents and wanted to do whatever would make them happy. But on the other, I didn’t want to pretend to be someone I wasn’t.
My parents tried to persuade me to come back to church but I wouldn’t listen.
They began praying for me, asking God to help me to become a Christian again.
They believed that if I carried on living a “sinful” life, I would be condemned to Hell when I died.
Then someone at church found out that I was sleeping over at my boyfriend’s house and told one of the church elders.
They called me and told me I was going to be excommunicated from the church because I was having sex outside marriage. And shortly after I received a letter from them saying they could no longer associate with me because of my sinful behaviour.
My parents were devastated and felt that I’d brought shame on the family. Although they tried to talk to me about it, I wouldn’t listen.
I felt terrible for upsetting them but I knew I couldn’t carry on living a lie.
At 18, I left school and got my first job but began to feel unwell.
For weeks at a time I would feel like I was bursting with happiness and had lots of energy.
But then I’d sink into a depression and cry in my room every evening, though I didn’t know why I was sad. In my early 20s my happy, energetic phases began to get more and more extreme.
My friends and family noticed that sometimes I’d start speaking quickly and stop making sense.
I also started to have delusions that I was going to be “discovered” as a singer and become famous.
I thought my friends and family were in on the secret and that they were organising a party to tell me I was going to be given a recording contract like Kylie Minogue.
My mum became concerned and took me to see a psychiatrist. At the end of the appointment, the doctor told her to take me to “the place we talked about on the phone”. I was so delusional, I thought the doctor knew about the recording contract too and that she was taking me to the party. In fact, she was taking me to a psychiatric hospital.
The first few days at the hospital were very distressing. I couldn’t understand why I was there.
I was given medication which stopped my delusions and the doctors explained that I’d had a bipolar breakdown.
The reason my mood went through such dramatic highs and lows was because I had bipolar disorder. As it had gone unchecked, it had been getting worse and worse.
I had gone into a manic state and started imagining things. I was confused and saddened.
After two weeks I was discharged from hospital and began to rebuild my life. I had to learn how to manage my condition so it didn’t get to crisis point again. And over the next year, using a combination of medication and therapy, I got my mental health back on track.
I realised that part of the reason I’d had the breakdown was because I’d been pretending to be someone I wasn’t for so long and living a double life.
IDECIDED I needed a fresh start and made plans to move to England. As a girl I’d dreamt of living in London. So a year later I decided to go there and make my dreams come true. I started a day job in marketing and also worked in bars and clubs as a jazz singer.
It was then I discovered burlesque. I’d always loved the glitz and glamour of jazz music but burlesque took it to a new level with sequins, feathers and suggestive dance routines.
I fell in love with it and began performing as a burlesque dancer. When I stepped on stage, I felt wonderful.
Burlesque dancing became an outlet for everything that I’d bottled up over the years and when I was off stage, my moods became much more stable.
Eventually I founded my own burlesque school called Sapphira’s Showgirls, and even met Richard Branson. In 2014, I married my soulmate Andy, and we now live together in north London.
I still keep in touch with my parents, and although it’s not the life they would have chosen for me, they’re happy that I’m happy.
Of course I still have bad days, which I am able to manage. But now, 15 years after I moved to London, I’m finally living a life which is true to who I am.
To order a copy of Burlesque Or Bust (11.99, Trigger) call the Express Bookshop on 01872 562 110 or visit expressbookshop.co.uk
SPOTLIGHT: Priscilla has loved music and dancing since she was a child, inset