ELLE (UK)

BILLIE PIPER: A WORK IN PROGRESS

Turns out, the headlines NEVER TOLD the whole story. Here, BILLIE PIPER writes exclusivel­y for ELLE on what she’s learnt about herself, her mental health and why it’s all still a work in PROGRESS

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To the public, she seemed to transition seamlessly from pop sensation to actor, writer and director. But, behind the scenes, Billie Piper was fighting a very private battle

GIVE ME A FAMILIAR BISCUIT. I want to remember myself. I want to be still. I want to feel safe. I want to eat my biscuit in this white room, whilst a nurse makes their checks and tells me I’m fine, for now at least. No questions, just statements. Soft, unthreaten­ing, concise snippets: ‘I’ll be back in an hour.’ ‘I’ll bring some water.’ ‘Enjoy your biscuit.’ I will, I think. The stomach pain that landed me here is starting to pale into insignific­ance. My eyes and heart are turned by this ordinary, often-ignored British staple biscuit. It’s stealing me back, wrapped in blankets. ‘God, it’s good.’ I’m almost home. I could eat another. And another. And another. You’re ill, I think. This must be what it’s like to lose your mind. Am I losing my mind? I’m 34 but this feeling isn’t unfamiliar; this spiralling soothed by the strange comfort of a sterile white room. I felt the same thing when I was just 17, enduring another – albeit entirely different – physical crumpling. Awful, in many ways. But, my God, the enforced pause. That was welcome. Even more so now. Recently I’ve thought of poisonous mushrooms and oncoming traffic. The kind that just clips you but puts you down enough to enjoy an achingly slow passage of time, statements not questions, white rooms and malt biscuits. This need to rest had started a few years ago, not long after I’d had my second child – the younger of my two beautiful buttery-haired boys. Becoming a mother had brought me home. I was burning with love for them. Yet I was also aware of that scratching white noise of anxiety, which won’t lay dormant in your thirties. An old-school interferen­ce still cracking away and a manic preoccupat­ion with ‘do more, be more, try harder, be better’. These were familiar female tropes. Indeed, I wasn’t the only rager. I was watching women around me combusting, too. Brilliant, bold women fizzing out like dud fireworks on a wet night. Those who had bought into the modern-day myth that we can have it all, no compromise necessary. And so, Mandy, the protagonis­t in the first film I’d written, now known as Rare Beasts, but an untitled idea then, became the second entity I gave birth to that year. A woman written into the crossfire of dysfunctio­nal relationsh­ips and struggling against the demands of modern-day feminism. You don’t always know why you write what you write. Rare Beasts has taken seven years to travel from mind to screen. And although at the time of writing it, and even filming, the film meant something very different to me, I now see clearly that this is a film about what it means, and what it costs, to be female. As I entered my thirties and the stakes of all my life decisions became so much greater, I felt restless under this new pressure. The pressure to not just do your job and live your life and keep your kids content – but instead to exist in hyper 4D. To have an establishe­d, successful career that’s making an impact. Daily meaningful, golden-hued interactio­ns with your children. Perfectly attended-to intimate relationsh­ips. Look, I understand these pressures affect men, too. I’m well

“I was aware of that scratching white NOISE OF ANXIETY”

aware of how this movement has left men scrabbling. But this very particular issue is, in my opinion, an acutely female epidemic. Longing to understand where your loyalties lie, hustling through what still feels like a man’s world. All the hiding, the cover-ups, the loss of self can, not-unsurprisi­ngly, make you feel quite scorched, quite unwell. So unwell, it would transpire, that four years later, I found myself in that hospital room, strangely moved by a packet of biscuits. All that pressure had twisted and grinded and burnt away within me so that I was in pain daily, suffering from a stomach condition triggered by stress, which was affecting my social and profession­al life. It would eventually take a f*ckload of steroids and even more therapy to get under control. Of course, I’m not blaming my illness solely on the stress of being a working, and by-then divorced, mother of two. Yes, it had been an unforeseea­bly tough time but, in a way, I’d been here before – a physical breakdown being the symptom landing me in hospital, but a mental crisis being the cause that required more permanent treatment. It was 1996 when I passed out in a Covent Garden club – ‘foaming at the mouth’, apparently, but I have no reason to believe that. Bit inflammato­ry, bit hysterical 1990s eyewitness. My PR rang through to my hospital bed to fill in some blanks – I’d been carried out of the club by a man, apparently. A hero or a pest? I wondered. It’s always hard to tell. (Later, I’d find out his name is Paul, like my dad. He’s Welsh, works at GQ and will, in time, become a dear friend, a blinding success and Kylie Minogue’s fiancé. Hero, not pest. Kylie knows.) My ‘dramatic turn’ – as I liked to call it – was a result of days of Diet Cokes and Marlboro Lights fuelling a very active eating disorder, cystitis that crept up my back and

“Mental health issues are different chapters of the SAME BOOK”

into my kidneys, a goblet of sweet white wine and a mind and body dissociati­on that I feared for the very first time. It was also the start of my fetishisat­ion of white rooms. Following that sojourn in hospital, my mother dragged me to a local therapist. I took immediate offence when the therapist asked me if my not eating was because I wanted to be a boy. Ridiculous, I thought. I left. I think about that comment a lot. Maybe I did want to be a boy. Maybe we all did on some level. Or maybe she was shit at her job. In any case, that was the end of therapy for me. Until I was 34. It was at that second hospital stay that I finally found a psychother­apist who would take me on. She felt like a parent. A really good one. She would later transform things for me. Small things, but significan­t ones. Indeed, three years on, there’s probably a book to write on the things I’ve discovered from talking to a mental health profession­al. Too much to share here, even if I was willing. But let me confidentl­y say: it’s because of therapy that I can connect those two hospital stays. Because rarely are our mental health issues an anthology of unconnecte­d short stories, but rather different chapters of the same book. And my anxiety, my need to achieve, my obsession with outdoing myself at every juncture has been a running theme in my life. I’d always considered myself quite a chilled-out child, especially given the madness I’d entered at 14: the surreal world of underage pop starlet. But actually, it had been there all along. As a child in the town of Swindon, I was obsessivel­y neat and, it seems to me now, strangely ambitious. Homework would be completed way before its deadline. I avoided inviting other kids over to play, in case they messed up my bedroom. Of course, this was all rewarded: the adults in my life congratula­ting my parents and me on what a good, conscienti­ous girl I was. Later, this need to achieve and control and be the best version of myself morphed into an eating disorder, then later into what I can only describe as an addiction to work. Different points on the same graph. Now being aware of that propensity means I can, to an extent, do something about it. (Although not always. I failed at this just last year.) Some of these things are seemingly small. I don’t have to-do lists anymore. For me, they’re as unhealthy as a set of scales. I can’t be normal or moderate around either so I don’t have them. I limit my phone time for the same reason – no device should have the power to dictate my mood. But it does, so there goes another toxic relationsh­ip. I’m different in partnershi­ps, too. A bit. I learnt that I have a habit of forming codependen­t relationsh­ips – my mood and self-worth dependent on my ability to make the other person happy. Like other codependen­ts, I’ve been drawn to narcissist­s and the emotionall­y needy. When my therapist asked, ‘What are your boundaries like?’ I genuinely asked, ‘What’s a boundary?’ I had no idea. I just knew that for years I’d felt inexplicab­ly angry. And so inevitably you see some of this in Rare Beasts’ Mandy. At the end of the film, she admits to wanting an easier life, but with all the plaudits: a five-hour workday and a man to share it with – the forbidden thoughts of the modern woman. I can admit I still don’t know what I want in life. I’m 38 and, beyond the essentials – my partner and my children – I still don’t know. I read scripts all about women who are confident and clear about what they want and I don’t relate at all. And so maybe I still find myself trying to exhaust all options. I filmed Rare Beasts when I was pregnant with my daughter Tallulah. I was editing when I went into labour, had two weeks off, then took Tallulah into work with me. Part of me looks back and thinks, Well done you. But mostly, I just think, What a f*cking idiot. Therapy does not change who you are. My inner workaholic is still there. So is that white noise at 3am. Most nights I have to fall asleep with Friends on in the background, its well-worn script so known to me that I don’t actually listen to it; it just helps drown out the scratching of those creeping, anxious thoughts. My point is, I’m not a paragon of mental stability, I haven’t found the secret elixir to mental health. Because one thing I’m certain of: it doesn’t exist. I suppose it’s why Rare Beasts ends the way it does – no huge, life-changing moment or definitive realisatio­n. Just a still-struggling woman making a seemingly small decision. Because that’s my understand­ing and experience of change – it’s subtle. It’s a slow burn and it’s not always fully achieved. Working on my mental health is about awareness. Being aware when I’m behaving in a certain way or being overly critical of myself or living for someone else. The change is awareness. I wish it could be more fantastica­l than that, but the reality is that it just isn’t. All the therapy in the world, all that money spent, and I’m still drawn into behaviours I wish I’d been cured of – but I don’t think I ever will be and that’s OK. Or at least it has to be. What’s the alternativ­e? Rare Beasts is due for release on 7 May

 ??  ?? Photograph­y CHLOE MALLETT Styling JENNY KENNEDY
Photograph­y CHLOE MALLETT Styling JENNY KENNEDY
 ??  ?? Dress, price on request, HALPERN
Dress, price on request, HALPERN
 ??  ?? Dress, £335, ROTATE BIRGER CHRISTENSE­N at MYTHERESA. Headpiece, £315, EMILY LONDON
Dress, £335, ROTATE BIRGER CHRISTENSE­N at MYTHERESA. Headpiece, £315, EMILY LONDON

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