Sylvia Syms On Depression And Prozac
Friday, May 15th, 2009
By her own admittance former screen siren Sylvia Syms says that everyone thought she was a very strong and very determined person according to an article written in the Mail by Yvonne Swann (11 05 09). However the reality was much more complex for as the siren says, ‘I have always had this ability to put on a very powerful exterior, but in reality I’m a great mess inside.
‘I’ve suffered from depression all my life - I’ve just had to learn to cope with it.’
‘Cope’ seems something of an understatement for a woman who’s enjoyed a long and successful career. Although perhaps best known for her roles in films such as Ice Cold In Alex, Sylvia hasn’t stopped working since she left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) in London at the age of 19.
At the age of 75, Syms is still in the business and is co-stars alongside Michachel Caine in the film production is There Anybody There? In addition later this year she will appear as Miss Marple in an adaptation and a new ITV drama, Collision.
Notwithstanding, it is apparent that she leads a full and busy life, on the suface. Indeed the outward exterior of success and happiness belies her lifelong struggle with depression. She says, ‘My childhood was very unstable,’ she recalls. ‘That’s not surprising, as I’d been a war child evacuated from London aged four with my brother and sister. My beloved mother suffered a severe head injury in an air raid. She developed a brain tumour and suffered from terrible epileptic fits.
‘She died when I was 12 - a loss that was not properly dealt with at the time. No one spoke about it. Then two years later my father remarried. My stepmother, Aunt Dorothy as we called her, was a good woman who adored us children, but at the time I didn’t see that.
‘When I left school at 16, I was all over the place emotionally and had a near breakdown. Dorothy saved the day, sending me to a revolutionary place in the West Country, where I did art therapy - making pottery and painting - and spoke to a therapist every day. It was an extraordinary concept in 1951. It meant that at last I could express all my feelings. It was wonderful - I was able to sail into Rada in a strong frame of mind after going there.’
But that was just the first of many episodes of depression in her life, with particular low points when her children, the actress Beatie Edney, and Ben, a teacher, were young, and again when she divorced her husband, Alan Edney, in 1989.
She explains: ‘It was very bad when the babies were small and I was working. Then it went away, but got bad again when I got divorced.
‘I saw a therapist when my marriage was going wrong. But as I spoke about our life together, I knew that if I went on going it would become clear I should leave my husband.
‘So I didn’t go any more. I didn’t want to know the truth. I buried it again - at least for a while. The triggers for my depression are fear and insecurity. I could always find the courage to climb a mountain, but when the washing machine went wrong I’d weep.’
The sign of an impending depressive episode is little things upsetting her. ‘I know it’s getting bad if I cry at stupid things,’ she says. ‘Such as if I’m in a hurry and the traffic lights go against me, and tears start running down my cheeks. It’s ridiculous, but I fear I’m going to be late.
‘At my worst I’ve been through the thing of staying in bed, unable to do anything. But I don’t let myself do that now - it’s defeatist. Fresh air is a great antidote.
And I love chatting to people in the streets and parks. I find great joy in others. Fortunately, I have a very understanding and careful GP, and nowadays I take an antidepressant pill - Fluoxetine [a mild form of Prozac] - every day. I’m happy to take it. It calms me down and takes the edge off my anxiety.
Syms adds, ‘I’ve been on the tablets for about 12 years. There are no side-effects and I won’t take the stuff that makes you feel dopey. I’d rather have the worry than feel drugged and stupid.
‘I don’t regard myself as a serious case, but I do think that people who have serious depression should be treated with the same care that’s given to someone with cancer or heart failure, because if you get it badly, it’s terrible. I’m a survivor - one of the lucky ones. And I’m so much better than I used to be. I see the humour in it all now. I think: “OK, so I broke something - so what?” I think it’s just getting older and learning to deal with things. I look around and realise I’m luckier than most.
‘And I didn’t let my depressive periods affect my children. I think, in a way, that may have been half the trouble. I didn’t let on - as with the loss of my mother. My feelings were buried and hidden. It’s easier for me to talk about it now because why would you worry about what other people think when you are 75?
‘In the old days, I’d hide my depression when I was working. That’s why I’ve got a reputation for being very outgoing. I cover my terror with being positive, which irritates people sometimes, I think. And I’m the bossiest person on set!’
Overall apart from her depression Sylvia Syms afford good health, though she did have a serious episode of bronchitis which turned into pneumonia.
‘Having pneumonia was a big surprise. I didn’t realise it was anything unusual. I felt slightly unwell and was always used to working on when I had flu or bronchitis. Thankfully, I have a highly intelligent daughter who realised it was serious. I kept arguing with her about whether I was really ill or not and I was still arguing when the ambulance came to get me. I don’t remember much about the next three days, but I was really quite dangerously ill. It was dicey.’
Those cigarettes had to go, she states, ‘The doctors were furious about my smoking, and I have to say I’ve stopped now. It would be ridiculous not to. I must be a good girl. But I only ever smoked a little - off and on - and only started very late in life, when I got divorced. Alan hated smoking, so after the divorce I thought: “Now I’ll do what I bloody well like.”’
Syms was also diagnosed with daibetes, It’s a nuisance,’ she says. ‘It started more than ten years ago. I felt peculiar, terribly thirsty and I started putting lots of sugar in my tea - which I’d never done before. I mentioned the symptoms to my brother, who had already been diagnosed, and he told me to have myself checked. I controlled it for a long time with diet. Then I went on Metformin pills to balance my blood-sugar levels. But they didn’t agree with me at all and I felt dreadful.
‘Finally, I went on to insulin, which suits me perfectly. I inject myself every day. It’s fine.
‘I should lose weight, of course, but it’s difficult. I have a rather painful back, which means I can’t do that much exercise. It’s an old injury. Years ago I was doing stunts in a rubbishy Italian film, The Virgins Of Rome, and cracked a vertebrae. It has caused arthritis in my spine. I don’t take pills for that. I just put up with it. I also see a cranial osteopath, and I try to keep moving. I walk every day with the dog - not huge walks. I’m slower than I used to be and can’t go as far. But frankly - exercise aside - I eat too much. I’m a wonderful cook, and like one decent meal a day. But I can suddenly find I’m feeding a lot of people, so I tend to eat more than I should. They just seem to turn up, and I’ve almost always got somebody staying. Friends ring up and say: “I’m in town!” It’s lovely. ’
‘But I don’t like getting old. It’s a bore. You are just beginning to get the hang of life - and then your body starts letting you down. I would like to be going for those long walks I used to go on, and I’d like to go horse-riding again.’
‘I used to be beautiful, but I gave up. I never valued my looks when I was young. I’d dress up if I had to go to a premiere, but I was always very lazy about grooming. Going to hairdressers and having manicures just bored me. I’d always rather be off doing something.’
‘But never mind. I remember a brilliant director, Lewis Gilbert, saying: “Don’t ever get your face done because you’ll always work. We’ll always need some old people.” And he was absolutely right.’