Last week, pop star and Strictly finalist Frankie Bridge revealed how terrifying struggles with her mental health led to her being admitted to hospital at the age of 23. Here, as her brutally honest memoir continues, she describes how pregnancy forced her to confront an eating disorder…
For many years, I denied how ill I really was even to myself. As a teenage pop star with S Club Juniors and later with the Saturdays, I felt guilty and embarrassed, believing I’d become a typical child star who couldn’t cope with fame.
That refusal to get help led eventually to a nervous breakdown and admission to hospital at the age of 23. It took hitting rock bottom for me truly to recognise how ill I had become, and always had been.
But there were more revelations to come.
Frankie Bridge (pictured) struggled with her body changing while pregnant, after years of restricting her diet
For most of my life, I’ve had a difficult relationship with food. It started when I was a child: I was a fussy eater, afraid to try new things and terrified I’d eat something that would make me sick.
I also had constant stomach aches. Mum took me backwards and forwards to the GP, but we never got to the bottom of them.
My relationship with food became more about control as I became an adult and my mental health deteriorated. It was easier to hide it as I got older and was preparing my own meals.
Because work with the Saturdays was so hectic, we ate most of our food on the go, so no one really saw what I ate — or didn’t eat.
It felt like a victory to go to sleep feeling hungry. Full-fat Coke was a staple of my diet, and if that didn’t do the trick there was always a granola bar near by. It was ironic, really, as both are full of sugar, but I didn’t have enough of them to affect my weight and they gave me just enough energy to keep going.
At my lowest, I believed that people described by others as looking ill actually looked better than I did, so it made me feel powerful if anyone told me they thought I looked too thin.
It spurred me on to create even more restrictive habits, providing a distraction from everything else that was going on in my mind. I felt I was such a horrible person on the inside that the one thing I could control was my appearance. If I could make this perfect, then people wouldn’t figure out what actually lay within.
Frankie met England footballer Wayne Bridge on a night out in 2011, the pair began trying for a baby in 2013
I have come to understand that a lot of my eating issues were driven by my anxiety and my need to exert some sort of control over my life. What often happens when people feel sad is that they inflict more sadness on themselves. My starving technique was a coping mechanism and a way to escape my sadness — the less I ate, the less I could mentally be all there.
The truth is, deep down I was mentally unwell and my illness told me I was a horrible person. Not eating became part of keeping the real me from view, and making myself small made me feel stronger.
Thinking back on it, I feel sorry for the person I was. I was unwell and trying to do anything to cope.
We all compare ourselves to other people, but being in the band made it much worse. I decided I looked best when I looked thin. But how can you stay thin when you’re pregnant?
Starting my career at such a young age had made me grow up quicker than most. I had to decide what I wanted out of life much earlier.
Then, in 2011, I met England footballer Wayne Bridge — my knight in shining armour. We met on a night out during a very difficult patch of my life, just after a relationship had ended badly.
The pop star (pictured with her family) said she didn’t want to wait to start a family because she wanted to have enough energy to keep up with her children
I’m not usually a big partier, but I was going out seven nights a week. I wasn’t eating; I was binge-drinking, looking for reassurance from all the wrong guys (a new escape to calm my overthinking mind) and still working every day. I may have looked as if I was having a great time, but I was so lost and confused. I hated myself and couldn’t imagine anyone else being able to love me ever again.
Sometimes things happen when you least expect them. And that’s when I met Wayne.
After chatting for days and him hinting that he wanted to take me out, we arranged to go to a place we both liked — a Japanese restaurant called Zuma, in London. I turned up 45 minutes late, but he didn’t seem to mind, and we talked until the restaurant closed.
Although I still struggled with overwhelming sadness when we were together, I knew Wayne was just what I needed. So laid-back, funny, not in my industry, kind, thoughtful and someone who could take control and ownership of situations. He was eight years older than me and he felt much more mature.
I was always paranoid about letting my career completely take over my life and ending up at an age when children were no longer an option. I liked the idea of being a young mum with enough energy to keep up with my kids. I was also aware that Wayne, being older, didn’t want to wait to start a family.
Frankie (pictured performing in The Saturdays) admits she didn’t want to be the first person in The Saturdays to get pregnant, as people might panic that the band was ending
So, in 2013, when I was 24, we decided to start trying. My bandmates Una [Healey] and Rochelle [Humes] had already had babies, so I wasn’t too nervous about telling the girls our plans. I hadn’t wanted to be the first to be pregnant because I didn’t want people to panic and think it was the end of the Saturdays. Luckily, we all had the same view that family was just as important as the music.
I got pregnant quickly. Wayne was away for a game when I did my first pregnancy test. I couldn’t even call him as he was on a flight, but luckily my sister was at my house so I told her the news.
I went to see my psychiatrist, Mike McPhillips, as soon as possible. He told me I wouldn’t be able to take anti-anxiety medication but that my antidepressants were safe throughout pregnancy. I was so relieved. We decided that, in my position, the benefits outweighed the risks of taking some medication. I would be no good to a newborn baby if I ended up back in hospital.
Taking pills through my pregnancy felt like such a taboo, but no one should be made to feel ashamed of it.
However, there was a looming problem. Morning sickness kicked in at six weeks and the only way to ease it was to eat. Anything beige would do — crisps, chips, bread, biscuits, all washed down with fizzy drinks. All the things I’d spent so long avoiding.
I gained weight fast, and I was also suffering from water retention. By the time I was 12 weeks pregnant, I couldn’t see the bones in my ankles and was struggling to wear my normal clothes and shoes. I felt so out of control of my body and I hated it. I had never been more than 8 st 7 lb, and the change really affected me.
Frankie (pictured with her children) who has always been self-conscious, said pregnancy made her realise that she uses her body as armour
I tried to find costumes that would fit in with those of the other girls but didn’t make it look as if I was trying to disguise my body. And dancing felt silly.
Online, some people were horribly critical and it stung deeply. At every public appearance I felt I should apologise for being there, embarrassed by the audacity I must have to still class myself as a member of a girl band.
Yet I wasn’t really alone. I’d chat with friends or women I met who were pregnant too, and they would always say how amazing being pregnant was. But then, when I told them how hard I was finding it, their stories would change and they’d admit they struggled, too.
It was as if no one was honest about pregnancy. I was shocked at how hard it was, because no one had ever told me truthfully about the toll it takes on a woman’s mind and body.
For me, pregnancy was a means to an end — the beautiful little baby. I didn’t have to love every second of the bit in between.
It made me realise that, while I’ve always been self-conscious about the way I look, I also used my body as my armour.
I felt exposed and vulnerable. But, as the saying goes, the show must go on, so that’s what I did (minus the wilder dance moves).
Strictly finalist (pictured with her family) took antidepressants throughout her pregnancy, she revealed that Parker had to be checked for withdrawal symptoms
I fell in love with my son Parker the moment he was born in October 2013. It was such an overwhelming rush of emotions. Suddenly he was there, perfectly formed and tiny.
Since I’d decided to take antidepressants through my pregnancy, Parker had to be checked for a few days after he was born for withdrawal symptoms. I wondered once if the nurses were judging me, but soon forgot to worry about what they thought. I couldn’t take my eyes off Parker. Finally I had done something I was ridiculously proud of. No amount of money, sold-out tours, bestselling singles or albums could beat this feeling.
It was as if my mind was now too full of worry for Parker, and I had no space for anything else. Bringing another human into the world puts things into perspective.
Carter followed Parker in 2015, and today I have two gorgeous boys to give me something to get up for. I may not be the best mum I could be 24/7, 365 days a year, but I do my absolute best.
Yet I am not ‘over’ my illness. That will never happen. In truth, there is rarely a day I don’t find hard. I still have OCD, for example — its latest form involves cleanliness and worrying about germs.
I don’t clean excessively, but I can’t relax in certain places. When we go on holiday, a rented villa is pretty much my worst nightmare because I worry about whether the last people who stayed there washed the knives and forks properly.
My issues around eating have improved, but are still there, too.
Frankie (pictured) said she starts each day determined to eat well and for the right reasons, but continues to experience suicidal thoughts
Every morning, I start the day determined to eat well and for the right reasons, and I generally do well — until the evening. Then I tell myself I deserve some chocolate to cheer myself up. But, of course, it doesn’t.
The truth is, I never know how long a good spell is going to last. I envy people who have ‘normal’ thoughts and a laid-back attitude, who can live life to its full potential for happiness.
For me, an episode of depression starts with an overwhelming sense of loneliness: the belief that no one wants to spend any time with me, no one really likes me. Then it spirals down from there.
If someone asks me to do something, I’ll say no. I tell myself that, with the mood I’m in, I’d be awful company anyway, so what’s the point? I’d only bring everyone else down and they’d realise what a miserable, boring, negative person I am. Or, worse, how crazy I am.
I still experience suicidal thoughts. They have always terrified me. Most recently, I’ve had them more at night. I wake up and the intrusive thoughts are sitting there, waiting for me while everyone else is asleep.
That’s why I always want to let anyone who has lost someone to suicide know that they couldn’t have done anything to prevent it. If I had acted on my thoughts, no one could have helped me.
My suicidal thoughts revolve around two fears. One is the feeling that everyone in my life would be better off without me; that the boys and Wayne could go on to find someone better able to handle life, more mentally stable.
Frankie (pictured with her family) revealed she makes her life decisions based on her family and her own happiness
The other is that I’m just tired of this constant battle with myself. The idea of not being here any more is simply a solution to silence my thoughts.
BUT I have started to understand my depression, and I’ve found it hugely empowering. I try not to read too much into each episode. I don’t try to analyse why they happen any more: sometimes there just isn’t a reason.
Although my job probably didn’t help my illness, the anxiety was ingrained in me already and I believe I’d have reached breaking point anyway. Something else would have tipped me over the edge.
For me, there has always been that next goal that’s going to make me happy, then all my depression will disappear. When I get that No 1 hit, I’ll feel my life is complete; if I get that magazine cover, that new job, the big house, the car I’ve always wanted . . .
The thing is, I’ve ticked most of my boxes in life but, of course, I remain the same. Yes, they come with a great sense of accomplishment, but they don’t suddenly make me feel whole.
These days, I’m much happier with a smaller life. I make decisions based on my family and my own happiness. Wayne has been integral to my recovery and is still a huge part of what keeps me going.
Talking about how I feel has literally saved my life. Now, my mental health is out in the open. I can be more open to finding and giving myself the help and love I know I deserve.
Adapted by Alison Roberts from Open: Why Asking For Help Can Save Your Life, by Frankie Bridge, published by Cassell on February 6 at £18.99. © Frankie Bridge 2020. To order a copy for £15.20 (offer valid until February 21; P&P free), visit mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155.