After struggling for years to come to terms with being adopted, Long Lost Family presenter Nicky Campbell finally had a breakdown. Then a true friend helped him find peace…
At 6.30 I said good morning – the biggest lie I’d ever told – to our listeners on Radio 5 Live. I felt sick in my heart and could barely breathe. After the clock had agonisingly ticked round to the end of the programme, I made my way out of the building in a zombie march.
For years – despite my successful career in television and radio presenting, and my wonderful wife and four daughters – I had been in a downward spiral. Suffering obsessions, fixations, manic missions, terrible lows and deep depressions. I’d been having random moments of crying when I felt overwhelmed by a despair that seemed to come from nowhere – no specific trigger, but a feeling that my heart was broken. That morning, it was a news story about animal cruelty which had finally tipped me over the edge.
I crossed the road, narrowly avoiding a bus that swept around the corner from nowhere. I couldn’t believe the people all around me. I couldn’t believe that everyone was blithely carrying on while so much was going wrong in the world.
I gave up. I was on my knees on a patch of grass near the tube station, with people shuffling past, avoiding me. I scrabbled in my pocket for my phone, rang my wife Tina and babbled through the mess of tears. ‘Come home now,’ she said. ‘We’re going to sort this out. Come home to us. To Maxwell.’
For 35 wasted years I didn’t have a dog. I didn’t realise how much I yearned for one until Maxwell, my molten-golden labrador, arrived.
He came along at exactly the right time. My mum – my adoptive mum – always used to say it was clear, once she and my dad adopted me, that it was meant to be. Our family was perfect – Mum, Dad, my sister Fiona and me. It was the same for me with Tina and our glorious children. And then, 12 years ago, like a meteor, Maxwell. He landed and has never left my side.
From the first moment Maxwell arrived, I was safe. I knew in a heartbeat of our connection that those gnawing feelings of abandonment that have never really left me were not going to floor me. Maxwell was there when I was on cloud nine and he was there when I crashed and burned.
To understand what led to this breakdown, I have to travel back.
Despite my wonderful family, like most adopted children, my identity was fragile. I wished that I could be normal and not the child of a stranger. The growing awareness of what it meant to be adopted became a tangled path that was trickier to navigate as I got older. On good days, I was barely conscious of my adoption; but on darker days, it took on a sinister quality. Being adopted was a lie I was living, and no matter how hard I tried to hide it, it was central to who I was.
I was in my 20s when I began tracing my birth mother and father. I found out that when I was born, she had travelled from Ireland to Edinburgh to find a family for her son, and to escape the shame of being an unmarried mother. I thought I was closer to self-revelation, but in reality, I wasn’t an inch nearer to understanding anything. It was like a detective story. I was solving a mystery like a journalist reporting on someone else’s life. I was intoxicated by the process but detached from the consequences.
Knowing who my birth mother was did nothing to quell my unresolved issues with the woman or ‘mother’ who gave me away. In giving me up for adoption, she ensured I had a better life than she could ever have given me. My parents are my parents. I don’t have enough words to say how special they were and how happy my childhood was. And yet there was a lifelong whisper inside me: she didn’t want you, she gave you away.
I was 29 when I first met my birth mother, Stella, in a Dublin hotel. She was two hours late, uncertain and fragile. I felt no emotional connection. I felt nothing.
Stella wanted to make up for lost time. But my time hadn’t been lost. I had my story – my truth. As far as I was concerned, my quest was over. And while I understood her need and I didn’t want to break off contact or never talk again, once every so often and a Christmas card would have been fine. I couldn’t magic up feelings that weren’t there. Maybe it was self-protection – subconsciously, I just couldn’t let the hurt she’d already caused go deeper.
This was my justification for putting Stella away. Her letters I put in a drawer unopened, and her phone calls became less frequent. I had to close it down for the sake of my sanity. By now I had met my sister Esther, the first child Stella had given up for adoption, and guiltily explained how I was struggling with Stella’s ongoing need to be part of my life. Esther got it and I felt less culpable.
In 2008, 17 years after our first meeting, Stella died. Esther and I went over for her funeral on a bleak Dublin day. I was conscious that there was no explanation at the funeral as to who we were. There I was, the bastard son; there was Esther, the unwanted daughter.
I was sad – but not sad enough. Not like I was when my dad Frank died [from pancreatic cancer] in 1996.
One of my last visits to see him when he was gravely ill will stay with me for ever. I’d never felt comfortable discussing my quest to find Stella with my parents. That day at his bedside, I had wanted to tell Dad that I had traced my birth mother to find out who I was. That I felt like a traitor and didn’t speak to them about it because I wanted to protect them. But I was a coward and couldn’t say it.
He opened his eyes, momentarily clear from pain. With as much strength as he could muster, he pointed to the shelf behind him and the card I’d sent a few days before.
‘I love that, Nicko. That’s what I love.’
He put his thumbs up, beaming in silence. His eyes were glistening. All I’d written was ‘I love you’. I’d said it before and written it before, but now it seemed to mean more to him than anything I’d ever said in my life.
All the things I wanted to say, and should have said, were wrapped up in those three words. But later, when I kissed him goodbye – for now – still those long-lurking regrets were raging inside and I felt ashamed.
Death was close. Within days Dad was being moved to the hospice. I held on to his hand and told him we all loved him. Then, and it sounded like a final goodbye, a full stop, he said: ‘And I love all of you.’
I promised myself that whatever my failings, if I could at least strive to be half the man he was, I would achieve a lot. Family was at the epicentre of everything for him. He’d made us safe and we’d made him complete; he’d rescued me.
It wasn’t until years later, in 2011, when I started presenting Long Lost Family, that I began to see my story from another perspective. Talking intimately with dozens of adopted sons and daughters, with the same feelings and similar stories, made me realise that although Stella didn’t initially look for me, she tried to maintain contact once we’d met – and for the rest of her life, I hid. My shortcomings as a birth son were laid out bare to me. The grief I felt from this and the loss of Dad began to overwhelm me.
Although Maxwell was always my soft landing, an escape to a better me – unaffected, unburdened, perhaps the truest me – the din of desperation got louder and louder. The day I collapsed in front of the station, Tina organised for me to have time off work and made a doctor’s appointment for the next morning. The moment I started to realise that the way I was feeling wasn’t actually normal was an epiphany.
My GP referred me to a psychiatrist. I was diagnosed as ‘clinically depressed and bipolar type 2. Your high-wire adrenaline jobs help soak up the highs, but the lows have just become too much to deal with.’
I felt a strange amalgam of validation and helplessness. He prescribed a drug that was used for epilepsy and bipolar disorder. He swayed back in his dark green leather chair. ‘Just out of interest,’ he said, ‘has anyone else in your family been bipolar?’
‘No,’ I said, thinking of Mum and Dad. And then I realised what he meant by family. It turned out Stella had lived with bipolar disorder in its most sporadically debilitating form for all her adult years.
During my time off I sat on the sofa with my hand on Maxwell’s head and I let it come, a reckoning. My adoption search had been all about who I was. I’d never bothered addressing the question who was she? Who was Stella? I thought about the first question Stella had asked me. Do you like dogs? What a brilliant question that was. It’s a test of humanity because loving animals means we understand ourselves. She knew how dogs take us to a better us and give us back to ourselves. I looked down at Maxwell and heard the refrain strike back up. I knew what I needed to do.
I’d never read Stella’s letters. I’d never even opened them. I felt a cold shiver of self-loathing and failure. I’d do it now. I went upstairs to get them, Maxwell following me up and then back down, as if he was part of the mission. Or a guardian angel. Just having him next to me meant that I could do this.
I opened them all. And there they were: unedited torrents of thought, reams and streams of consciousness, all in her microscopic scrawl.
When I’d received these letters, I’d told myself I had no time or energy to unravel the words and crack the code. I’d stuffed them, unopened, into drawers. But now, the letters spread around me, Maxwell by my side, I realised what I’d been searching for: just a tiny scrap of a hint that she’d never wanted to give me up. That she’d had to bury it all. That she’d thought about me every day.
Two hours later, I found it. ‘All the people who matter know about you,’ she wrote. I hadn’t taken that in first time. It had been hidden in the undergrowth. But there it was – the shame but the steely determination, the courage to tell people who’d never known and would never imagine this woman would have had secret children. She told the ‘people who mattered’. They might think badly of her; they would certainly see her completely differently, but it was the right thing to do.
It may have taken a while and been a bumpy ride, but I have reached the point where I recognise my birth mother and my birth father for what and who they are. I am part of them and they are part of me. I’ve got to a point where it’s good being me. Thanks to Mum, Dad, Fiona, to Tina, my daughters, Esther; thanks to my diagnosis, to the many adopted children I’ve met working on Long Lost Family; to working through the labyrinth of adoption and to reading Stella’s letters and truly finding her when I read them 30 years after she sent them.
And, of course, thanks to my best friend in the whole world, the one who helped me to be my real self and my best self. My therapist with four legs. The one who said nothing but understood everything. The one who convinced me that there’s no need to pretend, no need to hide. The one who shone a light on my childhood and helped me understand it. How could he, Maxwell, ever have been in any other family but ours, been anyone else’s dog but mine? Maxwell helped me to be me.