To the outside world life seemed pretty good for top food writer James McIntosh, but on the inside he was struggling with his mental health.
James was a well known face on the Chinese television channel Food TV, had written 12 cookery books, and was Britain’s Food Ambassador of the Year in 2012. But at the height of his success, James woke up one morning and he couldn’t move from his bed. At the age of just 35 he was diagnosed with a ‘moderately severe depressive episode’ that left him in a catatonic state for several weeks, desperately searching for a road to recovery.
James, who grew up in a small town in Co Armagh, studied at Tandragee Junior High and then Portadown College before he went on to Catering College in Portrush and the University of Dundee. “I always wanted to study consumer marketing in the food world,” he said. “I moved to London and worked for some of the biggest names in the industry, writing books for Le Cordon Bleu cookery schools and then in the Good Housekeeping Institute. I also presented Food TV in China for a few years, at the height of it all I had 100 million viewers a week and in 2011 I was presented with the equivalent of a BAFTA in China - remembering China is Communist, this was a real honour being a foreigner. Life was good.”
Despite his success, James was completely floored when he was hit was depression. “At the age of 35 I was diagnosed with a moderately severe depressive episode and it consumed my life,” he explained. “Depression is also known as ’the black dog’, and boy, that dog bit me hard. I woke up one morning and could not move my leg down the bed. It’s not that I did not want to move my leg, I just could not mentally move it - it’s known as a catatonic state, it lasted for a few weeks.
“Dr Thomas Ernst is my life partner and Thomas knew what was happening, my head was the deepest black, the fear and panic and anxiety was nearly too much to bear.
“I could not eat, I could not sleep, I could not do anything but lie in bed and watch TV, this lasted a year. I felt my life was wasting away, I did not know what to do, or have the energy to do it, I was a distant shadow of myself and I was ashamed of what I had become.
“Thomas loved me through it. He would come home from the hospital every night after a 12 hour day and then have to do everything around the house, shopping, cooking, cleaning. We noticed that our social circle started to slip away, when there is no joy in the house, many don’t want to be with you, and I was so lonely. This exacerbated the panic and anxiety and a never-ending year of the deepest black in my mind was my reality.”
It was a very unusual thing that finally helped James to escape from the despressive episode, and something that more and more people are turning to every day to improve their mental health - knitting. “I remember the day as I was so frustrated in bed,” explained James. “I found two chopsticks and a piece of string, looked on YouTube and learnt to cast on. I had produced a knitted ’something or other’. Thomas came home from work and I showed it to him. I was embarrassed. Men don’t knit. Thomas was so happy to see that I was able to do something that he bought me knitting needles and yarn.
“It was beige alpaca and I managed to knit a jumper. I struggled to understand a knitting pattern at this point so the resulting jumper is 10 sizes too big, it looked like a tent, but, that jumper will live as a testimony to my good health for the rest of my life, albeit at the back of my wardrobe. I was left with no self worth and by hand knitting I realised that by watching the stitches grow on my needles I had created something and this allowed me to be proud of myself again.”
And James’ love of jumpers continues, topping the list of things he likes to create. “I do love a jumper - they give you an intimate hug when you need one. However, I could not find a knitting pattern that I as a contemporary man wanted to wear. I searched and searched and could not find anything that was fitted, all the patterns I found were baggy, and there was nothing contemporary akin to the contemporary end of the high street. Why is the hand knitting industry not the fashion industry? At this point I knew I had to develop my own!”
And now he is sharing patterns he has created in a new book recently published with his partner Thomas entitled Knit and Nibble, which combines his two passions of knitting and cookery. The book has been shortlisted for the best knitting book in the UK at the British Knitting and Crochet Awards.
“I never set out to write a knitting book for men, I wanted a book about knitting and mental health where the items were both contemporary and gender neutral,” he said. “Together with Thomas we started to research and have come to the conclusion that hand knitting is in essence mindfulness. We call it knititation - knitting and meditation to bring joy back to my life. This coupled with antidepressants helped me hugely, but antidepressants are not a fix, they just allow you to have a base line to stand on, you have to find the way out of depression yourself, and a year of psychotherapy really helped me.
“Thomas and I wrote the book to empower, to help, share our story and show how life can be re-gained after such a dreadful time. One stitch at a time helps your mind, and when you can, talk to people you love and trust and tell them if you’re feeling low. From my experience, one in four people suffer with depression or anxiety, and everyone understands.”
James and Thomas, who live in London, will be coming back to Northern Ireland in August when they will be hosting a pre-event at the Yarnfolk Festival in Whitehead on August 2. “It’s not just a knitting festival, it’s a time of fun with common ground for all, and even if you’re not a knitter or crochet enthusiast, I assure you, with all of the yarn there, you will find the colours alone healing and put joy in your heart.”
James promises the audience at his Yarnfolk Festival event “Honesty, reality, hope, a story of love, lots of laughter and the truth about how hand knitting saved my life, the encouragement for those suffering to get help and to know that there is no shame in depression.”
Knit and Nibble is available to buy online at www.knitnibble.com. Tickets for the Yarnfolk Festival are available now at www.yarnfolkwoolfestni.com.