Rebecca Front: 'There's no such thing as normal'

After admitting on Twitter that she has panic attacks, the actor is tackling her phobias in a book. Katie Grant meets her

Rebecca Front is weird. But then, she would argue, so is everybody else. As she writes in her debut book, Curious: True Stories and Loose Connections: "There's no such thing as normal." Probably most recognisable for playing the idealistic but inept MP Nicola Murray in Armando Iannucci's political satire The Thick of It, for which she won a Bafta, Front has enjoyed critical and commercial success in an acting career that features comedy highlights such as Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge.

A seasoned comedy writer, Front has now written a collection of autobiographical stories exploring the oddities of human nature and her own peculiarities in particular.

Three years ago, after seeing Nick Clegg on the news discussing the stigma surrounding mental illness, Front took to Twitter to reveal her own mental health problems and encouraged others to speak out, too. "Fancy taking the stigma out of mental illness? I'll start: I'm Rebecca Front and I've had panic attacks," she wrote, using the hashtag "whatstigma".

Within hours, "whatstigma" was trending, with multitudes of Twitter users opening up about their mental health issues. Mental health charities commended Front's courage in speaking frankly about her experiences, and she unwittingly became the public face of panic attacks and phobias.

In Curious, she writes openly about her struggles, though, when I meet her shortly before publication, a touch of self-doubt seems to have crept in and she ponders half-jokingly whether the book was a wise move. As anyone who suffers from anxiety knows, assuring Front she need not worry would have been useless. She readily concedes that her fear of confined spaces – primarily lifts, but also Tubes, trains and planes – is "ridiculous".

"There is a very strong seam in your brain saying, 'That's nonsense.' And that is what makes it difficult to explain," she says. Regarding those well-meaning but infuriating people who try to reassure her that she will not die if she steps into a lift, Front says: "You just want to take them by the scruff of the neck and say, 'I know, I'm not an idiot! But it doesn't stop me feeling like this.'"

By contrast, Front is guarded about other aspects of her personal life. She refuses to confirm or deny reports of her age or any details about her family other than that she and her husband, Phil, who live in north London, have two children – a son aged 15 and a daughter who is 12.

Front can trace her anxious behaviour back to childhood. In her book, she relays how, aged 11, she witnessed her father almost drown on holiday. He quickly recovered but, Front says, this incident had a major impact on her life. Almost immediately after this, Front's grandfather died unexpectedly. "I'd heard of [death] but suddenly I was faced with it," Front says. "There it was, nearly happening right in front of me and then actually happening a long way away and I wasn't able to get to it."

Front, who developed claustrophobia aged seven, became convinced that death "had it in" for her family, and if she let her mother out of sight, she, too, would die. In retrospect, she says, it is clear she was suffering from anxiety, but, in the 1970s, people didn't talk about such things. She believes we are still not talking enough about our mental health.

Since inadvertently becoming a mental health champion, she expresses bewilderment at being hailed as "brave" for talking about it. "Bravery suggests it's something I should be ashamed of, and I'm not," she writes in Curious.

"I think it's easier when you're in the sort of profession where it doesn't matter hugely. People are very forgiving in my job of neurotic individuals," she tells me. Iannucci incorporated Front's phobias into the character of Nicola Murray, such as when the minister refuses to get into a lift with her colleague Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) and the spin doctor brands her "an omnishambles".

Sadly, some employers are liable to register closer to Tucker than Iannucci on the empathy scale, a fact that began to trouble Front after she saw her "whatstigma" hashtag take off. It wasn't meant to be a campaign, she maintains, and the outpouring of candid disclosures from members of the public worried her. "It was a big risk for them to take," she says.

Despite her concern, Front is emphatic that any sense of "risk" associated with addressing mental illness must be eradicated. "The point is, you should be able to speak about it openly," she says.

Although she found depicting her father's near-death experience in Curious and the "awful" period in her life that followed "quite gruelling", Front says that writing about what it feels like to have a panic attack was cathartic. "I felt like I was getting it out of my system."

The process also gave her a sense of "ownership" over the attacks. "If you can wrestle [the experience] into some sort of shape when you're talking about it, then that feels a bit like getting some control back," she explains. "You're saying, 'I decide which bits to put in. I decide where I'm going to make jokes and how I'm going to laugh about this.' And, to me, that actually felt like taking one step towards dealing with it properly."

Front is determined to overcome her phobias. "I don't want to be defined by being scared of things. I want to be defined by all the things that I can do," she says.

Cognitive therapy has helped, she says, and last month she managed to confront one of her biggest fears by riding in a lift at last. "OK, the shaking wasn't pretty, but it's a start," she informed her Twitter followers.

She is wary of getting too excited about this breakthrough, and admits that she is dreading the day after we meet when she has promised herself she will do it again. "It's just a beginning," she says. "You have to keep doing it. Logically, it will go away."

'Curious: True Stories and Loose Connections' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on Thursday

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