'Anxiety was my prison': Jemma Kidd, Countess of Mornington and sister to Supermodel Jodie Kidd, on how she overcame her crippling anxiety and panic attacks
By Catherine O'Brien
To the outside world, make-up artist and YOU columnist Jemma Kidd has it all: a glamorous career, an aristocratic marriage and adorable young twins. But, as she tells Catherine O'Brien, for years she suffered in secret from an overwhelming anxiety disorder
'After an attack I felt as if I had been in a war zone,' says Jemma Kidd
Jemma Kidd is having her photograph taken in the garden when I arrive for our interview. When I say garden, this is something of an understatement. Jemma's country home is an exquisite Georgian rectory set amid the 350 acres of parkland that forms part of her husband's family estate on the Hampshire/Berkshire border. He is Arthur, Earl of Mornington, 32, the future Duke of Wellington, and watching Jemma, as she poses under a willow, I'm struck by the thought that she will one day make a beguiling duchess.
YOU readers will know Jemma through her weekly Make-Up Masterclass column. Like her supermodel sister Jodie, she is blessed with flawless beauty and has always appeared to have led a gilded life, segueing from privileged upbringing as the daughter of dashing former champion showjumper Johnny Kidd, to a successful career as one of the foremost make-up artists of her generation. Today, at 36, she has her own make-up school, two bestselling product lines and a signature style that is sought after by celebrities and photographers across the globe. Her marriage has made her the Countess of Mornington and in the past year she has become the mother of gorgeous twins Mae and Darcy. In every sense, Jemma would seem to have it all.
And yet, she has invited me here to discuss a dark secret that overshadowed much of her adult life. Throughout her 20s Jemma suffered from a crippling anxiety disorder. At any moment - while working, driving, having dinner with friends - a panic attack might strike. Her heart would race, her body flushed hot and cold, and nausea would sweep over her. 'The attacks felt like that split second before a car crash, when the adrenalin whooshes through your body and you think you are going to die. So from the outside, I might have looked sorted, but on the inside, I was thinking, "If only you knew."'
From left: Jemma with her husband Arthur; with supermodel sister
Jodie (left) and their mother Wendy
According to NHS statistics, at least one in ten of us experiences occasional panic attacks and one in a hundred will develop a full-blown panic disorder. The condition is twice as common in women as men and most likely, as in Jemma's case, to develop in a patient's early 20s. Jemma reveals that Jodie, 32, has suffered from them, too. 'She gave up catwalk work because of the fear she experienced stepping out on to the runway.' Both sisters had times when they thought they were going mad, but have conquered their fears after being treated by fellow sufferer turned anxiety expert Charles Linden. 'There's this misconception that anxiety is associated with mental illness and that it is a sign of weakness and lack of control. It's none of those things, and that is why I want to tell my story,' says Jemma, 'so that we can lessen the taboo.'
The first myth that Jemma wants to dispel is that an anxiety disorder stems from an unhappy upbringing. 'My childhood was exceptionally happy,' she says. Jemma's father is the grandson of Lord Beaverbrook, and her mother Wendy is a baronet's daughter and former model. For the Kidd offspring, life at the family home in Gloucestershire or hilltop plantation in Barbados was fun, busy and revolved around horses. Older brother Jack, 37, is now a professional polo player, and both Jemma and Jodie are good riders. Jemma made the junior national dressage team but, like many teenagers, she found other distractions. 'I started to go to London and do cool, exciting things like go to nightclubs and I got sidetracked,' she explains.
Looking back, Jemma can see that her late teens were an uncertain time. She left school at 17 and, despite having inherited the long-limbed, golden-haired Kidd DNA, didn't feel particularly confident. 'I went through a puppy-fat stage and a phase of not really knowing who I was,' she recalls. She did a cookery and secretarial course and dabbled in modelling alongside Jodie, 'but modelling didn't grab me in the same way'. Amid a family of can-do extroverts, she was the quieter one and, for a while, found herself adrift.
It was during this time, around the age of 20, that she suffered her first panic attack. She remembers it vividly. 'I was at home in Gloucestershire and had woken up feeling strange. As the day went on, I felt myself becoming fearful and sort of detached. It was weird - I was on familiar territory, surrounded by people I loved, but I couldn't help feeling frightened. Then, early in the afternoon, I was in my bedroom when the full-blown attack came on. Everything suddenly looked distorted. I felt sick, my heart began racing and I couldn't breathe. Within ten minutes it was over, but afterwards I felt as if I had been in a war zone. The most unnerving thing was that there had been no trigger - nothing awful had happened. And I felt I couldn't tell anyone - in my family, everyone was always so together and I thought no one would understand. So I kept it to myself.'
Within days, she was having a second attack, this time in the car. 'That was petrifying. I pulled over, disorientated and sweating, gasping for breath and with my heart palpitating. Again it was over within a few minutes, but I had no idea what was happening to me.'
'Suddenly I realised I was leading a normal life'
According to the mental health charity Mind, a panic attack is an exaggeration of the body's normal response to fear or stress. When faced with a potentially threatening situation, the body gears itself up for danger by producing adrenalin for 'fight or flight'. But if we produce too much, the surplus floods the body, causing feelings of absolute terror. If someone experiences several attacks, they can develop a cycle of fear, and this is what happened to Jemma.
'The attacks are so random and debilitating that you become fearful of the fear that they bring. You start to anticipate them and find yourself doing anything to avoid them. I stopped driving on my own; I manipulated my life so that when I had to go somewhere, I had someone with me. I couldn't go into the supermarket or anywhere crowded. If I was going to stay at someone's house for the weekend, I would be anxious for about ten days before and would insist on knowing how close they lived to a hospital. The symptoms were so real that I believed I could have a heart attack at any time.'
At their worst, Jemma was having a couple of attacks a week. A year or so after they began, she decided to pursue a career as a make-up artist. 'I realised that having my make-up done made me feel better about myself, and I wanted to do that for others.' She began a course at the Glauca Rossi School of Make-up in London and her anxiety levels subsided. 'Keeping busy helped,' she recalls, 'but the attacks didn't stop altogether.'
Jemma went on to work as an assistant to make-up guru Mary Greenwell. 'My career took off, but I began to fear crashing on the job. I remember doing make-up for supermodels in Milan, and my heart was pumping and my head swirling. It was completely exhausting.'
Social occasions were also an ordeal. 'There was one dinner at which the Queen was present. That was hugely stressful, because once Her Majesty has sat down, no one can leave the table. So I sat there, holding on to my chair, telling myself that I was not going to explode and that paramedics would not have to come and pick me up from the floor.' Such nightmare scenarios are known as 'catastrophising', and are common among people who suffer panic attacks, because they possess vivid imaginations which they use to conjure visions of disaster, illness and death.
Jemma eventually told family and friends what she was going through. 'Jodie understood because she has anxiety issues, although she does extreme sports as if to get rid of the adrenalin that way.' Jemma remembers her mother and friends being sympathetic. 'But if you don't have panic attacks yourself, it is hard to grasp what they feel like.' She consulted doctors who offered her tranquillisers, which she never took, and she attempted alternative treatments, such as meditation, acupuncture, reflexology and reiki healing. 'They softened the edges, but didn't stop the attacks completely.' She is thankful that she had an inner strength. 'I had to get on with my life. I learned to live with the attacks, and became brilliant at hiding them.'
At 27, Jemma met her future husband at an Ibiza nightclub. The two were immediately an item and the relationship helped Jemma feel grounded. 'Arthur gave me confidence. He is a caring and loving man and from the start I felt secure and happy with him.'
A year or so on, they went on holiday - always a challenge because of unfamiliar surroundings. 'We went to a beautiful hotel in Mexico - it was paradise. Just as we had settled in a deckchair with a cocktail, I went into an attack. I ran back to the room, and couldn't come out for two days, which was terribly tough for him. He had seen me have attacks before, but that was the worst one he witnessed.'
It was a turning point. 'I remember thinking, "I've had enough."' Jemma went online and came across the website of Charles Linden, 42, a former TV producer from Kidderminster, Worcestershire, who suffered from chronic anxiety for more than seven years and subsequently developed his own method of treating anxiety, panic attacks, phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder. 'I bought his book and CD and read his story, which was 50 times worse than mine, and it made me realise that I could do something to help myself. Within days, I was feeling better,' says Jemma.
Linden says he has helped more than 136,000 anxiety sufferers worldwide with his method, which teaches you how to undermine and eliminate anxiety by complying with a set of very simple rules. Anxious behaviour is a habit, he explains, and sufferers need to retrain their subconscious to react appropriately to anxious thoughts and situations. He outlines 'nine pillars' or guiding mantras, which include advice to stop talking, researching and holding on to memories of anxiety and to start getting busy - thereby diverting the mind.
'I realised I had been feeding my anxiety, when what I needed to do was train my brain to steer away from it,' says Jemma. Once in the right mindset, she found this easier than she thought.
'If I was driving and felt anxious, I turned the music up loud and sang along. If I was at a dinner party and thought I might have a panic attack, I turned to the person next to me and really concentrated on what they were saying.'
She also learned to avoid isolation.
'I started riding again, but focused on training in the school, rather than going out on my own. And instead of swimming, I took up an exercise class. If I was ever really stuck - in a waiting room, for example - I'd play Tetris [a puzzle video game]. Suddenly, I realised I was leading a normal life - the life of an unanxious person. It was absolutely liberating.'
Jemma has met Charles and agreed to work with him at his residential anxiety recovery retreats in Worcestershire. 'I have been on one myself and seen how transformational his work is.'
None of this, Jemma stresses, means that she now has a worry-free life. She had the same pre-wedding nerves of any bride when she married Arthur five years ago, and giving birth to twins a year ago was a time of oscillating emotions. But she no longer has panic attacks. 'The difference now is that I have appropriate anxiety. I know how to keep my anxiety under control and I have the mental toolkit to help me cope,' she says.
This toolkit also includes the two little people who are now the centre of her world. 'All that anxiety stopped me from becoming a mother for a long time,' she says. 'But now I have Darcy and Mae, they are the most grounding, loving, stop-you-thinking-about-yourself presence in my life.'
When you feel the fear rising...
Charles Linden experienced a school phobia at 13, before developing a full-blown anxiety disorder and associated phobias, including agoraphobia. By his mid-20s he was having up to ten panic attacks a day. He was treated with antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs and sought help from psychologists and psychotherapists. Around 15 years ago, he began interviewing recovered sufferers. From this, he developed a routine to treat his own symptoms, including techniques to regain normal breathing and relax tense muscles. He also took up photography and found that it diverted him from obsessive thoughts about himself.
His Linden Method focuses on breaking the habitual nature of anxiety. He stresses that there is no 'quick fix' and to be fully cured you need to follow his anxiety elimination techniques, but recommends the tips below to help divert a panic attack.
The dive reflex When you feel a panic attack building up, take a towel, soak it with cold water then place it on the back of your neck. You can also splash your face with cold water.
Diversion Do anything to divert your mind. Put on headphones and listen to music. Do practical chores, count trees or lampposts. Immerse yourself in whatever is present and practical at the time.
Cold Apple When you feel an attack is imminent, take an apple from the fridge and eat it very slowly. This will help to slow your breathing and the coldness of the apple helps to create positive, non-anxious sensations.