"Why Sue Perkins?" people often ask me when they hear about my one-woman comedy show In PurSUEt, which covers one woman’s obsession with Sue. I mean, why not? She dons a well-tailored blazer better than most.
But if you see my show (it’s on at Edinburgh Fringe this year) you’ll realise it’s about much more than celebrity obsession.
For as long as I can remember I've had intense infatuations. I watched The Sound Of Music on repeat for the best part of six years, culminating in me, aged 15, having a shrine of memorabilia in my room. I can still recite it word for word. Pretty relatable, no? Then came my dependence on the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion – I have a quote from the book tattooed on my arm – quickly followed by the books Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. Celebrity obsession came in tandem: Kristin Scott Thomas in The Horse Whisperer and Kate Bush in her fantastical music videos. My most obscure obsession to date? Helen Mirren in Losing Chase, a TV film about a woman who has a mental breakdown and falls deeply in love with her children’s nanny.
Notice a pattern emerging? Romance! I would relentlessly escape into the glorious romantic fantasy these vehicles offered. Yet all these obsessions were a distraction from something bigger. Pursuing Sue Perkins – as the character in my show does – isn’t just about everyone’s fave Bake Off presenter; it's also about how my constant pursuit of an alternative reality seemed like the answer to my problems.
Substance abuse began creeping into my life when I was 18. It was another, stronger way of escaping and helped me to feel with the same intensity that I’d seen in all the great love stories I’d grown up on. But relying on substances to cope with my emotional world led to a demise in all aspects of my life.
By my late 20s, many of the relationships and friendships I had nurtured were toxic, codependent or laced with never-ending drama. They nearly always ended in calamity. I was early on in my career but damaged plenty of professional opportunities by consistently being late or sometimes never showing up at all for auditions and jobs. Or because I arrived nursing a hangover, away with the fairies.
But I was functioning. I wasn’t homeless, I wasn’t on the street. Surely I didn’t have a real problem?
I could regale you with the many stories of drunken nights out that might seem, to the average drinker, to be an obvious turning point in me realising that my behaviour was becoming increasingly dangerous and harmful. My real rock bottom was far less eventful. It was that quiet voice inside my head that kept whispering to me. Something wasn’t right. The emotional and spiritual emptiness I felt. The internal loneliness. That my life had started to feel like Groundhog Day. The same binges in the same places. I was starting to worry that it wouldn’t change. I was going to repeat the same sad cycles over and over. I didn’t know I had another option. I certainly didn’t see myself as an addict. Those were the folk on park benches, the morning drinkers who glugged discount beer to quell the shakes.
But six years ago an old friend gently persuaded me to recognise there might be a pattern. Or at least a common denominator in my life: me.
I began to gently realise that I was an addict. And that my addiction can take on many forms and disguises. I came to understand that my intense obsessions had always been part of something bigger. All were giving me short-term comfort by distracting me from my demons. Much like a drink or a drug will do.
My fixations distracted me from facing my problems, from finding out what I was trying to distract myself from.
Addicts often home in with a laser focus on particular people, places and things. It’s a habit that frequently ends in the destruction of their relationship with said thing, place or person because they’re not able to really engage with that thing or person, rather they use it/them as a tool to fix everything that's wrong with their own life. When that thing or person is no longer in reach, the addict suffers a deeper loss of self.
This is known as addiction replacement, a phenomenon whereby addicts replace one addiction with another.
It’s how love addiction can be a thing. My fixations distracted me from facing my problems, from finding out what I was trying to distract myself from. If I didn’t get a certain job or another relationship failed, I would turn to the comfort of another rerun of Pride and Prejudice to make everything bearable again.
Sue – and Helen, and Kristin, and all the other great loves – was a joyful way for me to forget negative emotions and, in the same way, substance misuse scratched that itch for me, too. By seeking out the help I needed, I eventually realised that each celebrity obsession, each fictional romance, each drug I took gave me a temporary high that was just a sticking plaster for the issues I was running from.
Obviously, not everyone’s celebrity obsessions are addictions. Plenty of people only have a passing interest in any one particular celebrity. But when we’re spending more time thinking about something other than ourselves there's a problem. Not least because we'll be thinking about something we don’t actually know that much about. As much as I hate to admit it, Helen Mirren might not be the woman I’ve made her out to be in my head.
I’m pleased that new statistics show that young people, especially Gen Z, are drinking less than the previous generations. However there are also more distractions than ever, thanks to the ubiquity of social media. After six years in recovery, I now see how my addictive nature, and those of my contemporaries, manifests in other ways, such as an obsession with and reliance on shopping, food or sugar.
If we’re to truly tackle the reality of life head on, without a crutch, we’ve got to park our fantasies for a moment. So why Sue Perkins? She’s bright, fun and light, and the sheer fantasy of dating her – in a far less chaotic way than my lead character does in the show – brought all those qualities into my life for a while. A kind of ease and serenity. Now, with more awareness of how my replacements can take hold, I learn, day by day, to let go of those crutches. To show up and be those things for myself.