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Singer-songwriter Tom Ryder on the constant 'light' during the darkness of his bipolar disorder: 'I was living a hellish horror film of my own making, sectioned on a secure psychiatric ward... but my guitar became my closest ally and gave me hope'

Singer-songwriter and journalist Tom Ryder, from Bishop's Stortford, the Indie's music and wellbeing writer, is one of the contributors to a new book that illustrates that, no matter what you are going through, you are not alone.

The Book of Hope: 101 Voices on Overcoming Adversity is co-edited by award-winning mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin and Britt Pflüger.

It brings together people from all walks of life – actors, musicians, athletes, psychologists and activists – to share their experiences with anxiety, psychosis, panic attacks and more, as well as what helps them when they are feeling low and what gives them hope.

The 101 contributors include fitness coach Joe Wicks, dual Olympic gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes, poet, playwright and author Lemn Sissay, vlogger Zoe 'Zoella' Sugg and singer-songwriter Frank Turner.

Jonny Benjamin is known for his book and documentary film, The Stranger on the Bridge, which fought to end stigma around talking about mental health and suicidal thoughts. When his campaign to find the man who prevented him from taking his own life went viral, Jonny was one of a wave of new figures lifting the lid on mental health struggles.

In The Book of Hope, he brings together a range of voices to speak to the spectrum of our experiences of mental health and the power of speaking up and seeking help.

Tom founded non-profit community organisation Retune, which inspires young people to adjust their mental health through creative outlets.
Tom founded non-profit community organisation Retune, which inspires young people to adjust their mental health through creative outlets.

Tom Ryder's story

A great many factors and people have been sources of hope in my life. But if I had to choose a single word to convey hope and sum it up, one idea to distil it down to, it would be ‘creativity’.

Creativity has been a phenomenal force, a means of processing emotions and making sense of situations. Harnessing it has been vital, shining light on some very dark times and, crucially, making my brain work with me rather than in opposition.

As a journalist and musician, I spend a lot of time creating. I work with words, sometimes crafting them into songs, sometimes leaving them on the page. But there are occasions when words won’t do the trick, and there is a need to express emotion wordlessly.

Tom Ryder at a primary school during a Retune workshop
Tom Ryder at a primary school during a Retune workshop

This is where the creative arts come in: we might paint, draw, play an instrument, dance, sing or cook our way to a healthier mindset. In my case, music leads the way.

In my early 20s I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition that studies have aligned closely with the arts. Being bipolar is both a tremendous asset to my creativity and my loudest nay-sayer.

Two per cent of the population have been diagnosed, and many of those with the disorder are artistically-minded. Singer Demi Levato, painter Vincent Van Gogh, writer Virginia Woolf, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and musician Kurt Cobain are among those suffering with, or believed to have suffered from, the disorder.

Long before it became my living or part of a diagnosis, however, creativity was embedded in me. As a child, it manifested as a very active imagination; I was an out-and-out dreamer.

I used to pedal my Little Tykes red and yellow toy car round our street pretending to be Finnish Formula One world champion Mika Hakkinen. I bowled a tennis ball against a wall for hours, imagining I was playing cricket at Lord’s. I didn’t need any team-mates while outside with a football: I’d make up players, teams and tournaments and amuse myself all afternoon.

Tom in his Little Tykes red and yellow toy car, pretending to be Finnish Formula One world champion Mika Hakkinen
Tom in his Little Tykes red and yellow toy car, pretending to be Finnish Formula One world champion Mika Hakkinen

My imagination was a huge part of school life too. In Year 3 (age 8) at Northgate Primary School we were asked to write a short story. I went home and authored a 43-page epic that got read out to the class. A girl I fancied got thrown out of assembly because I was singing He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands in a mickey-take falsetto, an octave up, and the teachers thought it was her. Aged 10, I enthusiastically belted out and jigged along to Who Let The Dogs Out? at an all-inclusive resort in Greece. I was gripped by being centre stage and the centre of attention.

At The Bishop's Stortford High School, I got into drama. I was in Lord of The Flies, Tom Sawyer, Sweeney Todd, 12 Angry Men, all encouraged by physics teacher David Hows, who had an unbelievable eye for theatre and put on some astonishing productions. Before he inspired me, he put a young Greg James on the school stage, allowing him to realise his talents and setting him on the path to the incredible career in radio and TV broadcasting that has followed.

"It was around 13 or so that I discovered music and wanted to play it. Mum and Dad had bought me a Spanish-style guitar from Argos for Christmas."
"It was around 13 or so that I discovered music and wanted to play it. Mum and Dad had bought me a Spanish-style guitar from Argos for Christmas."

It was around 13 or so that I discovered music and wanted to play it. Mum and Dad had bought me a Spanish-style guitar from Argos for Christmas, and for a good year or so it sat on the shelf gathering dust. Dad’s Scottish friend Vic ended up teaching me the basics and we paid him in cigarettes. Fuelled by a healthy supply of Irn Bru, I got a handle on some simple chords and started to find my voice which, owing to the perils of puberty, was in permanent flux.

There was a well-known acoustic club in Bishop’s Stortford. Founded in 2002, it hosted the likes of Sam Smith, George Ezra, Charli XCX and countless others during the 10-year tenure of bookers Keef Jackman and Annie Compton along with host Drew Bonnington.

Accompanied by my friend Joe, who was developing into an exceptional guitarist, we headed down there as a duo. Though we were barely into adolescence, the pub let us in and the club proved a fantastic platform and safe space to share songs. We started off playing covers, Oasis B-sides and so on, and gradually evolved into sharing our own original material.

Tom Ryder with Joe Hazell during one of their early gigs at the Bishop's Stortford Acoustic Club at the Half Moon pub in North Street
Tom Ryder with Joe Hazell during one of their early gigs at the Bishop's Stortford Acoustic Club at the Half Moon pub in North Street

The compositions may not have been very good at that point, but what an outlet! To share something you’ve come up with in your bedroom with a welcoming audience is magical and uplifting in equal measure. We were hooked.

Forming a four-piece band, The Kazans, with schoolmates Cass and George followed. The band is still going and we’ve shared some brilliant times together, musical and non-musical. Not only can we combine our collective creative ideas and develop as players, but we are part of a loyal team, our own little community, an essential component in maintaining wellbeing.

Tom Ryder, far right, in The Kazans
Tom Ryder, far right, in The Kazans

I did well at school, despite some major exam-related stress and developing insomnia around my GCSEs as I tried to live up to my own high expectations. Instead of heading straight off to university, I opted to take a gap year. We wanted to make a go of it with the band, but I also wanted to see whether the journalism career I had in mind was really for me.

In March 2009 I headed off to Cape Town for my first taste of that other creative passion of mine, writing. I had an extraordinary month where I put together my first stories and interviews, even managing cheekily to ask Australia captain Ricky Ponting a question in the press conference at Newlands before his side faced South Africa in a Test match. Putting news articles together was a lot of fun, as was talking to locals who were passionate about their projects. Seeing things in print was a buzz.

I was on a consistent high by now, holding the firm belief that life was going to get incrementally better and enjoy a consistent upward trajectory. I didn’t make it into Oxford University after an interview there, but I was beyond excited to read English at Durham.

The first seven or eight weeks of my time at uni was total bliss. I worked on the college bar, played football, wrote for the student newspaper, gallivanted around the open mics. Truth be told, I did everything except study – the whole reason I was there in the first place.

In a furious rush to submit my essays at the end of first term, the insomnia and anxiety that had plagued me before took on a whole new magnitude, morphing first into hypomania and then a full manic episode with psychotic symptoms.

In plainer English, I didn’t sleep for a week, decided to deface the walls and ceiling of my student accommodation by scribbling words all over them, was rushed to the GP and then waited for the crisis team for six hours.

Eventually the police were called. I was cuffed, put in the van and taken to a cell for my own safety.

By this point I was beside myself, trying to convert whoever would listen to a bizarre new religion I had just created.

Thinking myself invincible and immune to pain, I had attempted to grab a lit light bulb out of its socket.

I was left in a police cell until I calmed down, and was then informed I was being sectioned.

I was taken to another secure facility, a psychiatric ward, and broke down crying as I had to strip naked in front of strangers while my clothes were reallocated to me.

In a matter of hours I had gone from elated normality to a vivid nightmare.

I had gone from being on stages to featuring in a hellish horror film of my own making, the deluded star.

How could my mind, friend for so long, trick me in such a dastardly fashion?

Over the next days and weeks I was medicated heavily back towards my right mind. I got some rest, but was furiously angry at my predicament, locked away from friends and family, many of whom were hundreds of miles away. The pills meant I was constantly hungry and thirsty, and in no time I put on a hearty three-and-a-half stone.

Yet something struck me. As I looked around my fellow very unwell patients on the ward, I noticed a pattern in how they were coping with their predicament.

Some were drawing or painting, writing poetry or scrapbooking, while others were dancing and singing. With little else to do on the ward other than eat, sleep and smoke, my colleagues were being creative.

I started writing. I was allowed access to my guitar and it became my closest ally and confidant. Some of the songs I put together in hospital have remained with me to this day.

I had to drop out of my studies for that year but returned to visit my Durham friends after the exam season.

I sang Feels Like Home, a song I’d written on the ward, to the entire college. Emotions were running high and a lot of tears were shed on all sides, but the rush I felt, the togetherness in the room, the joy of music, the triumph in overcoming a horrible period and releasing all those pent-up feelings was undeniable.

Creating something that moves people, makes them laugh or causes them to sing the lyrics back at you is a magnificent feeling. Some songs can be very personal yet resonate with others in surprising ways.

After four years of back and forth, steadiness and illness, I eventually abandoned my studies altogether. This was an exceptionally difficult decision to make, as it felt like a failure and a character blemish.

When I returned home I was no longer allowed to drive, and coupled with this was the crushing weight that the path I was on was at an end – the dream was over.

In 2013 I was given the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant at a primary school walking distance from my mum’s house. While there, one of the teachers asked me what I was looking to do as a career. I said I wanted to be a journalist, but at that time genuinely believed this was a pipe dream; I didn’t expect to move forward at all as everything felt like it had ground to a permanent halt.

I confided in a close friend, telling him I couldn’t finish my degree. He said of course I could, calling me the most talented person he knew. It was such a kind and motivational thing to say, but the words neither landed nor registered at the time.

A year later, my driving licence reinstated, I got a steady journalism job. Fast-forward another year, and I managed to secure a regular gig singing in a pub/restaurant. A number of flash Essex types used to frequent it and boast about how they used to drink with The Faces or knew Rod Stewart. I didn’t believe a word of it until Rod himself walked in one night while I was playing.

I lingered around, taking even longer than usual to pack up at the end of the night, when Rod walked up to me, shook my hand and asked how my career was going. He asked me: “Do you love it?” I of course said yes. I won’t forget what he said next, as it has influenced all my artistic pursuits since: “If you love it, and you want it, stick at it.”

In the time between these moments and today, and from the deep depths I sunk to, I have managed to establish a career as a journalist and musician and fulfil my creative ambitions by working and performing all over the world. This by no means signifies that I’m out of the woods and my mental health journey is over; being bipolar is something I have to keep a constant eye on.

I take lithium, a severe but effective medication, and expect to be on it for the rest of my life. Getting enough sleep and rest is essential, and I often have to make sacrifices and call it an early night or resist that extra pint. But wellness is worth it.

Countless individuals have supported me along this journey by showing unwavering love, and I’d like to single out community psychiatric nurse Brian in particular, who was an outstanding listener and an impartial friend come what may. If I’m ever getting carried away, I can always go and visit my nan for a dose of simplicity and refreshing normality.

In addition to monitoring sleep and diet, exercising and maintaining positive relationships, music has been there for me always. Being on stage is still home.

I’ve founded a non-profit community organisation called Retune (@RetuneUK) that inspires young people to make positive adjustments to their mental health through creative outlets. I’m so passionate about music, theatre, writing and all the other creative mediums that I feel a strong duty to pass on their psychological benefits to the younger generation.

Our wonderful NHS is struggling and our education system has enough on its plate. Finding a creative outlet is a simple method of self-care that we can all get on board with.

It seems to be an accepted belief that there are some people who are artistic and creative, and others who are not. But it is actually easier than you think to unlock the artist within.

You don’t have to compose symphonies or paint a fresco; it might be as simple as jotting down your thoughts in a journal or singing very loudly (and badly) in a shower.

Creativity is about expressing your inner thoughts and bringing what’s inside onto the outside. It’s a way of making sense of things, and can provide great relief.

A creative activity is anything we can lose ourselves in – and we are all more creative than we realise. By captioning a photo, creating a funny gif or cooking something from scratch, we are unlocking that childlike imagination and playfulness that is often suppressed during adulthood, enabling it to roam free and experiment for a while.

Science backs this up. According to mental health charity Mind, listening to music raises levels of the natural anti-depressant chemical dopamine by up to 9%, while playing lullabies to newborn babies slows down their heartbeat (APPG).

Playing a musical instrument unites the left and right sides of the brain, improving cognitive function (Forbes). And art and music therapy have reduced agitation and the need for medication in 67% of dementia sufferers (APPG).

In May 2019, BBC Arts carried out its first Great British Creativity Test, surveying more than 50,000 participants. Of those that took part, 76% used creativity as a distraction technique, 69% used it for self-development and 53% as a contemplation tool.

Senior research fellow at UCL Dr Daisy Fancourt led the study. “You don’t have to take part for a long time for [a creative activity] to have benefits – you actually get benefits from single sessions,” she said. “It’s not about being good at it – it’s genuinely the taking part that counts.”

Even in the most despairing times we can find comfort and solace by expressing emotions in a healthy way. This might be found in music, art, exercise or any number of other outlets.

It’s important that we allow ourselves some time to reflect and reset our minds, in the face of a society that expects us to be ‘on it’ 24/7 and rarely offers us time to take a step back.

It is important to periodically gather our 60,000 daily thoughts, to ‘defragment’ as those early Windows PCs used to do. Mindful creative pursuits are a way to achieve this.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to take my foot off the gas and let things happen. You don’t always have to take control and force things to work for you. Be patient and let it come of its own accord.

Nor do you have to play an instrument or perform to appreciate the transformative power of music. It traverses the entire spectrum of human emotion.

Most, if not all, of us have that one song we play when we are facing challenges. You might be moved by the poignancy of the lyrics or the breathtaking beauty of the melodies and harmonies. Maybe you have a playlist that sets you off running or gets you through mundane chores.

When we chat to creatives for Retune, we ask them what song instantly gets them on the dance floor, and the song that enables them to vent, let out some feelings or shed a tear.

For me, the dance floor song is Turn Me On by Kevin Lyttle. When that comes on, it doesn’t matter how sober I am or if I’m in the middle of a conversation, I’m heading straight for that dance floor to throw some poorly-coordinated shapes. (And all despite realising in subsequent years the extremely un-PC and dubious nature of some of the lyrics; insert awkward gritted teeth emoji).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I vividly remember finding out on Christmas Day that George Michael had died. I love Christmas, but that news on 25 December 2016 really knocked my family for six; the festivities were substituted for an intense feeling of sadness and loss. We listened to George’s version of I Can’t Make You Love Me by Bonnie Raitt and I couldn’t keep the tears back.

Music can provide seismic shifts and offer up meaning where we are unable to find an explanation. I’m sure you have had very similar moments and tracks that define your life or capture a moment.

Jonny [Benjamin] told me about hearing Rehab by Amy Winehouse in a supermarket and being stopped in his tracks, unable to do anything as the music enveloped his senses and went straight to his soul. You can always turn to that game-changing and mood-shifting song when you need to.

Few have said it better than the late, great Bob Marley: “One good thing about music – when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

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