'I had a rich husband, beautiful children, a fabulous career. But I was doomed to a life of self-destruction': Tessa Dahl on how she rebuilt her troubled life
07:11 GMT, 20 August 2012
When my father died in November 1990, I might as well have been handed a Monopoly card that read: ‘Go to the loony bin. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200.’
I had received a phone call from my stepmother’s secretary, Wendy, telling me to rush to England as he was on his way out. I took the Concorde home. Praying all the while he would not die. We had such unfinished business.
But when I arrived at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford I was met by my laughing sisters. ‘Lazarus has risen,’ said Ophelia.
Mother's pride: Tessa with her children Luke, Clover and Sophie – now the celebrated model – in 1989
I walked into his room. ‘Oh Teddy [his name for me], I nearly died today, but I could not.’
‘Why not’ I asked cockily.
‘Because you were not here and I couldn’t die without you here.’ He smiled wearily and added: ‘I am sorry I have not made your journey worthwhile.’
Oh, he had, he had. He had been an incredible father. A man I had gazed up at with awe and love. Of course, there were the wonderful books. There was his career as a fighter pilot in the war.
But this was also a man who helped our mother recover from her strokes by inventing his own rehabilitation scheme for her. When my little brother developed hydrocephalus (water on the brain), he was part of the inventing team for a type of valve – or shunt – to ease the pressure.
When my older sister Olivia died of measles, he campaigned ceaselessly for inoculations in schools. He was a giant among men. Probably the reason I never met a man who would or could live up to him.
But there we were, in the grim little hospital room in Oxford. I stayed awake every night, me sitting beside him and he, semi-conscious, dreaming.
Road to recovery: Tessa in 2005
In the morning, I would see my stepmother Lic [Felicity] coming through the car park, and let him know she was on her way to see him. He would buck up, and almost completely recover for her visit. It was testimony to Lic that Dad loved her so much.
The night before Dad died, I told him I was leaving to go into Oxford. ‘But, I’ll see you later,’ I assured him.
‘Perhaps,’ he said quietly.
As I walked towards the door my inner voice told me to ‘kiss him and tell him you love him’.
So, I did. And just as I was about to leave I heard him say: ‘And I love you too, so very much indeed.’ This was the last thing I heard him say to me. I had waited my whole life to hear these words, and now he had been taken away. I thought my world would collapse. For the next 16 years, I was doomed to a life of self-destruction and destroying the lives of the people closest to me.
Outwardly, I was blessed: the lucky daughter of celebrated author Roald Dahl and the beautiful Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal. I was married to a kind, wealthy man, I had three beautiful children – later four – and a successful career writing children’s books and magazine articles.
It was not enough. My need to deaden my feelings manifested in every possible form. So, not for the first time in my life, there was a private nurse at home injecting painkillers and anxiety-busting lorazepam. It was Dad who first put me on medication, and he too used drugs. I remember him saying: ‘Ah, that lovely feeling when they inject it and you have no problems in the world.’
But I had lots. I had children I could not mother. Everything I had been told would make me happy – fame, fortune, children, husbands . . . nothing worked. Only drugs. Doctors began to realise I was an addict and my supplies of prescription medicine dried up. So I started to use cocaine.
Around this time I had a psychotic breakdown. I was sent, travelling by myself, to Arizona and the Sierra Tucson Treatment Center for Addictions. It was a mistake. I was far too ill to be on my own and was found wandering around Los Angeles airport ‘looking for my mother’, which made a sort of sense as my mother had had her strokes in Los Angeles.
When I did reach Sierra Tucson, they realised I was far too loony for them, so they sent me to a lock-up psychiatric unit.
The doctors decided I might be faking as I was too articulate and clever to be insane, so they asked my permission to administer a truth drug, Sodium Pentothal, to test me. I agreed. Well, if there were any doubts about my sanity before, there were not afterwards. What is your hobby ‘W******,’ I replied to this and every other question I was asked.
Glamorous lifestyle: Tessa with her father Roald Dahl and actress Joan Collins in 1979
I was flown back to England to be a
long-term patient at St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital in Northampton, in
a comfortable private wing. Scans had revealed plaque on my brain, a
sign of incipient dementia. It was said I would never recover.
insightful nurse asked me if I had ever read the condolence letters I
was sent for Daddy. So, as I had not, every night Nurse Kay and I
would go gently through the stack together. I would weep hysterically. I
would rail. All I wanted was something to take away the pain, but I
It turned out that they were wrong about the plaque. God was good to me.
But reading the condolence letters provided only a sticking plaster. The doctors knew all about my history, the post-traumatic stress disorder, the hint of narcissism, the borderline personality problems (borderline syndrome which can result from multiple losses and shows itself in immensely manipulative behaviour).
What they did not see was the bipolar condition that lay beneath it all and wouldn’t be diagnosed for years to come. So they put me on a huge dose of Valium. I had to self-medicate (as do a majority with undiagnosed bipolar disorder). And I went back to the coke.
I was so used to spending money without thinking – also a bipolar trait – that I spent constantly and wildly: manic shopping sprees, ill-judged parties, lavish donations to charity. In 1997, I was declared bankrupt.
I missed my father beyond comprehension. Both my parents had done their very best for me and I loved Mum, but she was never good with problems.
Everything always went back to being about her. Sometimes, to stop her talking about herself, I used to put my nails in my arms and scratch deeply to draw blood so she would stop and hear me. ‘Why do you hate yourself so much’ she would ask.
Mixing cocaine, Valium and vodka, I was truly insane and started to plan my suicide, convinced that everyone would be better off without me. I felt like a beautiful piece of china that had just been broken and dropped so many times it could not be invisibly mended.
On July 27, 1997, I went into a field in Oxfordshire, took massive amounts of barbiturates – handfuls of pills – drank half a bottle of vodka and chased it all with half a gram of cocaine. I was in a coma for 23 hours but, ironically, the cocaine kept my body functioning.
I felt like a beautiful piece of china dropped so often I was beyond repair
I saw no bright lights. I had no God moments and was found by a dog who would not leave my body until her owner came to find her. I awoke in hospital in phenomenal pain, the nerves in my leg feeling like an exposed tooth filling being touched with silver.
So once again, my family took responsibility for me. And I was sent off in a wheelchair to my next series of lock-up loony bins. At the Payne Whitney Clinic in New York I became fluent in the dialogue of crack whores in order to survive. It was the main holding pen for crazies in New York City. I was a prisoner in a huge glass box. Then I survived ten days at the clinic for borderline personality disorder at Cornell Medical College in New York. These acute borderline ladies are scary. Kicking my bad leg under the table was their sport.
In contrast, Silver Hill was heaven, the Elizabeth Arden of psychiatric hospitals. My bed was made for me. I had my own bathroom and my room could have been slept in by any president’s wife. I loved it there. I had a consultation with a very respected neurologist and psychiatrist from Yale who told me my symptoms were characteristic of bipolar disorder. At last, a breakthrough.
Later on, after yet another relapse, I found myself at Tucson again for out-patient ‘psychodrama’. It was a recipe for disaster. There was no way I was going to stay clean or sober when re-enacting some of the biggest emotional, trauma-inducing moments of my life.
One night my old rehab mates and I went out to find cocaine. We were in a crack house in the most dangerous part of the city. Two enormous drug dealers took me into a room and asked to see my t**s. I tried to talk them out of it.
‘Oh you don’t want to see them. I have breastfed four children,’ I said.
‘Lift your shirt up and then you can get your cocaine.’ So I did.
Tessa with her father Roald in 1986
They did not want to see my boobs. They thought I was wired, a drug sting. Who would choose a 6ft Englishwoman for a drug sting
We never got our coke and we were lucky we were not killed.
I was a lousy mother, not because I wanted to be. In fact, all I longed for was to be able to give my children a better and happier upbringing. But, as I discovered, until you heal your own childhood pain, you are not very good at taking care of anyone else.
I had had fabulous role models in many ways, but I had never had a childhood. Until Dad died, I had managed to make my life a good one to prove myself to him – to prove I was as worthy of life as my older, adored sister Olivia, who died when we were young. But once I lost him, I lost my motivation.
Throughout all of my children’s growing-up years they had a fabulous nanny. Maureen Noble worked with us for more than 30 years and it is her constancy and devotion to the children that I should be really grateful for.
My own wonderful mother died gracefully in August 2010. I miss her desperately. She was generous in not putting us through a long, excruciating death.
I moved to the tiny town of Lincoln in Massachusetts. I have a ‘team’ at McLean, the top psychiatric hospital in America. For the past three years, I have been going three times a week to see an addiction psychiatrist, a top psychiatrist, a psychopharmacologist, a social worker and I do dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) to help me communicate with modified emotions. I have started writing again. I am developing a relationship with my family.
I live with three lovely rescue dogs and four cats. I get huge satisfaction from having a four-legged family to welcome me when I get home and snuggle up with at night. I don’t mind being ‘that crazy cat woman’. If I never fall in love again, it does not bother me. It has taken me so long to love myself.
I do not feel sorry for myself, nor have I ever. I was handed a huge amount on a plate. Sadly, though, my most obvious diagnosis went unrecognised for so many years.
I suppose because my finances accommodated endless treatments and clinics, it was not until I went bankrupt in 1997 that my bipolar disorder became impossible to ignore. Today I am clean and sober.
As a small child I was taken to see Anna Freud, the great psychoanalyst. We were all so traumatised – the crushing of my baby brother by a New York taxi, the death of my older sister Olivia, my father’s absolute favourite. Anna described me as a ‘melting pot’ of dangerous feelings and behaviours.
Finally, I’ve taken that melting pot off the stove.