Martine McCutcheon on living with illness: ‘You learn to smell the flowers a lot more’

As the festive season draws closer, we catch up with actress and singer Martine McCutcheon, who explains how living with illness has helped her to become more appreciative, to listen to her body, and walk to the beat of her own drum

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Martine McCutcheon holding a paper sign that says 'We all need a little love... actually'

If you’re anything like us, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without Martine McCutcheon. The actress and singer first broke onto our screens as the inimitable ‘Tiff’ on EastEnders in the late nineties, but truly cemented herself as part of our annual Christmas celebrations starring as the charming cockney housekeeper who wins posh prime minister Hugh Grant’s heart in Love Actually, which, astonishingly celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

This combination of screen roles coupled with stage success (she won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical, in 2002, for her appearance as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady) meant she seemed set for huge stardom.

But the years since haven’t always been kind. Her career has been hampered by the diagnosis, more than two decades ago, of an ‘invisible illness’ – chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) – that has at times left her hospitalised and wheelchair-bound. However, McCutcheon says it has also given her a helpful ‘perspective on reality’.

‘Everywhere you look, everybody seems like they’re doing everything quicker than you, doing more than you, they’re doing it better than you, and more successfully than you. But it’s not true; it’s not a reality,’ says the actress and singer.

‘For me, juggling my CFS with being a mother, a wife and having a career, gives me perspective on reality, and on the things that really matter.’ McCutcheon was also later diagnosed with Lyme disease and fibromyalgia – another chronic condition associated with widespread pain.

So it’s no exaggeration to say it’s been a rough ride. McCutcheon has previously talked about the seven years of ‘hell’ she went through as symptoms took over her life, and the depression that followed as a result.

While things have gotten much better in recent times, it’s still up and down for the actress. So how is she doing right now? ‘I’m really good. I’m constantly learning more about CFS,’ she says, noting that understanding of the condition has come a long way since she was first diagnosed.

‘The experts are getting more and more answers about the brain and nervous system, and I’m forever researching. So many people suffer and don’t even realise they have the condition – they don’t understand the fatigue they have, or, with fibromyalgia, the muscle pain, dizziness, hot and cold sweats, all the different symptoms that can be mistaken for other things,’ she adds. ‘So I think it’s great that the scientists are really doing their research and finally getting answers, because this thing is a beast to live with, and you do need to keep your hopes up.’

It’s brought so many learning curves, she says, particularly around listening to her body and knowing herself. ‘When you have an invisible illness that no one can see and therefore can’t sympathise with, and they don’t really know how to support you, you have to get to know yourself really well, and learn your own limits and boundaries.

‘You learn to smell the flowers a lot more, too – you become just so appreciative and grateful for the simple things. Generally, I think you become more sensitive, and it’s about protecting that sensitivity; using it to your advantage, but also having the coping strategies and tools to take care of yourself and walk to the beat of your own drum, especially as we’re now living in such a fast-paced world.’

Learning curves are a running theme as we chat over Zoom. McCutcheon recalls suddenly becoming ‘very anxious about everything’ after having her son Rafferty, now eight. Even driving.

Martine McCutcheon standing in front of a car

‘I’d always been a really confident driver, but when I had Rafferty, I became a lot more fragile generally. I felt very anxious about everything, and that included getting behind a wheel. I didn’t trust anything – I didn’t trust the world, I couldn’t look at the news – and I became really scared when out on the roads, because I couldn’t help but think, “Oh my goodness, I have this little person who’s entirely dependent on me”. Before, it was just me, flying around without a second thought!

‘It was the first time I’d had to really think about somebody else whose life depended on me. There were times I’d have to pull over and call Jack, and he’d say, “It’s okay, take some breaths,” or I’d go to a service station and calm down.

‘I think that’s good advice for any challenging situation you find yourself in in life, really – if you need a break, take it. And the more I did that and flexed that muscle, like anything, it got easier. It’s amazing how resilient we can be.’

For McCutcheon, realising she could tap into tools to manage her anxiety empowered her, she adds – and this has fed into other areas of her life, too.

‘Just knowing that, even though you might be feeling overwhelmed, ultimately you are in charge of your brain – your brain isn’t in charge of you –really helps. And that you can give yourself a little bit of time out if you need it.

‘I remember once when I was doing a shoot calling my manager and saying, “I’ve had to just pull over and have a couple of breaths; I’m so sorry, I’m going to be late”. And he was like, “Don’t worry, take your time, do what you need to do – it’s better you’re here and feeling well, rather than being here and panicking”. That really helped – being given permission to feel like that, and not having to fight it. Just being able to say to myself: it’s okay, this is going to pass.’

It’s a lesson that’s influenced other areas of her life, too, enabling her to reassess and take new directions.

‘When I started out at stage school, I always felt like my little role in this lifetime – other than being a mum and a wife – was to inspire people and to leave them thinking: if she can do it, I can do it. When I began, it was with film, theatre and TV, and I still love all of that, as well as music.

‘But, as time’s gone on and I’ve evolved in so many ways – mentally, spiritually, and physically – I’m finding there are different ways to do that,’ McCutcheon reflects. ‘I’m really loving being creative, renovating my home, working with brands, doing more fashion work, and some music, too – just beautiful, simple, stripped-back music. And I work it all around being a mum, because that’s my number-one job, and the one I love most.’

So as we prepare to dig back out the Christmas decorations, and settle down for a little more McCutcheon magic, we can all take inspiration: she’s proof positive that, actually, with resilience, the right mindset, and love, you can overcome any challenge that life throws your way.

Martine McCutcheon has teamed up with insurer Churchill on its ‘Keep Calm and Drive On’ campaign, after a survey by the brand found that 50 per cent of people who pass their test over the age of 30 feel nervous when driving.

Words: Abi Jackson, IMAGES:Jeff Spicer/PA/Alamy, Matt Alexander/PA, Matt Crossick/PA

Read more: How to have a more mindful Christmas

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