THE poignant dedication at the beginning of Davinia Taylor’s new book tells a story all on its own. “Miss you, Mummy,” it reads. “Wish you could have seen me do something useful at long last.”
Lynn Murphy died of breast cancer in 2013 and didn’t live to see her daughter turn her life around after years of depression, addiction and heartache. That remains a painful regret for actress Davinia.
“She never got to see me happy, really. I think if I saw my child go through what I did, it would break my heart – it must have been awful for a mother to watch, because she always did her best for me.
“For her to see me now, as a mother – happy, settled and not needing the fineries to support my ego – would have made her really proud.”
Tears form in Davinia’s eyes. She’s not only recovered, she’s a “completely different human being”. The marathon-running, intermittent-fasting, Paleo-dieting Davinia of today is a million miles from the broken young woman who partied through the ’90s and Noughties, before crashing.
In her darkest days, she was suicidal and faced losing it all, including custody of her son. Now 43, she is 12 years sober and knows her body and mind inside out, having become a wellness advocate.
These days, she prefers activated charcoal and fermented kombucha over sauvignon blanc, and her idea of fun is jumping in a cryotherapy chamber rather than propping up Mayfair’s Met Bar. Ask her what the old Davinia would say to the new one and she laughs.
“Ha! I would have had two words for me: ‘Bore off!’ I couldn’t have stood me!” Her book, It’s Not A Diet, pulls together all she’s learned so far and is written in the mum of four’s down-to-earth style.
Sceptics may raise their eyebrows at some claims, but Davinia is at pains to stress this is what works for her; readers can pick and choose to find out what works for them. She also promises she’s no Gwyneth Paltrow.
“I’m a normal mum – I’ve been through a divorce, I’ve watched my mum die, I live in a normal house on a normal estate in Lancashire. I’m not Hollywood. I get mad, I cry and crappy things happen to me.
“I hate yoga, I don’t write a gratitude diary and I don’t meditate – because I don’t have time to do that when I have a pile of washing, a global pandemic to navigate and the teacher’s just heard me swear on Zoom.
“It’s OK to get angry and to mess up – just know how to manage it, acknowledge your mood dip and pull it back. It’s about discovery, and that’s empowering.”
In her 20s, Davinia seemingly had it all. She’d had a privileged upbringing, thanks to her multimillionaire toilet roll tycoon father Alan Murphy, and found fame as Jude Cunningham on Hollyoaks in 1996, before moving to London and becoming firmly ensconced in the Primrose Hill set, renowned for their hedonistic exploits.
I have that dopamine drive, I need excitement – it’s why today I run rather than meditate.
But although it looked like a never-ending party with BFFs Kate Moss, Sadie Frost and Meg Mathews, Davinia was “drowning”. She was dangerously unwell, desperately unhappy and spiralling into alcoholism and depression. Her 2003 marriage to sports agent Dave Gardner would eventually collapse, and there were times she considered taking her own life.
“If you can’t see an end, there’s nothing worse,” she says. “I likened it to screaming underwater.”
Her self-esteem was at rock bottom (“hanging around with fashionistas” didn’t help) and although she’d try rehab for a month here and there, she’d always gravitate “back to my old crew and old habits”.
She describes her self-destructive nature as having a “F**k it button” and now suspects her need for the extreme was down to undiagnosed ADHD.
She says: “I have that dopamine drive, I need excitement – it’s why today I run rather than meditate. And you’re attracted to people who think like you – in my case, people with high energy.
“There’s impulsiveness in a lot of people, but it’s a little higher for me. I did things to feel alive, to get that dopamine hit – and that’s classic ADHD, which isn’t diagnosed in girls as often as in boys.
“A girl with ADHD will be referred to as ‘Dolly Daydream’, and that was me. I’m hoping over the next few years that a lot of women my age realise they can get help for it now – it’s not too late.”
Davinia’s already-precarious mental health plummeted after having her first child, Grey, in 2007 and she developed severe postnatal depression, which would take years to recover from.
Desperate to feel better, she “threw money” at private doctors who diagnosed bipolar disorder and gave her high doses of strong medication that she remained on for the next five years. The drugs “flatlined” her – she was no longer suicidal, but instead effectively sleepwalked through each day.
“I had Grey through IVF, so I’d been pumped with artificial hormones. It’s so obvious to me now that I was having a huge crash in all my supportive hormones, but as far as [doctors] were concerned, I had the baby blues. And there was no support for that, so I self-medicated [with alcohol].
“Not once did anybody test my hormones. I hope I can help start a dialogue, because some women may need hormone replacement therapy for a few months, so they don’t fall off the deep end like I did.”
After years of benders and surviving on next to no sleep, everything came to a head in 2009 when Davinia and Dave were in the throes of a messy divorce.
At her wits’ end, her mum sent her to rehab in South Africa, where she spent 12 weeks getting clean. Had she not gone there when she did, Davinia says she might not be here today.
“The great thing my mum did was to take me away from everything – no credit card, no passport – and give my body time to heal, to dry out and get rid of the DTs [delirium tremens or withdrawals]. I’d been to several rehabs, but they’re all AA-based, so there’s a lot of spiritual believing, and I don’t knock it, but the whole God concept isn’t for me.”
On her return to the UK, she cut ties with the old crowd so that she was never in temptation’s way. She says it was either that or dying, which made it “a no-brainer”.
“I don’t think you can start over completely when you have a child, but I certainly had to carve out a new life. Luckily, I had my old school friends who have my back, but I was learning to live with myself differently – like putting on my own oxygen mask before anyone else’s.
I don’t think you can start over completely when you have a child, but I certainly had to carve out a new life.
“By the end, it was just one awful hangover. I don’t hanker after the good times now, because my ability to fast-forward is so embedded that I go straight to the hangover. Fast-forwarding is what keeps me healthy and alive.
“I wouldn’t even want to experiment. I’ve come through the other side and I know the cravings for more would be unbearable. I wouldn’t take that chance, not with the example I want to set for my children.”
Although sober after rehab, Davinia’s troubles were far from over. The divorce from Dave became an acrimonious “two-year battle”, during which she lost custody of Grey due to her alcoholism and was only allowed to see him every other weekend. She says the stress of the situation actually helped keep her off the booze.
“By the time I was out the other side of the divorce, I was beyond any relapse. It was a blessing in disguise, because it put me in fight mode, and sometimes that’s my comfort zone. I had to be razor-sharp and although it wasn’t necessarily pleasurable, it gave me focus.
“As many addicts will tell you, the biggest risk of relapse isn’t when you’re in the depths of despair, but when you’re happy. Something in us thinks: ‘I could get even happier.’ Shall we take it up a notch?’”
However, she had replaced her alcohol addiction with one to sugar instead – specialists at the rehab centre had advised sweets to mask alcohol cravings, and over the next few years her weight increased to 13st and she was borderline obese. “I guess the theory is you take away the addictions in the order they’re going to kill you. I didn’t realise that sugar and vegetable oil could make me feel so low.”
I went into my own little bubble and came out the other side so much happier and a better mum, friend and partner.
Davinia tried to lose the weight with quick-fix diets, to no avail. She says her body felt swollen and sluggish and some days she struggled to get out of bed. She later learned constant bloating was caused by consuming inflammatory ingredients, like sugar, soy and sunflower oil. She cut them out, and the weight dropped off.
“I was five or six years sober, but I didn’t know about foods and hormones, how I was eating and the times I was eating – it was all triggering a depressive thought mechanism in my brain. I had this grief from losing my mum, and because I was already eating poorly, my mood was taking a nose-dive.
“I didn’t feel right – my joints hurt, I wasn’t losing weight, I was forgetting things and so I began asking questions and experimenting. I started reading and becoming an expert. I went into my own little bubble and came out the other side so much happier and a better mum, friend and partner. Better company to be around.”
An extract from It’s Not A Diet by Davinia Taylor
“When I was 35, my mum died of breast cancer and I hit rock bottom. Deep in grief, I didn’t know how to deal with the stress I was feeling.
“I’d long ago given up the excessive drinking that had taken over my 20s, and so I took refuge in food. Lots of it. Even with medication, I couldn’t get out of the negative loop I was stuck in. My whole body was inflamed, though I didn’t know that at the time.
“I’d stepped off the booze merry-go-round, but hopped on to one driven by carbs and anything that could give me an instant fix.
“For some it’s gambling, sex or shopping, but for me it was food, and all the toxins from the junk I was eating were limiting my ability to produce serotonin, the happy hormone. I missed that warm feeling of alcohol. I hadn’t found alternative healthy ways to feel good at that point.
“I had never heard of the gut-brain connection that links what you eat to how you feel. All I got told was that if I put down the booze, everything would be OK. It took me a long time to find the thing that was going to make me feel naturally good, and as it turned out, that thing was the simple (sort of!) act of taking care of myself.
“I had to learn how to ditch my destructive habits and replace them with good ones, but it wasn’t an overnight process. Eventually, I realised that in order to find out what would work for me, I had to do my own research and be my own guinea pig.
“I’m not some drill sergeant telling you to do everything my way; I’m someone who’s learned to listen to my body and tried out new ways of looking after myself (some simple, some a bit out-there) – and I want to help you to do the same…”
Her weight is now stable at 81/2-9st and she no longer relies on bipolar medication after a GP helped her come off it. She adds: “I’ve spent a fortune trying to get to where I am today and I don’t think it was necessary.
“You don’t have to go to expensive people on Harley Street, it’s already out there and I’ve just curated the stuff I found and put it in this book to share what helped. Some of my best discoveries have been from mums at the school gates.”
What would she say to the accusation she’s now addicted to wellness? “Yesterday I had a fry-up, so, no,” she replies. “I know when I’m addicted. I spend a lot of time with my family and if I was doing something detrimental it would have taken me away from my boys, and it hasn’t.”
I’ve just curated the stuff I found and put it in this book to share what helped.
Davinia refers to her builder partner Matthew Leyden, 41, as her best friend. As well as Grey, who turns 14 next month, and Luxx, 10, whose father Davinia has never made public, they have two boys together, Asa, seven, and five-year-old Jude. The couple got together in 2012, though they go back a lot longer.
“I’ve known him since I was 19 in Manchester – typical northerners where everyone knows everyone. He’s funny, calm and laid-back – the opposite of me!
“He’s unmaterialistic, from a nice, working-class family, and is the least vain man I know. If only I’d married him when I was 19, I’d have saved myself a lot of aggravation! But that’s me, I go right round the houses.”
She says she’ll be open about her past with the boys. “I don’t think any of us are under the impression that our parents aren’t flawed. What I’ve learned will be invaluable to them. The ‘90s were about ladette culture and I paid the price, but hopefully it strengthens my story now.”
That ladette culture felt empowering at the time, but Davinia is more cynical now. With increasing social media focus on wellness, “fitfluencers” and body positivity, she reckons young women today have better role models.
“Ladette culture was excessive – trying to match a bloke pint for pint isn’t healthy. It wasn’t a constructive time in my life and I couldn’t have carried on into my 30s. There are better influences for girls now.”
Towards the end of last year, the family left London and moved back to the North West, where Davinia says they’ve settled well.
The custody battle was resolved and Grey splits his time between Davinia and his dad and stepmum Liv Tyler, though he’s due to start at boarding school in September.
“I wanted to be in the fresh air, to have space,” says Davinia. “Like a lot of people during lockdown, I realised that without all the buzz, London is just a concrete jungle. We got two dogs in lockdown and they’re mad and wouldn’t be OK in London.
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“I like the sense of community here. London is the best place on the planet in your 20s, but it’s so nice to come home to raise the kids. And the fact that I don’t get a parking ticket every day is a revelation.”
She says she likes herself now – most days, anyway – and believes any dips are linked to her cycle. “For three days of the month I’m full of self-doubt, but I’m honing that. My inner monologue is far worse than what anyone else could say to me.”
She adds: “If I feel low, I up my fats and protein, have a cold shower, go for a run, take my supplements and hack my way through it. Because I know my body now and I have that power.”
● It’s Not A Diet by Davinia Taylor (£12.99, Orion Spring) is out now.