Laura Jackson is a creative polymath with a career spanning TV presenting, modelling, writing a food column for Marie Claire and hosting the infamous Jackson&Levine supper clubs with her partner in crime, Radio 1 DJ, Alice Levine. With her first cookbook about to be published, a tie-in with Habitat coming in June, countless fashion collaborations under her belt and a beautiful Instagram account covering her flawless taste, it might seem impossible to believe that Laura’s angst has, at times, threatened to undermine her every success. Here she offers a barefaced account of what it’s like to suffer from, sometimes extreme, anxiety.
I’m originally from Huddersfield and I always knew I didn’t want to sit at a desk every day. I’ve never been academic and I was only interested in the creative things at school, whether it was food or drama. I’m dyslexic and my reading age was atrocious, so I spent my time in classes feeling like I was so behind there was no catching up. I had a tutor to help, but when you’re not great at Maths or English and you live up North, the careers advisors say, ‘well, you can be a nurse, or you could be a teacher.’ There was such a sense of limited options. I loved art at school, but there was never an idea that it could lead to anything and I definitely didn’t think, ‘I’d like to be a TV presenter when I grow up.’
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Back then I was never anxious, I didn’t give a shit to be honest. My anxiety is something that has developed as I’ve got older—when I was in school I don’t think anyone even knew what anxiety was. When I got to university, I started to feel the pressure, especially around exams. Being dyslexic, the stress of writing a dissertation of however many thousands of words became difficult to deal with and getting work in on time started to feel like a massive issue. I remember going to my mum’s friend’s house and suddenly feeling this tightness in my chest and realizing that I couldn’t breathe. I said to my mum, ‘I think I’m having a panic attack’. I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly why I was stressed—a few things had happened at home and at University, but I think it was just a general anxiety about life. I probably took too much upon myself and felt so weighed down by everything.
I studied events management at university, which was the most hilarious course known to man. I spent a year at the University of Leeds, before transferring the course down to Greenwich Uni in London. In between, I worked at All Saints in The Victoria Quarter [in Leeds] folding T-shirts all day and did a year’s stint waitressing with posh events company, Admirable Crichton. I once waitressed at a West London home which had a tree growing from the downstairs kitchen all the way up to the top floor. That floor—by the way—was an art gallery full of Damien Hirsts. I mean, I didn’t even know how to spell Damien at this point, I was a total fish out of water. They wouldn’t even let me answer the phone in reception because they said I didn’t ‘sound right,’ but I loved it and I met the most amazing people.
“Anxiety feels like when you’re about walk out on to a zebra crossing without looking, but then a car whizzes by and you jump back, and your body goes through a sense of shock; it’s a really tight chest and a heavy, dread heart.”
After I finished the course I did a few bits here and there to make some quick cash, including a lot of promotions—handing toothbrushes out at the tube station, that kind of stuff. I’d pretty much do anything, in fact I once dressed up as a bottle of gin. That was a real low point. I then got a job on the door at [private members club] Shoreditch House. One of those awful promotions job had actually spun into an audition for MTV—and even though I didn’t get the job, I’d had the best time on set and started to think that maybe I’d be interested in broadcasting. A guy I met at Shoreditch House put me in touch with an agent friend of his who saw something in me and put me up for a screen test—just to get some client feedback. I ended up getting the job, so she was stuck with me. Since then I’ve done a real variety of TV shows—Take Me Out: The Gossip with Mark Wright, Freshly Squeezed, Britain’s Got Talent—to festival coverage and a million jobs in between.
That Nagging Feeling
But since my university years, the anxiety has always been there. There are so few mornings that I wake up and don’t feel anxious, which for me translates as a really tight chest and a heavy, dread heart. It feels like when you’re about walk out on to a zebra crossing without looking, but then a car whizzes by and you jump back and your body goes through a sense of shock. I’ll forget about it for a bit, but then something will happen and I’ll remember the feeling again—it’s up and down throughout the day, pretty much every day. Some things make it worse, like drinking alcohol and having a hangover, for example. When I have one too many I get so cross, because I know it makes me feel anxious the next day and it always starts off a cycle of feeling disappointed in myself.
I get really nervous about work and that nervousness turns into anxiety until I’m at a point where I say, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ Or I’ll start having thoughts like, ‘if I get hit by a bus, I won’t have to do it.’ The ironic thing is that I love my job, truly love it. But it drives a deep anxiety within me. Because of that, I think I’ve held myself back and over time, some of my peers have surpassed my success because I often haven’t been able to push myself outside of my comfort zone—I’d say I’ve often been my own worst enemy career-wise.
Images taken from: @iamlaurajackson
I don’t really know what I’m scared of. One memory sticks out when it comes to stage fright and that was years ago when I said I’d do a job for a friend. She’d got a gig doing some BAFTA stuff and asked me to cover for her at a trade show talking about these shoes. I agreed, but when it came to it, I’d been out the night before and hadn’t got enough sleep. I was up at 6am the next day to do this job and I was TERRIBLE. Really, really bad. So bad I walked off the stage half way through it. I didn’t know what I was talking about, I didn’t know what I was doing—I hadn’t been properly briefed and the whole thing was just a big mess. Occasionally I think about that and it sends a shudder down my spine—I never want that to happen to me again. But rationally I know it’s not going to happen again, because I’m always briefed and pride myself on my professionalism. But I do flashback and can distinctly remember how it felt to be on that stage with no idea what to say.
“Of course, there is also an element of my anxiety which drives me—nerves are part of the job. That’s what keeps you going, the fire in your belly.”
I’m super confident filming anything that isn’t live. Or voiceover, I just turn up, get the job done and go home. But live, it’s just that real, ‘what if it fucks up?’ feeling. It hardly ever does—though if it does happen, everyone talks about it. I always remember Otis Deley during the Olympics in 2012 when he forgot an athlete’s name live on air. I really felt for him. Thinking about that makes me feel anxious! But everyone gets some level of anxiety in this industry—and all the other television presenters are supportive. I always talk about my anxiety with Fern [Cotton] and Alice [Levine] because they have always been such great sounding boards and totally get it.
I do think if I’d feel the same no matter which job I had. There are moments when I think, ‘Ok, this is all about work, maybe I’m not in the right job.’ But then I cross the road and it comes upon me—I know that if I were a bus driver, say, I’d have it on the tight corners. Of course, there is also an element of my anxiety which drives me—nerves are part of the job. That’s what keeps you going, the fire in your belly. I’m sure Dermot isn’t like, ‘Oh this again,’ before the X-Factor. I’m sure he still has that burn. But it’s just finding a way to channel it.
Things got really bad before Christmas last year. A huge wave of anxiety hit me and I just felt like I couldn’t leave the house. My boyfriend Jon decided I needed to get out, so I put on a tracksuit and went to Homebase to buy some Christmas lights, but when I got inside, I just froze. There was this feeling that everything and everyone was moving around me and I was just there still, like I was underwater and there was a barrier between me and the rest of the world. Jon was talking to me, but I just couldn’t hear him.
I’m not a depressed person, I don’t get sad or down about stuff, I just get anxious and there are times when I feel I can’t do anything about it and I just have ride it through. Over Christmas, it was because I was having a bad time at work, I couldn’t sort my shit out and I didn’t know what to do—it just all got on top of me. The next stage involves a lot of sleep and then I slowly come out of it and have this moment of, ‘you’ve got to sort this out, you need to get better and get on with things’. But it’s not always a smooth road back: on the way home up North for Christmas Day I had a panic attack—I hadn’t had one for years. I was trying to answer lots of questions about work and just felt not only do I not have the answers for you, I don’t have the answers for myself.
I decided I needed to get away. I knew I needed some time elsewhere with Jon to turn myself off. I needed to write all the things down that made me feel happy, the things that I wasn’t happy about and the things I could change. I realized that I’m terrible at putting myself first. At work, if a job comes in, I’ll often say, ‘Oh, that person would be really good for that.’ I’ve always prided myself on being generous to other people, but I have to start being a little more selfish, because by putting other people forward I’ve been hiding behind them a bit. I need to start treating myself more as a business and realize that generosity to others can—at times—be a detriment to myself.
Putting Anxiety in its Place
I was also adamant that I was never going to feel the way I did at Christmas again. I had a few friends say that they were really worried about me, which is so embarrassing, because I don’t want to be that person. It made me see that I was letting my anxiety get the better of my life and I needed to find a better way to live with it and keep it at bay. I definitely have a fear of making the wrong decision and I think that’s something that’s so prevalent in TV, because often you can’t predict the relative success of projects. There’s an element of luck involved and then there’s constant comparison. You definitely feel if you don’t go to certain things that you might miss out on something important.
Before I did London Fashion Weekend, which involved standing up in front of 1,000 people and presenting all weekend long, I felt sick. That was something I had to force myself to do. I said to my agent, ‘I’m really anxious about this,’ and she just said, ‘Good, hopefully this will push you into being brilliant at it.’ And she’s right, I have to use my anxiety as ammunition, not as an excuse. Recently I got a big job through to do the BRITs [Ed’s note: this interview took place in February, 2017] with Alice and Clara Amfo, and normally I’d be bricking it by now. But in my new state of mind, I feel much calmer about it.
“I just froze. There was this feeling that everything and everyone was moving around me and I was just there still, like I was underwater and there was a barrier between me and the rest of the world.”
I’ve tried to beat anxiety a hundred ways. I’ll go through a Headspace and Pilates phase. I’ll go and buy myself magnesium, I’ll go and see anyone I think might be able to help. But by having these routines of ‘getting rid’ of the anxiety, I’ve learnt you can actually make it worse. Medication can help some people, but I don’t think I’m one of them. There have been times when my heart was beating so fast, I felt it was going to come right out of my chest, so I’d love something that would calm that down. But then I’m scared about taking something in case I become dependent on it and then what if it stops working? I did go a see a doctor, but I have an arrhythmic heartbeat, so beta-blockers wouldn’t be a good choice for me, which in a way was a relief.
For me it’s more about finding balance. It’s having one night a week where you just go out for dinner and find a moment of calmness. I definitely feel I run around like a headless chicken and I’m constantly doing things for work, or trying to meet up with people for dinner to not miss an opportunity. This year, I made the decision that I have to focus on pleasing myself first. I want to be as busy as possible at work, because in this game, busy means I’m succeeding. But, you have to look after your mental health as well as your physical health. By giving yourself a bit of time, you can do your best to re-balance things. Last night I’d finished packing and just decided to have a bath for half an hour. It was really nice and I felt really calm before I went to bed. It’s those little things that make you feel better. I’m not saying I’ve found the magic ‘cure’ or I won’t ever have moments of struggle again, but I’ve definitely found a new perspective by accepting that anxiety is part of my life and part of who I am and I hope it will mean I can deal with the highs and lows of whatever my career throws at me in the future.
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