Real Life

Hamish’s secret struggle: ‘I didn’t seek help!’

Despite presenting Newstalk ZB’s mental health programme, the radio host didn’t want to address his own demons

It’s not unusual for visitors to the Statue of Liberty to be speechless when they climb to the top and see the stunning views of New York.

But it wasn’t the scenery that took Kiwi broadcaster Hamish Williams’ breath away when he was in the Big Apple. Instead, the presenter of Newstalk ZB’s popular mental health programme The Nutters Club suffered a horrific panic attack at the top of the tourist attraction.

In early November, Hamish flew to the US to celebrate his 40th birthday with his wife, primary school teacher Yvette. It was a life-long dream come true for the Auckland couple.

“We’ve always wanted to visit New York and spent ages planning an epic trip,” explains Hamish.

That included seeing shows on Broadway, visiting jazz clubs and catching a basketball game at Madison Square Gardens.

The couple had to make changes to their New York trip after a panic attack.

But when it came time to tick off another attraction on their New York bucket list – a visit to the Statue of Liberty – Hamish knew there’d be a problem.

“For the past few years, I’ve suffered from anxiety whenever I feel unsafe, particularly with heights,” admits Hamish. “My hands start sweating, I feel sick and I become so terrified, I can pass out.”

Despite Yvette’s suggestion that her husband stay on the ground while she climbed the 354 steps to the statue’s crown, Hamish was determined to join her.

“I really wanted to make it to the top. But I started panicking, and ended up getting on my hands and knees, crawling up the stairs.”

Scaling its heights, Hamish could barely look at the eye-popping views across Manhattan.

Hamish was determined to climb the statue with Yvette.

“My whole body was sweating,” he recalls. “I was deathly pale and my mouth was so dry, it felt like sandpaper. I really thought I was going to pass out. I managed to crawl down the stairs backwards, with Yvette coaching me all the way.”

Once he reached the bottom, Hamish ran to the toilet to throw up. “It was ridiculous. Here I am in New York trying to have an enjoyable 40th birthday and I’m spewing in the toilets!”

That experience meant the couple cancelled planned visits to the top of Empire State Building and Edge, the 100-storey observation deck with a glass floor.

The irony that Hamish, who’s been involved with a radio programme about mental health since 2013, was struggling with his own demons wasn’t lost on him.

“I know about this stuff and have had every opportunity to do something about this fear for years! But like so many men, I wouldn’t talk about my mental health or seek help. Part of that was not wanting to be honest with myself and acknowledge that something was wrong with me. It just shows you how huge the fear is that someone like me who thinks about mental health every week is still susceptible.”

Don’t forget to phone home!

Panic attack aside, Hamish says the rest of his holiday was great and one day he’d love to return to New York to tackle his fears.

“As soon as I got back, I talked to Kyle MacDonald, a psychotherapist who’s my co-host on The Nutters Club. He suggested seeing an expert, who recommended cognitive behaviour therapy, a type of psychotherapy that can help change unhelpful or unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling and behaving via practical self-help therapies. I’ve booked in for my first session.”

Hamish admits he “learned the language and tools” of therapy from grief counsellors after his dad died by suicide when he was four.

“For years, I thought that because my father killed himself, I was worthless and no one cared about me. His death affected my wellbeing, my relationships and my career. I would self-sabotage and push people away.”

It wasn’t until Hamish was in his thirties that he reconnected with his father’s family and was able to turn his life around.

“I was angry for years, but in 2018, I was finally able to make peace with myself. It was a huge change to be mentally healthy.”

The Nutters Club host is having therapy to tackle his fear.

Hamish has been busy producing and hosting six-part podcast Tangiwai: A Forgotten History about New Zealand’s worst railway disaster on Christmas Eve 1953.

“This years is the 70th anniversary of the crash in which 151 people died. I’ve talked to some of the remaining survivors and the families of the dead. It’s important that we don’t forget this part of our history, but also look at what we’ve learned about preparing for a natural disaster.”

But no matter how busy Hamish gets, he’ll always prioritise mental health.

“The work we do at The Nutters Club is so important because I want to show others that they’re not broken. It’s OK to talk about things and do the work to feel better.”

Help is here

If you’re struggling with your mental health, call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor for free.

For the Suicide Crisis Helpline, phone 0508 TAUTOKO.

In an emergency, always dial 111.

Tangiwai: A Forgotten History is available on or wherever you get your podcasts.

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