Kirsty Young: Former Desert Island Discs presenter reveals ‘awful’ experience with chronic pain
Broadcaster Kirsty Young has spoken about her “awful” experience of chronic pain, which led her to take a four-year break from presenting.
Young stepped down as host of Desert Island Discs in 2018 as a result of fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.
After returning to the airwaves earlier this year, she has now gone back to the BBC Radio 4 show for its Christmas Day episode – this time as the interviewee.
Chronic pain “grinds you away”, she told her successor Lauren Laverne.
“You lose your personality, you lose your sense of humour, you lose your sense of self – there’s all sorts of things that go with it. It’s awful.”
Fibromyalgia causes pain all over the body and can bring on severe fatigue, while rheumatoid arthritis causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. The two long-term conditions are often linked.
Young, 54, said she got a diagnosis after about a year of trying to work out what was going on with her health, by which time she was “feeling really, really ropey”.
The journalist and former Crimewatch presenter eventually found a “brilliant professor of rheumatology” who told her she needed to reduce her workload.
She initially resisted, telling him: “That’s the kind of job I’ve got – I can’t do it part-time.”
‘I had to take it seriously’
“And he said, ‘Well, part of getting better is, we can introduce all sorts of drugs, we can monitor you, but you have to reduce the stress in your life and you have to take this seriously. You can’t just keep shovelling painkillers down your neck, which don’t work anyway, and feel shocking.’
“It was very real. It was said with extreme kindness… but it was just a moment of absolute reality and clarity. I remember I pulled my car over and just had a good old – to use an old Scottish word, I had a good old greet [cry] about it.”
She added: “I’m very aware in talking about this that people sit opposite physicians and get diagnoses that are much more serious than the one I got.
“But it’s a very painful thing and I was in pain and a chronic long-term pain condition is an absolute pain, literally and metaphorically, to deal with… and so I had to take it seriously if I was going to get better. So I did.”
She said she was now feeling “so much better”, and was well enough to co-present BBC coverage of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee this summer and then the monarch’s funeral in September.
Young was widely praised for her emotional closing remarks at the end of the funeral coverage. She summed up the mood by saying: “Today we have come together, many of us with tears in our eyes, but all of us with an abiding warmth in our hearts for all that she gave.”
Recalling that afternoon, she said: “As I was writing it, I thought, we are all in this moment – I am and you are, and we’ve all been in it. What’s it been about? Why has this moment happened the way it’s happened? That’s what I was trying to sum up.”
She also told Laverne about her earlier life and career, including how she occasionally came up against what she described as “a nice little dash of snobbery and misogyny”.
“But that’s not unique to me,” she added. She recounted one occasion when she spoke to an English female film producer at the launch party for Channel 5 in 1997, who asked her if she was going to read the news “in that voice”.
“Well it’s the only one I’ve got! I was absolutely astonished by that. I think she meant accent.”
She also recalled meeting former cabinet minister Michael Heseltine at the Conservative Party conference when Channel 5 was trying “to schmooze the politicians” and persuade them to appear on the fledgling station.
“Michael Heseltine turned to me and said, ‘I’m not having some little smart alec in a skirt try to get the better of me’,” she claimed. “I thought, right, well it’s trouser suits from hereon in then.”