She knows she has a lot to be grateful for. A loving husband, three gorgeous kids, a stunning house on a canal in a beautiful seaside town.
But Christina Storm has been to hell and back. She’s been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and spent time in rehab after downing a bottle of wine while driving and crashing the car.
She also caused concern by posting disturbing messages on social media in which she said she wanted to die.
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But today, the 46-year-old former model says, is a good day. “I’ve put on makeup,” she tells us via video call from her home in St Francis Bay where she lives with husband, Paul Nel (49), and their kids, Evie (5) and Vincent (3).
Sixteen-year-old Erin, Paul’s daughter from a previous marriage, lives here too and is helping Christina figure out the intricacies of Zoom.
Christina is looking good. She’s dyed her bangs platinum “to cover up the age a bit” and has tied the remainder of her locks in a polka-dot scarf. She’s wearing a nose ring she bought for R5 to celebrate her successful stint in rehab, she informs us.
“Look how beautiful it is here,” she says, gesturing to her view over the tranquil water. Christina runs a guesthouse here and on the surface life looks good.
“It really is paradise to wake up in,” she agrees. “That’s why some people can’t understand that I’m depressed.”
Her life fell apart after former rugby star James Small, her ex and father of her eldest child, Ruby (15), died in July 2019.
“We’re all still going through the healing process. Life is so fragile. I had my first panic attack on the night James died – I didn’t know such things could happen to me.”
More panic attacks followed along with crippling bouts of anxiety. “I’d wake up in the morning with an icy sensation running up my spine. It had me in a tight grip – I had to pace up and down, I couldn’t breathe.
“Never in my life did I think I’d suffer from mental illness,” she says. “I have this happy disposition – life has always been fun for me. But here I am now.”
She’s on antidepressants and medication for anxiety and is trying to manage her demons, she says.
And she now knows she can’t miss a day of taking her meds. “I skipped three days once and the black dogs came back for me.”
Although she’s doing better now, she still has to motivate herself to get out of bed every morning and convince herself that she’ll have a good day.
Things came to a head not long after James’ death of a heart attack. “After the funeral, Ruby decided to go and live with my sister in Ballito near Durban. She’s a city girl, she can’t stay in St Francis – there’s no Starbucks, no shops selling clothes with the designer labels. James was like that too – Diesel, Armani, it was unbelievable.”
She went to visit her daughter in Ballito a month after the funeral. “It was traumatic for me to leave my child there,” she says.
Christina flew back to Port Elizabeth, where she’d left her car and as she was driving back to St Francis Bay, she opened a bottle of red wine. “I downed it while I was driving,” she says. “When I got to the bridge about 10 minutes from home, I had a blackout. I had an accident. Paul found me in the bushes.”
Christina had called her husband from James’ funeral and told him she wasn’t coping – she was drinking too much, she was out of control. “The day after I crashed the car, a woman from Alcoholics Anonymous came to my house to talk to me and a week later I booked into a rehab clinic in Plettenberg Bay.”
It was tough leaving Evie and Vincent, she admits. “We told them Mommy’s going away to work for a month.
“I hadn’t taken care of myself for a long time. I stressed about Ruby – I couldn’t take away her heartache at the loss of her father. James had died. It was hard.”
Being in rehab was scary at first, she says – she was with a group of strangers, far from her family. “The first three nights I just sat crying on that bed. They put me on suicide watch. I didn’t want to end my life but a nurse sat watching me the whole night.
“I cried about my young kids – they weren’t allowed to see me for the first two weeks. There were so many rules. But it was all good – the routine and the therapy helped me deal with James’ death although I still can’t look at pictures of him.”
Christina and James had a tumultuous relationship punctuated with several break-ups but they still shared a strong bond.
“Ruby knew her dad wasn’t an innocent angel but he was her best friend. She’s so like him, a rebel at heart, a gypsy and a traveller who doesn’t want to be tied down. And over the years James was a huge support to me.”
Rehab helped her get her drinking under control but Christina was still in trouble – something that became obvious after she made a series of alarming posts and comments on social media.
“I want to die,” she wrote not long ago, “but I have beautiful children who need me.”
She is better now though, she says. She steers clear of all stimulants, including coffee, which can trigger her panic attacks.
Booze is a thing of the past and she quit her pack-a-day smoking habit eight years ago.
She has a great support system in St Francis Bay – neighbours, other moms of young kids and friends. Paul is also a rock, Christina adds, and she turns to her sisters too when the world starts crowding in or she feels on the brink of having a panic attack.
“They talk me through things. I ground myself, I put my feet on the floor. And then I focus on the different things I see, feel, smell.”
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Ruby understands what her mom is going through, Christina says. They share the grief they still feel for James and that really helps.
Christina is very proud of her eldest who is a good student and managed to ace her schoolwork last year despite the upheaval of the pandemic. The teen has been touted by a modelling scout and recently recorded a TV commercial.
“With her personality she’ll get far,” her mom says. “She’s much more sensible than I was at her age.”
Christina hopes speaking out about her experience of mental illness will help further shatter the stigma. The pandemic is making everything so much worse and so many are suffering from anxiety, she says.
“Some days, the best we can do is try to survive together.”