He’s the the guy with an army of catchphrases and the world’s most colourful wardrobe – a lad who’s always up for a laugh. But in Grief And Me, which airs on June 3, we see another side to Joey Essex – one that’s been overwhelmed by the loss of his mum to suicide at the age of 10.
Now 30, the reality TV star opens up about the dark cloud that’s been hanging over his head since childhood – and the impact it’s had on his life choices.
No amount of fame or money has been able to heal the grief he’s kept buried inside for 20 years. But can anything? Here’s what we learned from the show.
1. Joey has spent 20 years struggling with his mental health
The reality star speaks about how he’s been unable to come to terms with the death of his mum. Every time he talks about her, or remembers her, he becomes overwhelmed with emotion. “The truth is, I’ve never been able to deal with it,” he says. “I’ve kept all this pain bottled up for years: getting panic attacks, feeling anxious, pushing people away. But I can’t go on like this.”
After the death of his mum, his life was “completely torn to pieces” – but he wasn’t able to process it. He was starting secondary school and felt unable to talk to other students or teachers about what he was going through.
The reality star vividly remembers having episodes, not long after her death, where he’d feel hot, race around, and act erratic. His dad would put him in a cold bath to cool – and calm – him down. Reflecting back, he acknowledges these were panic attacks.
2. Talking really does help when processing loss
Joey speaks to his sister Frankie and they recall how differently she reacted after the death of their mum. She would speak about her to try and keep her memory alive, while Joey preferred to not talk at all. “I don’t talk to anyone about it,” the reality star says. “It’s all in here [points to his chest] hidden.”
In the documentary, he attends therapy with clinical psychologist Dr Stephen Blumenthal. Sessions start off shaky, where Joey is vocal about his trust issues and the fact he doesn’t feel like he can trust the therapist.
But over time, they have a breakthrough and he realises talking helps – although he can’t quite place how. As the show goes on, we see Joey talk more about his mum, and his memories of her.
3. Building trust after trauma can be unimaginably hard
We find out Joey’s mistrust of people, like his therapist, extends to his romantic relationships, too. The star acknowledges he’d love to settle down and have a family, but he keeps pushing people away.
When he talks this through with his therapist, he realises this once again goes back to losing his mum. “She loved me, but she left me,” he says. “I always think to myself if she loved me that much, why would she leave me?
“Imagine if I was with someone, and I had kids with them, and I really did love that person – and then she left me. I wouldn’t know what to do.” Dr Blumenthal and Joey speak through the issue to try and get him to come to terms with it.
4. Joey has struggled with his sense of identity over the years
The reality star spends a lot of time soul-searching in the documentary, acknowledging that most people know him as this larger-than-life character, but behind closed doors he’s battling all kinds of demons. We find out he’s quite lonely and he doesn’t really know who he is.
“I think the whole persona he’s used up until now means that he doesn’t have to give her [his mum] up, he’s always her little boy,” says Dr Blumenthal.
5. Sometimes, with grief, you have to face the memories
Parts of the show see Joey retrace his steps – looking at old photos of his mum, talking about her with his sister and nan, and visiting the house where he grew up in Bermondsey. “Running away from memories hasn’t done me any favours at all,” says the star, who has one photo of his mum on display in his house.
Dr Blumenthal notes that trauma buries people’s memories and stops them from being able to look at photos or films. Retrieving those memories – and the thoughts and emotions associated with those memories – can be really difficult.
While initially Joey is barely able to think about or talk about his mum, over time he realises that reflecting back on some of the happier times isn’t as bad as he’d imagined – in fact, it’s quite cathartic.
Joey Essex: Grief and Me airs Thursday June 3, available on BBC Three from 6am, BBC One from 9pm, and on iPlayer.
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).