Patrick Gower unplugged: TV star opens up on P, politics and almost losing an eye

Ahead of the screening of his new documentary Patrick Gower on P, Patrick Gower gets real.

It started, on March 12 this year, with floaters in his left eye — quite common, no big deal — but then they started getting bigger and within a few minutes he realised he was in trouble. He called an ophthalmologist, got the day’s last available appointment and was in an Uber when his eye went completely black, “Like this big curtain had come across.” He said to the driver: “Hey man, I think I’m going to faint.”

The retina in his left eye had detached. What he needed, to stop him going blind, was emergency surgery.

It was not the first time it had happened. In 2014, the retina had detached in his right eye and his sight had been saved by emergency surgery. He’d recovered quickly. On February 5 this year, the same thing happened, in his left eye, and his sight had been saved by emergency surgery. He hadn’t recovered quickly: “Sorry to use bad language,” he says, “but I felt like f***in’ s***.

“I went to Christchurch one day, went from the airport to the hotel, lay down, went and did an interview, came back, lay down and I was just feeling physically quite s*** and mentally really s*** as well. Like, I wasn’t recovering well. I was actually f***in’ hating life, really, and I was getting bitter about having to do the documentary. I actually wanted to go away. I’d considered telling them to call it off for a while, ’cause I just felt there was too much pressure to get back to work.

“It doesn’t really roll like that. They’re not on a wage, they’ve got to get things done. It’s quite complex. It’s not like, ‘Paddy’s not feeling well, let’s just can this thing, or postpone it.’ It just doesn’t work like that. But that was definitely my vibe … I was actually quite bitter. I was like, ‘I should just ring these guys up and call this thing off.'”

So when, six weeks later, it happened again, he could hardly believe it. But he didn’t faint in the Uber, he got to the ophthalmologist in time and they performed emergency surgery on him that night. That’s when the real darkness set in. For several days afterwards, he was unable to see anything out of his left eye. He started having catastrophic thoughts, worrying about what life would be like if he went blind and so on. He tried to remind himself how lucky he was, that he didn’t, for instance, have cancer. It didn’t help.

“Your mind just is so powerful that it goes to the negative thoughts,” he says, “no matter how much you try and trick it. And being physically so f***ed after two operations like that, which are in your eye, next to your brain — basically, I just went into a seriously, seriously dark place.”

His sight came back, but not all of it, and he was left with the knowledge that his retina could detach again at any time. He was unable to work. He was unable to do pretty much anything.

“It had just defeated me really … I just never thought I would have a health struggle and I never thought it would creep up on me like it did and I never thought it would affect me mentally like it did, and I couldn’t really find a way out of it.

“You hate talking about it really, because you do feel selfish when you do see people with cancer, with cystic fibrosis, with all these people that I’m even working with. That’s a struggle. This is not a struggle. This is just some little blip in the road but, you know, it’s not. Obviously it’s nowhere near as bad as any of that but it’s kind of like you sort of, I don’t know, you sort of refuse to feel sorry for yourself. Anyway, you end up, basically, your mind, just completely — my mind was completely screwed.

“I couldn’t make sense of what I was feeling, what was happening, couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. It was like, ‘Just hold on. It will get better. Really.’ And then you hold on, you feel worse. And that was April.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d been through something like this. In 2017, he left the parliamentary press gallery after having what he describes as a mental breakdown. He says he became paranoid and initially tried to hide it and, although he eventually spoke openly about it, he still finds it difficult to articulate exactly what happened.

This time, as he began recovering from the operation, he started back at Three, working one day a week: “I’m used to working seven days a week, easy. I’d do one day at work and I’d be exhausted and wouldn’t want to go back.” Each Monday, he would think this is the week he’d be back to normal. By Tuesday, he’d be back at home.

People from work would text him and say things like, “Go outside and enjoy the day.
He laughs. “You’re like, ‘Don’t you tell me to f***in’ go out and enjoy the sunshine.’

“You’re kind of flailing around: Don’t drink, drink. Go on a diet, don’t go on a diet.’ You’re flailing around, looking for anything that will work.”

Then, one day he was out walking, “Baseball cap on, feeling sorry for myself, wondering what the future holds,” when he ran across an iwi group on a training course. Because he knew the leader, because he’s Paddy Gower, he asked what they were up to. The leader told Gower they were learning to shop for a week on 100 bucks.

“It’s one of those cliche moments in life where you’re just like, ‘F***, what the f*** are you complaining about, Paddy, coming around here with your f***in’ miniature schnauzer and your activewear?’ I can nearly spend 100 bucks on f***in’ lunch mate. I don’t, but maybe you shout someone a couple of coffees, have a couple of beers at the end of the day. And I was just like, ‘I can’t believe that this just happened.’

“You’re sitting there having this gigantic woe-is-me moment and some dude’s out there driving around in a minivan helping people that need actual genuine help. Look at this guy that’s doing this, that’s just helping people, not even batting an eyelid, just doing something that’s so f***in’ hard… What an awesome guy, by the way. And that kind of gave me a little bit of a boost. For about an hour.”

He couldn’t find a way to pull himself out of his depression. He would watch people suffering on television, people with cystic fibrosis, people protesting to get access to drugs they need to improve or even save their lives. “Even that sense of realism: it doesn’t help get your mind back. You can’t actually. Your mind’s so lost; it’s not rational.”

For at least a week, he says, he felt like there was no hope. He thought that as soon as he felt well enough, he would quit his job. “Obviously I didn’t want to. I thought I wanted to, but I didn’t want to, because the whole driving force of my life is this job. Whatever had happened – well, it was pretty obvious what had happened – it was winning for a while. And that sucks.”

He says he’s better now. He goes for a daily walk, which he calls his constitutional. While walking, he thinks about football, rugby, art, flowers, what the weather’s like in Taranaki: “Anything, anything for the whole walk, other than quitting my job.”

He’s been working with a psychologist on countering his catastrophic thoughts, using visualisation, something he does in journalism as well. “Where I’m happiest is when it’s instinctive. That’s when I’m mentally strong. When I’m mentally weak, that’s when I’m catastrophising. So it’s sort of as random as it sounds. I try to trick my mind into the instinctive phase where I know I’m happy.

“This is getting pretty random isn’t it?” he says. “I’ve always thought a good documentary would be, ‘Patrick Gower on Why Are We So F***ed?’

“It’s f***ing a lot of us really. Wherever life’s got us to. One day you’re absolutely fine, on
top of the world, and then all of a sudden the next day …”

His new documentary, Patrick Gower on P, which airs on Three this week is, depending how you count them, either the third or the fifth in the “Patrick Gower on …” series, after the three on weed and the one on lockdown. In the documentary, he doesn’t do P, but he does cry. We watched it together in a viewing room at Three and at one stage he was in tears both on screen and on the couch next to me.

After the years in Parliament chasing politicians, barking at the nation, a self-described “thug”, Gower’s blossoming emotional side has been the most startling part of his transition to New Zealand’s leading social issues documentarian. A big part of the reason for the success of this transition is his friend Justin Hawkes, who has directed all the documentaries. The pair met in the cafeteria in their first year at Victoria University in the late-90s, and became instant friends.

Hawkes says: “I’m trying to serve Paddy and I just think he is a man who can get on with everyone, and I just want to capture his humour, his emotion. We call him Mr Weepy. I didn’t know – like, he never cried around me – but then I got to see him … and I’m crying filming this s***.”

Gower says: “Yeah, he’ll say, ‘Hey, Mr Weepy was out today.’ Or sometimes something sad will happen and he’ll say, ‘Hey, where was Mr Weepy?'”

Hawkes says he first encountered Mr Weepy on the now-famous shoot with Gower’s dad in the weed documentary.
Gower says: “We definitely had Mr Weepy before then. Mr Weepy came out on the first shoot.
“Ruatoria?” Hawkes says.
“Yeah, remember I got weepy in the class? I started crying in the classroom in Ruatoria. They were on a hemp course and I definitely started crying in there, just at their stories of their lives. And then, yeah, Mr Weepy never went away.”

“My image has definitely improved since he’s been on the scene,” Gower says. “I look better, brighter. People like me more, I’m more intelligent.

“I’m just a death knock journalistic thug. I never really realised I could have a creative partnership and use that side of my brain. Even better, not just use the creative side of my brain, but have a partnership with someone.

“For me, it is a shift into, you don’t need to have a scoop every minute. In fact, you can have none, but you can still take an issue and put them all together and it can still be just as powerful, if not more. But, for me, it’s a culture change. F***! No scoops! What’s gone wrong?”

Hawkes says he could tell something was wrong with Gower in March because Gower, who normally calls him three times a day, stopped calling altogether.

After a couple of weeks, Hawkes sent him a message, reading, “I love you.” Gower replied “I love you too.”
“Can’t get more open than that,” Gower says.
Hawkes says: “He uses kiss emoticons and stuff.”
Gower says: “It was awesome to get that message from him.”
Hawkes says, “I’m awkward as f***, but I care about him.

“I actually love that Paddy will tell me he’s got the black dog, or he’s in a dark place. That friendship zone is bloody good, that someone will share that, and I think he’s getting better at that. I think the Mr Weepy is starting to bring that out in him, embracing the emotion. One day we’ll have a cry on the phone, and that will bring everything together.”

I sat with Gower in a viewing room at TV3 and we watched a short selection of stories from his career on television, starting with his first ever story for TV3. “Not as bad as I remember,” he said, “but obviously quite wooden … the piece to camera at the end is obviously someone who has not been on camera, not bouncing out of the screen and connecting with people.” The second story was his first live cross, from about a month later. “Yeah, another pretty wooden sort of effort,” he said,” but actually not a bad yarn.”

He showed me the story he considers his breakthrough, from about 18 months later, when he got an interview with John Banks in the immediate aftermath of the teapot tapes scandal, after Banks and John Key had been recorded saying all sorts of potentially politically injurious stuff during a photo op.

In the story, Gower says to Banks: “John Banks is on the brink of going out a loser here,” to which Banks replies: “John Banks has never been a loser. John Banks has never been a loser. John Banks doesn’t like losing. John Banks is out to win this election.”

It was clear how much Gower enjoyed seeing Banks talk so frenetically about himself in the third person. He described it as “a human moment”. He said: “It’s chaos. What you’re looking at there is political chaos. And that’s always something cool to be involved in.”

The final story, which ran on Three late last year, was his favourite. “Just trying to give you an arc,” he said.

The story revolved around Bella Powell, a teenager with cystic fibrosis who will probably die if she doesn’t get access to a miracle drug that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. The story also featured Sir Bob Elliott, a legendary New Zealander, on the verge of dying himself, who had given Powell a hundred thousand dollars to help save her life.

It was extremely moving. Gower cried. He said: “I can see myself extending every aspect of performance. Of storytelling, journalism, breaking quite a complicated thing down. The structure’s really good. People are taken on a journey. They’re surprised along the way, they’re surprised by the price, they’re surprised by what the drug can do, they’re surprised by the involvement of Sir Bob Elliott, they’re surprised by his terminal state. It’s got a huge amount of emotion coming through both people.”

Sir Bob died two weeks later. “That conversation on its own,” Gower says, “If no one was around, just getting to talk to someone like that at the end of their life, and just have a little bit of knowledge imparted, that would be special for anyone to do that. People long for those kinds of conversations… and then you don’t just have it for yourself, but get to share it with others.”

In making Patrick Gower on P, he says, he has learned a lot about addiction – specifically that it is a disease of the brain and that the best way to deal with it is not punishment but treatment.

People with addiction, he says, have traditionally, and wrongly, been viewed as being weak or soft, in the same way people with mental health issues were once judged as being weak or soft.

“So that’s why I’ve been in this whole ‘trying not to judge people’ kind of mode,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Oh man, I’ve judged way too many people in my life.'”

Of all the many on-screen differences between Gower the political editor and Gower the documentarian, this is the most striking: less barking at people; more listening to people.

“Listening is where empathy comes from,” he says. “It’s how you learn. It’s how people respect you when they’re talking to you. When you’re listened to – like you’ve been listening to me for two days now, I really like you. No, I’m serious. People like to be listened to, to be respected. You asked me yesterday, ‘How do you connect with these people?’ Well, you listen to them, respect them, tell them you’re going to treat them well. They start to trust you. They open up.

“People aren’t often listened to, for a whole lot of reasons, and that’s something I’ve found doing the docos in particular -‘I’m feeling this guy’s listening to me, I want to give him more, I feel respected’ – and that’s a big part of it.

“You’re like a therapist. For them, it is a form of therapy. I’ve said to a few people in the docos: ‘You’re going to feel better after this’, and they do. You can see they feel like a weight has been lifted. It’s off their shoulders.”

Patrick Gower: On P, Tuesday, 8.30pm, Three.

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