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Mental anxiety attacks almost stopped this Welsh singer songwriter from fulfilling musical dreams

A rising star on the Welsh music scene who has played to bumper-size crowds has spoken movingly about how he once couldn’t cross a road because he was so tormented by crushing mental anxiety.

People stopped to stare as 23-year-old Elis Derby tried to make his way across the road but was frozen to the spot in the grip of an anxiety attack caused by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

His harrowing story is now the subject of a ground-breaking short film that’s in the running for a top award from the Royal Television Society.

Elis said: “I became rigid, I could barely walk as bizarre fears played out in my head. Some people asked if I was OK but others just looked at me as if I was mad. I’ve learned to ignore the odd looks now, I just focus as best as I can on what I’m doing.”

The moment was a symptom of his torturous battle with the ‘living nightmare’ of OCD, the condition highlighted in the short film made by his lifelong friend Tomos Morris-Jones, editor in training at Caernarfon-based Welsh Language TV production company Cwmni Da.

The highly acclaimed piece, titled Elis Derby: Fi ac OCD (Elis Derby: OCD and Me), has been shortlisted for best factual short film in the student category at the Royal Television Society’s RTS Cymru Awards 2020.

In a double triumph, Cwmni Da has also been nominated in the children’s programmes category for an episode of its hit Deian a Loli series, which is already the winner of a prestigious BAFTA award and was highly commended at the 2019 Broadcast Awards.

Tomos’s film was made when he was a Bangor University student. It unpicks the myths surrounding OCD and lays bare the harrowing emotional and practical struggles faced by Elis with whom he has been friends since schooldays.

Elis is a talented singer songwriter who has played large venues and just released his first album in what is a momentous victory over the OCD he has suffered since his teens.

He describes the condition as nightmarish and in its darkest forms capable of physically crippling him.

Elis said: “At its worst it can literally control my life. It causes physical ticks and involuntary speech inflections. I can’t think straight or even move normally. It stops me eating and sleeping, so much that people have noticed how I’ve lost weight when my OCD has been at its height.”

Elis Derby and Tomos Morris-Jones

After years of witnessing his friend battle with the condition, Tomos, 22, was inspired to make the film for his end of year dissertation subject at Bangor University.

He graduated with a First in journalism and media studies, and Tomos says the film was key to him later achieving his editorial job at Cwmni Da.

Tomos wants to raise awareness about the impact of OCD on a person’s daily life, and is now hopeful of producing a more in-depth version of the documentary.

He said: “I was limited by the constraints of my dissertation rules to only 10 minutes but I’d love to make a longer version of the same film, highlighting more about life with OCD.

“If Elis is willing I’d like to follow him around ‘fly on the wall’ style, charting the ups and downs of the traumatic journey he’s been on and the immense progress he’s made.”

Tomos, of Bangor, and Elis, of Y Felinheli, have been friends since their mums met when the boys were in primary school, and the two attended the same high school in Bangor, Ysgol Tryfan.

Tomos said: “I’ve known for a long time about his OCD but I only really saw evidence of it within our circle of friends, not when Elis was at home.”

The film dispels the myth that the condition is just about people obsessing about keeping things in order, tidying the house or staying clean.

Tomos said: “OCD has become a term people often use off the cuff, like when they’re re-organising their cutlery draw. People will laugh and say their ‘OCD is kicking in’. But it’s so much more. For those really in its grip OCD affects everything they do, their posture, speech, confidence levels, self-esteem.

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“Elis has been determined to beat this thing, but until I made this film I didn’t fully realise how hard that is. He’s an amazing talent with so much creativity, and he gives his all to conquer the deep seated anxieties OCD causes.”

The two friends share a love of music. Tomos plays guitar, while Beatles and David Bowie fan Elis studied music at Salford University and has his own band.

Despite the setbacks, Elis has forged a name for himself as a songwriter and Welsh language performer. He and his band have appeared at festivals including the 2018 National Eisteddfod, Tafwyl festival in Cardiff, Sesiwn Fawr Dolgellau, and FOCUS Wales.

He believes music eradicates some of the tensions of his OCD and is a great form of escape. He has just released his first album, 3, under his band name, Elis Derby. It can be streamed online, downloaded from iTunes or purchased from Welsh language music shops.

He laughed: “I called it 3 because it was recorded in flat 33 on the third floor of the apartment block I lived in, it involved three other musicians and took three weeks to record.”

Elis has also secured an exciting job as Content Creator for Antena, another independent TV company based in North Wales.

For the first time in years he said he feels full of positivity and optimism for the future.

He said: “I’m in a good place right now. Definitely these last few weeks I’ve been feeling better than I’ve felt in a long time. I’ve managed to get some control back over the OCD, rather than it controlling me.”

Elis was diagnosed when aged 16, but the condition had been building before that. It became acute as he was preparing for GCSEs.

He said: “At university it was also pretty hellish. I’d a lot of time in my room alone studying. I liked Salford and made friends there but when I was alone anxieties crept in. I’d feel isolated, my mind overtaken by distractions making it impossible to even sleep, never mind study. I’d get so tired, physically exhausted, I didn’t have the energy to eat. I became overly thin. I’m not the biggest build physically at the best of times but now when I look back at Tomos’s film I see immediately how thin I was, especially round the face, such hollowed in cheeks.”

Elis is happy to co-operate on a longer version of the film to raise awareness about the effects of OCD. Both he and Tomos are proud the original has been nominated for such a key award.

Tomos said: “It was submitted by my lecturer at Bangor but I never for one moment  thought it would make it to the awards shortlist. It’s fantastic news.”

Also nominated for an award is an episode of the children’s fantasy series Deian a Loli, called Deian a Loli a’rFalerina, produced for S4C.

Deian a Loli producer Angharad Elen (centre) with team members ElinGwyn and Dafydd Roberts

Cwmni Da producer Angharad Elen, who was inspired to create the series by her own children, Cain and Syfi, said: “Everyone is thrilled about its continued success. We think it’s because it really taps into children’s vivid imaginations and takes them to a world where they’re completely free to go on magical adventures.”

She credited the whole team of writers, designers and producers for making such a standout series. It has previously been honoured at the Welsh BAFTAs and was a finalist at the 2019 New York Festivals International Film and Television Awards.

The Deian a Loli a’r Falerina episode is about a musical box ballerina who Deian and Loli help escape to achieve her dream of piloting an aeroplane.

The RTS Cymru Awards 2020 winners will be revealed at a glittering ceremony to be staged at Cineworld, Cardiff, on Thursday,  February 27, hosted by popular television presenters, Sean Fletcher and Ruth Wignall.

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