Todd Muller opens up about his bombshell decision to quit as leader of the National Party after just 53 days in the job. Speaking for the first time in detail, Muller tells reporter Kiri Gillespie that anxiety and stress overwhelmed him.
"The anxiety arrived very early on."
Todd Muller's smile is warm but he looks tired as he recounts the days leading up to July 14 - the day his entire world was thrown upside down.
It's a cold, grey day, but the fire at Muller's Tauranga home is blazing. The cat and dog have already found their favoured spots in the lounge. The Bay of Plenty MP and former Leader of the Opposition takes a sip of coffee and sits down, looking like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
But also, at times, a man now at peace.
On May 22, Muller secured the position of leader of the National Party, ousting predecessor and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges in the process. It's election year and Muller was confident things were on the up. Just 53 days later, Muller would make the shock announcement he was stepping down from the role for health reasons.
Muller had effectively been blindsided by the toll the role took on him.
He hasn't spoken of it in detail since, until now.
"I had anxiety. I had experienced that quite severely and I had panic attacks," he says.
"I need time still to work through that and recover completely but it was really tough for me and really tough for Michelle and the family."
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Wife Michelle sits at his side and smiles at her husband, who looks a much thinner version of himself. Dog Maisy has already positioned herself in their laps, much like a white, fluffy teddy bear.
"I'd never experienced anything like that in my life before," Muller says.
Te Puna born and bred, Muller's first taste of career politics was from 1994 to 1997 when he served as executive assistant to then-Prime Minister Jim Bolger. He then switched to the corporate world, becoming an industrial relations manager at kiwifruit juggernaut Zespri and then chief executive of kiwifruit and avocado coolstore Apata. He then worked as local government and regional relations manager at dairy giant Fonterra before becoming Bay of Plenty's MP in 2014.
"I'd experienced tough situations with Zespri and Fonterra - we were dealing with a botulism scare with potentially young people dying - it was really stressful but still, while that was difficult it was nothing like the personal challenges that I had over the last few months," he says.
"For me, it was very acute. It was very hard."
Muller estimates he's lost about 10kg since that day but hasn't actually weighed himself. He says he can't recall specifically realising the moment it all became too much. Rather, his departure as leader came after weeks of trying to box on despite warning signs.
"Where we got to was the accumulation of 53 days. It was no singular moment. It was more like a drop, drop, drop, drop, that virtually fills the bucket which overflows as opposed to a single boot to the bucket."
Muller is, of course, talking about the day he stepped down as leader - a role that placed him in line to potentially become Prime Minister this year.
"That's part of the healing right? Walking away from the environment and surrounding yourself with the things that matter; love and family and friends, resting, walking and just breathing."
When asked how difficult it was to announce his departure, he admits the state of his mental health made the decision for him.
"It got to the point where there was nothing left. When you get to the point where there's nothing left, there's no choice really."
There is a pause as tears well in his eyes before Michelle adds: "I think that's what is hard, you were doing the dream job you wanted to do but it was more of 'I'm not enjoying this as much as I thought I would'."
Michelle says they initially thought the challenges came from being new to the role and learning the ropes, "but no".
"It happened. I did the best I could. I had challenges that I had never seen coming ... I did the best I could to manage them."
The rolling of former leader and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges was seen as a bold move at the time, creating division within the old party faithful in the Bay region that both Muller and Bridges call home. Yet he had the support.
Bridges was among those colleagues to reach out with kindness over the past few weeks, Muller says.
Would he do it all again?
Muller says he believes the decision to step up as leader was still the right decision at the time for the benefit of the party and while there were some areas of learning, "there's nothing I would change in terms of putting myself forward".
"But I had no idea these other issues would manifest the way they did."
"It got to the point where there was nothing left."
Muller says he spent the days following the announcement in bed sleeping.
Michelle adds: "You were so sleep-deprived already."
Muller explains: "That's part of the healing right? Walking away from the environment and surrounding yourself with the things that matter; love and family and friends, resting, walking and just breathing."
It was in these moments Muller began to grasp the impact his very public exit had made on others.
"I'm talking hundreds of emails, texts, lots from people I've never met before. There were quite a few emails from people saying 'Dear Todd, I'm actually a Labour supporter but ...'
Muller shares a laugh before reiterating how stunned he was at the response.
"They often saw it from a lens of courage and bravery, which I found almost humbling. I saw it through the lens of needing to do the right thing for me and my family.
"The thing that has struck me the most has been the personal response in people, and these are people I've never even met before. They come up and shake my hand and, often quite emotionally, thank me for being quite public and talk about their own journey or that of a loved one."
Muller refers to four teenagers at Rotorua's Redwoods who called out to him one day and "wished me all the best".
"They thought it was amazing what I'd done," he said.
"I think, perhaps, that New Zealand is particularly tuned to the challenges of mental health at the moment. Covid, in particular, has amplified it I think."
"I'd experienced tough situations with Zespri and Fonterra ... while that was difficult it was nothing like the personal challenges that I had over the last few months."
Muller says if his story can help New Zealanders to share their stories then "I think it's fantastic".
"The credit of that is the John Kirwans and the Mike Kings, they are a testament to that."
Muller says he's been talking to Kirwan during these past few weeks.
"He's amazing. What he has done to take the perceived shame or reluctance of talking about it to people ... I think that's great. People are more comfortable about it."
Muller says he suspects there will be many people who, at times, will also struggle with similar experiences like his. If there was one message he wants to relay to them, it is to "share it".
"Above all else ... have someone you love or care for or family or friends that you can share it with - share it. It is easier shared than bottled up alone. When you share it and the person you are with gives you back care, love, empathy, you get a sense there's a way through this."
As tumultuous as recent months have been for Muller, he is looking forward to campaigning for another term as Bay of Plenty's MP. He is also hopeful of National "crossing the line" on election day as he believes the party is best placed to help guide the country through the economic impacts looming in the wake of Covid-19.
As Muller runs through local issues he'd like to see delivered, such as an A&E clinic for Pāpāmoa east and a secondary school for Ōmokoroa, he becomes impassioned, vibrant and eager. He gestures with his hands as he talks about trying to change the Resource Management Act to speed up local development.
There is a fire in Muller's belly when talking about representing the Bay of Plenty again. But how can he reassure people he's the right choice, especially after such a high-profile fall from power?
"The sense I get is that people know me pretty well. I've been MP for six years. I live here. I'm hugely proud of this community."
"When you share it ... you get a sense there's a way through this."
Muller says he thrives off engaging with people on a local level and was looking forward to door-knocking as part of his campaign again.
Beaming, Muller says he's "at a really good stage" now. And he looks it.
Would he consider becoming leader again one day?
Michelle adds: "Been there, got the T-shirt."
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