Thursday 19 October 2017

Bryony Gordon: How I walked my way back to sanity

Columnist Bryony Gordon was suffering from crippling OCD and depression when she went on a life-changing walk. Her walk has turned into a global mental-health network

Girl interrupted: Bryony Gordon has written a moving memoir about mental illness.
Girl interrupted: Bryony Gordon has written a moving memoir about mental illness.
Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon

Bryony Gordon

Sometimes, when I look out at a sea of smiling faces walking behind me, or wander off for a coffee with a group of people who an hour earlier were complete strangers, I laugh.

I laugh because it seems faintly ridiculous that just under a year ago I didn't know any of this existed. Just under a year ago, I was so ill with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder that I was almost two months late meeting a book deadline - a book about mental illness, irony of ironies. I do not have many memories of January 2016 because the brain has an uncanny knack of blocking out trauma (such as childbirth and long days spent thinking about ways you might kill yourself when the police come and take your daughter away).

But I do remember sitting at my desk - at the desk I am sitting at right now - and bashing out copy, high as a kite on valium. I wrote my columns for The Telegraph here in Britain. I somehow interviewed politician Zac Goldsmith. I did all this in an attempt to avoid my own head. Months later, when I was 'better' (better being a word I am loath to use, because mental illness is not like having a bout of the flu), a friend and colleague told me that she knew not to talk to me before lunchtime, when my words would be slurred from all the benzodiazepine I was on. For some reason, mornings are always the worst for me when I am ill. There is just so much day ahead to contemplate.

A year ago, I would berate myself for being too cowardly to commit suicide.

Journalist and author Bryony Gordon took a leap of faith and sent out a tweet seeking to set up a group of like-minded people to meet for a walk, chat and a cup of tea and called it Mental Health Mates. Photo: David Hartley
Journalist and author Bryony Gordon took a leap of faith and sent out a tweet seeking to set up a group of like-minded people to meet for a walk, chat and a cup of tea and called it Mental Health Mates. Photo: David Hartley

A year ago, I found it difficult to hold my daughter because my brain kept lying to me, telling me I might hurt her. A year ago… well, look, I do not like to think too much about a year ago, or the year before that, when I also spent December and January in a fug of pills and self-loathing, because it is so dreary and self-indulgent. And why focus on the negatives all the time? This isn't a story about negatives. This is a story about turning negatives into positives. About how I went from being a feckless journalist to the founder of a peer-support network for people with mental-health problems.

I need to start from the beginning, and the beginning, as it so happens, starts in the magazine I work for. In the winter of 2014, I had a crashing, crushing episode of depression that wiped me out. I had a gorgeous toddler and a wonderful husband, not to mention a best-selling book based loosely on the columns I have been writing for the magazine for almost 10 years. I had nothing to complain about, just as I had nothing to complain about when I was 12 and suddenly became convinced I was dying of a terminal illness, or when I was 17 and my brain kept suggesting to me that I might be a serial killer who had blanked out the murders in shock.

As a teenager, these thoughts earned me a diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder - a rarely spoken-about form known as pure O, in which sufferers obsess over intrusive thoughts about blasphemy, abuse, sex and even murder. But despite this diagnosis, I was always too ashamed to do anything about it other than self-medicate with alcohol and cocaine. I buried it deep.

Remarkably, the birth of my daughter Edie in 2013 seemed to alleviate the symptoms. Then, just before her second Christmas, the illness returned worse than ever. It told me I might have hurt her and blanked it out, that I might be a child molester. It was at this point that I realised I couldn't give my illness the power it deserved by keeping quiet about it, so I did the only thing I could do: I wrote about it in my magazine column. The simple act of putting it on paper was a huge relief. I was quite literally getting it out of me.

When the column came out in January 2015, the response was incredible. The sneaking suspicion I always had was confirmed: my readers are awesome. I got cards and letters and emails wishing me well, but I also received hundreds of messages from people saying 'me too' - if not OCD, then some other form of mental illness. And that was when it occurred to me that it was completely and utterly normal to feel weird.

That's how my book Mad Girl was born. It was not easy to write. Indeed, this time last year I was stuck for an ending, given I was supposed to be writing an uplifting book about depression but could barely move for the weight of the world on my chest. Prostrate with intrusive thoughts, I did the thing I thought I couldn't do: I got up and went for a run. I was slow and wheezy. But the act of having to just keep breathing seemed to make things marginally better.

Bryony Gordon on her wedding day with her husband Harry.
Bryony Gordon on her wedding day with her husband Harry.

At the end of January, I was out heaving my frame around Clapham Common, when I decided to switch from my usual soundtrack of Take That to Radio 4. There was a documentary about the writer Carson McCullers, the author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; I carried on listening in an attempt at improving my wandering mind. Tragically, McCullers tried to commit suicide on several occasions before dying of alcoholism in her early 50s. The documentary featured some archive audio footage of the American writer. ''Sometimes,'' she said most poignantly, ''it feels like everyone is part of a we, except for me''.

I stopped in my tracks. ''You had a we,'' I thought. ''You just didn't know who they were.'' I looked around at the people walking across the common, aware that one in four of them would experience a mental illness in any given year. And I vowed then and there to find Carson's 'we'.

When I got home, I told my husband Harry my plan. ''What if there was a place where like-minded people with mental-health issues could get together and realise they're not alone? What if I created a sort of walking/running group for the people for whom it is perfectly normal to feel weird? I could call it...'' I searched my head, usually full of intrusive thoughts, and remarkably found inspiration - 'Mental Health Mates!'

''Are you high?'' he said.

''As it so happens. I am on a lot of diazepam.''

''But what if a load of nutters turn up?''

Bryony Gordon and baby Edie
Bryony Gordon and baby Edie

I shook my head. ''That's the point, Harry!''

Even so, I did think I might have completely lost the plot when, on Valentine's Day 2016, I headed for the cafe in Hyde Park I had tweeted about for the allotted time of 10.30am. The wind was whistling. It was freezing. What if nobody turned up? Who in their right or wrong mind even looked at Twitter nowadays? I approached the counter of the coffee shop and was aghast to see a group of people waiting there. For me.

Almost 20 people had turned up. I excused myself to go to the loo and had a little cry. Then I came back out and we all went for a walk round the Serpentine, smiling as we went; talking about the efficacy of various medications and therapies with an ease that recalled a night out in the pub.

It wasn't long after that first walk in London that a girl called Kate got in touch and asked if she could set up a group in Leeds. Pretty soon, people were emailing from all around the country.

With a core group from that first walk, Mental Health Mates went from a mad idea into a proper network that is now available across the UK - and even across the Atlantic. (We had our first walk in New York recently, with more planned for San Francisco and Philadelphia; there has also been interest in France, New Zealand and Australia). Kat, Polly, Katie, Miranda, Denean, Tim, Neil, Sam, Fiona, Maxine… these are all people who have overcome considerable mental-health issues to help a nutcase with OCD set up walks with other nutcases. Through twice-monthly meetings over endless cups of coffee (and yes, the odd glass of wine), we have created a website, a social-media presence, a movement.

Our Facebook group has thousands of members. We estimate that in our first year, hundreds of people will have been on our walks: the girl who was released from hospital after a suicide attempt who felt she had nowhere to go; the woman in her 80s who says she feels alone; the endless 'normal' people who you would pass on the street without knowing anything was wrong.

Writer Bryony Gordon with her daughter, Edie, at home in
Clapham, south London.
Writer Bryony Gordon with her daughter, Edie, at home in Clapham, south London.

This is not meant as an alternative to therapy - what we hope to offer is a place where people can walk and talk without fear of judgement. The tears and laughter we see suggest that we might be on to something.

When you are low, there is something incredibly empowering about simply getting out of the house. Fresh air, the company of other humans… it has been amazing to see how people turn up for walks looking terrified, only to leave with new friends and plans to come again.

We have events all over the UK, all set up by people keen to find a local support network.

And so here I am, a year older and perhaps, for once, just a little bit wiser. Through this experience I have learnt something quite important, and it is this: mental illness lies to you. It tells you you are a freak. It tells you you are alone. It tells you that nobody will ever understand you. But it is wrong. Because none of us are ever that far from someone who gets it. None of us need suffer in silence.

We are all part of a 'we'. Sometimes, it just takes a little bit of time to find it.

For more information on how to set up a similar walking group in your area, and get exercise and mental health support, go to mentalhealthmates.co.uk or Mental Health Mates on Facebook. 'Mad Girl' is now out in paperback (€11.20, Headline)

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