Well­ness walk

Bri­tish jour­nal­ist and au­thor Bry­ony Gor­don is best known for her sear­ingly hon­est and bril­liantly witty writ­ing. But it’s her bat­tle to bring men­tal ill health into the spot­light that looks set to leave a last­ing mark here in the UAE…

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Men­tal health sup­port group ar­rives in Dubai

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Bry­ony Gor­don is hav­ing is­sues. They’ve got noth­ing to do with her much-doc­u­mented men­tal health bat­tles – not to­day at least – and ev­ery­thing to do with the fact that she en­joyed her first evening at an in­ter­na­tional book fes­ti­val last night a lit­tle too much and slept a lit­tle too soundly. Now, hav­ing ar­rived five min­utes late for our in­ter­view, slightly di­shev­elled and pro­fusely apolo­getic, she has re­alised she’s for­got­ten to wash off her face­mask and will have to ap­ply her make-up as we speak, a task made all the more dif­fi­cult by the fact she very sweetly in­sists on hold­ing my iPhone for me as “I do this all the time and hold­ing your phone un­der some­one else’s nose for ages is a pain in the a**”

While it’s un­doubt­edly more chaotic and wildly less pro­fes­sional than a usual jour­nal­ist/in­ter­vie­wee in­ter­ac­tion, it’s also funny, endearing and ex­actly what one would ex­pect from Gor­don, a woman who has made her liv­ing writ­ing frankly, at times shock­ingly so, about her life for Bri­tish na­tional news­pa­per the tele­graph.

While many of Gor­don’s ex­ploits in her twen­ties would be un­print­able here, it’s safe to say she has never been shy about her wilder ad­ven­tures. her first book was called the Wrong Knick­ers, in re­la­tion to a story that most peo­ple would be loath to tell their own mother, let alone a na­tional au­di­ence. “I don’t re­ally try to be con­fes­sional – I ac­tu­ally have is­sues with that term, be­cause it’s only ever ap­plied to women, isn’t it? But I’m just not re­ally some­one who can keep things to my­self. I was built with­out an edit func­tion I think. and it’s a bit of a cop­ing mech­a­nism too. If I take the [mickey] out of my­self first, then it doesn’t mat­ter so much if other peo­ple do it later, you know?”

none­the­less, while Gor­don may have ap­peared, to all in­tents and pur­poses, to have no se­crets, it took her years to di­vulge her bat­tle with men­tal ill health, dis­clos­ing to her read­ers that she suf­fered from an ex­treme form of OCD known as pure O, as well as at times crip­pling clin­i­cal de­pres­sion. the re­sponse was so dra­matic, so im­me­di­ate and over­whelm­ing, that she set about pen­ning mad Girl, a bru­tally frank ac­count of the psy­cho­log­i­cal trou­bles that have plagued her in­ter­mit­tently since her teens, the writ­ing of which left her so ill she un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally missed her dead­line by a mat­ter of months.

“It was a re­ally hard book to write. I hated ev­ery sin­gle mo­ment of writ­ing it. lit­er­ally. But now that it’s out, tour­ing it has been amaz­ing and has made it all feel worth it, be­cause at ev­ery event you meet amaz­ing peo­ple. Peo­ple cry or they let some­thing out that they’ve never let out be­fore, and it’s as­ton­ish­ing, ex­tra­or­di­nary and such a lovely feel­ing to have taken this neg­a­tive thing and have turned it into a pos­i­tive, which is help­ing peo­ple talk about their own men­tal health.

“In the book I say ‘this is not a self-help book’, be­cause, you know, I can’t help my­self from one day to an­other. I can barely keep my­self alive, so I certainly shouldn’t be teach­ing oth­ers. But what I wanted to do by shar­ing my ex­pe­ri­ence was to hope­fully help other peo­ple share their own. Be­cause the whole prob­lem with men­tal ill­ness is that it lies to you. It tells you you’re a freak, it tells you you’re alone and it tells you that no one else un­der­stands you, and that’s just not true.”

While sta­tis­tics for the mena re­gion are hard to come by, in the UK it’s be­lieved around one in four peo­ple will ex­pe­ri­ence men­tal ill health at some point in their lives while in the Us, sta­tis­tics sug­gest one in five.


“It’s nor­mal to feel weird, and the more we talk about men­tal ill health like it’s any other form of ill­ness, the more we can start to treat it as if it’s like hav­ing asthma or di­a­betes, the more peo­ple will see that it’s some­thing you man­age. You take med­i­ca­tion, you go to ther­apy, you ex­er­cise, you eat well, you don’t go out and party too much. It’s just an ill­ness like any other.”

that said, Gor­don is open in the book about the fact it took her over a decade to find the right kind of help, and cred­its the ad­di­tion of cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy to her pro­gramme of med­i­ca­tion for help­ing her to get a han­dle on her more in­tru­sive thoughts. “look, when you’re ill you can go to the doc­tor and get an­tide­pres­sants, and that’s good, but find­ing the right ther­a­pist is like find­ing a part­ner. It takes a while and that can feel re­ally bleak when ev­ery­thing al­ready seems hope­less. and I think the most im­por­tant mes­sage for peo­ple who are feel­ing like that is please don’t give up, and please don’t think it’ll just get bet­ter by it­self. men­tal ill health is like any other ill­ness. It might go away for a while but if you don’t ad­dress it prop­erly it’ll just pop up again. It’s like whack-a-mole.”

Gor­don says she is also, how­ever, acutely aware of the fact that not ev­ery per­son can af­ford ex­pen­sive pri­vate healthcare, psy­chother­apy or coun­selling, which is why she has also em­barked on a mis­sion to make help, in even its most ba­sic way, more eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble. “that’s why I set up men­tal health mates, which is a peer-sup­port net­work, a walk­ing group es­sen­tially, that any­one can set up where they live with our sup­port. It’s about get­ting peo­ple to­gether and cre­at­ing your own com­mu­nity where you can walk and talk to­gether with­out any judge­ment.”

While Gor­don says she ini­tially thought her idea might be a tad crazy, when she posted on twit­ter about her first walk and ar­rived at the al­lot­ted lo­ca­tion to find 20 peo­ple wait­ing for her, she cried. the move­ment, which al­lows in­di­vid­u­als to use men­tal health mates’ on­line re­sources to set up their own walk­ing groups, has since gone on to span the globe, with walks tak­ing place from suf­folk and syd­ney to san Fran­cisco. next on the list is Dubai.

“When you are low,” says Gor­don, “there is some­thing in­cred­i­bly em­pow­er­ing about sim­ply get­ting out of the house. Fresh air, and the com­pany of other hu­mans, can truly help, and I’ve re­ally ben­e­fit­ted from talk­ing to other peo­ple about it. I mean, I know I’m weird but I now re­alise most peo­ple are weird, and that’s bril­liant and won­der­ful. there’s noth­ing wrong with that.”

Mad Girl, pub­lished by Head­line, is avail­able at all good book stores. For more in­for­ma­tion on Men­tal Health Mates, visit men­tal­health­mates.co.uk

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