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…
Mental health support group arrives in Dubai
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.
THE PROBLEM WITH MENTAL ILLNESS IS THAT IT LIES TO YOU, IT TELLS YOU YOU’RE ALONE
“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