Walking away from depression
Writer Bryony Gordon has suffered in silence with depression and OCD since childhood. Then she had a random idea – and it has transformed her life
IN JANUARY, I HAD what I refer to as ‘one of my episodes’. Which is code for a breakdown. I’ve had five or six in 25 years. The first was when I was 12. I saw germs everywhere, became convinced I was dying of AIDS, and was too scared to leave the house. At 17, I started chanting to keep my family safe – in tandem with worrying that I’d killed someone but had blanked out the murderous act. I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but if I thought that a diagnosis would lead to treatment, I was very much mistaken. OCD was not – is still not – taken seriously. People thought it was some celebrity fad that involved wanting an orderly sock drawer. I wouldn’t tell them about the obscene worries that
tormented me: whether I’d accidentally poured bleach in Mum’s tea; whether I’d forgotten to blow out a candle and the house was now burning down (despite checking 25 times before leaving home). The best way I can explain OCD is that your brain refuses to acknowledge what your eye can see – but growing up in a world where nobody spoke about mental illness, I had neither the strength nor the understanding to do so. So I kept quiet and held in my shameful secret.
At 18, presumably through the stress of it all, my hair fell out. Then I developed bulimia – I assume as a way of controlling a body that would never do as it was told. In my twenties, I picked up a cocaine habit that would calm my OCD at night but make it a million times worse in the morning. I would take my iron to work so I could be sure it wasn’t left on. I became convinced I’d had sex with strangers and forgotten about it. The sad thing is, if my OCD had been treated immediately, this probably wouldn’t have happened. But it wasn’t, so on I went, somehow forging a career with a head full of poison.
Over the years, I’ve tried it all. Sertraline. Fluoxetine. Citalopram. Diazepam. Anti-psychotics to calm an overworked mind. It was only an ‘episode’ after the birth of my daughter in 2013 that forced me to finally try to get proper help. This was the worst episode, because I was convinced I’d harmed my darling daughter. I’d sit over her cot for hours checking her breathing until my husband would scoop me back to bed, a snivelling mess. It couldn’t go on. I couldn’t ignore the monster in my head. So I got proper help. I started writing about my OCD in The Daily Telegraph, where I’d worked for 15 years without ever admitting I had a problem. The response was incredible. I received hundreds of emails and cards that spoke of depression and anxiety. I realised that, far from being weird, mental illness was normal. My publishers asked if I’d write a book about it, so I did, the process of which made me a bit ill again. I went back to my therapist. She suggested running. I scoffed, being a size 18 with boobs like deflated party balloons. But I was willing to do anything to stop the torment. So, in the dark, drizzly days of January, I started wheezing around my local park. I bought a Fitbit, started walking to work. It cleared my head, gave me a buzz. Oh my goodness, this exercise thing actually seemed to work. The fog gave way to hope. And hope, as anyone who has ever experienced a mental illness will know, is often in very short supply.
It was on one of these runs that I had my lightbulb moment. I was listening to a documentary on the writer Carson Mccullers. She wrote beautifully about loneliness and had made several suicide attempts before dying of alcoholism. There was archive audio footage of her. ‘Sometimes, it feels like everyone’s a part of a “We” except for me,’ she said. ‘But you were a part of a “We”,’ I shouted into the cold air, much to the bewilderment of a man jogging past. I went home and resolved to find Carson’s We.
That day, I sent out some tweets that roughly said, ‘Would anyone with mental health issues fancy meeting up for a walk/ run with like-minded people? We could call it, er, Mental Health Mates?’ I said I’d be outside a cafe in Hyde Park at 11am on Valentine’s Day. Was I being mad? Yes, but no more than usual. ‘But you might get a load of nutters showing up!’ exclaimed my husband, who thought I was high on the concoction of medication my psychiatrist had me on. ‘That’s the whole point, husband!’ I retorted. ‘I want nutters to turn up. The nuttier the better.’
Still, that morning I did wonder if I’d lost the plot. It was so windy it made your cheeks sting. It was also Valentine’s Day, and I had a perfectly nice husband I could be spending it with. But then something amazing happened. A woman came up to me and asked, sheepishly, if I was Bryony from ‘the mental thing’. And then another, and another. In all, 20 showed up. It made me want to cry, so I did.
These people looked normal. Because they were. They had mental health issues, sure, but they were you, they were me, they were your best friend. We walked around the Serpentine. Some people talked about the efficacy of the antidepressants they’d been on, others of rubbish treatment received. It was a wonderful, non-judgemental place where people could talk freely without feeling as if they were mad. Above all, it was joyously positive and, having all grown up in a society that never spoke about mental illness, a huge relief to know we weren’t alone.
Since then, we have met up almost every weekend. We have cheered on a member who ran the London Marathon for Mind, while others did a 10-mile walk in aid of the mental health charity CLASP. One of us, Tim, who has bipolar disorder, is cycling 5,000 miles around the coast of the UK and we plan to go to Brighton to cheer him on. We have picnics, go for lunch, do pub quizzes. There are now almost 200 of us, with around 20 on each walk. My hope is that, after reading this, others might find the strength to join us, and maybe set up their own Mental Health Mates in their neighbourhoods. Because you are not alone. You are part of a We. And We are here for you right now. n ‘Mad Girl’ (£14.99, Headline) is out 7 June
I would take my Iron to work so I could be sure It wasn’t left on… my head was full of poison
Bryony managed to be a fun-loving 20-something, get married and become a mother – all despite dealing with crippling, daily toxic thoughts