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

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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

P H OTO G R A P H AMIT LEN­NON

Bry­ony man­aged to be a fun-lov­ing 20-some­thing, get mar­ried and be­come a mother – all de­spite deal­ing with crip­pling, daily toxic thoughts

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