Bryony Gordon: ‘Embracing your flaws is the closest you get to perfection’

The bestselling author on sobriety, living with mental illness, and what she’d write in a letter to her 12-year-old self

Bryony Gordon, 38, is an author and journalist who has championed mental health awareness in her books and newspaper columns for the Daily Telegraph. Her first memoir, The Wrong Knickers (2014), was a bestseller. It was followed by the acclaimed Mad Girl (2016), about her battles with obsessive compulsive disorder, bulimia and addiction. Her third book, Eat, Drink, Run, is about training for the London Marathon and setting up a mental health support group, Mental Health Mates. She lives in Clapham, London, with her husband and daughter.

You interviewed Prince Harry about his struggles with mental health for the Mad World podcast in 2017, and in the new book you say that you got stopped on the street by people who had heard it and appreciated what he had said. Does this still happen?
Yes, which makes me sound like I’m Madonna! It’s not like I can’t buy a pint of milk without being mobbed, but I get stopped a couple of times a day not just because of the Prince Harry interview, but by people who say that what I have written has resonated with them. When I look at my last book, Mad Girl, it doesn’t feel radical now, but when it came out two years ago people weren’t talking about mental health in that way.

You founded Mental Health Mates in 2016 so that people would feel less alone and be able to talk to each other. Do you think the stigma around mental health has lessened and that we have begun to have more open conversations about it?
There’s an idea that because high-profile people like Prince Harry and Lady Gaga have spoken about it that the box has been ticked. Obviously, more people are having this conversation, but there are still a hell of a lot of others who are too terrified to have it.

In terms of speaking to each other about mental health, there’s so much further to go, and the notions we [as a society] hold around mental health are still quite reductive. For me, the area that really needs to be addressed is child mental health. It’s key to address it at an early age. Most mental health problems are treatable.

What do you think about the way that Meghan Markle’s entry into the royal family has played out in the media, especially the apparent fractures between her and Kate?
I have met Meghan a few times and I think if you put any family under the microscope, things will come up. I find the media stories are based on a style of journalism that is on its way out, or I thought was on its way out: a nasty pitching of two women against each other who I think get on really well.

You’ve run the London marathon for two consecutive years. Are you still running?
No, I haven’t run for a while. In the summer, the sun put me off, but now I’m beating myself up about it. Every night I say to myself “Maybe tomorrow.” But I also realise that there will be periods when I’m running and periods when I’m not. I walk a lot these days.

You haven’t touched alcohol for 16 months, after an addiction to it. How has day-to-day life changed?
It’s immeasurably good; so much better, in fact. There are times when it’s hard, but no harder than the alternative. It’s bloody difficult to have an active addiction to alcohol – the stuff you put yourself through! Not drinking is a doddle compared with that. If I ever start fantasising about having one drink, I know the reality would be 85 drinks and a gram of cocaine.

My publishers wanted me to write about getting sober, but I said no, because I wasn’t ready to write that book yet. I think it’s really important not to mine parts of your life willy‑nilly; it’s got to be real and heartfelt. Mad Girl was an act of desperation – to find people like me – and the stigma attached to talking about it meant I just didn’t meet people who were doing it.

Bryony Gordon and running partner Jada Sezer pose before running the London marathon in 2018.
Bryony Gordon and running partner Jada Sezer pose before running the London marathon in 2018. Photograph: Tim P Whitby/Getty Images

The next book you’re working on is a mental health guide for teenagers. What inspired that?
I realised I really wanted to write a letter to the 12-year-old me. A lot of the time when I went into rehab, the counsellors would ask me how old I felt, and I would say “Oh, 11 or 12.” I wish that the things I’m learning now, people could have told me about when I was 12.

I wouldn’t give back any of my experiences, even if I think a lot of them were unnecessary, but I just wish I had known some life lessons then – some of the things that I think are amazing but no one speaks about, like masturbation, and “girl crushes”, which are really normal. I explored my sexuality and then thought I couldn’t tell anybody; but shame is such a dangerous emotion, and so I want to write this book.

What would you have been if you hadn’t become a journalist and author?
I would probably have been dead. I’m not saying “poor me” – the reality is that I’m fucking lucky. It’s a miracle that I’m here, given my self-destructive and addictive behaviour. The most important thing I have realised is that no one is better than anyone else. We are all fundamentally good and a bit flawed. I think that embracing your flaws is the closest you get to perfection.

What are you reading?
Educated by Tara Westover, which is fascinating; also Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan and The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe. Since I got sober, reading has been a real joy for me, because before, I’d get into bed drunk and then not be able to concentrate the next morning because of the hangover. Now I read!

Do you read aloud to your daughter? What are her favourite books?
Yes, we read to her a lot. We’re reading her Michael Rosen’s poems at the moment. She’s five and has just learned to read, which is a joyous thing to watch her do.

• Eat, Drink, Run by Bryony Gordon is published by Headline (£7.99). To order a copy for £7.03 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846

Contributor

Arifa Akbar

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