OCD and depression: Bryony Gordon opens up

“In terms of mental health, mornings are crucial – get mornings wrong and the rest of the day is fucked.” Telegraph journalist and long-term OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) sufferer Bryony Gordon reveals her dark thoughts, and when it all began

This was originally on The Early Hour, in 2016

Bryony, 35, lives in Clapham with her husband Harry and their nearly three-year-old daughter Edie. She’s a columnist for the Telegraph, where she’s worked since the age of 19, and is also an author.

Mornings with OCD and depression

Mornings tend to be quite chaotic for me, though I feel better now that it’s becoming spring. I wake up at 6.15am and it doesn’t feel quite so terrible. In terms of mental health, mornings are crucial – get mornings wrong and the rest of the day is fucked. I heard the Archbishop of Canterbury say on Radio 4 recently: “attack the day, don’t let it attack you”.

But I’m not up at 5am doing meditation, it’s chaos in my house. My daughter sits on an Ikea stall eating breakfast watching Tiny Tots while me and my husband run around trying to get ready. She’ll have a tantrum because she wants to wear a Cinderella dress, and then she won’t let us clean her teeth.

My husband takes her to nursery then I either go for a run or walk to work in Victoria, which is a three-mile walk. For me, if I can be out by 8.10am I don’t have to hear the “I want to wear the Cinderella dress, I’m not using that toothbrush”. I have all that in the evening. My husband does mornings, I do evenings.

What I do on first waking is listen to the Today programme so that I pick up a snippet of what’s going on. I have a good idea and then I can arrive in the office – if a bit swotty – seeming knowledgeable. Or having stolen the opinions of people I’ve listened to.

In my 20s, my idea of a perfect day was to lie-in all day. Even now I think it’s a nice idea but I’d actually feel really gross doing it. Back then I was going out, taking cocaine all night – so lie-ins remind me of sweat and self-loathing. I’m still amazed me that I can be up and out by 8am.

In terms of depression; OCD, a day hinges on: do I get out of bed or not, do I sit up somehow and put one foot in front of the other, somehow get to bathroom, somehow get into the shower. But I always feel better if I manage those things than if I stay in bed. That’s what it was like three weeks ago, when I was in the midst of my depression.

Mornings are worse because your cortisol is up so you think: I can’t get up, I can’t get through another day. I feel crappy but the earlier I get up, the better the rest of my day will be. I hate reading those things about people who meditate, write for an hour and feel amazing. I’m more likely to sneak outside and have a coffee and a fag while everyone’s still in bed.

I first experienced OCD when I was 12

That’s when I first had OCD, I thought I was dying of aids. I became obsessed with germs; I hid my toothbrush, as I thought I’d infect my family. It went and then came back when I was 17 and I’ve had it ever since, to varying degrees. Sometimes it’s really bad – sometimes it’s like a Dido album playing in the background at a dinner party.

With mental illness, we always think that you’re that person rocking back and forth screaming like a banshee – or that it’s from some terrible tragedy that’s befallen you, like your parents getting divorced. I think it’s really unhelpful. Also, people thinking you can pull yourself together – you have a nice house, husband, child. People can suffer with PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) but with a lot of mental health, you are born with it; you’re genetically predisposed to be that way.

There are things that might trigger it – like stress, a break-up – but there’s no cause. Any more than people getting acne or having a birthmark; it’s just what happened when the sperm hit the egg. That said, I was listening to the radio last night when walking to therapy and there was a boy who witnessed extreme violence in his home and was suffering. Some people are fucked up because of their upbringing, but I’m not one of them.

For me, OCD is like background noise. And then I get a really bad episode once every five years, though I just had another after having one last year.

You need support from friends and family

It’s difficult. You can’t really remember how it felt once you’re out of it – like childbirth, it’s a protective mechanism. You can’t remember how grim it felt. It’s about being supportive, not saying “pull yourself together”. But encouraging people to go outside is important.

I didn’t have any postnatal depression, which I think was expected. I was referred to St Thomas – for women with mental health disorders – because I was depressed when pregnant but once Edie came out I was just like: come on.

Having OCD meant I was used to sterilising things – a lot of people develop OCD after having babies but I already had it. Since becoming a mother, the episodes feel a lot worse, though, as they threaten my happiness with my child. OCD is debilitating – it’s not just hand-washing and organising shelves, so if an episode drags on it ends up as depression.

My hedonistic 20s didn’t make me depressed

One fed the other. I don’t do drugs anymore – except for antidepressants. Of course they’re a trigger – drugs, alcohol – but why are you taking it in the first place? On cocaine I could be confident, happy, woozy – but it would also quieten the voices in my head. It was self-medication.

Writing about my OCD over Christmas made me a bit ill (I was writing my second book). The process isn’t that healthy, when you’re drinking five cups of coffee a day, but largely, it’s a good thing. I don’t mind exposing myself – what do I have to lose? I’m not ashamed. I have a private side too; I don’t expose everything. I’m not literally exposing myself – that wouldn’t be good for anyone.

On a bad day, the thoughts that go through my head might be…

Somebody’s going to take my child away, could I hurt someone, could I be a child abuser. Really dark shit. If you look it up you’ll understand. Really intrusive thoughts.

I don’t have coping mechanisms because I don’t cope. I have to just immediately tell my husband I’m having these thoughts then he kicks in and we go to the doctor, like you would with any other illness. And it’s back down the long road of therapy and popping antidepressants.

It’s like if you knew someone had diabetes and they told you they felt faint, you’d get the EpiPen out. I say I’m having thoughts that I might harm my child. OCD is like your brain refusing to acknowledge what your eyes can’t see. So not trusting that the oven isn’t still on, thinking you’re a paedophile for changing your child’s nappy.

At the Telegraph, where I work, they are amazingly supportive, they give me time off. They’re like: just go. I couldn’t ask for more. I love the Telegraph – it’s my home; I’ve been there since I was 19.

My whole family are journalists, I grew up around newspapers. Call it good old-fashioned nepotism but I’ve always loved newspapers – it’s in the blood. I love the feel of newspapers, being in the newsroom, going to report on something. Not that I do any reporting.

Future plans…?

At the moment the thought of writing another book fills me with horror so I won’t do that but want to get on with the summer, doing interviews, doing work. It’s not necessarily healthy just writing about me so I want to talk to other people, do more interviews. Other than that, I’ll just continue getting old. Disgracefully.”

My book Mad Girl – A Happy Life with a Mixed up Mind (out in June) is an upbeat book about mental illness but not self-help – it’s my story, I hope that people read it then share their story. Basically, more you talk about it; the less frightening it becomes.