Despite the fact that Hungerford is less than an hour’s drive from my home, yesterday evening was my first visit to the town. I was there to meet Bryony Gordon, author of the recently published ‘Mad Girl’. You may read my review of this darkly humourous account of living with mental illness here.
The sold out event had been organised by the award winning Hungerford Bookshop in association with Arts for Hungerford. When the lovely bookshop owner, Emma, contacted me via Twitter to suggest that I attend I realised it was an opportunity I could not resist. Bryony arrived fresh from appearances at the Hay Festival and a small number of prestigious book events in London. This was one of only five dates on the tour for the book’s launch.
The venue was Hungerford Town Hall which had been set up cafe style. The audience sat around gingham covered tables; a corner bar served drinks and snacks. Amongst the crowd was another author, Robert Harris, who a lady at my table informed me lived nearby. This lady had not read Bryony’s book but enjoyed her regular column in the Telegraph newspaper. I suspect that a number of the attendees may also have been Telegraph readers.
Proceedings were opened by Emma, pictured above. She quickly handed over to Bryony’s publicist, Georgina, who chaired the event. I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat to Georgina who has been kind enough to send me many fabulous Headline books to review. She introduced me to Bryony but my own anxieties made me too tongue tied to engage.
Bryony spoke of her struggles with OCD and how she has come to realise that the anxieties this caused have coloured so many aspects of her life over the past two decades. She descended into self abuse, tolerated abusive relationships, and made many dubious decisions which she now ascribes to the problems she had coping with what was going on in her head. She also spoke of treatments she has tried, those which have been helpful and the many which have not.
Despite the seriousness of the subject being discussed this was an entertaining event. Bryony remained upbeat about her illness, stating that life was a work in progress and, although there is no cure, with sufficient help and support it can be managed. She recognised that those who do not have her means may struggle more as the number of people requiring treatment is beyond the funding made available to the NHS. This is something she is eager to address.
The audience were invited to ask questions. One lady asked if Bryony harboured regrets about her behaviour during her wilder years. With her usual humour she acceded that she did, but that her exploits had provided subject matter for her newspaper column. She told us that one reader complained she had become boring when she determined to deal with her demons and subsequently settled into married life and motherhood.
Bryony urged the audience to show more kindness, including to themselves. Unhappiness is a part of everyone’s life and it is important to recognise this and learn to cope. Mental illness is something more but requires the sufferer to recognise that they have a problem and seek help. Others may be sympathetic, non-judgemental, but the sufferer must acknowledge that they are ill.
We were told that writing ‘Mad Girl’ was a challenge as Bryony had to revisit difficult times. It was also a form of therapy as she came to recognise just how much of her wilder living had been triggered by her health issues. Bryony does not wish to be defined by her illness. It is a part of her but not the whole.
She mentioned an initiative she is launching, #MentalHealthMates, which aims to get people together for walks and discussion. When she came up with the idea her husband opined that she was mad to go out and meet what could potentially be a bunch of mad people, but isn’t that the point? With an estimated one in four people suffering, we are everywhere. Mental illness is not unusual, but it retains a stigma that Bryony is eager to overcome.
As the talk drew to a close, the audience were invited to have copies of their books signed. It was lovely to see Bryony take the time to chat to each person in the queue. I had to be on my way so left the still bustling hall to enjoy their drinks and their chats. It was a fascinating event.
Mad Girl is published by Headline and is available to buy now.