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Bryony Gordon: 'Running Made Me Realise That Anything Is Possible'

Bryony Gordon charts her journey out of alcoholism and depression, thanks to an unlikely saviour...

Running saved my life. I know that sounds dramatic, because when I read those words I can barely believe them myself. As a sufferer of obsessive compulsive disorder with a long history of depression, there were many things that were going to save my life – a career, the right man, a baby, 16 pints of lager after work – but running was not one of them.

If you’d told me 18 months ago that running was going to change my life beyond recognition, that it was going to give me the things I had always dreamed of – sanity, and the ability to accept myself– I would have asked you if you’d been drinking and then ordered some booze myself. But do you know what? Running did save my life. Without it, I might not have died immediately, but I would have done eventually: either by killing myself, or through a long, painful death from alcoholism. So yes. Running saved my life, because running got me sober.

A year and a half ago, I could not run at all. Actually, scratch that: I could run, because anyone with two functioning legs can run, but I couldn’t run very far. Maybe 10 metres at most. Possibly for a bus, if pushed. I was 16-and-a-half stone and stuck in a noxious cycle of mental illness.

The only thing that ever seemed to shut up the multitude of negative voices in my head was alcohol. I never drank during the day, and not even every day, but when I drank I drank to black out. I drank to forget. My drinking made the illness worse, of course, but I couldn’t work out how to get out of it. The only thing I knew was to start again. My husband often wondered if I couldn’t just have one – in reply I would wonder out loud why he couldn’t just shut up. It was a strange existence. On one hand, I was a successful writer and campaigning journalist with a family and a house, on the other, I felt as if the world was ending.

I started to run in 2016, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. I had written about mental illness in my book Mad Girl, and had been inundated with messages from people telling me about their own experiences. I realised that

I was not alone, but my illness had thrived on making me feel alone. I knew, of course, that exercise was good for your head, but I had never thought it was for me on account of my gigantic arse and tummy.

Now, because of my work as a mental health advocate, I thought I should at least try. I knew I had to get out there and do some exercise if only to prove my mental illness wrong, to show it that the world was very much still spinning and my blood was still pumping. I went for my first run in a pair of battered Converse and my husband’s tracksuit bottoms, complete with one of his Star Wars T-shirts. I looked like a woman on day release, but I didn’t care.

I could not run for long. My lungs felt like they were on fire, and my skin looked as if it had been in the glare of a nuclear bomb. Sweat poured into every crease and wrinkle of my flabby skin. But I felt alive again. I felt I had, for 15 minutes, shrugged off the fug of depression I was so used to existing in. So as much as I disliked it, I carried on. I kept going for a run. But even I could not have anticipated what happened next: I signed up for the London Marathon, having been talked into it by the nice people at the mental health charity Heads Together.

And then, in April last year, I actually ran it, raising over £40,000 (in part thanks to an interview I did with Prince Harry about his own mental health, the new Duke of Sussex being at the helm of Heads Together). Within six months I had gone from not being able to run for a bus, to being able to run a marathon. I did it slowly, in just under six hours, but I did it all the same. It was hard – but it was no harder than the days when I couldn’t move at all because of the weight of depression on me. But I was just getting going. The finish line, it turned out, was really the starting line.

Though I obviously lost weight training for the marathon, I realised that the experience had actually been about gains. The more I ran, the better I felt, and the better I felt, the more I wanted to feel better. But there was one last thing standing in my way, and it was booze.

Part of the reason I had signed up to the marathon was in the hope it might make me want to drink less. But I carried on drinking as heavily as before; just three days before the marathon I had to be talked down from the pub by a concerned friend. I knew, when the marathon was over, that the game was up, and that I needed to get help. A couple of months later, I went into rehab. It was far harder than running a marathon. But like a marathon, I knew that I just had to keep on going. I could not go back to alcohol. It was no longer an option. My drinking had long ago stopped being fun, or funny.

It was in rehab that I wrote my next book, Eat, Drink, Run. It’s a book about running that isn’t really about running. Really it’s about doing the thing you think you can’t, and realising how bloody empowering that is. I could never have
got sober if I hadn’t run the marathon: it made me realise that actually, anything was possible. And it is.

A month ago I ran my second marathon, in my underwear, to show that runners’ bodies can come in all shapes and sizes. I’m about to do my third. And by the time you read this piece I will, all being well, have over nine months of sobriety under my belt. So yeah, running saved my life. It showed me that anything is possible, that all you have to do is hold on. And keep putting one foot in front of the other.


‘Eat, Drink, Run’ by Bryony Gordon{:target=_blank} is out 31 May (£16.99, Headline).

Grazia is running a mental health campaign, Where's Your Head At?, demanding better psychological care in the workplace. To learn more about Grazia’s mental health campaign, visit wheresyourheadat.org.