When I started to write my memoir of mental illness, I expected many things. I expected it would not be easy, that churning up my experiences of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder might be a little uncomfortable: the time I became convinced I was dying of AIDS, for example (I was 12), or when, as a 17-year old about to sit my A Levels, a voice in my head started to tell me I had killed someone and blocked it out. I knew that writing about my bulimia would be difficult, and that it would not be a walk in the park writing about my cocaine dependency in my twenties. But what I had not expected was to realise that most of my life could be defined by the relationships I’d had.
As a staunch feminist and (I like to think) reasonably intelligent woman, this shocked me. I don’t know why, given that reasonably intelligent women are perfectly capable of doing stupid things like taking coke three to four times a week to dampen down the voices in their head that tell them they are the worst human being ever to have walked the earth. I had never linked my mental health with my relationships, even if a cod psychologist could make it out a mile off. I had always seen my attraction to bad boys as an inevitable part of trying to grow up in the hurly-burly world of London media.
If anything, I had seen it as a sign that I was a strong, independent woman, because I didn’t need a stable man, I was doing just fine on my own! All cultural references I had – Bridget Jones, basically – told me that it was perfectly normal for me to go out with shits. This was just the way the world worked; it was simply something I had to endure as a woman. I suffered fools gladly, because didn’t everyone? But as I wrote my book, it became almost impossible to untangle the relationships I had from the state of my mental health at the time. Did everyone go out with men who flew into violent rages and left bruises on them? Did everyone sometimes sleep with men out of a warped sense of politeness? Did everyone have affairs with married men and cry themselves to sleep at night, or worse, cry themselves out of sleep until they finally managed to get out of bed in the morning? As I wrote Mad Girl, it became clear to me that the answer was probably no. Not everyone did this. My relationships, and my approach to them, had not been normal or healthy.
So here I am at 35, finally unpicking my “love life” (bluerggh) in the hope that it might help another woman out there enduring a shitty relationship because she has somehow convinced herself it is normal. Because these men I am about to describe were not boyfriends, not really... more accurately, they were reflections of my diseased brain; markers of my self esteem and confidence or, moreover, my lack of it.
Our relationship soon takes on a familiar pattern. I do something wrong, he becomes aggressive, tells me he is leaving me, we make up, repeat to fade
By the age of 20, there is one thing I haven’t achieved – I haven’t fallen in love. Curiously, given my cripplingly low self-esteem and my love of vomit, I have yet to find a man who wants to share my special journey with me. These just aren’t the things that someone puts down on their list of attractive qualities when searching for Mrs Right, and if they are, you probably don’t want to date him. Take it from me, you really don’t.
His name was Paul*. I’m about to make him sound awful but the sad truth is that people like him – bloodsuckers, vampire-boyfriends, wife-beaters – have to have some really redeeming features in order to get away with their otherwise piss-poor behaviour. They have to draw you in with something, be it charm, good looks, a cracking sense of humour or, as in Paul’s case, all three. These things are their foils. They are what make men like him so very appealing yet dangerous. The question we often ask of people in abusive relationships is, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” And this is why – because she can’t. Because she’s stuck in his beautiful, glistening web.
He was charming from the offset, and exceedingly handsome. I couldn’t believe that he wanted to talk to little old me that night, of all the girls in the room. There were glamorous ones, confident ones, cool ones, and yet he chose to attach himself to the shy, retiring, mousy one standing in the corner. I now know that these are exactly the qualities a man like Paul is drawn to. Had I been glamorous or confident or cool he wouldn’t have been interested for a moment because a glamorous or confident or cool woman would have soon found him out for what he really was and told him to sling his hook. But back then I was just flattered. Not to mention thankful. God, I was thankful.
Relationships like this creep up on you slowly. Like praying mantises, they dance seductively in front of you to lure you in before biting your head off. They work by stealth, and before you know it you are declaring undying love to a man who seems sometimes to hate you. Except what you’re feeling isn’t love, not really. It’s fear. It’s fear of him, fear of yourself, fear of being alone. It feeds on every single one of your myriad insecurities. It feeds on them, and then it uses them as a breeding ground to create even more. Things you didn’t even know bothered you start to become an issue. The way you walk. Your habit of breathing heavily when you sleep. The sound of your cry, which has become so normal you almost can’t hear it any more.
A few months after we move in together, he leaves his mark on me for the first time. I am, unbeknownst to me, “late” home from a night out, and he has lost his keys. He sits on the front door growling, grabs me and drags me into our flat where he rips the jewellery from my neck and leaves his fingerprints in purple bruises on my arms. Another time, he slams my hand in the garden door and then locks me outside as... what? Punishment? Our relationship soon takes on a familiar pattern. I do something wrong, he becomes aggressive, tells me he is leaving me, we make up, repeat to fade. It is never, ever me who threatens to go. It only ends after a couple of years when he swings for me in public, and the horror of my friends means I cannot stay any more. A few months later I see him at a party, where he tells me I am fat, and says that nobody will ever love me the way he did. Thank God for that, I think. Thank God for that.
Thank you for joining The Pool
In the years after Paul, I pick up a cocaine habit, sleep with endless men because I am high as a kite and think it would be rude not to, and embark on a full-blown, low-down, dirty, disgusting affair. It’s as if I have a fucked-up bucket list I am going through with a fine-tooth comb. Drug habit? Check. Eating disorder? Check. A man who is using you for sex and whom you are using for some screwed-up form of validation? Check, check, check.
Why did I do it? To this day, I have no excuses, only the vaguest sense that it must have been because I had absolutely no self-esteem and was desperate to be loved, even if it was by a man who sort-of-just-liked me. I’ve read about women who go out of their way to pursue married men, because they like to be lavished with gifts while having the freedom to get on with their own lives. This is not me and I am doubtful if it is really, truly anyone, if they’re being honest with themselves. Affairs are cruel, selfish, thoughtless things, and while I don’t think I am cruel, I am, aged 30, definitely selfish and thoughtless.
I don’t go looking for a married man but I don’t exactly make it difficult for him to find me, and I don’t go out of my way to tell him to clear off
I don’t go looking for a married man but I don’t exactly make it difficult for him to find me, and I don’t go out of my way to tell him to clear off. Ludicrously, it doesn’t even occur to me to suggest that he slings his hook. Nope. I will take any attention, however dubious, dangerous or undesirable it is. All the warning signs are there from the very beginning, yet I steadfastly ignore them in the deluded belief that this will be different, and love will conquer all. This is not love. This is self-loathing.
He took me to expensive restaurants and bars, and gave me the odd gift – a classic novel inscribed with a sweet message, a bunch of flowers delivered to my desk. Then, when he realised I was more of an open wound than a mistress, he stopped with the special attention. If he turned up an hour late, he knew I wouldn’t say a single thing, so desperate was I to see him. I was a needy, desperate husk, willingly paying £200 to travel to Manchester to see him while he was on an all-expenses paid business trip. Only when he chose Valentine’s Day to tell me his wife was pregnant with another child did I pluck up the courage to end it. Another few years lost to a bad boy because of chronic depression. Enough is most definitely enough.
Let me get this straight: my life was not made better by a man. My life was made better by me, and my decision, finally, to be kind to myself and stop with the self-abuse – the endless cocaine and food binges, the self-hatred, the shitty men. I got together with Harry soon after a life-changing trip sailing from Scotland to the Arctic Circle, where I celebrated my 31st birthday gazing at killer whales. As I watched a golden eagle dance through a fjord, I decided to make some changes. I returned and almost immediately noticed the kindness of one of my colleagues – a kindness I had, in the fog of mental illness, previously dismissed as a sign of weakness rather than strength. I thought Harry was really ordinary. Many months later, when he had encouraged me to get help and supported me through therapy for my OCD, I would realise he was absolutely extraordinary.
Our relationship started as a friendship and slowly grew from there. It wasn’t fireworks and drama – it was a warm front moving in after winter. It was the realisation that drama was not the key to happiness. Almost five years on, we are married with a three-year old daughter, Edie. It is not all easy: my OCD will rear its ugly head at times of stress. But we understand it now – I’m not afraid to reveal the truth of my brain to him – and we get through it. We are an equal partnership. In my twenties, when people told me I needed to love myself before anyone else could properly love me, I would baulk at the cheesiness of this. But I get it now, I really do. It’s a cliche, but cliches are cliches for a reason... and after what seemed like a lifetime of unconventional, unhealthy relationships, I am now cock-a-hoop to be part of one.
WHAT HARRY SAYS
The question people most often ask me when I accompany Bryony to a book event is: “Is it weird to read your wife write so openly about her past?” My answer is a resounding no. It isn’t weird, because I don’t read it, and never have – just as I am pretty sure she has never read a single one of my articles on the banking sector in The Times.
Plus, I know everything. She’s told me it. And I guess that her honesty is one of the reasons I love her: I always know where I stand with my wife. We are very different – I would say I am pretty quiet and restrained while the same could not be said of Bryony, but that is why our relationship works. Through her, I’ve learnt that there is no shame in talking about things – while I hope that very occasionally, she has learnt that there is no shame in staying quiet (when I have forgotten to tell her I’m working lates, for example, or when I leave the toilet seat up). Chalk and cheese we are, but honestly, it couldn’t work better.