An illustration of a postcard, with the words 'Thank you' in bold, pink typeface.
An illustration of a postcard, with the words 'Thank you' in bold, pink typeface.

Roughly five years ago, around the time of my 30th birthday, I realised that life had become too much for me to deal with.

When I say “life”, what I actually mean is “depression”, a word I barely used at all back then. But whatever word I was using, I knew I had to do something. So, I decided to walk. At 29 years old, I decided to walk 3,000 miles around Britain in an effort to catapult myself out of the darkest period in my life. I spent a year away from city life, circumnavigating the British mainland on foot, which afforded me the physical and mental space that I needed at that time to find and better understand myself.

But although I’d escaped the noise and the oppressiveness of the city, I missed the people. Of course, I talked to strangers I bumped into a lot; we’d have lunch, or dinner, or, every now and then I’d stay at someone’s house. But existing transiently as I was, I just didn’t have the time to get close enough to anyone to get that ‘friendship’ feeling from home – the feeling you can’t really get with someone unless they’ve recommended a song to you, knows your mum’s name, or lent you money.

Even the best connections I made on the road only lasted a day or two, three at the most; and even when I got on well enough with someone that we would exchange numbers and stay in contact for a while, there was never time to let it develop into the type of friendships I had with people back home. The one exception to all this was a woman called Jodie.

The main difference between the first and second half of my 3,000 mile walk around Britain was that in the first half, all I had to do was be out there – walk at my own pace and camp wherever I wanted to. In the second half, after appearing in a BBC documentary called Mind Over Marathon, and becoming a more high-profile mental health advocate, I now found myself having to honour commitments and attend events that were often absolutely nowhere near where I was, geographically – which is how I found myself on the crown of Britain’s budget public transport, the National Express, on my way to London for the Mind Media awards. For only the princely sum of seven pounds, it was a discomfort I was happy to put up with.

By the time we reached the midlands, the coach was halfway to London and I was settled in my seat, perfectly satisfied with how it was all going. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for everyone, and specifically not the case for one passenger, a woman in her early 20s who I’d noticed kept leaving her seat to complain to the driver about the temperature of the coach. It was, I agreed, quite needlessly high.

When the coach stopped for the umpteenth time at a service station, everyone got off for a stretch, and the short-haired woman and I bumped into each other. Her name was Jodie, and she was on her way back from some sort of party somewhere and was, fairly obviously, feeling the after-effects.

I liked her immediately. She had a curiousness in her eyes, like she was observing the world and interpreting everyone in her own amusing way, and she expressed it with a silly, accent-based sense of humour much like my own. Something about her made me feel a lot closer to the enjoyable parts of city life than I had in some time. I invited her to join me on the empty seat next to mine, at the back of the coach, and over the following five hours the two of us fell in what Jodie would later describe as ‘friend love’: we told each other all about ourselves in wry, pithy anecdotes; we rolled Trebor Xtra Strong mints down the aisle; and we found a pair of Ray Bans under the seat and immediately put them on eBay and planned what we were going to do with the money – all the loud, exuberant, inconsiderate sorts of things people do when they’re excited and emboldened by a childhood friend. Or in this case, a new best friend.

What I didn’t acknowledge at the time was that Jodie’s company and relaxedness around me was giving me the confidence to start being vocal about my mental health, as effectively as my walk around Britain gave me the mental space I needed to unpack it. It took a long coach journey with someone I had no past with to make the leap from ‘talking about talking about mental health’ to using the type of language that showed my vulnerabilities, and if I hadn’t bumped into her on that journey, I might not have been able to articulate those feelings of shame and fear and sadness quite so well.

Jodie listened to everything I said with such attention, with so little judgement, that there were times I felt as though I wasn’t talking to anyone. She just sat there and listened, and when I’d finished, she’d ask something else. Her curiosity broke me open, and she wasn’t repulsed or embarrassed about what spilled out. After talking openly about my mental health for just over a year, it was the first time I’d been that honest.

The time flew, and before we both knew it we had reached the coach terminal at Milton Keynes, Jodie’s stop. I got off the coach with her, in I guess a vague attempt to make sure I derived all the meaning from our meeting as was possible to, and after exchanging numbers I got back on the coach and sat back in my uncomfortable seat.

Over the following weeks, months and now years, my friendship with Jodie evolved and is now one of my greatest, and most fulfilling, and our chance meeting on that journey was one of the most serendipitous moments of my whole journey. I’d met a new soul mate, and began a long distance friendship that took no effort to maintain, and that in turn had filled the void that needed to be filled at that precise time.

Connections open the world up. In a world where there is so much distance between ourselves and the people that can make us feel this way, it’s no wonder that so many of us feel as low and isolated as we do. The good news is we’re not too far away now, and in this last little bit of what has been a trying year, I’d say it’s fine to get excited about feeling the wonders of friendship again.

Jodie and I remain close friends to this day, not just because we both enjoy rolling mints down the aisle of a bus, but because we built emotional bridges early doors, and felt calm and relaxed in doing so. The bond we formed via our real and vulnerable conversation is special, but we aren’t, especially: we’re just two people who managed to break through an invisible barrier that seems to orbit around everyone – which is a lot easier to do than most people think.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

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