Silence isn’t golden, it’s LETHAL!
She said, “If I wanted to reach out to educate others, I had to be honest. But that option involved blowing my life up”.
Several years ago, I was sitting in a living room with my husband Rob, sharing one last cup of tea before I was to drive him to a psychiatric hospital. Rob had a black eye, from where he had fallen down drunk, hitting his head on the knob of a cupboard. We had reached the end of a long journey in which Rob had been battling addiction and depression – a dual diagnosis. Though we had tried to treat both conditions at home, with him on anti-depressants and seeing addiction specialists, it was unmanageable. He needed in-patient care.
At the time, very few people knew what was going on in our lives. I had to go into work and pretend it was all okay, and not only lie about Rob being in hospital, but lie about our lives full-stop. To my colleagues, parents and most of my friends, we were happily married.
Eleven months later, Rob died by suicide. It was hard enough coming to terms with the fact that he was dead, that he was never coming back, but explaining his suicide to people who hadn’t known the extent of his problems was another thing altogether.
Given what the conversation is like around mental health now it seems hard to imagine that talking about depression was once so taboo. Addiction still is fairly taboo, but at least conversations are now being had around it. When Rob died in 2015, talking about both of these things was not common.
It struck me that for most of our marriage we had just muddled through with what we thought was the right thing. But that really, if more was known about it, we might have chosen different routes of treatment. One thing is absolutely true – that if there was less of a taboo, he might not have felt such crippling shame around being mentally ill and an addict, and I wouldn’t have felt so isolated and alone while supporting him.
After he died, I realised that the isolation of now being a suicide widow was unbearable. Suicide is a death that tends to horrify people, and grief in general is not something we feel comfortable discussing.
I was faced with two paths. One was to try and work through my grief in silence, the best way I could. The other was to try and help other people in the same situation so that they knew there was love and understanding out there, and more importantly, that they knew there were options in terms of help, and how to get recovery. Removing the shame around addiction and mental illness was also a crucial part of this, because I had seen how it had been such a big blocker to Rob and I in terms of accessing help.
The catch was that the second option involved blowing my life up – if I wanted to reach out to people and educate others, I had to be honest about everything that had been going on.
I decided to break my silence by writing a blog about Rob’s death. The need to speak about it became greater than the worries of being judged by people. I remember the moment one of my editors published it. I felt like I was going to be sick.
At the time, friends were concerned that I was making myself vulnerable because I’d put my email address at the bottom of the blog and told anyone to reach out if they wanted to. But the way I felt around losing Rob meant that I didn’t feel that things could get worse. When you’re at rock bottom, there is nothing much left to lose.
What followed was the beginning of something incredible. I got so many messages from people who had been in a similar place to Rob and I, whether that was around addiction, depression or suicide. They didn’t dump their problems on me, but they reached out with messages of hope and solidarity. In those early months I wasn’t suicidal per se, but I didn’t really care about being alive or not, and they were literally a life line.
More than anything, it made me immediately feel less alone and like less of a freak. It connected me to this community who were united by tragedy but far from tragic. And it meant Rob wasn’t forgotten. That his legacy was to connect people together, help them and make them feel less judged.
Over the years, I continued to speak at events and write extensively about grief, addiction, mental health and suicide. I’ve written two books about it. Sometimes it has come at an immense cost – where I’ve needed days and weeks to recover from doing an event, or when I wasn’t able to read the first book, Chase The Rainbow, about mine and Rob’s life together, for a while.
One of the biggest things, I’m ashamed to admit, is that I’m worried that anyone who might want to date me in the future just has to Google me and will be put off by what I speak around. Some men have in the past but I can’t control how someone might react – I just have to hope they’ll keep an open mind.
I don’t tend to get trolled or receive hurtful messages – if anything, the number of people who message me in private shows me why there is such a need for us to destigmatise grief, addiction and mental illness.
I speak about my life with Rob less now than I used to, mainly because of the cost it extracts, and I have rebuilt my life to the point where I don’t want to think about my grief all the time. But I will never stop speaking about it because I remember when someone’s message came at a time when all hope seemed lost, and it quite literally saved my life.
So for as long as I can, and I’m able, I will always speak out.