Poorna Bell knew her husband suffered from depression but she never believed he would take his own life. Here, she shares her story…
Questions people ask me, when I talk about my husband’s death, is whether I knew he had depression before we got married. The answer is, of course, yes. I think they wonder whether my life would have been better if I had not married Rob.
So when they ask me, I always think: you don’t understand a thing about our love and the connection we had. If you did, you’d know that every second with this man was worth it.
We met on a wintry January evening six years ago – a blind date I nearly cancelled, but ended up honouring because a friend had set us up. What started as a slow-burning interest turned into a forest fire, so when he mentioned his depression a few months in, it didn’t change anything. How could it? I was a woman in love.
What I loved most about Rob was his kindness. On our fourth date, he made me chicken noodle soup and was ready to leave it on the doorstep at my request because I didn’t want him to see how snotty I was. Then there was the time he spent all night searching for our escaped tortoise (incidentally, the crankiest, evilest thing alive), saying: ‘He is my creature, and it was my job to look after him’.
The kindest man
When his grandmother died, he decided to commandeer his cousins to make her favourite biscuits to remember her, then insisted that all the leftovers went to the local homeless shelter. As my sister put it at his memorial: ‘He was one of those rare human beings who understood that giving to other people doesn’t diminish what you have, it magnifies it.’
Rob and I wanted the same things from life: we wanted to get married, to move abroad in a few years and set up a business. And we wanted babies. When I pictured him (or myself) at the end of our lives, it was always surrounded by children and grandchildren. Never for one minute did I think he would die alone, at night, surrounded by despair, unable to see the love I had for him and allow that to guide him back home.
Married life is not always easy, and for us, it was harder than most. I didn’t realise this before our wedding, but the prospect of being married triggered a big, depressive relapse for my husband. It robbed him of the ability to sleep or communicate. I was so busy planning our wedding that I didn’t feel the full effects of it until after we came back from honeymoon. He explained it wasn’t specifically about marrying me, it was about the expectation, the pressure he put upon himself to be a good husband, and the worry that he wouldn’t be up to the task. In other words, it came down to his feelings of self-worth.
Once I knew how bad it could get, it was a question of rallying behind him and building my world around his health. I always had the hope that the depression would lift, so this got me from one day to the next. The most difficult part was feeling like I was handling it on my own. It wasn’t that I didn’t have supportive friends or family, but I think most people find it really hard to understand mental illness. They see it in black and white: my husband had depression, so surely my life must have been terrible? But that wasn’t true – we had good and bad days. The good days were bliss. I looked at that man and thought, I could spend every single day just talking to you and doing the most mundane things and I’d be happy.
It was when we were talking about trying for children that Rob had another relapse. I didn’t think he was in any danger. He’d spoken to me about suicide before, but promised he wouldn’t do it. So what changed? He had access to the best care – doctors and therapists – but deep down, I think he’d already made the decision. He couldn’t reconcile the man he wanted to be – a father, a husband – with the illness that kept pulling him further into the darkness.
Our last conversation
He was in Auckland at the time of his death, staying with relatives. We spoke on a Tuesday night via Skype, ending our conversation with laughter. Then, two days later, I received the call. Rob had been found, he was dead, and the earth stopped moving for me.
In the aftermath, I felt it was something I had to keep secret. Whether it was the air stewardess, the bank clerk or mobile phone salesmen murmuring how ‘young’ I was to be a widow, I felt I couldn’t say why my husband died.
When I returned to work, I was advised I didn’t have to tell people if I didn’t want to. But I thought: Would I be given the same advice if my husband had died of cancer? Or is his death viewed as being ‘selfish’ because it was suicide? Yet Rob was far from selfish. He was the kind of person who’d drive three hours to come and landscape your garden if you needed him to.
I’ve learned since Rob’s death that we can all benefit from the ethos he lived by, but was unable to apply to himself – and that’s kindness. It takes a lot for a person with mental illness to talk about how they feel – to open up and be truly vulnerable. Too many times they hear: ‘It’s all in your head’, ‘think positive’ or ‘man up’. What they need is kindness and understanding.
I could not save my husband, only he could have done that. In the end, he found that too hard and nothing I could have done would have shielded me from this tragedy. To wish that away would mean removing all the love, laughter and joy, and why would I do that, when that is the most precious legacy he has left behind?
Poorna Bell is Executive Editor and Global Lifestyle Head of The Huffington Post UK
For more information and support on the subject of male suicide, please contact the charity CALM on 0800 58 58 58.