When author and journalist Poorna Bell discovered her husband Rob’s heroin addiction and depression, which eventually led to his suicide, it took her on a journey that left her with countless ‘what ifs’. While her grief remains, she has learned that in time, the pain will lessen as she treasures their love and moves forward in life
Rob told me around four weeks after we had started dating, and was very upfront about it. We were in a taxi on our way to dinner and he said: “There’s something I need to tell you. From time-to-time I suffer from depression.”
It was about nine years ago. I didn’t know anything about depression, so I thought: “I’m glad he has told me, but it doesn’t seem like a big deal.” He was so matter of fact and confident about it, that I simply assumed he had it in hand. Honestly, at the time, I didn’t see how it would impact our life very much.
There is not much I regret in our relationship, but knowing what I know now about depression, I wish I could have that moment over again, because there are so many questions I would have asked – and the biggest would’ve been: “How have you been managing it?”
Chronic depression is a big deal; it is a formidable illness, both for the person and for their partner. You can’t just manage it on your own.
Rob was of a type. He was aware of his depression, but had not seen a psychiatrist until he was 36. He went to his GP sometimes for anti-depressants, but didn’t have any other support, such as therapy. As a man, he stigmatised himself for having depression, which acted as a block to him getting help.
At times, he only saw the things he couldn’t do, or how the depression made him feel. I think he found it hard to love himself, despite being loved so much by so many people. From time to time, until he died, he would say: “I just want to be normal.” This was a huge hurdle for him to overcome, and he never did.
Rob was also a high-functioning heroin addict. He’d managed to conceal his addiction from me because of all of the things he’d managed to achieve. He had his own house, he had a pet dog, he liked gardening, he loved me, he cooked dinners, and he managed to work successfully as a freelance journalist.
Maybe, if things had been overwhelmingly chaotic, I would’ve been more suspicious. But there were unexplained things, like his insomnia, or him being fine one day and really sick the next. But he was proud, and would just brush my concerns away, saying he was fine. How do you get a fully-grown man to engage in support services when they say no? He also – in his own words – manipulated my concerns to mask his addiction, because he was terrified that if I found out I would leave him.
All I wanted to do was help him, but being human too, I said if he lied to me again, I would seek a separation, because that was the worst part of dealing with his addiction issues. We had three prolonged relapses, followed by weeks of lying, and after the last one, I said I couldn’t do it anymore.
Like all addictions, it is hard to maintain that façade, and his life literally crumbled around him before he died. He ended up being thousands of pounds in debt, had lost his house, and then finally, he lost me.
Rob did seek treatment, and we were really lucky that we had private healthcare through my work – if we had gone through the NHS I think he would have died sooner because the system is so underfunded and overburdened. He went cold turkey, engaged with a counsellor, saw his psychiatrist, and spent two stints in a psychiatric hospital.
He had gone to stay with family in New Zealand because in the UK, I was the one who had looked after him and I could no longer do that. So, we needed somewhere he would be safe, and could have a respite from working. A week later he took his own life. We had been separated for three months.
Chronic depression is a big deal; it is a formidable illness, both for the person and for their partner. You can’t just manage it on your own
I’ve seen how so many of us – including myself – have tortured ourselves over the “what ifs”. From phone calls, to last meetings, to things we said. Could we have saved them? I think when it comes to suicide, we think of that moment on the bridge – a split second that could have saved a person’s life.
But suicide is a lot more complicated than that. It is impossible to put ourselves in the mind of someone who is in so much pain and hopelessness. No single person can be the solution to all of that pain. You aren’t responsible for another person’s life any more than someone is responsible for your’s.
I wanted to write my book – Chase the Rainbow – because I felt quite strongly that there wasn’t a lot of information out there for those people who are supporting a loved one with a mental illness or addiction. There is so much I wish I had known. In a broader sense, I also felt weighed down with my grief and this huge stigma around the manner in which Rob had died.
We shared so much love in our relationship, despite how difficult things got and how it eventually ended. I wanted to share that with the world, to show that all of these things aren’t so black and white.
Writing and researching helped me immensely, because I learned so much – and some of what I learned alleviated my guilt around Rob’s death. Of course, it was cathartic but I also got to relive some of the best parts of our relationship – falling in love, getting married – and it reminded me how complicated a person’s life is, and how it is full of love, but also inevitably, grief.
What we know about addiction is mostly wrong. An opiate addiction in particular is hugely complex. For instance, we have a very set idea of what a heroin user looks like – Renton from Trainspotting. But the reality is a heroin user can be from any background – rich or poor – there is no pattern as to why someone might get addicted, or what that person will look like.
In terms of my own mental health, I think the biggest thing I did for myself was that I didn’t shelve my grief. I didn’t ignore it, I let it run its course, and the journey is still ongoing. What I did was give myself time to grieve.
When I needed space from work, I worked from home. Therapy was incredible – not because I needed it to make sense of Rob’s death, but because I had to figure out how to navigate my relationships with my loved ones, now that I felt so decimated by his passing. Grief causes immense anger – sometimes irrationally – and therapy helped me to manage that.
Above all, I remain fit – walking, running and going to the gym is essential for my mental health. I make sure I do small things for myself, like leaving work on time, and checking in with myself so that I tackle a difficult issue before it becomes a huge, insurmountable thing.
My situation is unique, as is every single bereavement. In the early months after Rob died and everything was just pain and sadness, someone said to me: “This will get better. You will never stop grieving, you will never stop feeling sad, but it will get less intense, and you’ll feel like you can breathe again.”
Three years after his death, I know exactly what that person meant. I am still grieving, but I have learned to carry the love I have for him and still move forward with my life. It doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten him, or that it hurts any less. But the spaces in between get longer and kinder, and in time, the pain isn’t so often, or so sharp.
‘Chase the Rainbow’ is out in paperback on 3 May, published by Simon & Schuster, £8.99
Poorna is right to remind us that no one is accountable for someone else’s health or wellbeing, and that suicide is seldom caused by just one thing. I was struck by Poorna pointing out that grieving tells us that we have loved – this is a powerful, positive message amidst our pain. I wish Poorna, and anyone who has suffered the pain of a death through suicide, well in their journey to finding a sense of peace, despite what they have gone through.