- ‘My husband was a secret heroin addict’
I used to be married to a wonderful yet complicated man named Rob. He worked as a science journalist, we had a house and a dog, and one day we planned to have children. He also suffered from depression since he was a child, and developed a formidable opiate addiction as a means, I believe, to self-medicate that illness.
In May 2015, he took his own life, unable to see a future in which he wouldn’t still be fighting his illness, unable to reconcile what he thought he was versus what he believed a man should be.
In one of his last messages to me, he said he couldn’t live with being bankrupt, an addict, mentally ill. This speaks heartbreaking volumes of how he saw himself at the end – someone no longer valuable to society.
He had forgotten his huge intellect, his stunning ability to name any species of bird or plant he came across, his kindness, generosity, friendship. His immense capacity to love, which came without conditions or limitations.
As a man on the cusp of 40, he struggled with a lot of things other men do – being a good partner, making money, one day being a dad – but more often than not, those worries were kept hidden beneath a veneer of nonchalance, jokes and ‘everything’s fine’.
However, he would always be the best listener and advice-giver to anyone who needed help.
Men are more likely to develop addictions than women. If you are a man, the thing most likely to kill you, if you are under 45, is yourself. And yet we don’t seem to knit together all of these things to figure out why this is the case.
The idea of self-medicating your own illness to the point of death is preferable, it appears, to asking for help. Because admitting you can’t do it alone goes against the expectation we have for you as men: that you are supposed to fix everything, do everything and deal with your darkest worries in silence.
In an attempt to make sense of Rob’s death, I wrote a book called Chase The Rainbow, which is part memoir, part journalism, to give context and make sense of what is happening to our men.
As part of my research, I spoke to Alistair Campbell who campaigns for awareness around mental health, and to end stigma. He said simply that if a person was still here, then anything was possible. And if they weren’t, then nothing was possible.
What I am here to say, on behalf of all the women in your lives, is that we don’t want your silence. Your silence, quite literally, is killing you.
It shouldn’t have to take a death for anyone to realise this. It shouldn’t have to take a number as terrifying as that suicide statistic to make us really examine what we need and want from our men.
What we need from you isn’t your ability to take out the rubbish or mow the lawn. Or be stoic and silent in the face of adversity. Or even be the breadwinner.
What we want from you is to still be here. Because if you are here, then we have a chance of changing things, and if you aren’t, then all we can do is build on your legacy. It seems unthinkable that the future of boys and men are built on the bones of others, but until that number goes down, it will keep happening.
I remember asking Rob a lot, if he was okay, because he didn’t seem to be. And nine times out of ten, he insisted he was fine. The truth would only emerge when he had reached a situation of such desperate proportions, I wondered why his real emotions always only came out after paying such a high price. He lost his house, dog and eventually, me.
I don’t think I ever truly understood his shame or his loneliness, and I wish he had given me the chance. When I asked him once, why he couldn’t talk to me until it got really bad, he couldn’t articulate it. He just said: “I… can’t.”
He kept convincing himself he could fix it all and I would never have to know about the real extent of his problems.
I don’t think he ever understood what I wanted from him; what any wife, mother, daughter, sister or friend wants from any man in their lives. We don’t want perfection. We don’t expect you to have it all figured out anymore than we do. We don’t expect you to never make mistakes, or never feel sad, small, vulnerable or lonely.
The parts we tend to love most about you are not your rough edges, or your ability to keep a stiff upper lip. It is your softness, kindness; your ability to trust us with your hearts; to cry in front of us. These are not failings because they make you more than a man: they make you human.
We do you a disservice by writing you off as simple and straightforward. You grow up in the same world we do, and yet we paint you as emotionally one-dimensional. You are complex, your waters run deeper than we can imagine. If we are capable of softness and strength, then why do we imagine you aren’t?
The story I love most about my father is that he wrote poetry for my mother when he worked long shifts at A&E. The thing I loved most about Rob was his habit of placing flowers on my bedside table while I slept so I would wake up to the scent of freesias.
The women in your lives love you for a thousand reasons. I doubt any of them has anything to do with your ability to carry heavy things. We don’t expect you to only share your successes, your power, your strength. We need you to share your pain, your fears, your worries.
Because for those of us left behind, who have lost our men, there is not a day that passes when we don’t wish they were here. So we could tell them that those expectations are not realistic, that no one can hold all of their worry and concern inside, and that’s not what we want from them anyway.
What we want, above anything else, is but the sharpest of wishes: that they were still here.