Stranger on the Bridge by Jonny Benjamin MBE and Neil Laybourn

So, I guess my mental health
issues kind of presented themselves really quite young. I was five years old when my
parents, they took me to see a child psychologist. I, my behavior was, it wasn’t
typical of a five year old. I was quite violent, quiet disruptive. I was actually seeing
things and hearing things that weren’t there. And my parents didn’t
know what was going on, they didn’t know what to do. So they took me to see
this child psychologist and I worked with her for a while. I always felt very different growing up. I just never felt I fitted in in school. I did really well academically,
but aside of that, I just, yeah, didn’t fit in. And then when I was 10
years old I started to hear a voice in my head. I mean, I thought everyone
heard a voice in their head so I thought it was normal. I didn’t question it. And at the same time I same
the film the Truman Show with Jim Carey. And I started to believe
that I was on my own version of the Truman Show. It’s now quite a common thing
and psychiatrists have labeled it the Truman Delusion. So I was, you know, believing
I was on this TV show. I thought I knew where all
the cameras were that were watching me and I thought
people in my life were actors. When I was around 15, 16
things started to change and, actually, I got really bad acne. And they put me on this
drug called Accutane. And Accutane has been linked to, actually, a number of cases of
suicides in young people. And, I mean, this drug, it
cleared up my skin but six months after I was left with
this depression, essentially. These really low moods that
would just come and just completely, sort of, paralyze me. I didn’t understand what
was going on, you know. I was doing really well at
school, I had a good home, I came from a good family. So why was I feeling so
low so much of the time? I just didn’t understand it and, you know, we never got any mental
health education at school so I just did not understand
what was going on. Around that time, the voice
in my head changed as well. So I thought I was hearing
the voice of this angel, it was a friendly voice. And then I started hearing
what I thought was the devil. And it was, it was tormenting
and critical and it, the voice said to me, it
challenged me to do things. I’d always have to do things in threes. For example, the voices say,
“If you don’t pick this object “up and put it down three
times then I’m going to “punish you, I’m going
to punish your mom.” And I felt really compelled
to do these things. I come from a Jewish
background and I was heavily influenced by my faith and
I really believed in the angel and the devil and
I thought the voice I was hearing was sent down from
God and that I was a bad person because I was hearing this voice. I was struggling with
my sexuality and, um, I was told growing up
that being gay was wrong, was a sin, and it had
a massive impact on me. And so this devil, I believe
there’s a link between hearing this devil and
struggling with my sexuality. But I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t tell anyone
because I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed and
ashamed and just kind of, I don’t know, somehow I just hid it. When I was 17, though, I
went to my doctors and I didn’t know where else to
go so I went to my doctor and I said what was going on. He was great, the doctor
referred me onto what’s called CAMHS, the Child and Adolescent
Mental Health Service. But there was a long waiting
list for therapy and I gave up waiting. I thought, “It can’t be that bad, “if they don’t need to see
me then I can’t be that bad.” So I went on and I went off to university. I really believed that
by going away from home off to university it was
going to change everything. So I’m from London and I was
going to go to Manchester to study. And I really really had
this belief that everything in here was going to be
left behind in London and I was going to, yeah,
turn over a new leaf and it was all going to be different
when I got to university. And that wasn’t the case. I really struggled at university. But, again, it was all hidden. Secretly, secretly, I was going
to my doctor at university and they were giving me
anti-depressants to try and, nothing was addressing the
other symptoms, you know? And I just became sort of
more and more internalized at university. I was self-harming, alcohol became a, sort of the only thing that
could get me through sometimes. The only thing that, the
only way I could escape from everything in my head
was just to, you know, drink and drink and drink. And, yeah, it’s amazing what you can hide. So I hid it all. But there’s only so much
I think you can hide and by my third year, the
first time in my third year I became really unwell. I became psychotic. I couldn’t hide it anymore,
I couldn’t hide it, and they could see, everyone
could see I was really unwell. And I was sent home by
my housemates to London, to my parents, and my parents
could see I wasn’t myself. And they took me straight to the doctor, doctor referred me straight
away to the psychiatric hospital in North London. I was taken there and I
was given a disagnosis, which was schizoaffective disorder, which is like schizophrenia and bipolar. And every day I just got worse. I just, every day I just
thought, “I can’t carry on “like this,” you know, “I
cannot go on like this.” I just thought I was past
the point of no return. I was like, “There’s no way
I can come back from this. “How am I ever going to recover.” And all the things I wanted
to do in life, job and family, I was just like, “It’s
never going to happen.” And so a month into my stay
in hospital I decided to run away and I was going to kill myself. Because I just thought, “What
is the point of prolonging “this pain? What is the point?” And I felt like a burden, as well. On my family and friends and it just, there was no way out so I
just thought the only way is to end my life. So I ran away from hospital. This is January 2008. Just before my 21st birthday. And I ran away from the
hospital and I went to a bridge in central London. I thought about suicide
a lot leading up to that. It was always there, it was
always in the back of my mind. But now I was ready, I was done. And yeah, then I went to
this bridge and my memory of that is really hazy. But that’s where, obviously, I met Neil. – Johnny was calmly sitting
there, but facing the river. So my first thought when I
got up quite close was that that is somebody who looks
like they might try and jump. Somebody that might take their life. I didn’t know at that point. I didn’t know if it was
just somebody sitting there and they were a bit more
eccentric, you know? Way more eccentric than the usual person, but I wanted to find out for sure. So I came around the side of him. I was really cautious about
not startling him too much. I could see he was kind
of just in his own world. And I asked him why he was sitting there. I didn’t want to offer any help or advice, I just wanted to find out why. But he did say to me, “I’m
going to take my life.” And then I just opened up. Like, quite coincidentally
I found out that we grew up 10 minutes apart from each other. So in the whole big place,
it’s a multi-national city, isn’t it? You’re probably an outsider
if you were brought up in London, but we grew up in
a five minutes drive from each other. So I latched onto that straight away. Just any common ground. Where did you go to school? Slowly he actually started, I could see, he just became more
engaged in the conversation and started to come away
from that really dark place where he was. ‘Cause he really was,
in the first couple of, the first five, 10 minutes
of conversation he was, he’d barely look at me, barely look at me. Really just in a distraught place. But then he started to open
up and it became, actually, more of a conversation. I guess I burst his bubble, in a way. And then the whole time I was thinking, “I need to kind of get
him away from the side “of the bridge.” So I said, “Let’s go for
coffee, do you want to go for “coffee and have a chat about this?” I can remember saying to him, actually, “If you want to take your
life today, I’m not here to “stop you to do that,
you’re free to make your own “decision in life, but I
think I would actually really “like you to get it off your
chest and I think you owe it “to yourself to tell me
why and then let’s go talk “about it.” And I think that idea
started to appeal to him that if he, I guess it’s like a bit of solace, somebody to listen to you. So he stepped over from
the bridge sitting, like, feet and body facing the water. Like all it would’ve taken
for him to do was jump. But then 15, 20 minutes in
he’s standing on the side of the pavement like 10
yards away from the bridge. Which is like, that was
like leaps and bounds. A police car came up
really abruptly and Johnny, straight away, as soon as the
police got out Johnny just ran back for the bridge. So I had to grab him. The police were really good
initially, they restrained him, took him to safety in the
car, took a statement from me. And it was like, “Okay, that
coffee’s not happening now, “he’s with them.” And then I’m back off going to work. – After meeting Neil on the
bridge I was taken away by the police and I was taken to
a local hospital and I was sectioned and that was, that was quite traumatic. But something had changed. Something in me had changed. Basically I had hope. I had never had hope before. Just from talking to Neil for
that space of time really, he said to me, just very
casually he said to me, he said, “Look mate, I
think you’ll get better.” It was such a simple sort of thing to say. Because when you’re in that
place you’ve got no faith left in yourself at all. So to have someone to come
along and put their faith in you. That was, you know, that was the key. And I held onto that, I
held onto that and sectioned and they took me back to the
hospital that I ran away from. And it was hard, but I held
onto it, someone believing in me and telling me they
think I could get better. Eventually, it was actually,
there was a family friend of ours that had a heart
attack a few years, three or four years after my diagnosis. And I went to see him after
his heart attack and he had a bypass. And we sat for ages and
he told me everything that he’d been through, you know,
both the physical side of the heart attack, but
also the emotional side. It was very emotional. And I sat there listening
thinking, “Why can he talk so “openly about his heart
problem, his physical health “and I still cannot talk
about my mental health? “I cannot come to terms with it.” And I was like, “This has got to change. “If I ever want to get, if
I want to get back on track “this has got to change.” And so I went home that night
and I just got my camera out, my camera phone, and I
just recorded a video. I was just ready, I needed an outlet. I just needed to talk, like
he talked to me about his physical health issues,
I needed to talk about my mental health issues. And I put this video online,
I put it on YouTube because I wanted to reach people. And the more and more I spoke
about it I started making videos about my experiences
and the more and more I spoke the less and less shame
and embarrassment there was every single time. I came out, I said I was
gay and that was hard. But I felt like a weight,
I literally could feel the weight lifted off my
shoulder every time I said, every time I said to people,
“I’m gay, I’ve got mental “health issues.” It was like a weight coming away. And I finally got back on track, you know. Things like therapy, I had a lot of CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,
which for me was really useful. I started learning about mindfulness. And mindfulness, it’s not
for everyone, but for me it changed everything. It’s not about, you can’t turn off here. I wish you could, but
you can’t turn this off. But for me mindfulness is
about, it doesn’t have to overwhelm you so much,
doesn’t have to control you. And things like meditation and yoga and, just things like that, just
put me back in control. And just reconnecting
the body and the mind. As I got more and more
confident in talking about my mental health I started
getting involved with charities and organizations. (mumbles) Mental Illness was
one of them and I became an ambassador for the charity. And we worked together and
we said what can we do to raise awareness of mental illness. So they said, “Why don’t you
launch a campaign to find “that guy because it will
get people talking about it.” I mean, I couldn’t remember his name. I called it the Find Mike campaign. I couldn’t remember his name. I couldn’t remember what
he looked like, anything. So we launched this
campaign, just last minute, campaign six years to the
day that we first met. We launched it on
Breakfast TV, national TV. Really not sure how
people would receive it, but we just wanted it to
engage people in talking about mental health and suicide. I mean, it just kind of
exploded the campaign. It went viral, started
trending around the world, and it was unbelievable. – My wife, she saw it and a
friend of hers had posted it and it had been shared
like 100,000 times by then. But she knew straight away,
she remembered the details of the story and she called
me up frantically because I was at home and it was
like 10 o’clock at night, I was in bed and she was
getting a train late home, she was working late and
she called me and she says, “I cannot believe it, the
guy that you spoke to on the “bridge all those years ago,
he’s searching for you.” And I was just, like, dumbfounded. Like, in complete shock. And I can remember it being
such a big deal to me that I didn’t even pick up
my phone to look at it. Because it was a special
moment, I thought, “No, I want to wait ’til you
get home and I will look at “this thing that you’ve got.” And then I was up for like
three hours that night rewriting the email,
talking to her about it. I wrote the email, I rewrote
it, I rewrote it again because I really wanted
him to know it was me. Like, I really wanted to say,
“It’s me, it’s me,” you know? And I got a call pretty
much the day after from the charity that Johnny was doing
the Find Mike campaign with, (mumbles). They called me up and said,
“If you’d like to meet Johnny “he would love to meet you.” I couldn’t believe it. – It’s really hard to put
it into words, actually. It was overwhelming. Yeah, it was really overwhelming. Just to be able to thank
him for what he did was, meant more than I can say, really. And it was very overwhelming, the reunion, very emotional. But you know, it’s amazing. And since then, obviously,
we’ve become friends, good friends, and you know. Neil has come on the journey with me, it hasn’t ended it’s like– It’s amazing. We’re now campaigning
together, we do talks and we’re running the marathon, London
marathon next year for charity ads together,
meeting the royals and just trying to help people. Trying to breakdown that
stigma around mental illness and it’s, yeah, I still have
to pinch myself sometimes when I think about how we
met and where we are now. It’s remarkable. And I just, you know, just
want to get that message out that it’s okay, it’s okay. And it’s so important to
talk about it and by talking about it, it can make all the difference. And i just, I feel so lucky. I feel so lucky. Yeah, to be here and to
be doing what I’m doing. I wake up sometimes and
I just feel so grateful. And I’m, so many years I
spent waking up and wishing, wishing that I was dead. So to go from that to now
waking up and being so grateful to be alive. I feel really lucky. Yeah, I feel really lucky.

13 thoughts on “Stranger on the Bridge by Jonny Benjamin MBE and Neil Laybourn

  1. Made me cry again xx    I'm curious about a couple of things:  Does Jonny think that going with the police at that moment and not being able to have that coffee with Neil, was the right thing?  And why, when Neil had given a statement to the police, was it so hard to find him? xx

  2. what an incredibly BRAVE video. no one really understands what courage it takes to talk about all this. what you have experienced is terrifying beyond belief. you will be hugely inspirational to others.

  3. I had the same experience with your beginning of college, I thought it would change everything too. But no, the brain follows you around. Even though it always gets better

  4. I've been getting therapy for years. It's something I will do forever it's not a quick fix we need to keep going for our wellness. I have bipolar 1 and severe depression.

  5. My God, this is a powerful interview. I found this because I’m currently reading Jonny’s book “The Stranger on the Bridge”, which I just happened to spot on display in a bookshop when I was looking for something else. I recommend that others also read the book, because it really gives you an insight into what it is like to struggle with serious mental health problems. Most of us these days will know someone who struggles with anxiety and depression (a friend, colleague or a family member), or we may know of someone who suffers from severe forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia (perhaps the son of a colleague, say), and Jonny’s book helps us to understand more about what it is like to walk in their shoes.

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