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COVER STORY: "I found myself on the edge of a bridge, determined to end my life. Then I heard a voice."

Content warning: This story deals with suicide and may be triggering for some readers.

Sunday 13 January 2008

I can’t stay in this place.
But I can’t stay at home. I’m just going insane.
Why can’t they just declare me insane? That’s what I am.
G-d, why on earth did you put me here? My mind won’t
be still. Why give me this brain? This pained and agitated
brain? I’m back at square one, in the mess I came in.

Take out these veins of mine,
And stop the blood flow to my head,
Then maybe all the voices will go to sleep,
And I will fall into my bed.

Diary entry, 13 January 2008

On a gloomy, drizzly winter morning in January 2008, I found myself standing on the edge of Waterloo Bridge, determined to end my life. I had hatched a detailed plan the night before and travelled to the busy commuter bridge at the first opportunity. It was a mind-numbingly normal hospital morning: woken up at 7 for meds. Saw psychiatrist at 7.30. Breakfast at 8. Straight afterwards, I told the nurse on duty that I, a non-smoker, needed to go outside for a cigarette. As soon as she let me out of the secure door into the grounds, I ran as fast as I could to the station and jumped on the first train up to London. And then headed to Waterloo Bridge.

Video via Channel 4

Most of my memories of that day are hazy. Many have been pieced together years later. But what I remember most is the overwhelming, desperate need to find peace, and my conviction that the bridge was my only way out. Anything to stop that pain, a pain so intense and unbearable that it left no room for any thoughts beyond the need to end it. Somewhere through the thick fog of my despair, I remember thinking that I didn’t want my family to feel guilty. But equally, I didn’t want to admit to anyone how I was really feeling, or to see their faces and their reactions when I told them that I didn’t want to live any more.

Even though it was a bitterly cold day, I was wearing only a T-shirt and jeans. For some reason, I’d torn out some pages from my diary and wrapped them up in my hoodie, which I then discarded in a public bin. I’ll never know exactly what was in those pages, but I clearly didn’t want anyone to see them. I’m fairly certain I’d written about my sexuality. I was desperate to end my life with everyone believing I was heterosexual because, amongst all my other problems, I was too ashamed to reveal that I was gay.

On any given day, tens of thousands of people cross Waterloo Bridge, a major artery connecting London’s bustling West
End with the South Bank. Even if I had known this statistic, it would have meant nothing to me on that dark, freezing January morning. As I walked to the middle of the bridge, stepped over the barrier and stood on the edge, I was oblivious to the stream of commuters walking past me. And in turn, the commuters were seemingly oblivious to the man teetering on the edge – all except for one.

‘Why are you sitting on the bridge?’ A male voice. I hadn’t seen him coming up behind me.

I told him straight away that I was going to jump. And to go away:

‘Don’t come so close.’

"The turning point came when he said to me, gently but directly: ‘I really believe you’re going to get better, mate.’"Image via Facebook.
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I said this over and over again, not really listening to what he was saying, until he asked me where I was from. It turned out that we’d grown up in the same area of northwest London, and for some reason this made me feel more comfortable talking to him. He started telling me more about himself; he said that he worked as a personal trainer in Covent Garden. He told me not to feel embarrassed about what I was going through, and this gave me permission to begin to open up. He also said he would cancel his clients for the morning and instead we could go somewhere and talk. I was so touched by this that I confided in him that I had run away from hospital that morning, after having been diagnosed with schizophrenia the month before.

When I told him how I was feeling – that until then I hadn’t realized I was ill, that I’d thought everyone heard voices in their heads, that I had come to the conclusion that I was possessed by the devil – it was the first time I’d ever opened up so frankly. Somehow I felt safe with this stranger. There was no judgement there. Just compassion.

The turning point came when he said to me, gently but directly: ‘I really believe you’re going to get better, mate.’

Having this complete stranger put some faith in me, at a point when I had absolutely none left in myself, changed my mind about what I was about to do. Someone believed in me. It restored my trust in humanity.

The last thing I remember the stranger saying was, ‘Let’s go for a coffee then’, as I asked him to help me back over the railings to the pavement. Then suddenly we were intercepted by the police who had been waiting behind me on the bridge in their car, with an ambulance behind them. As soon as I saw them coming towards me, I tried to scramble back over the railings. I didn’t want to go with them; I wanted to be with the stranger. I’d felt safe with him. He grabbed me just in time, but then the police stepped in. Ignoring my extreme distress, they handcuffed me and put me in the back of their car. Eventually I was moved into the ambulance and driven to St Thomas’ Hospital, where I was sectioned.

I was twenty. Little did I know then that this was the beginning of my road to recovery; a stony, winding one at times, but one which would take me on an extraordinary adventure, and would eventually involve a quest to discover the identity of the mysterious stranger on the bridge.

If you are suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.
You can also contact BeyondBlueBlack Dog InstituteHeadspaceMensLineQ Life, SANE Australia, or Support After Suicide

This is an extract from The Stranger on The Bridge by Jonny Benjamin and Britt Pfluger, Pan Macmillan Publishing, RRP $14.99. You can purchase the book here.

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