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The whole story of the voice in my head that almost killed me and the day my life was saved

Gay mental health advocate Jonny Benjamin was told by a stranger that he could get better and his moving story will show that you can too

The whole story of the voice in my head that almost killed me and the day my life was saved
Jonny is working with the Duke And Duchess Of Cambridge to prevent suicide

I was 10 years old when I first heard a voice in my head. It told me it was an angel.

At first, I quite liked it being there. It was a companion. I assumed everyone heard voices in their heads and what I was experiencing was ‘normal’.

Around the same time, I first saw the film The Truman Show. Afterward my friend who I watched it with playfully suggested that I might possibly be in my own version of the film.

A seed has been planted in my mind. What if I was on my own TV reality show without my knowledge? It was possible. It happened to Truman Burbank; it could happen to me.

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And so for the next decade I believed I was being watched by cameras wherever I went. I also thought my family and friends were actors, playing their parts in a world fabricated around me.

Like the voice I was hearing, I came to accept this was the path chosen for me, and that there was little I could do to change that. I may as well embrace it.

Depression

But when I turned 16, I started developing severely low moods. They would last for days or weeks on end, and I often spent hours in my room crying at times. I was embarrassed, ashamed and didn’t know how to articulate my feelings to anyone. I kept silent about it.

The voice I was hearing changed too, becoming sinister and tormenting. I now believed I was hearing the voice of the devil. It issued me challenges like:

‘Your parents are going to die in a car crash unless you walk up and down the stairs three times.’

I started to consider suicide. Life had become unbearable and I was unable to cope.

Despite all of this, I probably seemed like a typical teenager to those around me. In fact, I was a bit of a geek at school, achieving really high grades in all my GCSEs.

One friend did notice a difference in my behavior though and confronted me about it. I told him about my suicidal thoughts and he forced me to see my family doctor.

Over the next few years I saw various general practitioners and tried different courses of anti-depressants. I always played down the true state of my mind. I was terrified I would end up in in an institution like Claymoore Hospital in the film ‘Girl, Interrupted’ if I did.

I was also convinced that this would all just pass.

At 18 I left my home in North London to go to drama school in Manchester; I was sure it was the change I needed to put everything right. It only took a few days though before I fell back into a cycle of depression. This time it hit harder than ever before.

I was determined to carry on and achieve my degree. I treasured my time at drama school; every day it allowed me to escape my reality by becoming someone else.

Outside of it though, I was really struggling; drinking heavily, self-harming and alienating myself more and more from people around me.

Breakdown

At the age of 20 I had a breakdown. It was a freezing cold night in late November 2007 when I left my house feeling totally out of control. I went onto the middle of a dual carriageway and walked down it, shouting and screaming at the cars driving past.

It felt like my mind and body were being controlled by the devil. I was psychotic and needed serious help.

I was eventually taken to A&E, the emergency room. It would be another few weeks though before I was admitted into a psychiatric unit and given a diagnosis, schizoaffective disorder; a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar. I found it impossible to come to terms with; it seemed like I’d been handed a life sentence.

There was also the issue of my sexuality, which I refused to talk about in therapy whenever it came up. I couldn’t bring myself to admit I was gay. Coming from a Jewish background, I was sure that my family would disown me.

Rebuilding

A month into my stay, having given up hope of getting better, I ran away from hospital, intending to take my life. I was apprehended though by a passing stranger who stopped me with his words:

‘I’ve been where you are. I got through it, I know you can too.’

I will never forget the weight of these words and the impact they had on me.

For the first time in so long, I could see through the darkness that had brought me to this moment. Someone, a complete stranger, believed in me when I had no self-belief left.

Hearing that he’d overcome his demons gave me hope. I decided not to go through with my actions and returned back to the hospital.

Recovery was slow and gradual, but from my brief meeting with the passing stranger, I had a sense it was possible to overcome my illness.

I was also able to accept my sexuality, thanks a wonderful nurse in hospital who sat with me every day, telling me how happy and proud she was that her son had come out. Her words of love and pride prompted me to do the same.

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Advocacy

It’s taken a number of years but I can finally say I have learnt to manage my condition. I’m now very open about my mental health; creating a YouTube channel that has been watched by hundreds of thousands of people and received praise from the likes of Stephen Fry.

I’ve also written a book of poetry and presented a BBC Three documentary about living with mental illness.

In 2014 I launched a campaign to ‘Find Mike’, the stranger on the bridge who talked me out of taking my own life. I wanted to raise awareness of suicide, which takes a life every 40 seconds, resulting in 3,000 suicides around the world each day. I know we can do more to change this.

To my disbelief the campaign went viral, and to my even greater surprise, Neil (not Mike it turned out!) came forwards and we were reunited. Today we are good friends and campaign together on the issue of mental health and suicide, going into companies, schools, hospitals, and prisons to talk about our experiences.

We want to pass on the message of hope to others that I was lucky enough to receive in my hour of need; that overcoming any adversity in life is possible.

Jonny Benjamin is a mental health and suicide prevention campaigner, film producer, writer, public speaker and the founder of #ThinkWell to get wellbeing into education. He was a guest speaker at Digital Pride 2016. Follow Jonny on Twitter.


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