I had a happy career, and enjoyed a wonderful marriage with my husband Tayo. As a PE teacher Tayo was fit, and the life and soul of the party. But in 1995 a virus knocked him off his feet, and that was the start of a long battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), thyroid problems and depression. For the next 17 years his lovely life was gone, as one bout of illness led to another. Then we relocated to the US for proper treatment
Over that Tayo was dismissed from his job, suffered severe headaches, and became withdrawn. In 2010 he became addicted to codeine and that was the start of the true nightmare. After six weeks he stopped taking them and this led to anxiety and insomnia.
At Christmas that year, he went straight to bed after lunch. He was a shell of the gregarious man I once knew. For the next few days, his negativity worsened. They put him on new painkillers and a side-effect was suicidal thoughts. It was a horrible, vicious circle. I wanted him to get better and, although I could see he was down, it didn’t cross my mind he’d ever harm himself. But he’d lost all hope.
On the night of 29 December he tossed and turned in bed, tormented by insomnia. “I feel like I’m going mad,” he said, crying with frustration.
When I checked on him the next morning he lay in bed mumbling and incoherent. The only word I could make out was ‘tablets’. I immediately called an ambulance. Before taking him to hospital, the crew deduced he’d swallowed three herbal sleeping pills. But there was an empty pot of his thyroid medication on the floor. I was in shock, unable to believe he’d deliberately tried to kill himself.
In hospital, Tayo told me he’d written a letter in case something like this happened. I laughed, assuming it was a joke. When we were discharged after doctors failed to find evidence of an overdose, I felt relieved. But we were straight back in A&E that afternoon after Tayo told me he remembered tablets in his mouth, after all. The insomnia must have sent him crazy.
The worst news
On the ward, Tayo seemed better, and asked me to nip home and pick up some essentials. I returned later, only to find he’d gone missing. When he wasn’t found and the police got involved, I went into shock. All through the night, the search continued. It was bewildering, like a scene in a thriller.
At 9.30am, two officers walked up the path.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” I asked.
They told me he’d hanged himself. Shock overtook me. Then, within minutes, something kicked in and I went into practical mode. Calmly, I asked the police to leave, and began phoning friends and family. I believe it was a survival instinct – a kind of emotional anaesthetic.
When I saw Tayo at the morgue that day, even at the funeral 17 days later, I still felt numb, like I was on autopilot. Saying goodbye was tough, but the shock dulled everything.
Tayo in happier days
I found Tayo’s letters the day after he died. Reading how desperate he was, everything made sense – a devastating cocktail of insomnia, the medication and his illness led him to rock bottom.
It was only later that the reality set in and anxiety and emotional distress took over. I didn’t know who I was or what was going on. I became terrified of everything, and had to sleep with the light on. I moved in with my mother-in-law who was living with her sister also in the US for four weeks, too scared to be alone. At 6am I’d still be awake, crying in my chair. Everything looked different, and I had hallucinations.
One evening, I looked out of the window and saw what looked like a wolf running towards me. The next morning I realised that shape was a snowman in the field. I even imagined the devil jumping out at me. It was a living hell and I thought I was going mad.
Suicidal thoughts began to pop into my head, and I was scared they’d overwhelm me. My NHS counsellor advised me to get a friend to remove Tayo’s old pills from the house. I couldn’t handle kitchen knives or even look at a belt, for fear those destructive thoughts would take over.
After six weeks I returned back to naija and went back to my job because of the kids welfare. I thought it would be a good distraction, but it was too soon. Just three months after I’d gone back, I was dealt another blow. ‘We’re sorry, your contract’s finished,’ I was told.
To add to the stress, there was the house to think about. The happy home I shared with Tayo was no more. Horrible memories of his last day in that bedroom kept running through my mind. I couldn’t bear to live there now everything had been taken away from me. I sold up and moved back to the US with my mother-in-law.
With no husband, no job and no house, I felt like I had nothing. Life was tough and, being unemployed, my kids in campus, I had 24 hours to fill. I went full-pelt, trying to replace a void in my life. I began manically socialising, drinking and spending my savings. I bought a sports car, constantly went on holiday, and knocked back wine every night.
My adrenaline was pumping at unhealthy levels, and I stopped eating properly. I couldn’t sit still. I had to be doing something, anything, to keep busy. I walked the dog, shopped, went to the pub, booked courses, hit the gym. I had to be with other people – being alone was too awful. Friends were worried, and I recognised my behaviour was destructive. Deep down I knew if I stopped, there was a possibility I’d kill myself.
Phyl enrolled in the Grief Recovery Method
The physical yearning, I felt for Tayo in that second year was all-consuming. My whole body ached for him. By now I’d moved into my own house and money was running out. All my many job applications had been unsuccessful, and the hangovers were only adding to my anxiety and depression. To the outside world, I looked like I was having the best of my life, but in reality, I was a mess. Every night I’d come home from drinking excessively in the pub, and crash out.
The turning point was in March 2013 when I enrolled onto a programme called the Grief Recovery Method. It was both life-saving and life-changing. I learned that when we squash down our feelings it can lead to an explosion – in the worst case, suicide.
I broke down in that session when I remembered Tayo’s words towards the end of his life. He’d said: ‘I feel like a pressure cooker that’s about to explode.’ Finally, everything made sense. Thank goodness, I’d been able to recognise my own behaviours before it was too late.
The programme also helped me deal with the enormous guilt I felt at not doing enough to prevent Tayo’s death. All of the ‘would’ves, should’ves, could’ves’ disappeared, and I reached a sense of acceptance about the end of Tayo’s life.
I focused on building myself a new life. The drinking and spending stopped and, I went self-employed as a grief recovery specialist, helping others in my situation. I made peace with the past, and was able to remember Tayo with fondness, not pain.
After Tayo died, it felt like everything had been taken away from me. But I’ve built myself a new normal, and I’m happy at last. It’s why I tell my story – to give hope to others. I’m proof that not only can you survive, you can be fully alive.