"I finally got to thank the man who saved my life" - Find Mike appeal's happy ending
After his "Find Mike" campaign, Jonny Benjamin is reunited with the man who talked him down off Waterloo Bridge six years ago
A remarkable reunion took place this week in a room above a pub in Vauxhall, central London. It was the first time that Jonny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn had met in six years. Back on that cold, rainy January day, the two young men had only spoken to each other for about 25 minutes. But they were the 25 minutes that saved Benjamin’s life.
Laybourn, walking across Waterloo Bridge on his way to work on January 14, 2008, had stopped Benjamin from committing suicide. On Tuesday Benjamin was able finally to thank him.
“At first I was so overwhelmed. I just went up and gave him a hug,” says Benjamin, 26. “There were so many different emotions, I couldn’t grasp them at first. But we sat down and he began to talk and I could see his mannerisms, and I heard his voice. Only then did I recall those same mannerisms and voice from the bridge.
“Out of nowhere, I suddenly pictured him trying to persuade me not to jump.”
Since that horrific day, Benjamin had mostly blanked its events from his mind. He was nervous, indeed, that he would not even recognise the stranger who had stopped and listened. All he could remember about him was that he was white, that he had hair, that he said “things can get better”, and that he suggested the pair go for a coffee.
Laybourn, a personal trainer, could remember Benjamin very well, however. He had often wondered what had happened after the young man, then just 20, whom he had talked to and tried to keep calm until the police, called by another bystander, had bundled him into a car and taken him to hospital.
“But I never followed it up. I sort of thought the police would contact me,” says Laybourn, now 31. “I had no idea what had happened to him. I wondered if he had got over it, or whether he had gone back and that day had made no difference.”
And then, two weeks ago, Benjamin – with the help of the Rethink Mental Illness charity – launched a campaign to “Find Mike”, his nickname for the stranger. Doing so, he decided, would not only allow him to “close the door on that chapter of my life”, but also help to generate more interest in mental health issues.
The campaign spread quickly thanks to social media. Within two days, Laybourn’s fiancée saw the story on Facebook and immediately knew her partner was “Mike”.
A meeting was quickly arranged. Benjamin admits that he was “petrified” about the encounter, but Laybourn was excited. Their hug lasted for some time; so, too, did the talking – despite meeting in a pub, the two never even got around to having a drink.
“I have thought about him a lot for the last six years,” says Benjamin. “It was a pivotal moment in helping me to get better. I’ve always wanted to say 'thank you’.”
For Laybourn, there was likewise a sense of resolution. “Watching Jonny get some closure was really nice. Seeing him be able to express his gratitude was the best thing. That was why I was there.”
He found, too, that Benjamin is now an engaging and animated young man who works as a charity campaigner. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that he lives with a chronic schizoaffective disorder, which means he is prone to deep depressions and paranoia. “I am in a good place,” Benjamin says. “I am able now to talk about this. It’s a massive issue: 16 people every day take their own lives. Suicide is the biggest killer among young men.”
His own troubles leading up to his suicide attempt were acute. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish household and had done well at school. But from the age of 11 he started hearing voices in his head, which became progressively sinister. Added to this, he genuinely believed – after watching The Truman Show – that he was being filmed and monitored every minute of the day by hidden cameras.
Too ashamed to admit to the voices in his head, he was never properly diagnosed until he was 20.
Today, a mixture of medication, physical exercise, cognitive therapy exercises and mindfulness – a technique focusing on living in the present – helps him keep on top of his condition, he says. “There are thousands of people going to work every day, having functioning lives, with schizophrenia. You can have a normal life.”
The Samaritans charity is nervous that his tale may glamorise Laybourn’s intervention; most suicide attempts are not averted by guardian angels.
But Benjamin says: “I am not trying to romanticise this. I was very fortunate someone came along. The point is, there is always support out there. Having someone able to listen – over the phone, by email, or face-to-face – can make such a difference.”
For his part, Laybourn says he had no option but to act. “I saw him from far away on the bridge; it clicked immediately why he was there. I didn’t think I would reach him first, because a lot of people were going by. No one stopped; hardly anyone looked. It was obvious he needed help.”
Both men say they will keep in touch. “We really got on,” says Benjamin. “We’re finally going to have that coffee.”