‘Men are told to man up and don’t cry’

Tiffany Philippou has written movingly about her boyfriend who took his own life. Peter Gruner reports

Thursday, 14th April — By Peter Gruner

Tiffany Philippou

Tiffany Philippou with her book Totally Fine

A HOLLOWAY writer and podcaster who has produced a heartrending book about the suicide of her boyfriend called for more help for young people –particularly males – who suffer from depression.

The last message Tiffany Philippou received from the love of her life Richard was a text that said simply: “I love you.”

Not long afterwards Richard was rushed to hospital, where he later died. The tragic story is revealed in Tiffany’s new book Totally Fine (And Other Lies I’ve Told Myself).

Richard had been at his parents’ house in Reading when he opened a letter from Bristol University, where he had been study­ing computer science. The letter told him that he’d failed his retakes and would have to leave the university. He then put the letter down and attempted to take his own life. He died seven days later. He was just 20.

Today, following that event back in 2008 and after more than a decade of emotional turmoil, including grief, guilt and denial, Tiffany’s memoir is beginning to help others in a similar situation. In an interview with Review she said: “My message to your readers: Whatever pain you’re holding on to, I’m writing this for you. ”

In the UK, men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women. Did she believe that society should play a bigger part in encouraging males to talk about their issues and seek help?

“Yes, I think there’s a real stigma around men’s mental health issues and men are programmed from a young age to not talk about their feelings. They are told to ‘man up and don’t cry’ and as a result, many feel that they have to handle everything on their own.

“It’s so common and men are really suffering. I also fear they’re being left out of the conversations that are happening about mental health. I hope to see change as more stories are told and we tackle the stigma and shame around men’s suicide.”

The couple first met at Bristol University’s Freshers’ Week in 2006. Tiffany, then 19, was studying history. Like any relationship it had its ups and downs but they genuinely cared for each other.

Tiffany describes getting so drunk one night that she passed out in a pub toilet. “I was still on the floor of the cubicle when the bar closed and my friends were thrown out. Richard battled past the bouncer, calling out, ‘My girlfriend’s still in there. Let me through’. He came and found me, picked me up off the floor and brought me outside, where everyone was laughing.”

Keen and dedicated to his work, Richard was devastated when the university told him he had to leave. He changed from a happy and funny chap to being highly depressed. “He was like a weak, flickering lightbulb that finally went out when his grandfather died,” Tiffany writes. “From that day, he would spend hours and hours in bed, lying face-down in the pillow.”

One day he went to the doctor to explain that he felt as if he had a dark cloud weighing down on his shoulders. “I thought he’d come home with some medication that would fix him, but he didn’t. He said he’d been told to come back if he felt the same in a few weeks.”

After Richard’s funeral life became a blur for Tiffany. She writes: “I was in a daze most of the time, and on anti-nausea drugs because my anxiety was so severe.

“I also kept breaking out in itchy hives down my legs and had to take antihistamines, which knocked me out. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and cry because he’d gone. I’d call out to him and crave him desperately. I knew I’d be sad forever. I accepted that I’d never be totally fine and perhaps that was the most comforting thought of them all.”

Back in Holloway she’d escape noise and traffic and walk through Gillespie Park, Islington’s largest nature reserve, to help calm her thoughts and remember Richard. But there are also moments when she almost breaks down. She is sitting at the table at her mother’s house in East Finchley. “I’m sobbing, ‘It’s not fair.’ I’m screaming through my tears, but no words are coming out. Why me? The frustration is a ball in my chest and it’s pulsating through me. It’s so f***ing mad. I want it to stop.”

Her mother pulls Tiffany onto her lap for a deep hug.

Years later Tiffany attended therapy although it wasn’t always satisfactory. “As I talked, she [the therapist] looked me in the eye and I couldn’t quite believe the expression of sympathy on her face.”

How long did she undergo therapy?

“I did struggle with therapy at first but now I’m a big believer in it. I still go, but stopping soon. It will have been three years that I’ve been going (I’ve had some breaks). I think it’s so valuable to have that space for support and to live your life with a greater aware­ness of how you respond and act around others. I feel so fortunate that I’ve had the experience (even though, yes, I did get fed up with it at times. It’s hard work!)”

Totally Fine (and Other Lies I’ve Told Myself): What The Decade of Grief Taught Me About Life. By Tiffany Philippou. Thread, £8.90

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