Poorna Bell’s “song for Rob” is a memoir that unpicks her relationship with her husband Rob, whom she loved deeply, and hidden in the depths of their life together, his depression and heroin addiction.
When they meet – and it’s a big romance - Rob is a respected science journalist, Poorna is on an upward career trajectory. Quite early in the relationship, he tells her that he “has depression”. Depression isn’t something that Poorna knows a lot about. He is successful, co-owns a house in London that she moves in to. They have a big bells-‘n-whistles wedding and then the real story begins; full of hope and promise.
Soon, there are tiny signs to the experienced-in-addiction reader that all is not right – he keeps the door of the converted garage-office where he works, closed. And he hastily shuts a drawer when she comes in. The small signs grow more apparent: he spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom, he disappears for long stretches at a time, even when the guests in the house are his.
Poorna is puzzled at these “dark spots” but the bliss of being together overrides her doubts. She is a driven person who works at being physically fit and tries hard to sweep him along in this, to counter the long stretches he spends in bed, his insomnia and stomach pain. He has a daily weed habit that she objects to (and he gives up - the daily part, that is). Throughout this time, Rob heroically strives to maintain the appearance of living an ordinary, wholesome life alongside his new wife.
To a reader who is not as innocent about addiction as the author is at that stage, he is clearly in trouble due to withdrawal: insomnia, night sweats, unexplained absences at crucial events, not being “present” even when he is. Not long after they are married, he sinks into depression and says he will seek help from his GP for this. Did he pluck up the courage to mention his heroin addiction? Did he find a sympathetic ear? We don’t know that level of detail. We do know that he eventually does enter inpatient treatment. We also know from the first chapter in the book, that his life ends sadly due to suicide. The reader senses him slipping away as he and Poorna agree a temporary separation and he distances himself physically on a “geographical” after a relapse, seeking succour in his native New Zealand and with his family there.
After Rob’s death, Poorna immerses herself in learning about mental health and addiction, speaking to experts, friends and family, and retracing their love story and life together across continents and by reflecting on it with her now new-found knowledge, and pouring it into this book. The book is funny and witty, and contemporary. It sparkles with optimism and hope for recovery and throughout, Poorna’s inherent drive and determination that carries her through the worst times makes for uplifting reading.
This is an important book about mental health and addiction, and the confusion that is experienced and dilemmas that are faced by those who bear witness to the efforts of an individual to recover. It is a book about love and about families. It is also a book about personal growth as the author acknowledges – with the benefit of hindsight and contemplation – her contribution to the relationship and more widely, the expectations that society and individuals place on men in general, let alone those who struggle with addiction and mental ill health.
Beautifully written about a painful subject, it is highly recommended reading.
"Chase the Rainbow" now out in paperback. (Simon and Schuster).
Elsa Browne, SMMGP