Long Reads

Poorna Bell: “A message to any man who’s afraid to date me because of what I’ve been through”

Writer Poorna Bell’s husband died by suicide in 2015. Here, she explores how this trauma makes her appears to perspective dates.

“Do you think they’ve Googled you?” a friend asked, as I was pouring my dating woes all over her in a café. “I bet they’ve Googled you,” she replied without waiting for me to answer.

I had been telling her about my bad luck with dating. While I hadn’t been stood up (yet), two guys had dropped off the face of the Earth after what I thought had been successful first dates. And before that, around four guys in a row had either cancelled or disappeared on the day we were due to meet up.

To most people, this just sounds like an average run of dating. We live in a disposable era of right-swipe and can’t-be-arsed.

Except in my case, I can’t distinguish what is the general dross of bad dating behaviour, and what might be someone getting freaked out by Googling me. 

I’m a journalist but I’m also a mental health campaigner. Specifically I campaign around male suicide after my husband Rob took his own life in May 2015. Around a month after he passed away, I realised that suicide was a taboo death, fuelled by misinformation and judgemental views.

Not only did it make my own grief feel invisible, but I realised that society keeping quiet about suicide was not making death rates go down – in fact they had been rising. So when Rob died, the only thing that kept me sane was working towards suicide prevention so that no one had to go through the same thing.

Being a journalist, that meant writing about it. And when I received hundreds of letters from people after my first piece on HuffPost, it was clear that there was a whole community of people who had been affected in the same way, but had felt they couldn’t be open about it. Rob also grappled with some big mental health issues, including heroin addiction and depression, and I felt these needed to be discussed in a humane and non-judgemental way.

Also, at that point, I’ll be honest: I did not give a shiny shit about dating. Or what someone would come across if you Googled me. In fact, if you Googled me, and it led to an article that helped you, that was the whole point. 

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Except when I was ready to start dating, I had to confront the reality of my situation. Not only could I be Googled, but my entire story was out there including some of the toughest things I’ve gone through. I had to ask myself a difficult question. In an alternate reality, would I date someone with my back story? And the truth is, I think I would find it daunting.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And it doesn’t mean I regret being open and honest.

For a lot of my relationship with Rob, I had to keep a lot of what we were dealing with behind closed doors. I remember spending a lot of time terrified of what other people would think if they found out. After he died, I didn’t have the energy or willing to do that anymore. More than that, I knew that my story would be able to help other people in similar situations, and judging by the letters I still receive, that is still very much the case.

When I started dating again around 14 months after Rob died, I remember being so paranoid that once the other person found out, they would just think I was too broken to bother with. I was lucky that the first person I dated after Rob was kind and sweet, and while he didn’t want to discuss it much, I never felt judged for it. But I was still fairly raw in my grief, and I didn’t have the capacity or ability to get emotionally close to anyone.

After I stopped seeing him, it was still very hit and miss with regards to having a ‘tactic’ about telling someone about Rob. Very often I felt like I was lying if I didn’t say it on the first date, but I came to learn that sometimes, it’s better to wait until there is a second date as that is a lot to offload onto someone when they barely know you. 

I’ve told around six or seven guys briefly about Rob in the last 18 months, and each time, I’ve seen a shutter close behind their eyes. The only person who didn’t, and who made me feel the most comfortable I’ve felt talking about Rob, unfortunately just wanted to stay friends. And that’s just the luck of the draw – but we are still friends a year later, so I don’t count that as a total loss.

As I’m approaching the fourth year of Rob’s death anniversary though, I do wonder what my future holds around dating. In the first year of dating after he passed away, I can see why men found it off-putting. Even though I thought I seemed fine, a lot of friends have since told me how fragile and remote I was.

But now, through a long process of meeting my grief head on, I feel stronger than I have ever been. More than that, I feel a resolve within myself and a resilience that I didn’t have before. I know exactly who I am, and while I want the intimacy and love that comes with a relationship, I am not going into one relying on the other person to fix my sadness or emptiness. 

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What I’ve been through with Rob was immense, there’s no denying that. But what it also means is that I’m someone more likely to listen, to discuss things and am less likely to judge. I won’t run away when things seem challenging, and I know enough about personal boundaries to give someone their space when they need it, as I know I need mine. All of those things to me are strength and assets. They carry value because they were hard won. I am here despite everything, and I still believe in life after love, to quote Cher.

I don’t think I can continue dating and worrying about whether or not someone has Googled me. But I can go into dating hoping that I’ll meet the guy who can look past the first page of my results. I think that’s someone worth waiting for. 

Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Mind also provide advice and support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem. They campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding. You can find more information on their website.

Images: Getty/Instagram 


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