It was a Good Samaritan encounter that changed a young man’s life forever.
Six years ago, on a bitterly cold January morning, Jonny Benjamin was coaxed away from a ledge on London’s Waterloo Bridge by a total stranger walking to work.
Benjamin was 20 years old and had just been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder — a debilitating combination of schizophrenia and depression. He had dropped out of university, held little hope of being able to hold down a job or one day have a family, and decided life was not worth living.
Then a stranger’s voice pulled him out of the darkness.
“You can get through this. You can overcome anything,” Benjamin recalls the man saying, as he calmly spoke to him for 25 minutes, inviting him to join him for a chat over coffee instead.
The chance interaction altered everything for Benjamin who was ultimately pulled to safety and spent years battling his way back to health.
But there was one thing preventing him from achieving full closure on the bleakest moment in his life — lingering questions about the identity of the man who rescued him.
So, on Jan. 14, exactly six years after that near-fateful day, Benjamin launched an online campaign to try to find the man who'd helped him, taking to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter with his story in the hopes that it would jog some memories. "He was the first person to give me hope, and his words actually prompted my recovery," he says in the YouTube plea. "Now I need your help to find him. I've called him Mike, although I'm not too sure if that's his real name."
The search, which used the hashtag #findmike, was soon trending in the U.K., Canada and South Africa, and was retweeted thousands of times, including by singer Boy George, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and actor Stephen Fry.
Benjamin, now a mental health campaigner and ambassador for charity Rethink Mental Illness, said he has only recently felt confident enough to speak openly about his suicide attempt, and hoped to raise awareness through his story — but held out little hope of actually finding the mystery man.
But his search ended on Jan. 28, when Benjamin finally came face-to-face with his savior: Neil Laybourn, a mild-mannered personal fitness trainer from Surrey (just outside London), who had also spent years wondering what came of the man he coaxed from the edge.
Though he initiated the search, Benjamin says he was initially "petrified" to meet Laybourn: “I wasn’t sure what memories were going to be triggered from that, or if I was going to recognize him,” he told TODAY.com. But the fear quickly faded.
“Do you remember me?” Laybourn, 31, asks in a video of the pair's reunion, posted to YouTube, in which the pair is seen greeting each other with a long bear hug.
"It's all coming back," Benjamin says, moved to tears.
Laybourn was first alerted to the #findmike mission by his fiancé who saw a post on Facebook.
“Neil said the big shock first of all was to find out I was still alive, and that I was looking for him,” Benjamin said. “And it’s been a massive shock how big the campaign has got.”
Benjamin says it was Laybourn’s calm, collected demeanor that first lured him out of his state of distress on that day in 2008. He also noticed that Laybourn was a young man, much like himself, on his way to work — which filled him with hope.
“I was in my own world and he managed to burst the bubble that I was in and get through to me,” he added.
During their reunion in a south London pub, the pair went over the chain of events and Laybourn recounted details Benjamin had not been able to recall. He said at one point Benjamin had agreed to get coffee and started to climb back over the railing. Then he noticed the police pulling up and, fearful of being sent back to hospital, had a change of heart.
Laybourn had to reach out and grab Benjamin as he attempted to jump. “Up to that point, I remembered him stopping me with his words but actually, he physically stopped me,” Benjamin said. “It’s even more reason to thank him.”
When the police did finally arrive and get ahold of Benjamin, Laybourn was not been allowed near him and had no way of following up.
“He said it was amazing for him to see me smiling and back on my feet again, and how far I’d come,” Benjamin said. "He’s so humble about it. He says: 'I’m not a hero, I’m just an ordinary guy'. He’s taking it all in his stride and said: ‘I’m just proud of you Jonny.”
The pair plans to spend time getting to know each other in the coming weeks and months. Laybourn, who is getting married in August, also offered to help Benjamin get into shape.
“Everyone needs a friend like Neil,” said Benjamin. "He’s just the nicest guy. Very sensitive but very lovely and caring and kind, and just a great laugh.
"I always thought of that time as being very negative, I thought of that place as being the worst in my life,” Benjamin added. “I feel that I can look at it a very different way now. I’ve overcome that. I’ve come full circle and am able to close that chapter.”