Breaking Up with a Depressed Partner Doesn't Make You a Bad Person
When my partner Max was struggling with depression, I tried to be everything to him—but sometimes, you need to let the people you love seek professional help on their own.
Photo courtesy of Shanti Das
I dumped my boyfriend when he was depressed. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. The words jammed in my throat and our tears mingled as we hugged in bed in a dingy AirBnB. He asked me if I meant it and, head thumping with a hangover, I said yes. We went for breakfast at our favorite spot and drank orange juice in silence. Then he pleaded with me to stay as we cried on a park bench. We hugged and kissed, for closure, before I climbed into my car and drove for three hours, back to my parents' house.
Admitting that I left him when he was at his lowest point fills me with guilt. People will say I was selfish. They'll say that if you truly love someone, you support them through sickness and dark times. I tried, but it wasn’t working. The reality was that his mental health issues infected my own headspace and I truly was not strong enough to deal with it. The situation left me suffering panic attacks and teetering on the brink of depression myself.
When news broke that rapper Mac Miller had died of an apparent drug overdose at age 26, people on social media were quick to point fingers at his ex-partner, singer Ariana Grande. "You did this to him... you should feel absolutely sickened," one social media user wrote in a tweet directed at Grande. "Treated him like dog shit, threw him to the curb like he was nothing." "You killed Mac Miller," wrote another.
Watch: How to Get Over Your Ex
Grande and Miller—who admitted using drugs in a Noisey interview well before his relationship with the singer—began dating in 2016 and were together two years before splitting in May 2018. Shortly afterwards, Miller was charged with driving under the influence after crashing his car. One tweet in response to the news, which went viral, said: “Mac Miller totalling his G wagon and getting a DUI after Ariana Grande dumped him for another dude after he poured his heart out on a ten song album to her called the divine feminine is just the most heartbreaking thing happening in Hollywood.” The 25-year-old star hit back: "How absurd that you minimize female self-respect and self-worth by saying someone should stay in a toxic relationship.”
Reading the reports into Miller's death, and seeing the abuse currently being directed at Grande, all I can say is: She's right. Grande wasn't to blame for Miller's DUI, any more than she's to blame for his tragic death. Whether it's substance abuse or poor mental health, dating someone who's in a dark place was one of the most challenging experiences of my life.
Max was my first proper boyfriend. We met in Rio de Janeiro while travelling around Latin America. We had our first kiss at sunrise on Copacabana Beach. We made sure our paths crossed again a few months later, in La Paz, Bolivia. I was interning at a magazine and he was backpacking, but we ended up buying a single mattress and a set of Toy Story sheets and sleeping on the floor of an empty mansion adjacent to our friend’s apartment. The property had a cellar, half-painted children’s nursery, and creaky floorboards like a classic horror movie set. It was creepy, huge, and free, so we spent a few months there. Then we returned to our lives in the UK and decided long distance was hell, so we moved in together. I adored him.
We began renting our first flat when I was 19 and he was 22. All my friends were going to college and we were living in a shoebox that we could barely afford but having the time of our lives. We would eat chicken nuggets at a cardboard box table and sleep on a futon. Later, we moved for my job. Things gradually got harder. I had started my first job as a journalist and the long hours took a toll. I was often tired and stressed. Max hated his job but felt helpless, because he wasn't sure what he wanted to do. I always knew he had depression. As a teenager he was in and out of hospital undergoing treatment for a heart condition, which triggered a long period of low mood. It lingered, always, but it had been manageable until then.
In those few months, we became trapped in an exhausting cycle. We were dependent on one another for our happiness, but we were totally out of sync. A tiny comment or mood swing would send everything spiralling out of control. Max would apologize, convinced he was to blame. I would say it wasn’t his fault. He wouldn’t believe me. I would feel bad for getting frustrated. I would go for walks, drive around the neighborhood, smoke cigarettes in the park, stay late at work to get away. I would have panic attacks. He would take days off. I was working 12-hour days, and he demanded all my attention when I got home. Sometimes, I felt suffocated.
We had no space to breathe or feel emotions without upsetting one other and setting off a chain of events that could drag on for days. I begged him to see a doctor, but he was just handed a tick-box questionnaire with a sliding scale asking him to rate how likely he was to kill himself. Despite telling doctors that he had suicidal thoughts, they didn't consider him to be a high enough risk. He was prescribed antidepressants and enrolled him in a group counselling session where a PowerPoint slideshow recommended he do more exercise. Max was already going to the gym five times a week and cycling to work every day. As there was no one-to-one therapy available on the National Health Service, doctors upped his dose. It didn't work.
I distanced myself subconsciously before we broke up. I suggested we both go back home with the intention of saving money but I think that really, I needed to reset. We saw each other once a fortnight and after a few months, decided to go on a weekend away. I didn’t plan to break up with him, but the words came out during a alcohol-fueled row. He asked me the next morning if I meant it, and I realized I did.
In the weeks that followed, Max hit rock bottom. I knew he was suicidal and that weighed on my mind constantly. He had always said I was the best thing to happen to him and he hated his life before he met me, but at the same time he was convinced I’d be better off without him. For the first time, I agreed: and I also knew that he would be better off without me, too. We were stuck in a continuous negative loop, and things wouldn't improve unless we broke the cycle.
I know that I'm not alone in this: when you have a partner with mental health issues, it's hard to know where to begin. "Perhaps the most important thing that you can do is to encourage your partner to seek appropriate treatment," explains Stephen Buckley of the mental health charity Mind. "You can reassure them by letting them know that help is out there, and that you will be there to support them too." It's also important to take care of your own well-being and health. "Be realistic about what you can and can't do yourself," Buckley adds. "Your mental health is important too, and looking after someone else could put a strain on your wellbeing."
After we broke up, I felt sick and feared that he might hurt himself. All I wanted was to be there for him, but I knew that could make things worse. Instead, I messaged his mom to see how he was doing. Deep down, I was terrified that our break-up could lead him to end his life and alter mine forever.
It was the lowest point in both our lives, but it ended up being the most formative. Max spent 18 weeks without help on waiting lists but eventually, with the support of his family, began seeing a private psychologist whom he credits with helping him turn things around. The therapy gave him the tools to tackle negative thoughts that crept into his brain, taught him that he wasn’t to blame for my unhappiness, and gave him self-worth. It also made him realize he wanted to help others in a similar situation and he began studying for a degree in psychology. He’s just finished his first year and is in a good place. And—plot twist—we're back together now.
We got back together late last year, after taking things slowly and talking for a long time. Max was doing better, and so was I. Things are far from perfect, but we're stronger and happier now than we've ever been before.
Miller’s death is a tragedy. Regardless of whether he was mourning his relationship with Grande or, like some sources say, or had moved on, our knee-jerk reaction to tie the two things together is harmful. It insinuates that Miller might still be alive if she had not left him. This is just not true: Miller talked about substance abuse and battling depression years before his relationship with Grande began. We must stop placing the responsibility for keeping another person alive on the shoulders of their partner. It perpetuates the myth that women—and men—should stay in unhealthy relationships. They shouldn't, and to suggest otherwise is dangerous.
In my case, my break-up with Max could have ended in tragedy. If it had, I would have felt responsible for the rest of my life, but I know now that it would not have been my fault.
Editor's note: Max has given permission for Shanti to share his story and use his photograph.