When I met Ben* through mutual friends, he was unlike anyone I’d encountered before. Intelligent, witty and buzzing with energy, he was tall, with striking, Bowie-esque eyes – one blue, one brown. Although we were both attached, my relationship wasn’t going anywhere, and I knew almost immediately that meeting Ben marked its end. I soon found an excuse to break up with my boyfriend, and – as I later found out– Ben broke up with his girlfriend the moment he heard I was single.
What I didn’t yet know was that the brightness that had drawn me to him was the flip side of an intense darkness. Ben was open about the fact he was taking medication for depression. On our first date he cried as he talked about the therapy he’d been through, showing a touching vulnerability. Already falling for him, I wasn’t put off – I just wanted to help him through whatever dark days might lie ahead. I even flattered myself by wondering if they might be behind him now he’d found me.
Physically exhausted by the intensity of my feelings, I told Ben, ‘If I loved you any more than I do now, I think it would make me ill.’ But for him, this was close to the truth. A few weeks after we got together, the high of falling in love was followed by a crushing, debilitating low. Ben hadn’t seemed himself for a few days and, when my texts suddenly went unanswered, alarm bells rang. I went to his flat to find it strewn with empty pizza boxes and wine bottles, Ben huddled under a duvet on the sofa.
Having read up about how to deal with depression, I knew not to try and tidy up, in case he saw it as a criticism. Instead, I quietly cleared a space beside the shadow my boyfriend had become, and held his hand while he cried. ‘I just want to not be here any more,’ he told me, triggering a dizzying cramp of dread. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing Ben when I’d only just found him.
After that first time, the cycle of intense happiness followed by terrible depression became familiar. One minute, we’d be enjoying the closeness of any other couple, and Ben would tell me I was the love of his life.The next, he’d behave irrationally – a sign that he was about to crash again.
One night, walking home alone in the small hours, a man approached me and asked for a kiss. Firmly telling him no and walking away seemed to deter him, but I phoned Ben for the last few minutes of my walk home. Except, after I’d explained what had happened, he hung up on me, then texted, ‘Have fun with your new boyfriend,’ before turning off his phone. Depression manifests differently for everyone but, in Ben’s case, it twisted his perceptions so wildly, he saw any other man as a threat.
Although Ben was the one suffering, dealing with his depression was increasingly painful for me, too. Knowing he had to own his illness, I begged him to go back to his GP, wondering if more counselling or new medication might help. But he refused, too ill to deal with it when he was suffering a low, and glossing over the problem once he’d bounced back.
He’d regularly end our relationship over some small transgression, then beg me to take him back. When he was in his darkest places, he’d tell me, ‘I think I’d kill myself if you left me. I wouldn’t be able to go on.’ And seeing how low he could get, I believed him – so I did always take him back.
I wanted, more than anything, for our relationship to work. But after Ben dumped me for the fourth time in just five months, I realised I couldn’t think only of his mental health – I had to look after myself, too. I loved him more than I thought it was possible to love anyone. But his brand of love was making me miserable and I’d had enough.
So, the last time he ended things, I refused to take him back. My friends and family assured me I’d made the right decision. But Ben’s words haunted me: ‘I’d kill myself if you left.’ I was absolutely terrified he’d go through with it. He sent regular texts that told me he was in terrible pain. And more than once, I called the Samaritans, desperately asking, ‘How can I stop him from hurting himself ?’
‘You can’t take responsibility for his actions,’ they told me, in the gentlest way possible. ‘If anything happens to him, it’s not your fault.’ I tried, and failed, to believe them.
My lowest moment came a few weeks after our break-up, when I discovered via Twitter that Ben had gone missing. I was absolutely certain he’d killed himself, but since we’d broken up he’d moved house and I didn’t know his new address.
Unable to get hold of any of his friends, I called the police, hysterical. ‘His house is near a pizza shop,’ I wept. I was so terrified, asking the police to find Ben based on the only detail I’d managed to glean about his new life seemed completely rational.
When he turned up safe, but living through another bout of severe depression, I realised I needed to cut all ties. It sounds brutal, but I simply couldn’t live with the fear that came with staying in touch –and as his ex, it was no longer my role to support him. So I unfollowed him on social media, deleted his number and tried not to think about what might happen.
A few months later, I heard through mutual friends that Ben had attempted suicide shortly after our break-up. I don’t know if it happened when he went missing, or what he was thinking at the time. But my emotions vacillated between overwhelming gratitude that he’d survived and guilt at what might have been my part in his attempt. And that selfish part of me was also relieved that the distance between us meant that, if anything happened in future, I could no longer blame myself.
I’ve lost touch with Ben now but, if the time came, I wouldn’t rule out choosing to pursue a relationship with someone living with depression. Every person and every relationship is different and, in hindsight, I can see that just as our relationship wasn’t something that could ‘cure’ Ben’s depression, heartbreak didn’t cause his suicide attempt, either. Watching on the sidelines while someone you love is suffering is painful, but I’ve learned that depression and relationships are far more complicated than I ever could have imagined.
*names have been changed
The Samaritans can advise on relationship problems and suicidal thoughts, call 116 123