In every therapist’s or doctor’s office I’ve ever been in, one of the questions I am asked as part of my assessment is whether I have a significant other and how that person handles my depression. “That’s often one of the biggest stressors,” my doctor once said, congratulating me on not having a boyfriend. “Someone putting pressure on you to feel better.”
She didn’t mention the stress of knowing someone doesn’t believe you can feel better.
“I’m afraid that you might take your own life,” my boyfriend said when he dumped me at the beginning of this year. Afterward, he texted a mutual friend to check on me. To hand off responsibility and make sure I didn’t kill myself, I guess. He stopped talking to me soon after.
But he’d already done his part to trigger a crisis. When I heard those words — that he was afraid I would take my own life and he couldn’t handle the possibility — it was like being slapped in the face. Considering that at that point I had spent a year fighting back against my depression and very obviously not killing myself, hearing that fueled this kind of negative self-talk in my brain: I must not be doing as well as I thought. I am failing at making healthy choices. My disease is too much to handle. It is so much worse than I thought.
Depression is highly recurrent and builds on itself. American Psychiatric Association research indicates that once you’ve been through a major depressive episode, it is 50 percent more likely to happen again, a risk that increases to 80 percent more likely after two or more episodes.
That’s why choosing partners you can trust to help you grow and not regress through your disease is so important. The people we choose to pair off with have a huge impact on our lives whether or not we’re prone to suicidal self-talk.
My boyfriend knew about the depression before we started dating.
He knew how it started and my triggers, the suicidal thoughts, the crying. We’d been friends a long time and so I felt safe showing him the struggle. I told him that what I needed when I went through the worst times was someone willing to “just be there.” And it was true. Dating him did not stop the depression. I still had those mornings when I could barely drag myself out of bed and talking normally — or texting — was impossible until mid-day. I still had those nights when I curled up in the closet or the bathtub crying and felt intensely alone even with him there or on the phone.
Bringing depression into a relationship is like any other kind of baggage. My therapist says compatibility is mostly a matter of making sure your sh*t lines up with the other person’s. When you’re depressed and are dealing with your disease, you are ultimately responsible for your own symptoms. You need a support network that can help identify warning signs, because when it comes to mental health it is not always easy to recognize red flags. But you don’t need people who think you need to be “fixed.” For one thing, it’s easy to start believing it. It’s easy to start thinking if you just cling to that person who wants to fix you, eventually…they will. But while love might be magic in some ways, it doesn’t replace medical help.
Depression changes people, but it doesn’t make them fundamentally different people any more than dealing with cancer or diabetes does. That is also true of the people in relationships with people struggling with depression: If they can’t handle it, it’s not the disease at fault, it’s the person who gets scared and runs.
We are all so much more than our issues or diseases. I am more than my depression. We can be loved through our sh*t and our worst days and our cycle of bad thoughts, just like anyone else who has bad days and bad thoughts. No one, no matter how depressed, should have to settle for a partner who defines them by their disease.