If you’re in doubt of social media’s uncanny ability to bring out the worst in people, look no further than the reaction to the passing of rapper and producer Mac Miller. In the hours after the news broke, Ariana Grande’s Instagram posts were flooded with comments blaming her for her ex-boyfriend’s death.
At a certain point in my life, I saw myself as a caretaker, too. My ex-boyfriend, Mark, was attractive, self-educated, charismatic, and deeply addicted to heroin. I don’t know the specifics of Ariana Grande’s relationship with Mac Miller, but I understand the emotional toll it takes to be with a drug addict—how it dulls your self-esteem and constantly make you question your responsibility to the other person. Choosing to stay or leave can literally feel like a matter of life or death. My fear that Mark would die if I left him kept us together for over six years.
The day I met Mark at a 12-step meeting, he had 30-odd days sober. I had six. People in recovery often suggest you make no big changes in your first year of sobriety—no big moves, big purchases, or new relationships. At the time, though, everything in my life needed changing: I was a suicidal, unemployed writer, selling sex as a means to an end—but really as more a form of self-inflicted punishment. For better or worse, I ignored the advice, and Mark and I started dating.
By some miracle, my sobriety stuck. I was selected by The New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that fast tracks mid-career professionals into full-time teaching positions in New York City public schools. Within 90 days, I’d established myself as a elementary school teacher. I’d worked hard to turn my life around, and was doing well. I expected Mark to be right there with me, a partner in the typical sense of the word. I wanted him to be physically and emotionally present, to be loving and considerate, and reliable. Most of all, I wanted him to be sober.
The following September, just as I was adapting to my first year as a teacher, Mark had a relapse. It would be his first of many. The first time I tried leaving, I believed him when he told me I was being selfish, that I didn’t know what love was, that I only thought of myself. As a woman with experience in sex work, I was particularly vulnerable to his insinuations that I was damaged goods, and unlovable. I tried leaving him again months later. This time, I stuck to my guns. He took it better than expected: his face was calm as he continued to call the shots, just as he had for all the months that we were together. He’d leave, alright—when he was good and ready. In the meantime, he’d stop paying rent. It could take months for him to vacate, he threatened, maybe even years.
“Go to the cops,” he suggested. “You’ll see. There’s nothing they can do.” He was right. Laws vary state to state, but in New York City, where we lived, the laws were strict to protect the rights of a tenant—which was, legally, what he’d become. Even though the lease was in my name, I could not force him to vacate the apartment. Besides, it was easier to stay, and easier to believe what Mark often said: Our love was special. It was also easier to convince myself that recovery would work for him like it had worked for me, rather than admit I was in a situation I couldn’t control. I tried everything: I was a cheerleader. I preached and lectured. I extracted promises. I made idle threats. At best, I prayed he’d clean up and become the man he had the potential to be. At worst, I feared I’d get the three a.m. phone call telling me he was gone.
Eventually, I left. I found myself another apartment and he lived in my old apartment, rent free, for around six months. Then, I lost my job as a teacher. Mark was there for me when I needed someone, anyone and—as far as I could tell—he was clean. I moved back in, hopes high. But then more years passed, and little changed. One night, he came home smashed and threw up all over the apartment. I was disgusted with him, and with myself—something inside me told me that it was time to go, once and for all. I grabbed a bag of clothes and went to a Starbucks, where I logged into Facebook and asked for help. I couch-surfed for a month, until—thank god—he moved out of the apartment we’d shared.
Even then, despite the fact that I knew what I was doing was right for me, I was afraid I was abandoning him to be alone with his illness. Ultimately, Mark did die from his addiction, some years after I found the courage to totally end our relationship. With time, I realized that my very real love for Mark was completely enmeshed with the drama and loneliness that comes with dating an addict. Ultimately, we don’t leave addicted partners because we no longer love them; we leave because we begin to prioritize love for ourselves. I don’t regret the time Mark and I spent together or the love we shared, and I don’t regret leaving him when I needed to. Letting go of Mark meant holding on to myself—and for that, I will never apologize.