Love After Life
Kelley was one of those people that became your best friend slowly and then all at once. We were the two lone nail technician students at a small community college in Nashville in a class full of cosmetology kids who were keen to highlight our hair and pluck our eyebrows into submission. But in our little nail tech corner of the classroom, we became best friends. Kelley was older than me. In fact, her daughter and I were close to the same age. I was just a year out of high school, engaged and had no clue what I was doing with my life. We took cigarette breaks even though I didn’t smoke just so we could talk about life. We talked on the phone over endless pots of coffee and for the first time in my adult life I felt like I had someone who truly understood me. She welcomed me into her family, no questions asked.
Growing up, my family had high expectations of me. They were also extremely protective. I wasn’t given a lot of freedom and my free spirited heart fought against it, for better or worse. I met a guy in a bar when I wasn’t even old enough to order a shot of tequila to help me make bad decisions. Yet I made those bad decisions anyways. Some people may be ready to get married at 19, but I was nowhere near ready. However, I thought that getting out on my own meant finding a husband and ‘settling down.’ I didn’t realize that at 19 I hadn’t lived enough life to settle from.
Kelley and I had a lot of conversations about my life choices. She was the only person who saw through the thin veil of confidence I wore that hid all of my insecurities about what I was doing. But she didn’t push. She never tried to sway me one way or another. She helped me talk through what I was ready to talk through as we ate endless amounts of chips and salsa in the afternoons and drove her Ford Focus with the windows down singing Believe by Cher at the top of our lungs. For those few months she helped me find a little independence where I was free from judgement. Where I was loved for who I was and had a safe place to land. And I should have held on tight.
I asked Kelley to stand by me at my wedding which she agreed to do. She even reminded me that her trusty Ford Focus was just outside if I needed a getaway car. She joked, but there was also a sense of seriousness in what she said. She saw the writing on the wall but knew I had to be the one to make the choice. I made a choice, but it was the wrong one. Kelley tried to reach out to me. She would call and when social media became a thing she sent me a message to let me know she missed me. The truth was, I missed her too. And I missed the me I came to know when she was in my life. I always thought to myself that I would call her back tomorrow. But eventually, tomorrow never came.
I didn’t know these moments would become the first breaths of my battle with depression. Living in a constant state of anxiety, ultimately my physical health began to fail. I was diagnosed with endometriosis and interstitial cystitis and I began to withdraw from life. I went through multiple surgeries to just try and alleviate some of the pain I was feeling. But there was still a pain that no surgery could correct. Where I came from though, you got it together. You pushed through. And I pushed and I pushed and I pushed until I broke. I went to counseling and finally got the courage to end the marriage but that was only the beginning of my journey with my mental and physical health. I became an island, pushing away those who truly cared about me because all I felt was shame. My mind was so consumed with the things I should have done and with the darkness my soul felt that I couldn’t handle anything more than surface level friends. People who were content to go out till dawn on the weekends while I self medicated with alcohol in an effort to forget the pain I was in. But those aren’t the people who are going to be there when we spiral. And spiral I did.
After an attempt on my own life, I moved back home with my folks. This was where the real work began to get done. I’d lost my job because I’d had to be out sick for multiple surgeries and I pushed everyone away so that I had nothing but time on this island of isolation to begin to scratch the surface of my depression. I began what would be a lifetime journey of working through anxiety, depression, shame, regret, pain and owning my shit. I finally reached a point where I felt like I could let people back in my life, and slowly I did. I was ready to talk to Kelley. To tell her how sorry I was for letting my depression win and push her of all people out of my life. To tell her how much I missed her.
I got a friend request from her husband followed immediately by a message letting me know that Kelley had passed away following a routine medical procedure. The family had tried to find me, but I had done such a good job of isolating myself that when she passed, they couldn’t. It was just a short time after she had passed that I had finally rejoined the land of the living only to find she didn’t live there anymore. Words aren’t enough to describe the need to tell someone who is no longer alive that you love them. It’s a pain I will carry with me every day of the rest of my life. We always think we have more time. Especially if you struggle with depression, it can easy for us to isolate ourselves because we get paralyzed by anxiety, shame, fear, and so many other complicated emotions. Kelley extended a life raft to me many times but I let it float away until it disappeared into the depths of the ocean of pain I was swimming in.
I can never undo what I did. I can never get those moments with Kelley back. I’ll never be able to tell her I love her or what her friendship meant to me or all the ways she was a catalyst for me beginning to figure out who I was. All I can do is close my eyes and for a moment we are back in her Ford Focus singing. Do you believe in life after love? Because of Kelley, I can tell you that I do. But I also believe that even when the darkness threatens to sweep us up, even when we are scared, even when we aren’t ready to take the first steps toward change that when the Kelleys of the world reach their hands out to us, we should take them. Because they love us without expectation of perfection and will give us room to be ourselves. They won’t force us to make changes we aren’t ready to make or get frustrated with us when we move at a snail’s pace. They’ll love us through it and hold space for us every step of the way. It is my hope that you’ll pick up the phone and call your Kelley and tell her how much you love her and how grateful you are that people like her exist in this world. Tell her for me.