The Friend I Couldn’t Fix: A Story of Love, Loss and Letting Go

TRIGGER WARNING: This post deals with an account of domestic violence and may be triggering to some.

“You can’t heal the people you love. You can’t make choices for them. You can’t rescue them.” ~Unknown

Every story starts at the beginning. But how far back should I go? Birth?

I was born at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, in May of 1972…just after three in the morning.

No, wait. That’s not morning. It’s still dark outside.

Forgive me. That’s an inside joke.

You see, just a few years ago a friend of thirty years came to live with me. A down-on-his-luck, unemployed alcoholic that recently battled Stage four cirrhosis, we agreed he could stay with me, rent-free, for six to eight weeks as he sorted himself out.

Just typing that sentence makes me cringe. How did I ever think he’d sort himself out?

I believed that with enough love and support people could overcome their troubles. However, it never occurred to me that they had to WANT to overcome their troubles.

Within a few days of moving into my apartment, he blew the job opportunity that he (and I) counted on by insulting his future boss. Six to eight weeks evolved into eleven and a half months. Sorting himself out morphed into sleeping all day, drinking all night and abusing me in the time in between.

Which brings me back to the inside joke.

Don’t Engage

I woke one day before dawn. “Good morning,” I yawned as I flipped the coffee on.

Fortified behind a barricade of empties, he launched his daily verbal assault. “Are you really that stupid? It’s not morning; it’s still dark. F*cking moron.”

“Don’t engage,” I said to myself. Not engaging pissed him off because he wanted to fight, but engaging was so much worse.

Engaging led to things being slammed. Thrown. Shattered. Time spent searching for every shard of glass and worrying about the eight tiny paws that scampered around my apartment. I didn’t have it in me to see any more of my belongings broken. Any more of my spirit broken.

His attacks began months prior and consisted of only words at first—a slew of insults he hurled at me as though playing a game of merciless Mad Libs. I was stupid, a moron, a fat blob, ugly, pathetic.

Then began the screaming, throwing, slamming, backing me into corners, pushing me into walls, grabbing my throat, and finally punching me in the face.

It’s Not That Simple

Prior to living with him, I never thought too much about domestic violence. I’d never witnessed it, and to be honest, it never occurred to me that domestic violence could exist in this type of relationship. You see, he wasn’t my father, my husband, or my boyfriend. He was a friend.

Moreover, and I’m ashamed to admit it, I unfairly thought people in abusive relationships were weak. And I am not weak. I’m strong and independent. I realize now abuse is not that simple.

It began so slowly I didn’t see it for what it was, nor did I want to. I wanted to see the best in him. Only with the gift of hindsight do I clearly see the picture three decades of brushstrokes formed. For thirty years I loved his potential, not who he really was. Looking back, I see that he had been narcissistic, manipulative, and emotionally abusive since day one.

The Perfect Storm

When he first came to live with me, I was his “angel” and could do no wrong. I won’t lie to you—being an “angel” felt wonderful.

You see, as far back as I can remember I have felt useless and unworthy—the ugliest girl in the room that no one wanted. It’s a paralyzing state of mind that led me to a place of constant giving at my own expense. Of people-pleasing. Doing anything and everything to make those around me happy so they wouldn’t abandon me. So they’d need me. So they’d love me.

And here was my friend who needed help as desperately as I desired to offer it. My friend whose spiral of mental illness and alcoholism was as destructive as my non-existent boundaries and acute need for acknowledgement. We were a perfect storm.

The Last Day

The last morning we ever spoke, he was in the midst of what I can only describe as a reality break. He spewed such nonsense that I secretly recorded his rage on my smartphone in case I needed proof of what was happening. He verbally berated me and threw a heavy pair of headphones across the room, missing my head by inches. The straw finally broke the proverbial camel’s back.

I kicked him out of my home…out of my life. This man who for so long I loved and admired. This man who in reality lived his life like a forty-six-year-old toddler. Choosing to kick him out was more difficult than living with him. I loved him. But I chose me.

I had to choose me.

The Path to Recovery

Not long after kicking him out, I found myself standing in front of a wall full of light bulbs in Home Depot—with no idea how I got there. I was sinking fast.

I reached out to my primary care physician, as I realized I was in a situation I was ill equipped to handle. I was diagnosed with compounded trauma, placed on medication for depression, and instructed to seek talk therapy.

Talk therapy enabled me to unpack the root of the issue of why I’d “allowed” this situation to carry on as long as I did.

I peeled back the layers of an onion that revealed that I had such a deep-seated fear of abandonment and self-loathing that I was willing to sacrifice myself for breadcrumbs of love, affection, and validation. Only by identifying and facing my core wound head on was I able to make significant progress.

Additionally, I explored eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which lifted a weight off of me I wasn’t aware I carried. Reprocessing distressing memories using this technique fundamentally changed my relationship with my trauma.

I devoured books, podcasts, and internet tutorials on emotional abuse, CPTSD, attachment styles, and so much more. I began eating cleaner, exercising consistently, and prioritizing sleep.

He tore me to my foundation, but as the architect of my future self, I undertook the painstaking process of building myself into who I chose to be. I chose warrior. Well, that’s who I am on my good days. I also have days when I’m a little scared mouse, and that’s okay too.

Lessons Learned

It’s been three years since that final day in my apartment. In that time, I’ve accepted there is a difference between showing someone grace and sacrificing oneself for someone who cares only for themselves.

I’ve made peace with the realization that I can’t heal or change anyone—that they need to do that work on their own.

Can I provide love? Yes. Will I hold space? Absolutely. Am I capable of fixing anyone? No. Will I forfeit my sanity and safety? Never again.

My love could not help my friend. I could not fix him. At the end of the day, only he had the ability to fix his problems, and he was either unwilling or incapable of doing the work.

The Actual Last Day

I kept tabs on him in the weeks following him leaving my place. He bounced from friend to friend, to various seedy motels and finally to emergency rooms for psych evaluations and vomiting copious amounts of blood.

And then the inevitable.

Every story also has an end.

My friend of thirty years died at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, in September of 2020 at 7:13 a.m.

A time I think even he would consider morning.

About Jennifer Tomlin

Jennifer is an advertising copywriter with over twenty-five years in the creative services and corporate communications field. A lover of animals, coffee, and music, she resides in the Philadelphia suburbs and continues on her healing journey. Contact Jennifer via Linked In.

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