Because I Got Her In Trouble

Back in January, a dear friend of mine suggested I sign up for a grief support group. She even helped me find one specifically for spouses, so I decided to take a chance and sign up.

It’s funny, because group therapy used to be such a huge part of my life just five years ago. Yet, since I left the DBT group Emily and I met in, I have mostly sustained myself through weekly individual therapy sessions without much else in the way of therapeutic intervention. But, then again, I suppose the sudden and very much unexpected death of the woman you planned to grow old with is one of those life-changing events that requires a bit more support.

Although the circumstances are very different, I guess you could say that life today feels eerily similar to the year from hell that led me to group therapy before. Of course, this time I’m in therapy because Emily is gone, whereas before, the therapy is what brought Emily into my life.

When Strangers Become Friends

At Emily’s funeral, I very candidly shared the story of how we met. I still smile every time I think about the moment I saw Emily walk into that room. Although I won’t go so far as to say it was love at first sight, I definitely felt a sort of emotional shift inside of me that day. And, even if she only did it because I seemed like the least intimidating or crazy person in the room, I definitely felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness when she sat down next to me that day.

Between August and April, that first encounter became commonplace, as nearly the exact same situation unfolded each and every week. I quickly learned that I could anticipate exactly what Emily was coming to therapy that day based on three key Emily components: her hair and makeup, the beverage in her hand, and her eyes. But, I didn’t care if happy Emily, depressed Emily, or sleep-deprived Emily sat down next to me — because I enjoyed Emily’s company regardless of her mood.

Of course, one of my favorite parts about having Emily in group was the comments she would make. Like her, I have a bad habit of responding to pretty much every situation with a terrible joke or overly sarcastic comment. Fortunately, we had both learned how to mumble those comments in a way that usually people didn’t listen. Unfortunately, because we both did this, we picked up on when the other person was doing it, which meant we heard each other’s comments all the time and laugh about them.

And, if you know me at all, you know that I do a terrible job of remaining still and quiet when I find something funny.

Emily and I got “in trouble” several times because of what became our little inside jokes. The therapist leading the group would glare in our direction, sigh heavily, and suddenly find a reason to call on one of us or ask if we were listening. It got to the point where sometimes we’d pick up on what the other was thinking or saying, and one time we even both started laughing during a mindfulness exercise because we’d just had a conversation previously about how much Emily hated that specific guided meditation.

Some weeks, the therapist would sit between us or near enough to us that we had to behave. Other weeks the therapist would catch us both hanging out in the parking lot an hour after group had ended, and she’d ask what we were talking about before she got in the car and drove away. She knew we’d become close.

Then, one week in late April of 2019, I said one thing, and it started a whole train reaction of events.

Emily and I were both also seeing the therapist who led the group for individual sessions. It’s sort of the protocol for dialectical behavior therapy, because the assumption is you’ll bring homework from the group to unpack during individual sessions, and the therapist can reinforce skills. We were also nearing the end of the final module in group, which meant I was nearing my second time through the entire program. If you do DBT “by the book,” most people either stop the group after two times through or, as recommended for people with BPD (which according to that therapist I had), you move into an advanced group.

At this point, I felt like I was doing well all things considered. I hadn’t been in the hospital for over a year, I was working at a church and a rehab facility, and I seemed to be on a good medication combo. So, during my individual session, I casually asked, “So what’s next once we finish this last module?”

The therapist gave me this confused look and asked what I meant, so I explained that this was my second time through everything, and I felt like I had a good grasp of the skills we’d covered and wasn’t sure that it made sense to do the same thing a third time. I then asked if she had any referrals for a place to go if I wanted to try an advanced group since she wasn’t offering one.

Without projecting too strong of a negative attitude towards this therapist, I’ll just say I left the session in tears and unsure of what was coming next. The next week, the therapist essentially told me she was going to be unable to continue working with me after we finished the last group session and I would need to find someone else to see individually. Of course, my individual session just happened to be right before group, so Emily knew the moment she saw me that day I wasn’t okay.

When I told her everything later, she couldn’t believe it. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have told her everything, but I trusted her and needed a friend. But, I told her, knowing that she was going to do a second round of the group sessions and still see the therapist individually.

Well, long story short, Emily did a whole worksheet about a situation where “a friend got kicked out of a group we’re both in” and how she felt about it (angry and upset). Suddenly, Emily said the therapist told her she needed to move back in with her parents because she wasn’t recovered enough to live alone. And, like me, she was left to find a new therapist.

In other words, my decision to be assertive about my own mental health care also messed up Emily’s care.

I Guess I’m Not Getting Her In Trouble Now

Okay, yes, I realize that what happened isn’t exclusively my fault. I’ve shared the story with my current therapist and, spoiler alert, she was a bit appalled about many things the aforementioned group therapist did. But, it does make for an interesting story and does make the fact that we remained friends even after our time in group therapy ended a bit more understandable.

But, between that and the fact that most people didn’t know Emily wasn’t straight until she started dating me, I feel like I got Emily in trouble a lot in the time we knew each other. But, every time I pointed this out to Emily, she’d smack me and talk about how I also was incredibly helpful to her, especially in regards to her ED recovery.

Because of me, Emily got in trouble. So, at least I’m no longer being a bad influence on her?


Because She Gives Me Strength

Over the past four months, I’ve done a lot of things that, quite frankly, I can’t fully explain. Some of these things, like drinking an entire bottle of rum in a single day, were 100% a form of pain management. Others, like agreeing to be in a fashion show (more on that later), are definitely no-brainer decisions I’ve made on the premise that Emily would want me to do them.

Honestly, I can’t quite explain where the strength or knowledge that compels me to do these things comes from. However, I know that it’s been happening from the moment I walked out of Vanderbilt just over four months ago. And, although most people may think I’m crazy for saying this, I’m choosing to believe it’s some form of Emily with a side of the Holy Spirit leading me along.

Of course, if you don’t believe me, maybe you will once I finish this little story that’s been on my mind today.

Words Are My Thing

When we started the planning process for Emily’s funeral, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But, when her mom asked me if I’d like to speak, I just felt something inside of me saying, “Do it.” I guess it’s probably the fact that words are my thing, and I knew deep down Emily would want me to write something.

So, I did. In fact, this is what I wrote (and read):

“Every great love story starts with an adorable narrative of how the couple met. Sometimes they’re high school sweethearts or have a budding college romance. Other times they meet in places like work, through mutual friends, or at church. 

Of course, if you know Emily, then you know how much she “loved” fitting into the mold. So, it’s only fitting that we met in a way much like any other couple… we met in group therapy in 2018.

If you ask me, I say that our meeting was serendipitous. I was instantly drawn to her warmth, her smile, and her energy. I could just tell that there was something about Emily that made her extraordinary, and I wanted to learn what exactly that spark was all about. If you ask Emily, she’d say that she really only sat next to me because I was ‘less weird than everyone else in the room.’ 

Despite these less-than-conventional beginnings, Emily and I quickly bonded like any couple who is destined to be together. We often laughed at each other’s snarky comments during our therapy group’s weekly meetings and checked in with each other when we sensed something was “off” with the other person. Over time, our conversations moved out of the therapy room into the parking lot, then to text messages and phone calls, dinner rendezvous, and trips to McKay’s together. She accompanied my children and me on vacations, we celebrated a pandemic Thanksgiving together over Zoom, and we regularly indulged in our favorite guilty pleasure — Grey’s Anatomy — from the comfort of my couch.

For me, every moment we spent together was magical and meaningful and far beyond anything I’d ever experienced with another person in my entire life. Yet, somehow, it took us until April 2021 and a day-long adventure of couch shopping together to finally admit what was on our hearts: we were in love.

In some ways, I think the wait was a lesson in patience and learning to ‘trust the process.’ Of course, this lesson was just one of the many things Emily taught me during our time together.

Throughout our friendship and romantic relationship, Emily taught me so many things that I’m not sure I can even list them all. But, I’m going to try and share a few with everyone who is gathered here today.

Emily taught me what true joy and passion looked like. Every time Emily danced, played her oboe, sang, or played the piano, she did so wholeheartedly. You could see the joy these creative outlets brought her, and it made watching or listening to her that much more impactful. 

But she didn’t just express that joy through creative arts — it showed through in even the most mundane tasks. She found ways to sprinkle joy into activities like cooking, caring for pets, working on grad school assignments… pretty much anything you can imagine, Emily found a way to make it joyful and exciting (except cleaning, but we’ll just forget that).

Emily showed me what strength, courage, and determination can really do. In the time I knew her, I watched Emily push through eating disorder recovery. She’d set goals and challenges for herself, and crush them time and time again. She would reach out for support when she needed it, eat meals even when she admitted she didn’t want to or heard her eating disorder telling her to do the opposite. She faced fear foods, bought clothes for her changing body, and broke habits that had become commonplace — all for the sake of her own future. 

Because I watched her do all of this, I had the strength to face my own demons and work on myself as well. I made it through some exceptionally tough times, processed traumas that I’d buried away and shared with no one, and broke out of my own unhealthy habits — all because Emily taught me that I could.

Emily also taught me the true essence of living authentically. Day in and day out, she made the choice to show up and be real. She wasn’t afraid to share her struggles with others and speak candidly about her life. I know this transparency helped her connect with so many people, like her friends from eating disorder treatment, fellow transplant recipients, and even the hundreds of clients she served through her jobs in peer support and crisis stabilization. She was willing to be real with people, and I learned how to be my true self in her presence.

Emily showed me what gratitude looked like, too. Even before she learned about her organ donor, she constantly shared how thankful she was for the precious gift of life she received from another person’s selfless act. After she learned about Victor, she looked for ways to thank him and memorialize him in every step of her journey. She included him on her graduation cap and she fervently shared his story. We’d even discussed ways to show our gratitude to Victor in our life going forward, both through a memorial table at our wedding and by naming the child we hoped to have together after him.

Emily taught me so much more about compassion than I ever knew was possible. No matter what people did or said to her, she still found a way to care about them and help them as much as she could. She would give anyone the shirt off her back or drive them halfway across the country if it would help them in some way. She never asked for anything in return, and she was never resentful or mean — she simply paid it forward to anyone who crossed her path.

Most of all, Emily showed me what true unconditional love looked and felt like. From our first kiss until just a few hours before she passed, Emily constantly let me know how much she cared about me with her words, and more importantly, her actions. It didn’t matter how tired she was or what I had or hadn’t done for her — she loved me completely, without hesitation. I had never experienced the type of love that Emily showed me, and I will carry every compliment, every hug, and every moment we spent together in my heart for the rest of my time on Earth.

As many of you know, I had just proposed to Emily a little less than a month ago. Although we had just started planning our wedding, I was looking forward to writing my vows and making countless promises to her as we started our lives together as a married couple. 

Unfortunately, most of those promises I would have made are now null and void since they required her to also be here on Earth with me. I’ll admit, I’m a little salty she went first, because that’s exactly what I told her not to do. But, I have decided that one of the ways I can keep Emily’s spirit alive is by making some slightly different promises to her today with all of you here as my witness.

So, Emily, even though the life we dreamed of together is going to look a bit different from here on out:

  • I promise you I will find ways to spread joy to others through music and my various spiritual gifts. I may even find a way to spread joy throughout all 50 states since I know you wanted us to visit them all together.
  • I promise I will continue to pay it forward to others by sharing my own recovery journey and helping those who are struggling. If I can, I will even find a way to make that treatment center we dreamed of opening together a reality.
  • I promise I will share Victor’s story and yours in any way I can. I will honor you both by being an organ donor myself and encouraging others to share the gift of life.
  • Finally, I promise you I will continue to live my life authentically and learn to love myself the way you loved me, unconditionally and without hesitation.

I know that, if you’re here today, Emily touched your life just like she touched mine. I also know that even though Emily has left this Earth, her story isn’t over because we all carry pieces of Emily with us in our memories and in our hearts. As long as we’re all willing to cling to those pieces of Emily that we each carry, find joy in simple moments, and live our lives wholeheartedly, Emily will always be here with us.

She Gave Me Strength

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine brought up the funeral. She talked about how she just remembered me making it through my entire speech, and then I just sat down and completely collapsed.

And she wasn’t wrong, I fell into the chair and just started sobbing. It’s like I was somehow protected from the weight of my emotions as I read, and then it all hit me at once as soon as I was done. And, given everything that’s happened to me since, I firmly believe that Emily was there with me that day, giving me the strength to pull through.

Looking back, I don’t even fully remember reading the speech. But I know I made it through.

It’s funny, because when Emily was alive, she was a major source of strength and determination for me, too.

For example, Emily was one of the first people I told about the divorce and many of the details behind it. As I spent several months in the trenches of negotiations and talks with lawyers, Emily was there. When I felt like giving up, she reminded me what I deserve. When I panicked about the future, Emily told me she knew I’d make it through. And when I was really bad, she sat and drank with me until I felt ready to take on the world again.

And it was exactly the same after the divorce was finalized and I decided to do some intense trauma work with my therapist. It was the same when I applied for jobs or took on a new freelance client. It was the same when other friends would completely knock me down. And, funny enough, it was the same when I agreed to ride a water slide that seemed absolutely terrifying. No matter what I faced, Emily gave me the strength to go for it and stand tall. She was my security blanket and the medal to give me courage all wrapped up in a cute, fun-size package. She was the one who helped me through everything.

She’s Still Giving Me Strength

I know that I should be getting over my loss and moving on with life, but I’ll be honest, it’s hard. I told someone the other day that these past 4 months have been harder than anything else I’ve faced in my life, and I meant it. Harder than the semester I got sent to alternative school, harder than the college semester I almost didn’t finish, harder than miscarriage, divorce, and everything else that’s ever happened to me.

Each morning I wake up and spend a solid five minutes convincing myself to get up. Then I have to fight the urge to vomit and cry as I start moving around. There’s usually at least one point where I cry, and I’m still sleeping on the couch.

But, somehow, I get dressed and get the kids ready for school. I get my work done, I prepare dinner, I get the kids ready for bed. I’m holding steady with my freelance work, I’m somehow keeping my head above water with the household chores. And, most importantly, I’m still alive, even though I’ve been incredibly close to trying to change that.

At the end of almost every day, as I lay on the couch curled up in one of Emily’s favorite blankets, I ask myself how I made it through another day. And, nearly every day, there’s only one explanation that comes to mind: her.

I don’t know why I’m still here, but I know that every breath I take is because of Emily. From the first day I met her, she gave me strength. And, I feel so lucky that she’s still giving me strength right now, because today hasn’t been a great day. I just hope that, someday when the time is right, she won’t have to give me strength anymore and can just give my a hug instead.

Because She Sucked At Cleaning

Although I’ve never been a “neat freak,” I appreciate it when my house is mostly clean and organized. I am embarrassed to admit this, but my house is not clean right now. At all. Sure, it’s liveable, and yes, I can find everything, but it’s messy, making my eye twitch as I look at it all.

If you knew Emily, then you know cleaning was not her strong suit. At all. So, you’d think that her death would have made it easier for me to maintain a clean household… but it hasn’t.

I could probably justify the mess to some degree by sharing the fact that I work around 60 hours each week between my full-time job and freelance gigs. I could also blame some of it on the fact that I am still using my living room as a makeshift bedroom because I am still avoiding the bedroom because it’s just filled with her clothes, makeup, and memories. But, the reality is that I’ve simply lacked any and all motivation to do what I need to do, and, in a weird sort of way, having a messy house almost gives the illusion that Emily is still here.

Emily’s Cleaning Buddy

I remember the first time I saw Emily’s car. Boy, was it a sight. From the outside, it appeared to be filled to the brim with everything you can imagine, from clothing to textbooks to trash. At the time, I assumed it was something temporary, like she had just moved or had gone somewhere for a week and hadn’t gotten around to cleaning out her car. But, the more I got to know Emily, I learned a simple truth: Emily just didn’t clean things.

As our friendship evolved, I became Emily’s cleaning buddy. Anytime she’d get a notice from her apartment about inspections, anytime she planned to drive to Knoxville for a weekend, or anytime her parents planned to be in Nashville, I’d get panicked texts or phone calls. And, nearly every single time, I’d go help her clean up her apartment or clean out her car as best as I could.

I’ll admit, it was never easy or fun. I’d usually find things growing in her fridge or in coffee mugs throughout the apartment. I frequently found items that had obviously been sitting in the same place on the floor for months, with no effort to pick them up. I’d uncover things in her car that she forgot she even owned, or see that she had three opened containers of the same thing (like cookie butter) in different rooms because she couldn’t find the original one.

Sometimes I’d leave after spending several hours throwing out trash and deep cleaning and wonder, “Why am I doing this?” Other times I’d have to stand outside for a minute between running bags of trash to the dumpster just so Emily didn’t hear or see me throw up. Each time, though, it mostly broke my heart a bit to see how she lived because, deep down, I knew it wasn’t really her fault.

It Wasn’t Always Her Fault

I think a lot of people would see someone like Emily, take one look at her car or her apartment and think, “Man, that girl is lazy.” But, as is the case with many people who live in disorganized homes, there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

I knew fairly early on in our friendship that Emily lived with several mental health conditions. She most openly talked about her battle with anorexia, but for a large amount of the years I knew her, that was far from the most problematic symptoms she experienced. Instead, I really think her obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) paired with her depression were the real culprits when it came to her issues with cleaning.

Every time I helped Emily clean, I couldn’t help but look at her with curious fascination. It was a great way to see exactly how her mind worked and watch the battles she dealt with constantly play out.

One time, I cleaned out two entire rooms and hauled all of the trash to the dumpster in the time it took her to simply clear off her desk. She literally could not move on from this stack of papers because, in her mind, she had to sort them and place them in file folders immediately if she wanted to clean them up. She couldn’t simply put them all in a drawer or leave them neatly stacked on top of the desk. It was like she could only follow a certain path, and trying to do otherwise made her panic.

Another time, I ended up going over and cleaning her kitchen while she was still at work. We were dating at this point, and she had been living with me for months. However, we had decided to stay the night at her apartment one night when we didn’t have kids because it was closer to the city. I realized that next morning that we not only didn’t have anything to eat at her place, but the kitchen hadn’t been touched for at least two months. Emily attempted to clean in there, only to decide within a few minutes that she was going to die from some sort of contamination and that she’d be better off to simply never go into the apartment again than try to clean it. So, I waited until Friday when I didn’t have much to do at work and I spent several hours over there throwing everything in the fridge away and wiping down as much as I could.

I remember when she showed up after work that day, because she was panicking that I was going to break up with her over the fridge. She kept saying, “Why do you love me? I’m disgusting and broken! You deserve so much better!” But, as I told her, she wasn’t any of those things. She simply had a mental health condition that made tasks like cleaning very complicated. And, because I’m me, I also threw in a joke and then shared with her in great detail how gross the liquified hot dogs in her fridge were. We laughed, hugged, and moved on.

That’s one thing that I wish I’d gotten across to her before she died — even her flaws weren’t fatal. In fact, they usually weren’t even her fault at all. And I was more than happy to deal with a woman who would never clean out the fridge because I appreciated all the other parts of that same woman. Also, I knew that with time, she’d work through some of these issues. She’d already started doing some therapy specifically focused on OCD, and although it had only been a few months, I’d already seen some improvement and change.

Pieces of Her Messes Everywhere

Each time I’ve cleaned part of the apartment since Emily died, I’ve ended up finding things that made me cry. I moved some things around in the living room a couple weeks after she passed and spilled her purse over, only to find where she’d kept our admission tickets for the Shedd and something from our trip to St. Louis. When I cleaned out her car before taking it to her parents, I found a postcard I’d sent her back in 2020 sitting right in the center console, almost like she kept it there to look at. When I cleaned up the kids’ room, I found some things she’d left in there when she used it to do a therapy session one afternoon a few weeks before she died.

It doesn’t matter how long it’s been or where I go in this house, I uncover her everywhere.

I know that I eventually want to maintain a clean home again because I know it is one thing that does help my mental health. But boy, is it hard to keep the house spotless when you often struggle to even get out of bed and spend 10+ hours per day working. But, every time I get mad at myself or start to judge myself for everything I see around the house, I remember the things Emily said and felt when I would help her clean and remember my responses. So, because of Emily, I’m trying to give myself some grace. It will eventually all be clean, but until then I know she’s not judging me whatsoever because it would be just as bad if she were still here.

Because I Can’t Help But Blame Myself

Today’s therapy session really hit me hard. The part where I lost it was when I realized how little time had passed between the proposal and Emily’s death. (It was less than 3 weeks.) Regarding the timeline of our relationship, those two items rest directly next to each other — both equally impactful, yet in stark contrast to each other, like polar opposites. They’re like day and night. The beginnings of forever and the ending credits, with nothing more than some spreadsheets and Pinterest boards in between.

I’m unsure how to share everything inside my mind right now. It’s chaos, yet the thoughts keep rolling as if my brain thinks it can piece everything together in a way that makes sense. Unfortunately, all it keeps coming up with are ways to blame me.

I’m No Stranger To Blaming Myself

Emily’s death isn’t the first time I have experienced life events that cause me to question everything about myself. In fact, many thoughts eating away at me today sound eerily similar to thoughts that lived in my head rent-free through most of the early 2000s when I was in middle school and early high school.

I realize many aspects of my life made me vulnerable to the events that unfolded during my middle school years. And, everywhere I turned, I was confronted with even more evidence that the things that happened to me were either not as awful as they felt to me, or they were merely consequences I deserved.

My abuser made it clear that I brought out the worst in him, and he couldn’t control himself around me. The adults I told (a teacher and the guidance counselor) both found reasons to pass the blame onto me or take my assailant’s side.

So, eventually, I started blaming myself. And that trend stuck with me. Bullying, failed friendships, future assaults, mental health crises — all of these things were my fault. I even found a way to blame myself for a classmate’s fatal accident in high school even though I was no where near the accident the weekend it happened.

Even now, anytime anything goes wrong, I immediately seek anything I can use to blame it all on myself.

The Blame Game Is An Easy One To Play

Once you start fishing for ways to make something your fault, it’s incredibly easy for that list to multiply. You can twist almost any situation in a way that places the blame on you, regardless of whether or not there’s any truth to it.

The easiest way to make Emily’s death my fault is to simply say I should have made her go the emergency room much sooner.

The week after I proposed, she saw her PCP about the symptoms she was experiencing, but the doctor didn’t seem concerned or in a rush to diagnose what was going on, even though it was obvious Emily was in pain. I told her how concerned I was, but each time I mentioned the ER, she came up with an excuse to not go. And, because I hate conflict and I never wanted Emily to feel like I didn’t see her as an equal adult, I never pushed. I was weak.

From there, I can go down several different rabbit holes to blame myself even further. I could say I wasn’t reminding her to take her medications, nor was I doing my part to make sure she was taking care of her body. Emily picked up tons of extra shifts in September. 2022 had become an expensive year for us, and she thought the extra money would help. But I knew from watching Emily work 60+ hour weeks in previous years, it’s just not good for her.

Then we can say I messed up her medication routines with the move and my own routines and schedules. Or the stress of wedding planning threw off routines and habits she’d developed. In fact, you could say (and some have) that the fact that I proposed is the entire issue and that she died because I “turned her gay.” Or maybe she gave up because she didn’t really want to marry me.

Now, am I saying any of these thoughts are rational? Not necessarily. But I am saying that there are all sorts of ways to blame me for Emily’s departure from this world.

What Do We Do With Blame?

I feel like blame is one of the heaviest loads I’ve ever carried around in my life. Because, at least in my mind, I’m not just living with the burden of it all in my current lifetime, but it’s also left me permanently flagged and taken away what chances I might have had for an eternal life after this.

In middle school and high school, I channeled the negative energy self-blamed filled me with into very unhealthy decisions. I self-harmed as a form of punishment. I went to confession and prayed the Rosary. I stockpiled medications then consumed large quantities at once to make myself sick or experience the way it temporarily altered my brain. I even tried to end my existence a few times.

But, that was two decades ago. So what do I do with this guilt and shame that I’m feeling now?

I’ll be honest, what I’m doing now isn’t any better than what I did back then. And, just like I discovered in my youth, nothing provides much more than a temporary drop in my emotions and intrusive thoughts.

Each day, there’s a part of me that wishes I could talk to Emily and find out whether she blames me. But mostly, I just wish I could either bring her back or, at the very least, trade places with her so she could continue down the incredible path she’d outlined for herself.

Like I told my therapist today as we discussed the entire history of my relationship with Emily, what upsets me the most is that fact that it all ended so soon. It’s not how it was supposed to be, and it’s not fair to Emily that she didn’t get to do all the things she dreamed of accomplishing.

When Emily was around, I didn’t have any reason to blame myself because she made my life so wonderful. But because she’s gone, I can’t help but wonder if everyone would be better off without me.

Because We Wanted To Help People

Earlier this week, I looked over a friend’s graduate school application essays and provided some edit suggestions. Honestly, I loved reading the essays because it gave me such a clear perspective on why they’re applying to grad school and what they hope to accomplish with their MSW. It’s just inspiring to hear the why behind people’s dreams.

Of course, reading the essays also made me think about Emily for multiple reasons. First and foremost, this friend was actually one of Emily’s closest friends and someone Emily really admired. They worked together for a while, and they bonded over life experience and their shared desire to make the world a better place.

However, it wasn’t just that shared connection that made me think of Emily — it was the content of the essays themselves. Just as this other person has a whole vision of what they’d like to do once they obtain their master’s degree, Emily had a vision of what she wanted to do as well. And, honestly, it was a vision Emily and I shared.

It Started With DBT

I know I’ve already rambled on about how Emily and I met. However, I always find it funny when I think back to our time in group therapy together because so many things came out of that single shared experience. Obviously, our relationship was my favorite outcome from those hours we spent together, learning about wise mind. But, I think the inspiration we both took from it is a close second.

Before our paths crossed, Emily and I both had a desire to help people. And, despite all of the shortcomings of the therapist herself, we both grew a lot from our exposure to dialectical behavior therapy. Because of that, we both walked away from our time in DBT group with a dream to utilize the modality in some shape or form in our futures.

Of course, no single form of therapy is one-size-fits-all. Usually, most modalities are designed as a response to something specific the therapist who developed it was trying to address. In Marsha Linehan’s case, she wanted to help highly sensitive individuals who experienced chronic suicidal ideation (meaning lots of people with borderline personality disorder and similar conditions). As it became more mainstream, clinicians discovered that DBT is also beneficial for clients with disordered eating habits, those who deal with substance misuse, and many other populations.

In other words, it can help the exact populations of people Emily and I have always wanted to work with.

Even after we moved on from our DBT group as patients, Emily and I frequently talked about the modality. We discussed its benefits, its shortcomings, and our personal frustrations. We also discussed adaptations a clinician could possibly make to fit specific types of clients (like those with a trauma history).

Correcting What Went Wrong

I think one of the reasons mental health professionals with lived experience do their jobs so well is because they’ve seen what doesn’t work. That’s definitely the case for Emily and I both, and it was definitely one of the biggest motivators in our quest to help others.

I remember the first time Emily and I talked about our “dream treatment center” together. We were on our way to Knoxville, so we had several hours of time together in the car. We were talking about another one of Emily’s friends who has really struggled to find a treatment approach that works for her because of the combination of ED and trauma.

As Emily mentioned at that time, many residential facilities focus on weight restoration and meal compliance, but they don’t always spend as much time breaking down the function of ED. Also, as I saw during my time working in addiction treatment, not a lot of time is spent in small group or individual settings to really let people process underlying issues. And, unfortunately, that’s a huge part of the issue because substance use and disordered eating are almost always behaviors that stem from something much larger.

So, we talked about how our hypothetical treatment center would correct what went wrong in other places. We wanted to provide trauma-informed care, ensure that everyone felt safe, and make sure we didn’t care for one specific type (or stereotype) of client. And, we wanted to make sure that marginalized groups didn’t get lost in the shuffle, meaning we wanted to offer care for those in larger bodies, those in ethnic groups that may have a harder time accessing care (or finding places who were accepting of their upbringing), and those within the LGBTQ+ community.

Oh, and then there’s the other part about eating disorder treatment that makes it inaccessible for so many: the cost. So, Emily wanted to offer scholarships and look for grants or other funding sources so we could dedicate at least a few spots in our facility for those who were uninsured or underinsured. We also wanted to find ways to subsidize care for those whose insurance tried to boot them out before they were truly ready to go it alone.

Treating The Whole Person

Of course, healing isn’t just about learning how to eat carbs or sitting in a chair while a therapist asks you about your childhood trauma. People are complex beings, and we need a variety of things to feel fulfilled.

Emily and I wanted to find ways to work various arts into our treatment approach. We both agreed that music, visual art, and dance can be incredibly powerful forms of expression, and we wanted to explore what those components would look like in the context of treating people who live with ED. Of course, it would have required additional training and education, but we were more than willing to do that because we knew it would benefit the people we served.

We also wanted to find a balance in how much we focused on eating disorder recovery and how much we focused on other aspects of mental health treatment. We thought some specific small groups based on other conditions or needs would be helpful, since each person has unique needs. Some may need things like grief recovery, while others may need something specific for OCD.

In other words, we’d individualize treatment to the best of our abilities.

A Distant Dream or No Longer A Possibility?

Before Emily died, we knew our hypothetical treatment center was a solid decade down the line. Our plan was to get her established with her LMSW so she could start working towards her LCSW, go through the IVF process to have our child together, and then I’d look into going back to school. Once Emily had her LCSW and I had whatever degree I decided was best for our goals, we’d look into the next steps.

But now, she’s gone, and I’m a little torn on how to proceed.

Part of me wants to find a way to open this dream treatment center regardless, and name it after Emily. It would be the ultimate way to honor her, and I’d find ways to give as much credit back to her as I could.

But then, part of me feels like it’s an impossible task. I don’t have any formal training in anything related to therapy or social work. I know almost nothing about running a business, let alone one in a healthcare environment. And, although my finances are on the up trend, I’m still recovering from a rather rough final few months of 2022.

And, of course, the whole idea came about because of her… And I’m not sure how I’d ever live out her dreams without her by my side. But, then again, it’s because I love her and I loved her passion for helping others that I even wanted to do this to begin with…

What’s a grieving woman to do?

Because She Heard The Call

Back in the fall, Emily and I decided to sign up for the Disciple Bible Study one of the pastors was offering on Wednesday evenings. I’ve continued going without her, even though it’s been hard.

Tonight, we got on the topic of “listening to God’s call” and all that jazz. I didn’t say much (or really anything). But, as I listened to others share and discuss, my mind thought of so many things — one of which was Emily.

Helping Hands and a Loving Heart

I’ll admit, getting to know Emily often took people a while because she could be very quiet and almost guarded. However, it didn’t take long for me to see how much she loved helping others.

She was always giving people advice, checking in with those who were struggling, and talking to friends who were in crisis. She helped friends and family, but she also helped people she barely even knew (or didn’t know at all). It didn’t matter how tired she was or whether she had an entire paper to write that day for school — if you needed her, Emily was there, no questions asked.

I have always considered myself to be a helpful person, but even I couldn’t keep up with Emily sometimes. It was always very clear to me that, for better or worse, she was called to help others. And, unlike many young adults, Emily knew that about herself, too.

So Many Ways to Help

As Emily finished her bachelor’s degree at MTSU less than 6 months after we met, I stood out in the parking lot after group one day and asked her what I thought was a simple question: What’s next for you after graduation?

Much to my surprise, she didn’t have an answer, or at least not a simple one.

Emily explained that, before the last half of 2017 turned her life upside down, she’d considered going into ministry. However, she also shared that she had some concerns (one of them being her sexuality). She worried that she wouldn’t be able to explore that part of herself if she made the choice to go through the candidacy process.

She also wanted to get her master’s degree in social work. She said, “I either want to work with people recovering from eating disorders or be a transplant social worker, but I’m not sure which.” Of course, I knew even back then that she’d be good at either one because her lived experience would give her empathy and knowledge far beyond most others.

Eventually, she made the decision to pursue her MSW at the University of Kentucky, although the process to get there took a while.

A Calling I Thought We’d Share

The entire time Emily was in grad school, we talked about the future. We created an entire plan about opening a treatment center together someday. We had so many plans for it that I’ll eventually share in another post, but the general idea was we wanted a place specifically geared towards helping people between 25-40 (maybe a bit more expanded) who lived with an eating disorder. However, we didn’t want to be like most of the facilities we knew: we wanted to treat all bodies, offer a safe space for all people, and provide trauma-informed care.

We knew this would take time and money, but I know the idea of helping others motivated Emily. She was so determined to finish grad school (which she did) and take her licensing exam (which she missed doing by less than a week).

Every time we discussed it, she lit up. I even asked her on several occasions if she ever regretted choosing me over going into ministry, and she said no. She always claimed that she could help people just as much (if not more).

So, I held onto that idea of us opening a treatment center together one day. In fact, I still held onto that idea, even after her death.

Because of Emily, I had big dreams of helping others. And because I want her legacy to live on, I might still do that… Although it will be strange to do so without my better half.

Because We Went To The Movies

The emotions have been all over the place this weekend. One minute I’m participating fully in the present moment, completely engaged and feeling content with life. Then, out of nowhere, the heartache and longing hit me out of nowhere and I feel my eyes fill with tears. Or, without any obvious trigger, my mind begins to race, my stomach churns, and my chest feels like a car is resting on top of it. Then everything settles for a moment… only for the madness to start all over again.

I was fully riding that roller coaster last night as the kids and I drove home from dinner with some friends. At one point, I was singing along to the music with the kids, and then I saw Burger Republic out the window, and I fell apart.

An Unforgettable Movie Night

If you weren’t aware of this already, Emily and I share a love of all things psychology related. We always went to that section in McKay’s, we frequently pulled our DSMs during discussions over what mental health condition we thought a TV show character had, and the majority of the memes, links, and videos we shared with each other were somehow mental health related.

Anyway, given that information, it should be no surprise that I wanted to go see Words on Bathroom Walls when it came out in August of 2020. It also shouldn’t surprise you that I asked Emily to go with me and she said yes without hesitation.

For your reference, the film is about a high schooler who is diagnosed with schizophrenia and has a hard time talking about it and coping. There’s also a love interest and other sappy things. So, the perfect movie for girls who enjoy tearing apart films that get mental health conditions like this wrong.

Back to the story…

We planned to start the night with dinner at Red Robin, but they had over an hour wait. So, we ran down the road to Burger Republic. We ordered, enjoyed our food, and talked. Unfortunately, we left pretty much immediately after we saw a mouse run through the restaurant, which meant we still had time to kill before the movie and we both didn’t get to finish our boozy shakes.

I can’t remember which one of us thought of it, but we decided to go to the liquor store and get some nips that we could sneak into the movie theater and add to our fountain drinks. We wandered around the liquor store for a bit, then bought what we came in for and headed to the movie.

The movie ended up being much better than I expected, and the company was obviously even better. I think her chillness with our rebellious move of taking the booze into the theater caught me off guard since she usually seemed to panic over anything that might get her in trouble, but it also made me see what a badass she really was, which made me fall for her even more. I felt like I was in high school or actually getting an authentic college experience (music majors who are working to pay for school don’t have time to be a “college kid”). It was so much fun. Emily was so much fun.

Movie For One

Since Emily died, I’ve seen a couple movies advertised that I wouldn’t have minded seeing. But every time I contemplated going to the theater alone, all I could think about was that magical movie night. Although I know I could sneak alcohol in (I’ve gotten good at that lately), I don’t know if I could make it through an entire movie by myself without wishing for my Emily.

Thanks to Emily, I have so many incredible stories like this one. And because of her, I relearned what it’s like to have fun, laugh, and enjoy life.

Yet, without her, I can’t seem to find the joy in life. I can laugh for a moment, smile through a two-hour ballet, or have fun with my friends for an evening. But eventually, it all comes back — the heartbreak, the overwhelming sadness, the anxiety and despair. It all engulfs me until I can’t feel anything else. Maybe soon I’ll learn how to breathe without her. But for now, I’m going to try my best to turn the tears into stories of the happy memories that came before.

Because I Have Regrets

One of my favorite things about Emily was her snarky comments. She lived for them, and they always made me laugh. One of her favorite choice phrases was, “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” She uses that one quite a bit, and no matter how many times she said it, I still chuckled.

Unfortunately, I lived out that exact comment this morning. I knew when I first popped the top at lunch time that I’d regret it later, but at the time I didn’t care. My whole existence is about damage control and pain management right now, and I’ve decided time and time again that the short-term relief is worth the aftermath.

As I climbed out of bed and got the kids ready for school, I could just hear Emily my ear with her snarky comments and “I told you so” responses. However, I also know she would have been there beside me, caring for my broken body if she could have been.

A Mountain of Regrets

At least once a day, those final hours play through my mind like a cinematic masterpiece. I get goosebumps as I reach the point where I woke up to that first episode. I can hear the blaring of the heart monitor and see her sitting there completely unresponsive but making a noise. I feel the panic spread through my body as I try to talk to her and the team rushes into the room with the crash cart.

It’s all still there, as clear as day. And right there alongside it is a mountain of regrets. I wish I’d asked her more about how she was feeling as she fell asleep. I wish I’d forced myself to stay up instead of sleeping in the chair beside her bed. I wish I’d forced her to let me lay beside her in the bed so we could have cuddled up one last time. I wish I’d been more assertive and insisted on holding her hand the whole time instead of thinking that being out of the way was what the doctors needed… I could keep going for hours.

But, in reality, those regrets I have about that final night hardly scratch the surface. The root of the issue is much deeper than that, and it goes back to wasted time.

I Thought We’d Always Have More Time

I remember the exact night I knew my feelings for Emily ran much deeper than an average friendship. It was November 30, 2019 — the night we went to a benefit concert for To Write Love On Her Arms. Lizzo was the headliner.

I pulled up to Emily’s apartment to pick her up, and my jaw dropped. She wasn’t overly dressed up, but it was clear she’d put in a lot of effort into her outfit and her makeup. When she got in the car and smiled at me, my heart skipped a beat. What’s happening right now?

I loved every moment of that night, from the car ride to the concert all the way to the late-night stop at IHOP on the way home. There were several times where I wanted to tell her what I was feeling, but I worried about how she’d respond. It would also require me to tell her something that I hadn’t told anyone yet except my therapist: My marriage was officially over — we planned to file for divorce after the holidays.

I’ll always regret not telling her how I felt that night because I’ll never know if it would have given us more time.

Instead, I patiently waited. I followed my therapist’s advice to stay single for a year. I watched her date someone else and even pretended to be happy about it because I thought she was happy with him.

I did the same thing with my proposal — I patiently waited instead of just going for it. I knew we both wanted to get married. I knew she would say yes. But she’d told me to wait until after she finished her master’s, and then I wanted to make sure I planned out the fairytale proposal she deserved.

I’ll regret not proposing sooner because we could have had more time to plan and possibly even walk down the aisle.

Then I think about what she said when our pastor came to see us in the emergency room the day before she died. She said, “This feels a lot like 2017.” I tried to laugh it off, but I did make a joke that if it was really a repeat of that year, then I was going to ask our pastor to break a lot of rules and perform a marriage ceremony.

Gosh, I regret not actually doing that. Even if it wouldn’t have mattered or been legally binding in any way, at least I could have shared just how much I loved her before she went.

The One Thing I Will Never Regret

I regret so many things, probably because hindsight is 20/20. However, the one thing I will never regret is falling in love with Emily. I’d do it all over again with her in a heartbeat, even if I knew what I know now.

My relationship with Emily was everything I could have ever dreamed of and more. She loved me unconditionally, but she also challenged me to be the best possible version of myself. She was willing to validate and support me, but she also wasn’t afraid to call me out on my shit when I needed it. She accepted me as I was, and she encouraged me to be my most authentic self. She treated my children like her very own, and she tried her best to get along with my ex for the kids’ sake. Every day with Emily was magical, and I was the happiest I’d been in over a decade with her by my side.

So, yes, if I could travel back in time to that day at Hooters or, even more so, that day Emily walked into the group therapy room armed with the knowledge I have now, I’d still make the exact same decisions I made over and over again. I will never regret befriending her and, more importantly, loving her. I don’t regret pledging my heart to her, even if that means I will never find love again. Her love is worth every tear, every anxiety attack, and every dollar I’ve had to spend on therapy sessions since October 19.

I have a lot of regrets surrounding my own decisions, but not a single one of those regrets is because of Emily. In fact, there’s a lot in the past 4 years of my life that I’m quite proud of thanks to her… and that will never change.

Because The Carousel Never Stops Turning

I don’t know how a month has gone by, but it has. An entire month of waking up alone. A month of crying myself to sleep. An entire month of meals that never taste quite right. A month without the one person who made the world make sense.

My world feels like it’s standing still. I wander through each day, unsure of how I got to the end of it and uncertain of what I even did that day. I feel like a zombie. I go through the motions because I have to, but inside I feel completely empty. I feel completely and utterly lost. Frozen in time, unable to leave the past.

And yet, the rest of the world seems to keep going as if nothing happened.

“The carousel never stops turning.”

When two Grey’s Anatomy obsessed people become lovers, quotes from the television show get used a lot. While some (like “pants feelings” and “I only have one shoe!”) were often used in playful or humorous ways, others filled in the gap during more serious moments.

We used, “The carousel never stops turning,” a lot both before and after we started dating. When I was dealing with issues during my divorce, Emily would say it to me. She’d use it herself when life was stressful or when upsetting things happened, like a sponsee passing. Sometimes when one of us would send the other money for a bill or unexpected expense, we’d use the phrase as the description for the payment.

That simple phrase filled in so many spaces in conversations. I never thought I’d use it to describe a world without her. Yet, here we are.

I Want the Carousel to Stop

I survived an entire month without Emily… barely.

The townhouse is a mess because our plans to clean it on Monday and Tuesday that week a month ago changed. I’ve barely moved or touched anything I haven’t absolutely needed to since I came home from the hospital around this time one month ago, and what I have done either made a bigger mess or did very little to actually improve the condition of our home.

I have gone to the grocery store a total of once in the past month. I’ve hardly cooked and relied on restaurants to provide me with meals. Some days when the kids aren’t home I only eat once per day. It all feels like too much work.

Sleep continues to be a struggle, as does showering and all other parts of daily living. It all seems so pointless. What’s the point?

People keep saying that I have to keep going for my kids and to continue Emily’s legacy. But is that really the case? There are other people to care for the kids, and others are far better suited to share Emily’s story. I really don’t see a point in doing anything, and that’s the problem.

It’s been an entire month, and I haven’t enjoyed this carousel ride one bit. So excuse me, because today just might be the day I decide to get off the ride and end the madness for good.

Because 2017 Sucked

I’ve been thinking a lot about fate lately. It’s hard, because I can’t imagine a world where something like an untimely death is “destined to be.” Yet, at the same time, I feel like fate is the exact word to explain how Emily and I met to begin with.

You see, Emily and I ended up sitting next to each other in group therapy in August, 2018. It wasn’t a glamourous meeting, nor was it one of those stories people make movies about. Honestly, though? I don’t care, because it’s our story, and I absolutely love it.

However, the reason we met has a backstory… and the gist of it is that 2017 sucked.

Emily’s Year of Heart Problems

For better or worse, 2017 was the year Emily went from being a fairly typical college student to “the transplant kid.” Although I knew from fairly early on in our friendship that this label wasn’t her favorite part of her identity, I also know that it’s a very prolific chapter in her story.

Emily told me she always wondered why she couldn’t run as fast as her peers or why she often felt short of breath and tired when she danced or exercised, but she always chalked it up to her small stature and lack of endurance. However, as she went through a physical exam as part of the candidacy process to become a UMC minister, she learned that these issues had nothing to do with her size or the shape she was in — it had to do with her heart.

Throw in some trips to see cardiologists and multiple rounds of tests, and Emily learned that she had a congenital heart defect — a bicuspid aortic valve. She had surgery and was told everything would be great, but it became apparent within a few months that it wasn’t. In the fall, Emily had a heart attack and was put on the transplant list.

She spent six weeks on the transplant list before receiving the call on December 23, just before Christmas. Although the surgery was a success, and she recovered quickly, I know that the stress and trauma of everything really took its toll on Emily’s mental health.

Megan’s Year of Heartache

Meanwhile, in the very same town, I was dealing with my own issues. 2016 wasn’t a great year for my marriage to say the least. Then, I found out I was pregnant in January. A happy accident, but it made my heart soar nonetheless. Unfortunately, I lost the pregnancy right around the eight-week mark.

In the months that followed, I lost myself completely. I spiraled into the worst depressive episode I’d experienced since high school. I had a hard time focusing on work. I felt like a failure as a mother and a wife. And, despite the heartache of this loss affecting both my then-husband and I, it seemed to drive an even bigger wedge into our relationship.

By the fall, I hit rock bottom. I enjoyed a “fun” ride to the emergency room in the back of a police vehicle. I went in and out of the psychiatric hospital three times between September and January. As I prepared to discharge from an intensive outpatient program, the next step of my journey was staring me in the face: dialectical behavior therapy.

The Stars Aligned

In January of 2018, I started attending weekly therapy sessions and going to a weekly dialectical behavior therapy group. If you aren’t familiar with DBT, it’s a very regimented therapeutic modality consisting of four modules. It takes around six months to work through all of them, and most people go through the cycle twice before moving on to an advanced group or a lower level of care.

So, as I started my second round of DBT groups in August, several new people entered the group. One of those people was a sweet, albeit quiet, woman finishing her bachelor’s degree at MTSU after having a heart transplant the previous December — her name was Emily.

To be honest, I was shocked that Emily sat near me, let alone talked to me. She seemed so warm, charming, and kind. Meanwhile, I felt like a hot mess of a 30-year-old whose life was falling apart. According to Emily, I still seemed less weird than everyone else in the room, which is why she sat next to me.

Looking back, it’s incredible to think about how many things had to happen at just the right time in each of our lives for Emily and I to end up in that same room in August of 2018. Yes, a lot of it was painful and traumatic for us both, but I think, in a weird sort of way, the fact that we were both going through our own stuff helped us connect in a unique way.

I realize that believing in fate is often taboo. But, honestly, I can’t think of another way to explain how a 22-year old and a 31-year-old who otherwise would have never crossed paths ended up becoming friends and, eventually, lovers planning to spend the rest of their lives together.

Because Emily and I both had a terrible 2017, we got to meet. And for that? I will be forever thankful.