On January 28th, 2010, at approximately 11:00am, I glanced down at my phone and was both surprised and peeved to see that my ex-boyfriend, Blake*, was calling me.
Ugh, WHY?! I whined internally as I pressed the ignore button. When he immediately rang again, my irritation turned to anger.
“What do you want, Blake?” I hissed into the phone, hand over my mouth so as to muffle my voice from my co-worker.
“Stephen’s* dead,” he blurted.
The details of what took place in the hours following that phone call are cloudy, but I know that my mom had to come get me from work because I was too distraught to drive. She took me straight to the hospital where Stephen’s lifeless body was resting.
It felt like a dream -- well, nightmare. Foam bubbled out of his mouth, rejecting whatever toxic concoction was festering inside him. His eyes were open; his body was cold and ashen. While several of his family members and close friends sat around him sobbing uncontrollably, I sat there with a burning, swelling pit in my stomach.
All of this was my fault.
Let me rewind: Stephen was my best friend. We technically met in the seventh grade, but we became close during our sophomore year of high school. We were the best friends who texted all day, every day. We ditched class to hang out at his house or “The Sac,” a secluded cul-de-sac near campus. We knew each other’s siblings and parents -- even grandparents. We were partners during the mandatory cat dissection in AP Anatomy. He even introduced me to Blake my senior year of high school and encouraged me to give him a chance.
Most people, including our parents but especially Blake, thought that Stephen and I were secretly in love. Stephen did admit to having feelings for me early in our friendship, but I told him I didn’t feel the same way, and he insisted we not let them interfere with our friendship.
Looking back, maybe I did feel the same way. His blend of sensitivity, “unconventional” interests (at 16, I wasn’t aware that being up on current events isn’t actually unconventional), and ability to make me snort-laugh made him different than anyone I had ever met.
However, despite all of his amazing qualities, Stephen did have a dark, wet cloud hanging over his head.
He battled substance abuse for the duration of our friendship, and while there were times I looked the other way, deep down I knew the entire time. On the several occasions that I did address my concerns, he looked me straight in the eyes and insisted that he had everything under control. He appreciated my concern, but he had been clean for weeks. I wanted to believe him.
As time went on, I never saw him seemingly out of control, so I started to believe that maybe he really had been able to put his dangerous addiction behind him. We graduated from high school and he went to a university out-of-state, while I stayed close to home. We communicated as much as we could, but it was hard to maintain the kind of all-consuming friendship that we once had. Naturally, we began to drift.
Then, one night somewhat out of the blue, he called and told me that he had been jumped on the way back to his dorm. Instinctively, I began the jumbled sequence of, “Areyouokay?! Whodidit?! Isanythingbroken?!” He assured me that he was shaken up, but physically okay.
Then he told me he was coming home from school for good. I was shocked. I tried to talk him out of it, but he said his dad was already en route to help him pack.
Once Stephen was back, things remained different between us. He had a girlfriend, I had a boyfriend (still Blake), and neither of them was fond of our friendship. We still talked and met in secret from time to time, but while we both missed each other and the way things used to be, it was a lot of effort to lie to our partners.
Things continued this way for months, until I was sexually assaulted by a mutual friend (yes, friend) of ours. It took everything in me to come forward, and when I did, many people who I thought cared about me did not believe me -- including Blake. Stephen was one of the few people who were truly there for me. Despite the awful circumstances, it felt so good to have him back in my life.
Fast forward six months to New Year’s Eve. I was on party bus making its way home from a club when I saw a cell phone sliding around across the floor. I waved it around asking if it belonged to anyone, but no one claimed it. I picked it up and started scrolling through the text messages (bad, I know) in order to see if there were any clues leading me to the mystery owner.
I gasped as I saw Stephen’s name in the collection of texts, thinking Yay! Maybe I know this person! Then, my heart dropped what felt like a thousand feet onto broken glass as I read the conversation.
I was/am not especially familiar with drugs or the standard procedure for requesting them, but I knew/know enough to recognize that whatever Stephen was asking this person for was very bad for someone with a history of substance abuse. I did not know what to do.
I lay awake that night wondering what was the best approach to take. I consulted a few close friends. I went back and forth, afraid that taking the wrong approach would yield terrible results. Truthfully, I was in over my head.
Two weeks later, Stephen called me asking if I could meet him somewhere. It was late, but I said yes because I thought this was my chance to confront him. He came to my house and we sat outside in his car.
At first, he seemed sad and confused as he sought my advice on how to end things with Jenny. I had never really understood their relationship in the first place, but I assured him that I was there for him. He seemed relieved. We continued talking for hours about everything but his secret. I could not bring myself to destroy that moment of friendship utopia with something so dark. We seemed like our high school selves, laughing and reminiscing until we started falling asleep. I promised myself that I would broach the subject next time I saw him.
We talked every day for the next couple of weeks, but we were both so busy that we kept postponing the plans that we made. I still had not addressed his issue, but I told myself I had not abandoned him.
Around 11:00 PM on January 27th, I saw that he was calling, but I did not pick up. We had already spoken several times that day, so figured that I would call him in the morning. I never got the chance. He died sometime late that night or early the next morning, due to a mixture of Opana and alcohol.
Opana is an extremely powerful painkiller, commonly used to aid the terminally ill. There was speculation of whether or not it was an accident, but to this day I believe Stephen would never have taken his own life. He was sensitive, complex and often troubled, but I know his ultimate goal was to be happy, even if he was not at that moment.
In the months following his death, I descended into severe depression. I failed most of my classes, isolated myself from everyone who cared about me, cried myself to sleep, and replayed the last time I saw Stephen over and over in my head. If only I had said something. If only I had answered his phone call the night before he died. He needed me. He was crying out for help. These were the things that I repeated to myself constantly.
Sometime soon after I was miraculously accepted as a transfer student to a small liberal arts school 45 minutes north of my hometown, it hit me that I could not spend my whole life playing the “What if?” game.
I did not think I deserved acceptance to this university -- I did not think I deserved anything. But I realized that the countless hours I had spent agonizing over what I should have done differently were not going to bring Stephen back. I had to accept the fact that I may or may not have been able to prevent what happened, and use the experience as a reminder to always follow my instincts, always stand up for what I believe in, and always offer support to those who need it.
Almost three years has passed since Stephen died, and as clichéd as it sounds, I do still think about him every day. I feel so fortunate to have shared that last night with him. Sometimes I even tell myself it was a small gift from the universe, something for me to hold on to when the pain derived from losing someone you love surges back in full force.
I still struggle from time to time, trying not to blame myself for what happened. I know that nothing good will come from encouraging those thoughts. Instead, I try to live a life that I can be proud of, and I smile whenever I think of Stephen.