Confessions of the One Left Behind

“You are the anchor that holds me to the ground.”
~Dustin to me, November 2011

“I need you like I need air to breathe.”
~ Me to Dustin, April 2012

I miss him the way a plant misses the sun; the way stars miss the morning sky. Together, we could fly. Apart, I am a bird with only one wing. I was his North Star, he was my lodestone. But….

A part of me is relieved that Dustin has gone.

Don’t get me wrong; I would give any body part you cared to name, give up years of my life – anything – to have him back. I also recognize that desire is among the most selfish I’ve ever had.

Dustin was suffering, and not in a temporary, transient sort of way. He was being torn apart, inside and out, by the mistakes he’d made, his addictions, so many wrong turns. A good argument could be made that I was the last thing keeping him here, and that at the end, even I wasn’t enough.

The life we were destined to have together was not only not going to be easy, it was going to be hell on earth for him. He was facing three major challenges: learning how to live a straight, law-abiding life for the first time ever, dealing with a severe mental illness, and kicking one of the most insidious addictions known to man.

That was a steep, steep mountain to climb. I knew what I was signing up for, had pledged to be right beside him the whole way. I knew there would be setbacks, backsliding. It was going to be so much work, and so grueling, for us both. He had doubts whether he could do it at all.

His manic phases often made him paranoid; he would be awake for days, then crash for several more. He had trouble focusing, of being totally present even during the time he spent with me. He was at war with his own mind, all the time.

If that weren’t bad enough, the withdrawal symptoms from fentanyl and dilaudid would nearly drive him out of what was left of his mind. Chills, sweating, nausea, stomach cramps, shivering, weakness, joint and back pain, rapid heartbeat…the agony in his voice could flay muscle from bone. His heart, mind, and body were already wracked by years of drug abuse and hard living; I was terrified he wouldn’t be able to survive the process as it was, and in the end, his heart gave out.

So if I had somehow been granted the power to roll back time, to undo what had been done, would I do it?

No.

How could I do that? How could I put him through that deliberately, for no other reason than I don’t want to have to learn to live without him? How could I snatch away from him everything he had ever wanted? Peace, a sense of security and safety, of belonging, of eternal love? Freedom from pain and suffering, a release? What kind of monster would that make me, to sentence him to what was waiting for him here?

This is part of the price I pay for being the one strong enough to be left behind: I had to be willing to be left. To let him go. To put his needs, even at the end, above my own.

Of course, the impossibility of negotiating his return makes all of this a moot point, but I can’t help but believe that somewhere, somehow, it counts.

I love you. I’d do anything for you. Even let you go. 

Because I can bear it, I can carry it. Because I was the only one of us who could.

Be at peace, dear heart. You are with me always.

Fly Away, by Bernat Casero

Fly Away, by Bernat Casero

I Will Carry You

Whoever said love is blind is dead wrong.
Love is the only thing that lets us see each other with the remotest accuracy.

~Martha Beck

Put out my eyes and I can see you still;
Slam my ears too, and I can hear you yet;
And without any feet can go to you;
And tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
And grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
Arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
And if you set this brain of mine afire,
Upon my blood I then will carry you
~Rainer Maria Rilke

I have been accused, more than once, of putting Dustin on a pedestal, and being blind to his faults and flaws.

No. Oh, no.

Our life together was never going to be easy, and the time we did have was fraught with moments of disappointment and tension as well as love and joy. His impulsiveness was a problem, as well as finding and maintaining proper treatment for his illness. His addiction made him erratic and confounding. Loving someone who is mentally ill forces a reset of ‘normal’ and ‘reasonable’. I know he loved me, and I know exactly how much, and a love like that was worth fighting for, worth almost any cost.

I understood fairly quickly-as did he-that in some respects I would have to be both lover and mother, partner and keeper. I would have to be strong, and steady. This in no way means he was incapable of being strong in his own right, capable and willing to support me when I was in pain, hurting.

I had to have a root canal while we were together. Actually, I had to have the root canal reworked by a specialist when the original treatment did not heal properly. My first visit to the endodontist was painful and nauseating.

Afterwards, I stumbled out to the car, bleary eyed and exhausted. Dustin had been taking a nap but shot out of the car when I knocked on the window. I leaned on him, too wrung out to pretend to be okay, letting him hold me, comfort me.

“Let me see,” he said, brushing my hair away from my face, tilting my chin up. He gave me a long look and ran his fingers, so gentle, feather light, over my swollen cheek. “Let’s get you home.”

As we walked inside, I leaned on the counter, determined not to be sick, breathing slowly.

“Just tell me what I can do to help you,” he said.

I looked up at him, my sore mouth hanging open in absolute shock. I was so used to being on my own, conditioned to never expect anything like sympathy or help, that I couldn’t even comprehend what he had just said to me. No one, ever, had made me such an offer, and in his eyes I could see him suddenly understand what my life had been like. He took my hand, led me to bed, helped me undress.

He tucked me in, and as he got ready to crawl into bed next to me, he said the one thing that will ring in my ears and bring tears to my eyes for the rest of my days:

“You know, most of the time I’m happy to be your boyfriend, but right now, I’m glad to be your friend.”

It was the first time I realized he sincerely wanted me for me-not out of lust or loneliness or need. Me. Just as I was. I had been resisting the tidal pull of the attraction between us, held back by fear and skepticism-fairy tales aren’t real, this doesn’t happen to people, love at first sight is a myth, this isn’t a goddamned movie-but I gave it up right then and there. All my doubt and fear, the leftover nightmares of my last relationship, of a lifetime of being let down by the people who are supposed to love and care for me, broke apart and fell away. If he had asked me for the moon at that moment, I would have stormed NASA with a teaspoon.

Where am I supposed to go after losing that?

I have little doubt that in most ways my life will be easier now. Less worry. Less unpredictable. But, God, I’d give it all up-everything, anything-to be with him again. To feel his hands in my hair, his voice in my ear, the smell of his cologne.

I will never stop wanting him back.

Dustin, March 2012

The Things I Carry

Of the two of us, I was the only one capable of surviving being left behind.

He was tired. So, so tired. I would rest my head on his chest, and his heartbeat was too labored, too fast. I was terrified to contemplate the damage he’d already done, how much time he had left. I never slept well those nights.

Already deeply estranged from his family, he had managed to cut himself off from most of his friends, people he had relied on for years. Fortunately, most of these people were either addicts or criminals…usually both. In the end, I was all he had left, and I was too far away to adequately support him, although I tried. God, how I tried.

He was in a lot of pain. At 30 years old, he had already lived – and aged – several lifetimes. He was tortured by his regrets, the friends who had turned on him, the family that had abandoned him. He missed me terribly, was sleeping poorly, not eating regularly. I was strung out on equal parts terror and worry, and that tore his heart the most. He hated what this was doing to me. He always put my feelings ahead of his own.

We always made a point of being open about our feelings; I guess at that point we had little left to lose. So during our last conversation, he told me how I had proven my “mettle and valor,” how much he loved me, and how I had done more for him than he had had any right to expect. Loyalty meant so much to him, second only to love.

I told him how much I loved him, how much I needed him, how I’d do it all again and more. I told him I’d let him down once, and I wouldn’t do it again. We both understood how deep our commitment went. We’d already been through so much, fought so hard, promising our lives to each other was nearly incidental, and didn’t require words.

He may be gone from me now, but he went knowing exactly how much I loved him. He was my best friend.

If something had happened to me, he would have had nothing left. He was intermittently suicidal; the mood swings of his bipolar disorder rode him hard, and he was essentially homeless. He would have been right behind me almost as soon as he got the news. And part of what would have driven him was guilt from not being able to prevent it. He would have taken a bullet for me, and considered it a good trade.

How many people can say they were loved like that? This, then, is what I carry: his heart, unbroken and whole.

That’s Going to Leave a Mark

“I swear to God, if you let anything happen to you, I’m going to follow you to Hell and kick your ass from one end to the other.”
He laughed. “That’s such a Sagittarian thing to say.”
“I mean it.”
“I know you do.”
Exchange between Dustin and I, late April, 2012.

In the days and weeks that followed, I wanted to keep that vow. Desperately.

I was deep in a minute-by-minute war with myself. I would cry, soundlessly, mouth open, gasping. I was silent because the muscles of my throat had locked tight, trapping a howl that would have gone on until my lungs burst.

I want you to imagine something with me. Take a seat, get comfortable. This is going to take a minute.

Imagine, if you will, a small volcano has sprung up inside your chest. Imagine the pressure building, the burning spreading. Feel your ribs shift and break, feel your breastbone split down the middle, your spine begin to stretch and separate. Feel the eruptions, feel the molten rock coat your bones. Feel the growing pressure crush your organs and stop your breathing. Contain it, at all costs, don’t let it out. Because if you do….

I didn’t scream that first night, or any other, because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t stop. Not until my vocal cords had ruptured, until every dish in the house was smashed, until every bone in my hands and wrists had been shattered against the walls, until I had taken a howling swan dive into eye-melting crazy. I was hanging on to my sanity and reason by the thinnest of margins, and I wasn’t sure I could keep my grip.

That thin, shaking grasp was the only thing keeping me from a Mississippi River bridge in the middle of the night, from a concrete bridge abutment at 80 miles an hour. I was in so much pain, felt so bereft, but not so far gone that I would do anything, ever, to pass this pain to someone else. I was fighting every minute of every day, not for me, because frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. I did it for the people who love me, who care about me, who would suffer the way I was suffering. My parents. My brother. My friends and family. I drug myself from day to day, through night after horrific night, because I had no other choice.

I had constant nightmares. The dreams became a horror show recounting of the time we spent together, but these times, he would vanish in mid-sentence, reaching out to hold me. He would come back to tell me it was all a mistake, he wasn’t really dead, it was a misunderstanding, he was coming for me. Over and over again, I would dream despite all the pills I took to chase the dreams away, and every morning I’d wake up alone in a bed he’d never come back to again.

That first morning was the hardest. I couldn’t move, staring blankly at my arms sprawled on the sheet, my hands open and empty. I could feel my joints shift and crack, feel my bones thicken and petrify into stone, settling into long curves designed to hold this massive new weight.

Grief doesn’t just change your life. It changes who and what you are, right down to the molecules.

A Warning, and Context

Oddly enough considering what’s come before, I’m now coming to the hardest part.

I promised myself when I started this I would be as honest as possible about this process, this loss. I loved him-still love him-with everything I had, and I feel I need to be true to that love and the impact of its loss. In that spirit, the narrative of this experience is about to get very, very dark.

I fully understand that no one would expect working through this would be easy, but I am not sure how prepared my family and friends are for discovering what was really going on in the raging hell that was the inside of my head.

My current state of mind is not nearly as dark as it once was. I still miss him, every day, every hour, every minute, but I am not as tortured by it now. I still have dark moments, dark days, but those are rare. I don’t know if it’s space and time or medication, but whatever it is, I’m coping. Please keep that in mind as you read about the dark days and weeks in which I wasn’t.

So, a warning: here there be dragons.

May 26, 2012

Thought you should know this….. We don’t have any details yet but Dustin died this morning, he never woke up.
~text message sent to me by Dustin’s mother at
5:52 pm, Saturday, May 26, 2012

I knew something was wrong the minute I woke up that morning.

I had to be at work early, and I was so sick and nauseated I thought I had a stomach bug. I dragged my sorry self into work anyway, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was already worried, and as I dropped a new specimen tube on the floor and crawled under the cabinet to retrieve it, I could feel him watching me. Instead of making me smile, I was scared. I’d never ‘felt’ him that way before. It would be hours until I knew why.

His mother didn’t tell me how he died. I already knew.

Dustin was addicted to intravenous painkillers, fentanyl and dilaudid in particular. He used them as mood regulators, to keep his manic phases in check. But he knew-without my having to say so-that he couldn’t be a part of my life as an active addict, and he was trying to detox on his own. With methadone. For me, for him, for us.

And he died doing it. He died for me, for him, for us. I haven’t found a way to live with that.

Down the Rabbit Hole

“It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”
~ Alice from “Alice in Wonderland” Lewis Carroll
“A beautiful thing is never perfect”
~ Proverbs

Mental illness is a slippery business.

Dustin was probably bipolar. We weren’t sure, and we never got the time to sort it out. What was certain, however, was that something was seriously amiss, and had been since he had been a teen. Diagnosed as ADD and a half dozen other things over the years, he could be impulsive, especially when it came to money. He also had difficulty working out long-term solutions to a problem, leading him to make decisions that started at reckless and slid sideways into catastrophe.

His living situation in my area became intolerable, and instead of sticking it out or settling on a solution that would take time, he went for the quick fix to raise money. In the end, he was forced to leave the area and wound up back in Michigan.

He went through a lot of trouble to make sure his disastrous decisions didn’t touch my life, and as a result, it took me a while to fully understand both the nature and the depth of the problem. He never lied to me, either outright or by omission, but both his life and mind became so chaotic neither of us could get a clear picture or a solid grasp on our situation. We went our separate ways for a time, something I still have deep regrets over.

Our road together was never going to be an easy one. We knew that. But despite the illness, or maybe because of it, he had an emotional maturity and clarity that is rare in this world. If he made a mistake, he owned it and apologized for it, without excuses. He was always open his feelings, never hesitating to tell me how he felt about me with a simple honesty that cut through years of my skepticism and scarring.

He was a lot of things, some good, some bad, but never a coward. And neither am I. So we worked things out, and made plans to bring him back here, before the demons he’d left behind in Michigan caught up with him and killed him.

We didn’t make it.