“I wasn’t looking for a relationship. Isn’t that how so many stories start? I was neck-deep in the stress of nursing school and the last thing I had time for was dating. But a friend of mine couldn’t say enough good things about this one particular site where she met her now-husband. I was still reluctant, but she said she would help me create a profile. I finally relented.
I didn’t ‘match’ with Justin, but I ran across his profile picture while browsing. His smile and red hair drew me in immediately. I sent him a message, he responded, and we just clicked. Once I was comfortable enough through our many messaged conversations, I gave him my phone number. From that moment on, we texted constantly when we weren’t in class or working. A few weeks later, we decided to meet in person. I felt instantly comfortable with him and knew I had found someone who could become my best friend.
I remember laughing a lot. I thought I had experienced real love before. Falling in love with Justin showed me that was not the case. Falling for him was so effortless—the easiest thing I had ever done. There wasn’t a particular moment that made me fall in love with him. It happened gradually over time. One day he texted something to me, and as I read it, I smiled with realization, ‘Man, I love him.’ I remember the exact day he first said those three words to me. It was April 13th, a Friday. We went out to dinner with my mom to celebrate my 27th birthday. It was to be the first time they met. Afterward, at his car, he pulled back from a hug, smiled at me, and said, I love you.’ I had not at all been expecting it, so my initial reply came back as word vomit. ‘You do?’ before I finally grabbed him, kissed him, and told him that I loved him, too.
Falling in love with someone isn’t a choice. Continuing to love them, showing up for them, and putting in the work to keep the relationship alive—choosing them over and over—is. Like all whirlwind romances, ours wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows. What relationship is? But I didn’t know, for several months, what lurked in the background, following our every move.
It was an early summer night, we were sitting on a swing in his backyard, talking and enjoying our time together. Suddenly I felt his mood shift. With a visible nervousness, he said he had something he needed to tell me. Anyone who hears those words immediately feels their heart speed up and their stomach drop. I watched him apprehensively as he put his head in his hands before speaking. Then he proceeded to tell me he was a recovering addict. In fact, he told me he had been clean for over a year. I rubbed his back and thanked him for trusting me enough to share this dark secret of his life. I told him I was amazed at the strength it must have taken for him to overcome such a difficult situation. And most importantly, I assured him I wasn’t going anywhere.
He teared up and hugged me. Relief swept over him as if he thought I would honestly walk away after hearing his confession. But why in the world would I walk away? He had ‘beat’ it, right? It wasn’t an issue anymore surely. I fell in love with someone who just happened to have an addiction, but he was so much more than what he suffered from.
He was a cat dad to Rigby. He would cry if he ran over an animal while driving. He was a huge gamer and would spend hours playing games online with his amazing group of friends. He would send me silly videos of him singing the King George songs from Hamilton. He would smack my butt every time he passed me. He would come up behind me in the kitchen and hug me and not let go. He would dig his chin into my back making me squeal with laughter. He would do the best impersonations of our favorite TV characters. I would laugh every time. He would text my mom and tell her how much he loved me and to thank her for bringing me into this world. He loved chicken tenders and sour candy. He looked forward to spoiling his nieces once he graduated and finally started making a good salary. He would always say ‘subie’ whenever we spotted a Subaru, his favorite car brand. He dreamed of owning a WRX STI in Rally Blue one day. He would tell me he loved me every few minutes.
If you have never dealt with someone who is an addict, then it is easy to understand my next thoughts. As he said, he was now clean and had been for over a year. He ‘beat’ his addiction. Therefore, this was no longer an issue. It wasn’t something I had to worry about. How naïve that notion was.
Justin was studying automotive engineering at a small university 30 miles away. At the same time, he worked at a local auto parts store, keeping expenses down by living at home with his parents. Now that spring semester was over and summer had arrived, we spent as much time together as we could. That meant I got to know his family very well. They quickly accepted me as their own and folded me seamlessly into theirs. I became Aunt Margaret to his 6-year-old niece and her little sister when she was born a few months later. I met his friends and their girlfriends and wives. I spent more time with his mom than I did with mine. I felt an all-encompassing sense of belonging.
In October, 8 months after we first met, we hit our first big roadblock. I was at his house laying on his bed, waiting for him to get home from work. Justin walked into his room and began to sob. I immediately asked what happened as concern consumed me. But all he could do was grab me and hug me. He held on so tightly. I wrapped my arms around him and waited. That’s when he finally admitted to relapsing. My heart sank. I started crying. Addiction is a monster that takes over good lives, making each addict feel completely worthless and a total failure. I hated knowing Justin felt that way. As I held him and assured him we would get through this together, he kept apologizing over and over again.
But I was right. We did get through that relapse together. And the next one. Justin relapsed three more times. In between, we both graduated, got good jobs, found a fantastic house to rent halfway between our workplaces, and began making plans for our moves. We went to a wedding and dreamed about what ours would look like. I could see red-headed babies in our future. It was an exciting time to begin our happily ever after.
And then, just like that, snap, he was gone. Justin overdosed on September 21, 2019. My family surrounded me in those early days. My mom moved in with me because I couldn’t care for myself. Justin’s friends called repeatedly over the first few days to check on me. I had to be forced to eat. My days and nights were spent lying in bed or on the couch and crying. And I was angry. So very, very angry. I was angry with Justin, with myself, with his family, with his friends, with the universe. I threw my anger at anything and everything. Why did this happen? Why did no one see how badly he was struggling? Why did we not do more to help him?
The whys and the what-ifs still bounce around and around in my head. One of the hardest parts of grief is craving and begging for answers and then accepting you’ll never get them. I’m not a religious person so I struggle with my inability to connect with him in an afterlife. My greatest comfort has been in the rediscovery of a text he sent me after the death of a dear family friend. ‘I believe in our energy, first law of conservation of energy. Energy can not be created nor destroyed, only transferred, our consciousness, memories, thoughts are all energy, so I don’t think someone ever truly leaves us, but their energy is transferred, whether it be to the planet or the cosmos, I don’t know, but no one ever truly leaves us, they will always be around, though you can[‘t] physically see them.’
I do my best to hold on to those thoughts. To know while he may not be here, part of him is out there, in some form. In the here and now, I give myself comfort in other ways. I continue to do the things that he loved: I eat chicken tenders on the 21st of every month, I bake a vanilla-on-vanilla cake on his birthday and, sometimes, I eat Sour Skittles. When I see a Subaru, I automatically call out ‘subie.’ I got a tattoo in his handwriting of a love note he left for me one day, ‘I love you sooo much.’ His thumbprint is tattooed on my wrist, over my pulse, so he can always feel my heart beating for him.
The most important way I honor Justin is by spending time outdoors. When he was having a hard day, he would try and get outside for a run, a walk down his street, or a hike on a nearby trail. Being outside brought him much-needed mental clarity and helped to reset him. I feel close to him when I’m outside, surrounded by nature. This past Christmas, I gave his parents a special gift: a star named after him by the International Star Registry.
The year 2019 had been the worst of my life. But it was a year that knew Justin’s presence. As 2020 approached, I knew I didn’t want to welcome in a new year he would never know, particularly not in familiar yet painful surroundings. I wanted to find a place where I could sit under his star and feel him. So my mom and I packed up and left Tennessee. At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, we sat at the rim of the Grand Canyon and found his star. From those 30 minutes of love in silence emerged a new purpose, a new adventure, a bittersweet one. So now I have been visiting as many state and national parks as I can, to see the most beautiful places our country has to offer.
Upon telling my therapist about my plans, she said it was like I was traveling for Justin. It hurt to see amazing views Justin never had a chance to visit. But I am seeing them for him. 2 months after that initial trip, I went to the Grand Tetons and the Rocky Mountains for what would have been our 2-year anniversary. For the 1-year mark of his passing, I went to Glacier National Park, spreading some of his ashes on the shore of one of the park’s beautiful lakes.
In October, with absolutely no planning at all, I drove north to take in the fall leaves at Cuyahoga National Park in Ohio. It was a trip that ended up spanning numerous stops from Michigan all the way up to a lighthouse in Maine. For my birthday this year, I went on a tour of state and national parks in Utah. Justin and I dreamed specifically of traveling to Banff in Alberta, Canada one day. That has become my ultimate destination goal I’ll one day cross off my list. I still don’t have any of this grief stuff figured out. I am no longer the person I was before Justin died.
I’m still very much trying to figure out who I am now and what my future will look like without him by my side. While the shock and numbness of his absence that filled up the first year has gone, it has been replaced by a lonely acceptance he isn’t coming back. I cannot tell you how much I hate that realization. I still put one foot in front of the other. Some days that’s the only thing I can do. Justin was my biggest cheerleader. My best friend. My love. My handsome. And I miss him with everything I have. I want to make him proud, even now, because it was the best feeling in the world.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Margaret Williams from Fairview, TN. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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