I was in love with a man who was wrong for me in pretty much every possible way, our relationship was the epitome of dysfunctional and we weren’t even in a romantic relationship at this point, but we both loved each other very very much. He suffered from ADHD, drug addiction and alcohol addiction. If he were a food, he would be marmite cos you either loved him or hated him, there was no in between. We met in 2004 through his cousin who is one of my best friends and under extremely sad circumstances.
The first time I saw him it was like someone fired a nuclear warhead inside me. His eyes were so incredibly beautiful and his smile blew me away. We clicked immediately and it was only a couple days before we shared a cheeky kiss. They were in mourning for a young cousin who had lost his life in the most horrendous way. He was in the middle of a court case, having spent 9months on remand in prison (found not guilty btw). I had just come out of a very miserable 4.5 yrs. relationship. We were not on stable ground. I chased and trapped every ounce of caution and common sense and then threw that shit to the wind.
We had one crazy month. Just one month of being “in a relationship” by normal standards and it was over. Or so I thought. It’s pretty hard to explain what our relationship was like because it took on sooooo many different roles over the proceeding 4 years. It was definitely a co-dependant relationship. Mother and Son, brother and sister, best friends and lovers and we never really knew which relationship mode we would be in from day to the next.
We both had other relationships along the way but ultimately he would always end up back at my house. His family became my family and they were always happiest when they knew he was with me because he was safe.
He would go out every day, drink every day and cause or get stuck in the middle of trouble almost every day. It’s like he was a beacon for trouble, if he didn’t find it, it would find him. He wasn’t a bad guy. He had a big heart, too big sometimes but he also had many demons and they would take over more often than he could handle. He had walls and boundaries like a fucking labyrinth and who you saw sitting at the pub or dancing at the club was not who he was at all.
I would sit up and wait for him every night. Somewhere between 9pm and 1am I’d here a little tap on my window from the little stone he would throw to get my attention. I would go over to the window and there he would be smiling up at me turning the night to day. I would let him in, make him some dinner and I would stay awake until he fell asleep. This was his safe place.
Lying on the sofa, his head on my lap, this was where he could let go and be himself. His walls would collapse, the bad boy image that he clung to outside would slip away and he would be at peace. We would talk for hours and often these conversations would be an opportunity for him to unload his pain, and sadness. He would cry and tell me how much he hated himself and his life. How much he wished he could change but knowing he simply didn’t have the strength to do so. How much he loved his family and how much he wished he would just die so as not to be a burden on them. This is where he was real; his demons would pour out of his eyes.
I saw him through break ups, police car chases, brutal bar brawls, family feuds, sibling rivalry, car crashes (the kind where you have no idea how the fuck he didn’t die). I’ve washed blood and mud from his body and clothes. I saw him at his best and at his absolute fucking worst. If the spectrum of emotions were a roller coaster, we rode that mother fucker a million times, hands in the air, screaming, sometimes loving the ride at other times begging for the ride to stop but ultimately getting right back on that bitch for another go. He was addicted to Booze and coke and I was addicted to him.
In the timeline of a normal life, we didn’t have or know each other for long but the intensity of what we shared, most people couldn’t pour into two lifetimes. We were connected, it didn’t matter if he was seeing someone or if I was seeing someone, he would still come back to me. To be clear, I never cheated on my boyfriend with him that was a no no, but I did introduce them and clarify the relationship and in fact they grew to like each other. All though he would always cheekily ask for kisses or more, always testing.
Eventually for various reasons I decided to move back home where my family was. This was a tough decision to make and the nearer the time came the harder it got. I’d be leaving my best friends and 21 years of my life behind but the most difficult was leaving him behind. The day I was leaving, his sister picked me up and we went to their parents’ house, she said she had something to give me. His family had become my family, I called his mum, mum. I was nervous, I could feel the emotions within me bursting to get out and I didn’t want to cry. When we arrived she presented me with a beautiful white gold ring with three diamonds, I’m not a jewellery sort of girl but this was special and I have worn it every day since. I asked where he was, we both seemed to be avoiding the inevitable moment. He came down stairs; we hugged and he told me to turn around. He put a necklace around my neck with a small amethyst heart pendant. We hugged again; he said he couldn’t believe I was leaving. We hugged; kissed, said I love yous and then goodbye.
Over the next couple of years I stayed in touch with his sister through the miracle of emails and phone calls, he went through mobile phones like they were going out of style so I would talk to him when I called his sister. I flew back a couple times for weekends. May Day weekend 2008 I flew over and my best buddy threw a BBQ so I could see everyone in one place. I didn’t know if he would show or not. His sister told me he had a new girl and the green eyed monster was desperately trying to crawl out of me. I told myself to play it cool. When he finally arrived, it was like firecrackers going off inside me but I had to play it down. He walked over to me and planted his lips on mine, (I could have happily died right there and be ok with it) I only wish I had known that that would be the last time. I would have played that day out so differently, I would have spent more of it with him, sitting on his lap instead of the “other guy” in my mission to act like I wasn’t that bothered. YEAH RIGHT.
31st July 2008, day before my birthday, I went out with my sister and cousins on the standard bar crawl birthday bash. At bar one, the waiter came over placed a drink in front of me and said “this is from that table over there”. I looked over and saw some colleagues so I go over to say thank you. Suddenly I was jumped on by two blonde crazies. It was his cousin and my best mate both wearing Hannah Montana wigs. “Happy birthday!!!!” They had flown in to surprise me for my birthday and it was the best birthday present ever. We had an epic night and an epic weekend together and it is set in the “this is your life” book as one of my best moments.
The next day, my mobile rings as we are walking down the road. It was him. “Happy birthday babe”. My face could have ripped in half from the smile that spread across it. We spoke and he told me that he had wanted to come over with the girls to surprise me, he’d gone back and forth but ultimately thought if I was seeing someone it might put me in an awkward position. I told him off and said something close to “you know you always come first”. I asked if he had been behaving himself and how he was feeling, he seemed in good spirits. He told me he missed me and he told me he loved me, we said good bye and I floated on a cloud the rest of the weekend.
12 days later, my phone rang. It was one of my mates in UK. The dreaded question left her lips “are you sitting down? Are you alone?” Adrenaline immediately started coursing through my body, my throat started to close. I didn’t know what she was going to say I just knew it was going to be bad. “Just tell me what’s happened” I told her as I paced around the penthouse apartment my friend and I were staying in for the week. The 2 seconds before she answered felt like an eternity. “It’s Leoni” she said – my mind racing, he’s had a car accident or a fight, he’s in hospital again, he’s been arrested, and the expectations flew through my mind. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “he’s dead babe, he had a heart attack last night and…” I dropped the phone and just stood there frozen in the most awful single moment of my entire life, wishing I could go back just a few seconds and never have to experience that moment. My friend was looking at me, waiting for me to say what was happening, she picked up the phone and I took it back still frozen on the spot, raised it to my ear. “ok” I said “I gotta go” and I hung up. By 11pm that night I was back in the UK knocking on his mother’s door, it didn’t feel real, I was convinced it was all some sick twisted joke to get me there. The next three weeks were a living hell, I stayed in his house, I sat outside his bedroom and cried til dehydration no longer allowed the tears to fall, I slept (when exhaustion subdued insomnia)on his sofa, always dreaming of him. Those few moments as I woke up would be so peaceful, the memory of him in my dream so real that he must be right there, and as the haziness cleared, reality would bitch slap me and my body would be overtaken again by the greatest weight of sadness. One morning his mother asked me to go see him with her. I was not prepared, not even a little bit, but my desire to see him, to be near him, was bigger than my common sense. We went to the funeral parlour and the lady at reception told us to take our time as she ushered us through a door and then there he was.
He was lying there in his jeans and white t shirt, he looked angry, not at all at peace and I rushed over to him and took his hand in mine and it was so cold and heavy. I hadn’t expected that, I don’t know why. With my other hand I started gently stroking his forehead like I had done a thousand times before and the tears began to slip out. His mother standing next to me, keeping it together and rubbing his leg. As my hand swept over his forehead and across his shaved head I felt something strange and I realised he had these giant Frankenstein stitches all the way around the back of his head from behind one ear all the way over to the next. I realise this is standard procedure for anyone who has had an autopsy but this was fucking shocking to me. I felt angry and betrayed, like someone had done this to him, to my baby, it didn’t matter that he didn’t feel anything when they did this, in my heart it felt like he had, I could see it on his face. The pain got bigger and in that moment I took an epic journey inside my own head.
You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes just before you die, it was kind of like that, only it was my life with him, every moment we had ever shared starting right there with him in his coffin and working backwards right up to the day we met, like some kind of Hollywood montage. I turned to his mother and asked her if I could kiss him and she said “of course” so I tiptoed and angled myself to look at him head on and slowly and gently placed my lips on his for a final kiss and our Mayday BBQ kiss came to mind (I wish I had known then it would be the last) His lips were so cold but I’d have recognised them with my eyes closed among a million others. “I love you” I told him, before backing away.
Suddenly a new emotion gripped me. Guilt. This was my fucking fault, I had killed him, I let this happen cos I left, if I had only stayed here, he would have been with me that night he died, instead of on his own, perhaps he wouldn’t have taken anything, or even if he had I could have given him CPR and brought him back, or at the very fucking least I could have been with him when he slipped away so he wouldn’t have felt scared or alone, I could have held him. My thoughts were interrupted by his mum. “do you think we should have an open casket or do you think he would want it closed?” WOW. That was not a question I ever thought I would have to answer for anyone ever and here I was, the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I looked at him and then at her and answered. I told her I didn’t think he would want anyone to see him like that and with that she nodded at the receptionist and said come on lets go. I said goodbye to him and tried to walk away. I felt like I was wearing concrete blocks for shoes, I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay there with him forever, walking away knowing that was it, and my heart was tearing itself apart.
The next week was much of the same, family coming round, lots of talking and crying and eating and drinking and then another one of those things I was not prepared for. The family had requested that his coffin be brought to the house the day before the funeral. I didn’t know that was a thing but apparently it is. Suddenly there in the front room, propped up on a stand was this big maple coffin with an engraved plaque on the top and silver handles along the sides. The front room became a mourning circuit as family and friends came to pay their respects, walking in at one end, making their way around the coffin, saying a prayer and walking out. Some stayed longer than others. It was all very surreal but I know he would have loved the attention. That night I lay there next to his coffin waiting for the sun to rise, waiting for this day that was meant to bring peace and closure.
His funeral was pretty epic, almost legendry in the same way that he would remain legendary to those who knew him. There was the standard black car procession with all friends and family riding the tail but when a gang of bikers showed up on Harleys’ revving their engines outside his house, blocking traffic all the way along the procession to keep us all together and revving their engines as his coffin emerged from the car to be taken into the church was a pretty amazing and overwhelming experience. He wasn’t a biker but he had met them through his cousin’s husband and the Leoni charm had won them all over even in such a short time.
I was asked to do a reading at the church, I wasn’t sure if I would manage it but I did. After the funeral we drove to the crematorium. They played some of his favourite songs and everyone approached the coffin for final good byes. When the curtain began to close I lost my shit altogether. It’s the moment of desperation where you want to just run over and stop the whole damn thing and scream at everyone. “what the fuck is happening, we can’t do this, take him out, wake him up, please, this isn’t real, it can’t be, just stop it, don’t let the coffin go, it’s not too late we can still wake him up and undo this all, please”. Instead I broke down and cried harder than I have ever cried in my life, I thought I might just die in that moment, it was so dark, so bleak so overwhelming and so hopeless.
A few days passed and we were called to collect his ashes. We arrived at the crematorium and sat in the waiting room. A woman came out holding something but I couldn’t see, she had her back to me and was standing in front of his mum. I heard her voice break as she said thank you and the woman took a step back. When I saw his mum sitting there with this little wooden box I was overcome by rage. I wanted to go over to the woman who had brought it out, I wanted to punch her in the face and ask her what the fuck was this? Where is he? I want to see him! There is no way he is in that box, no fucking way, how is this even happening? She walked away never knowing how close she came to getting knocked the fuck out. The little box was passed around from mother to father, sister to brother and eventually landed in my lap. I sat there staring at this little box that contained every ounce of my heart. More flashbacks, more memories, more tears. When would this pain stop? We went home and he was placed in the front room surrounded by photos and portraits.
I’d been in London for three weeks and it was time to go home. I thought perhaps that real life would begin and the pain would stop. How wrong I was. I said good bye AGAIN and headed back home to my kids, my job, my life only I wasn’t all there.
The next few weeks I drifted from place to place like a ghost. I wasn’t eating or sleeping. Coffee was getting me through the day and beer was getting me through the night. I was living with my parents at that point so my kids were safe at home while I was out attempting to cope. Instead of getting easier, things were getting darker, harder. I started writing songs about him and playing guitar as a way to process my feelings but the lack of sleep, the constant pain, the overwhelming sadness had their claws well and truly imbedded in my soul. By October I was a fucking broken suicidal mess, unrecognisable even to myself. The stages of grief are not really stages at all; there is no pattern, no order, and no structure. You don’t start at one end, work through each stage and come out the other side. It’s more like the wheel of misfortune of Grief. You bounce from one “stage” to another, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Just when you think you’re in the clear, boom denial crops up again. Once thing no one seems to tell you about grief is the Numbness. This was by far the worst part of the process. At least when you’re sad or angry or desperate you’re actually feeling something, but the numbness, that was fucking awful. I would have times when I felt absolutely nothing at all. And I would sit there wondering wtf was wrong with me. What did this numbness mean, did it mean I didn’t love him anymore, I didn’t care anymore, was I ok again, would joy be around the corner or was sadness making a comeback. It took me longer than I care to remember to figure out wtf was happening. When we are filled with so much pain, so much emotion that our bodies can no longer take it, our brain goes into survival mode. It flips a switch and you say bye bye too all your emotions for a while. It’s like a self-service rest stop. It’s unconscious. What it actually did to me before I figure that out, was make me feel incredibly guilty. The numbness could last anything from an hour to a day before being catapulted right back into one of the stages.
Eventually I had a breakdown at work after a thoughtless and tactless comment from my boss which resulted in me grabbing every last thing on my desk in one scoop, screaming like a maniac and throwing it all up in the air. Monitor, keyboard, telephone, mouse, files, stationary everything! I then fled the office in tears. A couple hours later when I had calmed down I returned with the intention of resigning but a colleague pulled me aside and told me not to resign but rather to go to the GP and get myself signed off with depression and get some counselling. I took her advice. My doc signed me off indefinitely, gave me some sleeping pills and told me that there was a 6-9 month waiting list for a counsellor. I knew I would be dead in a couple of weeks if I didn’t see someone immediately so I found a private counsellor. I went once a week and started spending more time playing guitar and writing, going to the church (even though I’m not religious) just to light a candle every Tuesday. I carried on self-medicating with drink and went out a lot. I thought I was getting better after a few weeks, but in hindsight I was merely distracting myself from the pain I was feeling.
The over-riding factor was guilt. I could not get it out of my head that I could have saved him or been there for him if only I hadn’t left, if only I hadn’t abandoned him. Over time, with distractions, good friends and counselling, life did what it does and carried on, with or without me. 3 months became 6, became a year, 2 years. Crying bouts became less frequent and less intense but he was never far from my thoughts. I kept him here, with me, all the time. Despite the years, the tears, the counselling, I had never really let him go; I had held him hostage within my heart and my mind, replaying the pain and sadness as a way of punishing myself for the guilt I felt.
If you have actually read this far down, thank you so much with sticking with it. I’m going to end it here for today.
Tomorrow post will be about acceptance and how my counsellor has helped me finally say goodbye.