Words from My Heart to ‘My Heart’: What Might Have Helped My Late Friend?

Memories of a young man with anxiety and depression who only needed compassion—and the lessons learned through working with youth

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“Our Story”

No one will ever know our story
You exist only in my memory, now
I sit by myself and remember
I’ll do this forever or maybe
Hardly ever
Still, no one will ever know,
Of my broken heart and
Dying hopes
No one will ever know
How I gave up
and You
Let. Me. Go.

These are words I put together more than 10 years ago for a star-crossed lover and friend whom I lost to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. What else would I like to say to him now? That more than two and a half years later, I’m still processing my grief, still picturing our happiness and innocence as kids, and still acknowledging our struggles and pain as adolescents who loved each other but couldn’t figure out how to be a couple.

(Artwork by Angela Colón-Rentas)

I am not mad at you, Mi Corazónmy heart, which is what I called you. Because for many years, that’s what you were. I envisioned us gray-haired and wrinkled, two old people having a moment together, talking about love and life. Reminiscing on our childhoods, our lovers, our families, including the one we never had together.  I transport myself back to us—to the moment you were only 11 years old, and I was only 10. We were in my living room while my mom cooked. We watched a movie on the floor, and I giggled because you were tickling me. 

A tear rolls down my cheek now, and I smile nostalgically. We were so innocent then, and were so happy: two kids filled with hope and learning about life, stress free. Who knew that we were never destined to be together? There was never a “right” time for us. Our friendship and love involved separation controlled by destiny.  

I sit here pondering, remembering, and questioning. How did we get to this? What might have happened instead if we had remained in constant contact, or ever become a couple?  These are all questions I can’t answer. 

But working with teens as a Youth Peer Specialist, I can look back and see more clearly what you and I were going through—and what might have helped. Grief prompts us to look at our absent loved ones who left too soon and ask, “What if”? I have a family now. My late friend lives only in my heart and memory, now. Someday in the past, I stated no one would ever know our story.  

But Mi Corazón, it’s worth talking about it. It’s worth asking what if. For you, for me, and in the attempt to save anybody suffering in silence.   

(As I continue, I want to clarify that this recollection is completely based on my interactions with my friend, my perspective based on conversations, and, overall, on the emotions transmitted and expressed by him and myself. I do not mean to offend or belittle anyone slightly mentioned.) 

Before Mi Corazon left this realm, he was suffering quietly. I must admit I still don’t know the details, but I felt it in my soul. Even through distance and time, I always did. As he confessed to me months before, he was struggling with depression and anxiety, which led him to substance and alcohol abuse. I now try to put the reasons for all this into perspective—and I realize that even then, as the boy I met that spring of 2004, he acted out because even if he didn’t comprehend it yet, he was suffering. Like so many other youths are. 

In my role as a youth peer advocate, I’ve witnessed the same, repeating patterns arise around me with both the youths I’ve worked with and those I haven’t. Whatever their gender, their struggles always point to the same reasons and lead toward the same direction. I think of my participants transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and I remember the ordeals my friend went through that ultimately, without consent, took him away.  

From my perspective both personal and professional, I know that a lot of things happen during those transition years to our body, mind, and spirit. Everything becomes nothing, and nothing becomes something. Things that made sense before make none now: beginnings, endings, and everything in between. Thoughts and feelings, sights and sounds—and everything else. A smell that was sweet before might be bittersweet now. A fear that felt impossible before feels inevitable now. Our self-image gets much louder and, too often, more negative. 

I believe it all comes down to this: the craving for acceptance; the burden of expectations, and the lack of positive coping skills. I speak out on these three topics from personal and professional experience because even for me, being born in 1993 and having lived the last years of an era and witnessed the beginning of a new one, it all came down to these three main reasons. 

First: The craving for acceptance can cause depression. 

Accepting oneself or not—one’s weight, strength, gender identity,  relationships—can influence self-esteem and lead to societal- and self-rejection. Due to societal standards and endless other things, we seek to be accepted by others and sometimes cannot accept ourselves. 

And even when we hide, there’s no true privacy. As youths start to fly, they are already caged up and hand-tied by social media. They use such platforms to get closer to those who don’t truly care about them, making many teens and young adults drift away from the people they love and those who genuinely love them into a new and emptier norm of space. The goal is to gain the most likes and most virtual remote friends, looking for acceptance from the masses and ignoring the weight and risk of rejection when the acceptance doesn’t come. 

As if rejections from one person weren’t enough.   

The impact on a youth’s mental health can be devastating. For example, I had a participant I worked with who struggled with depression and anxiety. Her goal was to learn how to manage her depression and severe social anxiety in public. During our conversations to build coping skills, she would proudly say she had over 1,000 virtual friends on her social media; yet she barely had one friend in real life, which added to her depression. She struggled with her appearance, although she was beautiful, and also struggled with the thought of perfection and the fear of making a fool of herself, which caused her severe social anxiety. 

Using reflective listening and motivational interviewing, we discussed and practiced in real time the false perception of perfection and popularity. Ultimately we practiced affirmations and positive self-talk, emphasizing that we are all humans—and no human is perfect. I’d say to her, “Be yourself. The mistakes we make around our acquaintances, IF ANY, can give us a good memory of laughter, and can bring people together via acceptance of flaws and understanding.”  As as millennial not knowing anything different, she still preferred virtual friends, but she learned skills to socialize out of school and eventually got a job and better managed her depression and social anxiety. Yet anxiety still was present in regard to other expectations. 

Second: The burden of expectations can cause anxiety. 

This is the feeling of having to run toward a finish line you never reach. It’s watching people pass you, and in your mind you’re expected to be number one every single time. You’re also expected to finish school, go to college or the army, get a job, make money, be self-sustainable, mature quickly, and in some cultures also move out—all by 18 to 25 years old. All of this can cloud a youth’s mind. And then they feel like failures because many others have passed them, and now they’re crawling instead of running.   

Put yourself in their position for a moment. Feel the oppression, the societal programming. The pressure of finishing school, of learning to control the emotions you’re just now learning how to dance with. Sometimes you’ll dance to lost tunes. Music to which you don’t know the name, singer or genre, but you’re pushed into the unknown with the expectation of having rhythm and everything under control.  

It is up to us, as adults with slightly more experience, to inform them and allow space for them to make mistakes and breathe. It’s up to us to be responsibly vulnerable grownups who still have bad days. Maybe we can admit to them that, no, we still haven’t figured everything out yet. Maybe we can show them that the true end-goal is learning and growing, NOT perfection.  

My mind travels back to the friend I called Mi Corazón. In 2007, we had recently resumed our friendship. He had just returned to Rochester, NY, from Puerto Rico, going back and forth from mom to dad to a friend of the family. Just 15 years old with no true support system, he eventually joined a gang. I worried about him, and when I asked him why,  he said he joined the gang to feel like he was part of a “family.” 

Throughout the next two years, we’d talk for hours, and I could feel the stress that was growing upon him with the expectation of finishing high school, the disappointment of dropping out, and the anxiety of having to prove himself to the world by joining Job Corps or the army. He had a lot going on, mentally, emotionally and family wise. I was only 14 years old myself and didn’t really know what to do. I never questioned him about the reason behind his instability, so I just listened to him and accepted him fully.  

Third: The lack of positive coping skills can lead to substance abuse and other harmful coping mechanisms. 

Looking back, I don’t think we understood this as a concept. The lack of real coping skills and support systems fueled the only mechanisms we knew, and by 14 and 15 years old, we did what many teens do: we turned to substance abuse. We were drinking liquor, smoking, having sex, missing school, and diving into detachment and avoidance, all while wanting to be seen.  

Even if some may not agree with this definition, youth in reality are still kids. They’re transforming and transitioning into adult form. Without positive guidance, things can get confusing and overwhelming. Where to go? Who to turn to? What to think and what to feel? You feel as if no one can understand, because not even you UNDERSTAND. What can possibly make you feel better and forget? It is true that we repeat what we seeand if you don’t see anything different, then you will do the same. Some are content and do not question this way of life; others get restless and seek something different, which can maybe lead them to choose to hope instead of surrender.   

Our youth are learning faster nowadays, exposed and at times enclosed. As they experiment with life, they should understand that for all the bad situations and emotions there may be, there are 10 more good ones. The goal: to believe and never lose hope. To take a break but never quit. One thing I learned in my mid-20s that may also help was to never expect anything from anyone, because as we say in Spanish, expectations are the mother of disappointment. And, therefore, a potential trigger. It is much simpler to be surprised than disappointed.  

As for me and my late friend—the one I called my heart—for over 10 years we remained solely best friends. Up until our early 20s we belonged to other people, but our hearts hopelessly raced for one another. With a simple glance our eyes would lock, erasing the world, and we’d forget to breathe. The thrill of having him close, even across the room as a friend, sometimes created a knot in my throat because we both knew that for the moment, at least, we weren’t meant for one another. We allowed destiny to determine the “right” time, believing that was an actual thing. Two things we had made clear: that he didn’t want to hurt me, and I didn’t want to restrain him. I wanted him to be free. We simply preferred our friendship, ignoring the pain that came with that decision. 

The night before he left for Florida at 18 years of age, I knew that would be the last time I’d see him in person. We maintained contact. But it was such an intense and complex friendship, full of love and disappointment, that we eventually accepted we could not be friends any longer. On average we would only talk to each other twice a year to say “happy birthday,” and that kind of became our tradition.  

We eventually dialogued and accepted that we had learned from each other what love is, and what love isn’t. That included loving someone from afar and being genuinely happy for them, even if their happiness is no longer you.  He became a dad to a handsome boy and then a beautiful girl. I ultimately had my first daughter, whom he asked to see and did though pictures. 

Even though we had gracefully accepted we can only be friends, we silently had hoped to meet and talk about our families and our separate lives. But destiny won again, and in March 2020, the one I knew as Mi Corazón gave his last breath, unwillingly, to an overdose. 

This November 17 marks the third year I will not be able to wish him a happy birthday, not directly. But I can say it to him here, and I can say it to the world: 

You were a great person, son, father, and friend. You were also a  young man without a compass who was still learning about life, and the only thing you wanted was someone to love and accept you fully without pressure and expectations. You didn’t talk much in depth about your feelings, but you’d have no problem acknowledging you loved your mother and brothers and, without doubt, your kids.  

You believed and sought loyalty and love. Patience wasn’t your thing, but you tried your best. You still knew how to make people laugh, even when deep down you didn’t feel like yourself. You were a good soul who knew that feeling of hopelessness and tried to eliminate it in others at all costs.  

I wish you could have known that it’s OK to accept that you needed help. That it’s OK to forget the cultural norms or expectations regarding mental health. That mental health is important, particularly in minority communities, and particularly for men. I wish you had taken a step forward out of the shadows, because it might have saved your life and your loved ones from heartbreak. I hope, by reading this, others who suffer as you did will take those steps and find their way into the light. Because hope is real, and change is possible. 

Thank you, my friend, for all your life lessons, and may you rest in peace.  

You are forever loved.

I just wanted the world to know our story. 

(Artwork by Angela Colón-Rentas)

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Hello Angela,
    It is beyond sad when someone you love dies by their own act. I know how long it can take to process and return to your own joy in life. Would you like to try something that can accelerate that process? I would like to offer you a free gift. I am the originator of a not-for-profit project: Se-REM.com (Self effective – Rapid Eye Movement). You can use visualization to review all the good and bad times and then the obsessive thinking will be gone. I encourage you to use the program with your youthful clients. They will respond enthusiastically. Please give the program away for free. The website has a 95% trustworthy rating on Trust Pilot, and is now in use in 31 countries. If you are interested in a free link to the download, please write to me at: [email protected]. Take care, David B., LCSW (retired trauma therapist).

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