Many people have been met with significant moments in life that led to life-altering changes. Some people choose to be heavily affected by the trauma and negativity, or the uncontrollable, using them as a crutch for their sh*tty behavior. Others choose to rise above these things with grace.
I am still actively working through some of my demons.
Most of my good things have a lot to do with a single person who saved my life years ago. He came to me when I was too blind to ask for help, too ashamed to be truly seen, too afraid to be vulnerable, and too weak to admit that I wasn’t strong enough to face my internal struggles on my own.
When I was 15, a new student had transferred to my high school. He was a handsome young man. He had bright blue eyes, a bright white smile you could see from a mile away, and sandy blonde hair. Dreamy. He wore pale blue jeans and a crisp white shirt, finishing the look with white Adidas shoes.
He was not interested in me, even though I crushed him hard. Yet, he was still my friend. He was kind to me, unlike so many others. He shared science class with my brother, was friends with my sister too. He played soccer, was amazing at it.
One day during school, as my birthday neared, I complained to him that I wasn’t allowed to date or have boyfriends until I was 16, per my biological father’s orders. That day, he promised he would take me on a date for my birthday. We planned for my first date the week after I turned 16.
The week of my birthday, I was playing in a basketball tournament in Salida, Colorado, when our team received awful news. He had died from alcohol poisoning after attending a house party. The shock of his passing swept through my tiny town.
When I heard the news, my heart sank. I was unable to pinpoint exactly what I was feeling.
All I could think about was how he would never go to college, never fall in love, never get married, never have babies, never see the world outside of our hometown, never grow old. He had barely started his life. He was 18 years old.
The day after the basketball team found out, we stopped for lunch on the road home. I was standing at the fountain, trying to decide on a soda, when a senior girl approached me.
“I heard he was going to take you on your first date.” That was all she said to me. I nodded. Tears came flooding down my cheeks in the middle of the restaurant, and she embraced me.
Weeks after his death and the wake — the only time I had ever seen a dead body — both my brother and sister had told my parents that they had seen him. My brother said he saw him on campus leaning up against a building in the casual and cool way he always did. He showed up often in my sister’s dreams.
But not me. I never saw him. I would go to bed at night, praying he would come to me in my dreams and tell me things were okay — that he was okay.
I remember wailing into the evenings, asking my parents why I had never seen him in my dreams. Why had he never come to me to let me know everything would be okay?
This whole experience with death and alcohol should have been enough to prevent me from my first sip of alcohol. Seeing what alcohol could do to a person when they were hurt or heartbroken. Seeing how it could kill them. It should have been a clear lesson for me to never drink a single drop.
It wasn’t. I had my first taste of beer at 18.
Several years later, as I trudged through my college experience, I inevitably found myself wrapped up in party life — drinking nightly, skipping class, binge eating, letting men who I didn’t know take me home. My lifestyle was toxic and self-destructive. I wasn’t heading anywhere remotely good.
One of the only surefire ways to escape my depression was alcohol. I used it as a coping mechanism, forgetting what his death taught me before.
I was addicted to alcohol. To not feeling anything at all.
At that time, I didn’t know what drove me to feel so numb to living. Being numb had lowered my vibration. I stopped dreaming. I stopped caring about where my future went. I stopped caring about my life in general. I put on tons of weight. I didn’t think highly of myself.
I hid from my parents, refusing to let them see the pain I was in. I didn’t even understand how I had arrived there in the first place.
I couldn’t tell them that I felt like I had nothing to offer the world, even though I was convinced from a young age that writing was my gift. I felt like everything I had worked for thus far was all for nothing. I felt so far behind my college peers as I compared myself to them. I felt worthless and ashamed for being this lost.
Instead of facing my shame and being vulnerable, I hid in a bottle. So, I drank. There were nights I couldn’t remember how I got to my house.
One evening, I went out partying with some of my friends, coming home hours later to pass out on my bed fully clothed. In the middle of the night, I stopped breathing. When my body sensed my air supply was being cut off, I jolted awake. Sitting up in my bed while the world was swirling around me. I was breathing heavily, desperately sucking the air from the room. I didn’t have sleep apnea.
I called it my first cowardly attempt at leaving this planet. The following evening, I didn’t go out with friends and get wasted. I stayed home and went to sleep. After months of not dreaming, I dreamt.
The room was dark, dim, and cold. Track lights shined down on the room, bringing light to the dark corners. Dozens of metal folding chairs formed into a circle underneath the lights. No one was sitting in them. It was just me, looking around the room, alone.
As I scanned the seats for others to help ease the silence and sting of my loneliness, a soft and warm hand grabbed my own. When I looked to see who was lacing their fingers in mine, my heart leaped — it was him.
Those stormy, electric blue eyes pierced into me. His glowing grin and delicate touch smothered me in warmth, safety, and love. It was like he had been watching me and this grief I’d been carrying. Then he spoke.
“Everything is going to be okay, Kel.” He squeezed my hand tightly, flashing that grin at me one more time. Before I could savor the transient moment I had craved for so many years since his death, I was jerked from my slumber.
My face and pillows were already drenched in tears. When I realized he was in my dreams, holding my hand through one of the most difficult and depressing periods of my life, I wept even more fiercely.
Those years I spent wondering why he had never appeared in my dreams became clear. He had always been with me. He made his appearance just when he was supposed to. It was like he knew what I would be facing in my future.
Then, it was time for change and healing.
The morning after the dream, I called my parents. Through the heavy shame and embarrassment I had been carrying, I came clean, told them about my addiction, and that I needed help. We started an extensive process of deep healing from that day.
Throughout the 16 years following the death of my friend, I went through tumultuous and joyous years.
In those last 16 years of my life, not a year, month, or day goes by that I don’t think of him and how he saved me. He appeared at the moment I needed him most, reminding me to keep living. He reminded me that, no matter what, everything would always be okay.
Today, I am a sister, friend, daughter, aunt, college graduate, writer, published author, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, world traveler, and a woman gifted with family and friends around the globe who love her. I’m making a living with the skills I’ve had years to hone. I wake up. grateful for the things I have, although I’m not always the best at that — but I am living.
Because of him, I write every day. Nothing stops me from writing. I never face this world without writing.
I have him to thank for the courage I was forced to discover in my darkest hour. I grieve for him every December. Each day I decide to get out of bed, work through the problems, and celebrate the triumphs, I am honoring him. I am honoring myself.
He is with me every day, reminding me to live and never give up. It is because of him that I’ve chosen to never give up again. It is because of him that I’ve accomplished more than I ever dreamed I would.
Kelly Branyik (China 2014-16) studied English (Creative Writing) at Colorado State University-Pueblo where she aspired to be a novelist and journalist. Upon her final years in school, she studied abroad in France and Spain, which only confirmed what she already knew, that she wanted to travel and write.
She is also the author of It Depends: A Guide to Peace Corps (2016). The title was inspired by the phrase often used by Peace Corps staff when volunteers asked questions about what to expect during their service. The Peace Corps staff always settled on the same answer, “It Depends.”