So I’m just going to say it. Out loud (or through a computer screen, whatever). This post is going to be long, tough, and uncomfortable. But the truth is, I’ve been hesitant to share certain things in the spirit of staying diplomatic. But Brene Brown offers a great piece of advice for writers on sharing.

I often do a gut check with my writing by asking myself if I’m sharing my story or someone else’s. But it’s harder to tell when you’re done healing from something. Especially because with some things, I don’t think you ever fully heal.

When I was sixteen, I had a boyfriend. For the sake of this post, we’ll call him Brad Brown. We’d dated once before my freshman year. And he was everything my little teenage dreams were made of. Tall, goofy, fun, and just enough of a bad boy to keep me interested. And keep me interested he did.

I thought girls who gave guys a second chance were stupid. When someone hurts you, why would you let them back in? Especially so intimately? Though I was young, I was oddly wise beyond [my] years adults would comment. I blame having much older siblings. So when this guy broke my 14-year-old heart, I was done. Hurt, but done.

But we had friends in common. Classes in common. After school activities in common. Getting over him, I’ll admit, was torturous. Especially because he soon went on to date one of my former best friends. I had to watch him fall in love with someone else right under my nose.

But then that girl broke his heart. I knew painfully intimate details of their relationship thanks to my circle of friends. (Oh, good old high school drama, huh?) And strangely, I felt bad for him. I’m empathetic to a flaw, so I watched him from a distance, mending, healing, growing, learning, changing.

But when he approached me some time later, my guard was up. I set my boundaries and insisted I’d stand firm. Friends, I told him, and nothing more. But over time, he wore me down.

Don’t make me regret this, I said to him one hot August afternoon, leaning against my silver Toyota Camry behind the school, just outside the band room. And just like that, I let him back in.

Our relationship was tumultuous right from the start. But what teenage romance isn’t? We shared a few special moments with a whole lot of D-R-A-M-A in between. It didn’t matter, I was in. All in.

There’s something you should know about teenage me. I put the entirety of my worth in whether or not certain guys were paying attention to me. And really, this is probably true for a lot of teenage girls. (And I really, really hope if they’re reading this, they can take my word for it–you are more than what a guy thinks of you.)

So when things got bad (and trust me, they got bad), I excused it all away. I liked to think at the time I had a strong set of core moral values. And I did! But when you put your whole worth in other people, especially as a teenager, those things get muddled easily.

But then things got irreversibly bad. He stripped me of whatever was left of my self worth and left me in pieces. But he held on to one. And he taunted me with it, never escaping fully from my view. Looking back, I wish the concept of ghosting existed back then. A clean break is easier to heal from, I do believe.

Instead, he yoyo’d in and out of my life for months. But eventually, slowly but surely, he faded from view.

I was deflated, defeated. Completely unsure of who I was, and why I was. But in the years that followed our split, he found himself in a lot of trouble. And I found myself surrounded by authentic love and friendship. I was happier than I’d ever been, and I knew in that time that I’d received a rare gift. The ability to learn from and appreciate the heartbreak. I turned off the lights and closed that part of my heart. Farewell, dear heartbreaker.

Thanks to Facebook, I was able to peek in on his reckless life as mine stabilized. Shortly after healing from that heartbreak, I fell in love. Actual love. And oddly, it was that experience that helped me to understand and appreciate the heartbreak for what it was. I was heading down a dangerous, reckless path. And Brad stopped me dead in my tacks. And when you’re left so broken, you don’t have a choice but to rebuild yourself.

It was in the rebuilding that I found myself. And once my pieces were all put back together, a boy walked into my life who has never, ever walked out. (In case it’s not clear, it’s 14 years later and that boy is now a man and he’s sitting next to me on the couch playing a video game. 👋🏻 husband.)

Anyway, years and a whole lot of adult life later, I got a weird text from my editor who happened to be an old HS friend.

“Brad Brown died.”

In that moment, ice ran through my veins. I felt…something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. To the grown, adult, married woman version of Joey, his death meant very little. But to the broken 16-year-old that I left behind in that dark room, it was a big deal.

My editor later messaged asking if I was going to try to go to the funeral. I wasn’t on Facebook at the time, so there was really no way for me to get a pulse on the situation. While my relationship with Brad was arduous, I absolutely adored his family. And they were all I could think about.

I struggled with what to do. I told my husband the situation when he got home from work. And we decided together that if I wanted to go, I should go. So, a few days later, I drove the hour North and sat quietly in the parking lot watching faces from my past file into a large church.

The sun beat down on the black car, and I thought for just a fleeting moment that maybe I’d made a mistake. I hadn’t seen any of these people in nearly a decade; I hadn’t spoken to Brad’s family in even longer. So, I was considering throwing the car into reverse and leaving when I heard my name shouted from across the parking lot, a voice excitedly beckoning me from the car.

Two old friends, comrades from the dark season of my life, welcomed me into tight hugs.

The funeral was harder than I thought it would be, but not as hard as what came after. Brad’s dad caught my eye from across the room. I walked over and offered a shy hello. Because really? What do you say to someone you haven’t seen in over a decade under such circumstances? He enveloped me into one of his famous bear hugs in reply, and suddenly, for a brief moment, I was sixteen again.

I spent two years of my life with Brad. Of his 28 Christmases, he spent 2 of them with me. In the grand scheme of my life, Brad became relatively insignificant. And my biggest fear showing up that day would be that his family would wonder why on earth I was there.

But instead, they seemed almost relieved to see me. They shared their concerns over whether I knew the news since I wasn’t on Facebook, and in the spirit of a long-overdue reunion, they invited me back to their home. A home where I once spent so much of my time. The home where my former flame took his last breath. I’m pretty sure the spirit of my 16-year-old self is still trapped in those walls somewhere. But eventually, the night came to a close after many hours of casual catching up with people who didn’t know the adult version of that girl.

As I drove away that evening 3.5 years ago, that house slowly fading in my rear view mirror, I wondered what it all meant. I knew the situation I found myself in was rare–strangely grieving the loss of someone I’d already left behind. There was an odd symphony of emotions with a little guilt and shame mixed in for good measure.

Grieving the loss of an ex-boyfriend who had once hurt me as an older, married version of myself felt wrong. But the reality is, life is blurry and messy. And we can’t always predict how any given situation might make us feel. If someone had told me five years prior that I’d attend Brad Brown’s funeral, I would have rolled my eyes. Just the mere mention of his name was sometimes enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand.

But in the end, I’m glad I went with my gut; with my heart. We carry every version of ourselves around with us daily, even if we’ve long since closed the book on their story. And every so often, they demand to be seen and respected. And really? I think that’s okay.