When to Hold Em, and When to Fold Em: Knowing When to Walk Away

Letting go is arguably the most difficult thing to do. Whether it’s in a game of cards and you have a hand you love, or in the game of life where you have a person you love, learning when to let go and following through is extremely difficult. I know, because I’ve had to let go of some amazing people and although it is never easy, it’s one of the healthiest things I’ve done to further my happiness and life.

Over the past week I’ve had multiple conversations with friends, family, and clients about letting go of people and situations that were no longer serving them. That statement may seem a bit selfish, and with good reason, because protecting your mental health and well-being is a me first process. This doesn’t mean you are a selfish person, but rather that you understand to be the best you, you must be protective over yourself, your mental health, and your overall well-being.

What I’ve realized through these conversations, and through my own life’s journey, is that we never really know when to let go and that there’s no “right time” to let go because each person and situation is different. Topple that with the fact that most of us feel, or are taught, that letting go is a form of giving up and to “never give up” and you’ve got a recipe for settling and putting up with people that is unhealthy at best. The story that follows is one that taught me a lesson on how to let go, and allowed me to see that it’s ok to let go.

This is the story of the ultimate bromance. A friendship that changed lives, shook the world, and taught me how to respect my mental health and well-being enough to walk away from someone and something I loved. It’s part story, part lesson and partially me working through my emotions toward a situation from my past. I thank you in advance for reading, and I think you’ll find benefit from doing so.

College is one of the most fun and challenging times in an adult’s life. You’re (usually) still living on mom and dad’s dime, trying to figure out who you are, and find some semblance of purpose as you go along. It’s a period of rapid, and sometimes uncomfortable, growth. For me, college was all of that and more. It was a wild roller coaster ride that I was scared would only end when it came to a crashing halt. That crashing halt was a self-fulfilling prophecy that eventually came, but that’s a story for another time. Today, we are talking about a friendship that taught me self-respect, love, and knowing when to talk away.

Everyone has that one friend. The one who has made such a profound impact on their life, it’s hard to sum up exactly what they mean to you. Some of us find that person young and others find them later in life. Some will hold onto that friendship forever, and others, like myself, will have that friendship long enough to teach us what we were meant to learn before walking away.

For this story’s sake, I’m going to give my friend a name to protect his privacy. That name will be David. David and I met early on in college, the first week of our first semester to be exact, and like they say with all good things that are meant to be, “the rest was history”. However, the history is where the good stuff lies and where lessons can be learned, so it’s there that we turn our attention.

I remember the day we met like it was yesterday. It’s weird to remember something so vividly like that, where it’s not just the saying “I remember it like it was yesterday”, but rather, you actually remember it in such detail that it felt like it just happened.

We were both sitting alone in the cafeteria, enjoying our less than stellar college dorm room cafeteria dinner, when we made eye contact. David was far more outgoing between the two of us at the time (funny enough, this changed drastically throughout our friendship) and so he waved and invited me over to sit with him. As faith would have it, my introverted and shy self decided, against all warning signs to the contrary, to take him up on the offer and headed over to sit with him.

In a matter of minutes and a short conversation later, we quickly became friends. There was no awkwardness, no ego driven defensive walls that would’ve slowed the building of our relationship, just open conversation and connection that’s rare to find as adults. It’s funny how some people just click like that, like the universe itself would struggle to keep them apart, but that was us, just two guys who were meant to be friends and travel the road of life together.

During our years in college, our friendship only grew stronger. In a place and time in life where most people pick up and drop friends like newspapers, we were different. We had something special that we both knew would outlast college and stick with us for life. It gave us peace of mind knowing where the other person stood, and trusting in our friendship to always be there. It also gave us confidence, because we felt like we didn’t need anyone or anything if we had each other.

I know, I know it all sounds like a bit more than a friendship. Many people started to get that idea, especially when we would turn down offers of dates with beautiful girls, because we preferred to spend time with each other. Think what you want, but our relationship was entirely platonic, we just enjoyed each other’s company more than we could imagine enjoying anyone else’s.

Imagine never knowing you had a sibling, then one day finding out, seeking them out, and realizing that they were exactly who and what you needed your entire life. That was what David and I were to each other, long lost brothers who filled in all the little spaces and voids that life had created along the way.

After college ended, or at least our time on campus, we went our separate ways. I moved back to my hometown and picked life back up there, while he moved back to his and started a job there. We were over 2 hours away from each other and most friendships or relationships wouldn’t be able to handle the distance. Like I said though, our friendship was different.

Our friendship didn’t skip a beat, even with the distance between us. We would talk or text nearly every day and see each other at least once a month. We were determined not to lose each other like most people do, simply because life (careers, relationships, etc) and distance got in the way. It took a hell of a lot more effort, but you don’t mind putting forth that effort when you know you’re investing in something that is beneficial and yields quality returns. Things between us were really good for quite some time, but like the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end”.

Our friendship ended nearly as abruptly as it started, in the same sort of “the universe is pulling the strings” as when we first met. While the end was quick and clean, the decline that led to the eventual end was anything but that.

Overtime we grew apart. I was fighting to get my life back on track, regain my mental health, and battle demons that I had been hiding from for a long time. I needed time and space to be a little bit selfish and take care of myself, and so my role in the demise of our friendship is strong.

David didn’t understand why I needed time and space. He didn’t understand working on yourself, because he never really had to. You see, we came from totally different lives. He came from money, power and family recognition, while I came from a lot of turmoil and struggle. He was raised by two parents, and money was never a worry, while I was raised by a single mother who fought every single day to provide for us. In many ways, he didn’t know much about hardship, but for me, hardship was like a worn-out pair of shoes, it was the norm.

These differences initially allowed us to mesh and connect, like two jagged puzzle pieces that fit just right, but over time those puzzle pieces started to change and deform. As he became more rigid in who he was, unyielding to growth and change, I became more fluid and adaptable, understanding that to live the life I wanted to live and be the person I wanted to be, change was my only option. He continued down a path that we had started to blaze in college, laced with drugs, alcohol and a focus on a social life, while I was met with a fork in the road and difficult decisions. Where he went right, I went left and that was the beginning of the end.

As months went by, our relationship grew more and more distant. It wasn’t just the physical distance between us, but rather the emotional and mental distance that’s put between two people when one chooses to change and grow, and the other refuses to admit the need to grow, that really strained our relationship. Much like when friends and family give my clients a hard time about making positive changes to their health, he wasn’t happy that I was trying to make positive changes to my life. It’s hard to stick around someone, when they’re a constant reminder of what you’re not doing, and I think that’s what I was for him, a reminder of the changes he needed to make, but refused to.

My mom raised me as a never give up, don’t quit, fighter. So, while in my mind I knew where our relationship was headed, I also knew I was going to fight like hell not only for our friendship, but also for David who needed someone to fight for him. I have a hard time giving up on people, and I always try to see the best in them and give them second, third, and fourth chances, even to my own demise. David was no different, and I probably fought too hard and too long.

There were tons of warning signs, plenty of situations, and loads of reasons why I should’ve walked away from our friendship far sooner than I did, but I just kept reminding myself of the good that was inside him and how much I missed seeing that. Unfortunately, drugs and addiction had a strong hold on him and his life and had other plans. He went from a happy. and outgoing guy that everyone wanted to be around, to someone who isolated himself, shut the world out, and became extremely selfish. It was hard to talk to him or be around him, because I remembered him for who and what he was, and it angered me to see who he had become.

Over time, things progressively got worse. I saw him less and less, and the drugs grabbed hold of him more and more. What was once a recreational habit to spice up the boring nights at a private university, became an obsession for him. I began worrying not only for his health, but more so for his safety as I knew he was interacting with dangerous people to get his fix, and putting others at risk when driving under the influence.

Despite all of this, I still tried. I tried to maintain our friendship. I tried to be there for him and support him. And I tried to help him. If you know anything about addiction, you know that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, how much you care, or how much time you spend. Until the person decides to make a change for themselves, change won’t happen.

They say an addict needs to hit rock bottom before they realize that change needs to happen, but I think the same can be true of most every situation, relationships included. Change only happens when things get bad enough that you are hit with the realization that they need to change, and that there is no other option, and my realization about our friendship was about to happen.

I got a call from David, frantic and emotional. It wasn’t unusual, most of the calls I received at this point were when he was emotional and/or needed something. I picked up, promising myself that I wouldn’t go out of my way to help him, unless he was ready to help himself. He wasn’t, but I did.

David had just quit his job. Rather, he had been forced out. He was working for a company and driving a company car that he ended up wrecking. The company gave him the choice of walking away, and keeping his record clean, or sticking around where they were required to drug test him. Knowing that drugs would show up on his test, David decided to walk away from the job.

The choice to walk away from the job was easy for David, but dealing with all of the stress and emotions that came with that decision were not, so he called me. And being supportive, and slightly naive, I of course answered and agreed to let him visit for the weekend to “clear his head and figure out a plan”. I was worried that if I didn’t answer, or didn’t support him, things would just turn even worse.

About 2 hours later here David was. Emotional, stressed, and I was hoping, at “rock bottom”. He seemed to be clear headed and clean, although it was difficult to tell at the time. We hugged, chatted a bit and things felt like they were going to get back to “normal”. I had no idea how wrong I was.

At the time I was living at home with my mom, along with my older sister and her then 3-year-old son. My family all loved David and would do anything for him, so we always had a place for him to stay if he needed it. This was no different and so my family and I welcomed him with open arms.

The day went as usual. He was open and updated us on what was going on with his life. He seemed to be in a good place mentally, and wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable with his current struggles. He was cracking jokes, laughing, and acting like the old David would. Unfortunately, it was all a facade.

David was in no way clean. He was nowhere near clear headed. And he wasn’t back to his old self. The person we saw and were around in the daytime, was a character he had built to navigate daily life and make people think that he had his shit together. What happened later that night would show me how wrong I was, and how bad of a place he was in.

That night, after having a seemingly normal day David and I went our separate ways. I went to my bedroom, and he went to the spare bedroom across the hall. I went to bed feeling good about letting him visit and what the future held in store for him, and our friendship. That good feeling only lasted a few hours.

I woke up in the middle of the night to loud noises, random banging, and someone talking in a loud and slightly aggressive manner. I quietly exited my room, crept down the stairs, and unsure of what I would encounter, prepared for the worst. Instead of a robber or murderer being in my house, it was David. He was alone, talking to himself angrily and there was a mess everywhere. I approached him cautiously, realizing he was likely under the influence, and asked if he was alright.

It was funny how quickly he shifted his personality, going from angry and intoxicated, to kind and gentle in a matter of moments. It showed me how long he had been putting on the facade of “being alright” and how easy it was for him to switch that flip when he felt it was necessary.

I explained to him how late it was, how loud he was being, and that both my family and I would really appreciate it if he could keep it down and head back to bed. He agreed, and followed me up the stairs. Once again, we parted ways, but this time those good feelings I felt before were gone.

Luckily, things stayed calm the rest of the night, but everything was not calm behind closed doors. It turns out that David had overdosed, to the point of throwing up all over himself and the guest room he was sleeping in, and that was why he was up in the middle of the night. He was angry because he knew he was going to get caught, and was banging around downstairs trying to figure out how to clean himself and the bedroom he had puked in without anyone knowing.

The next morning, I had one of the most difficult conversations of my life. I knew what I had to do, and I knew it couldn’t wait, but naturally I wanted to stall for as long as possible. I waited until the house cleared out, and David and I could talk alone. Then, I had the conversation that would change our friendship, and my life, forever.

I eased into the conversation, knowing what I wanted to say, but not knowing how to say it. I wanted to avoid conflict and I didn’t want to push him further away, but I knew I couldn’t let the previous night go. If there’s one thing that’s always been true about me it’s this: you can walk all over me, and I may or may not speak up, but if you walk over my family, put them in harm, or disrespect them, I can never let that go. And that’s what David had done. He had used my family, disrespected them, and more than anything, put my nephew at risk, and for that I could never forget or let it go. As badly as I wanted to avoid the conversation, he had crossed a line that I felt never should’ve been crossed, and so I had no choice.

The conversation went much as I expected. I brought up the events from the previous night, explained how they made me feel, and why I felt it was necessary to have the conversation we were having. I explained that I was worried for him and loved him, otherwise the conversation would not have happened and I would’ve simply kicked him out and been done with it. I expressed that I felt his drug use had become a problem, one that was affecting more than just his life, and that he needed to make a change and/or seek help. I said everything I felt I needed to say and wanted to say, giving myself the comfort of knowing that I didn’t hold anything back. One last time, I put my all into that failing relationship and again, the same wasn’t reciprocated.

David played the entire night off like it was no big deal. Sure, he had taken a few too many pills and gotten too intoxicated, but it was an accident, wasn’t the norm, and in no way showed that he had a drug problem. He was just struggling with the stress of losing his job and figuring out what’s next, and as a result, got a bit careless with his usage.

From there, the conversation only escalated from bad to worse. I refused to be swayed by his story, refused to let him play upon my emotions and love for him, and resolved to be heard and understood, or simply move on from it. During the short 30-minute conversation, the facade of friendly, got it all together, David had unraveled and his true personality, that which was driven by drugs, came forth. He got angry, not physically mind you, and defensive. He refused to accept that he had a problem, and refused to accept that the events from the night prior were offensive at all. All of the respect that I thought he had for me and my family disappeared during that conversation.

I realized that the conversation was only going to get worse if I continued down this path, so I realized it was time for me to let go and part ways with David. I told him that I loved him, and would always be there for him when he was ready to make a change, but that I couldn’t keep putting my own personal needs aside to try to help him, when he refused to help himself or admit the need for change. Surprisingly, he took it rather well, packed up and left shortly thereafter. That is the last time that I saw David, the last time I spoke to him verbally, and the very obvious end of our friendship.

After the fact, I struggled mightily with letting him and our friendship go. I missed him and I felt like I had let him down, by seemingly giving up on him. A part of me wanted to reach out to him, put his issues aside, and rekindle our friendship despite all that had been done. The better part of me, the rational side, realized how futile that would’ve been and vowed to keep a distance from him until he got help and grew from his situation.

As difficult as this realization was, as hard as it was to stay distant, I knew it was the best for both of us. I was just a crutch for his habits and issues, and he was a tie to a past I was trying to move away from. The only way we could ever hope to rekindle our friendship, and get back to the way things used to be, was time apart for reflection, growth and change.

As of today, it’s been over 4 years since we have spoken. I think about him often, still love him dearly, and I hope that his life is going well and he is happy. I hold out hope that one day we can rekindle things, but I also understand that there’s a lot of baggage, guilt and shame between that is difficult to bear. I love him despite his flaws, and hope he feels the same about me. Neither of us were perfect, and our friendship fell apart because of both of us, as all relationships do.

As with all things is life, there is always a lesson to be learned if you seek it out. This story is no different. Although I may have gained and lost the greatest friendship I could’ve asked for, I also gained far more than just that. The friendship taught me more about love and relationships than any other. It taught me what a quality relationship should look and feel like. It taught me how great friendships can be when the only boundaries are the healthy ones. More than anything though, it taught how to respect myself and my boundaries, and showed me it’s ok to walk away from something or someone that no longer serves you.

Here’s what I’ve realized through my journey when it comes to letting go and moving on:

  1. You must respect yourself, your boundaries and your health. If you don’t have self-respect and value yourself, you’re never going to realize the relationships and situations that are harming rather than helping you. A lot of pain and damage can be avoided, simply by respecting yourself enough to realize that some people and situations aren’t deserving of your time and energy.
  2. It’s ok to give up on things. It doesn’t mean that you’re a failure or a bad person, just because you give up on someone or something. It doesn’t mean that you have caused whatever happens after the fact, as every person is responsible for their own life. Giving up on a person or situation that is no longer serving you in a positive way, is a healthy and necessary part of life.
  3. Listen to your gut. Your gut will often lead you in the right direction, if you listen to it honestly and clearly. My gut told me to walk away from that situation far sooner than I did, but my emotional self had to give it one more shot (multiple times). If I would’ve listened to my gut feeling, I may have been able to help us both avoid further pain and damage to our relationship.
  4. Say what you mean and feel. When you decide to let go of a person, or move on from a situation, you’re always going to have a feeling of “what if” after the fact. What if that was the last thing I say to them? Don’t hold anything back, speak from the heart and share your feelings. You will never regret sharing the way you feel, but you will likely regret it if you don’t. Get it all out, make sure that if it’s the last conversation you have, you say everything that you need and want to.

I hope that you never have to let go of someone that you love, but I’m almost certain that you will. Walking away from once good people or situations, is one of the most difficult things you will have to do, so I hope my story will give you the strength and determination you need to do so. If you are ever questioning a relationship or friendship that you have, ask yourself if you’re receiving as much as you’re giving and if the situation is ultimately serving your better purpose. If the answer is yes and yes, it’s worth fighting for, and if not, you may have to take a long, hard look at moving on.