I was so busy when he made the first attempt on his life. My friend, my creative partner. I had neglected his messages. I had been a poor friend. “I was mad at my mom”, he told me, still in a daze from the drug cocktail. On his way up, he had carved a swastika in the sole of his foot with a switchblade and colored the wound with an ink pen. A prison tattoo.

As he told me the details, apologizing for his own lack of self-worth, I recall hearing a faint song somewhere in the distance. “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom: Let it Be.”

I realized nothing could save his life. Nothing but the faith I was in the process of rejecting. He had always been different from the others. His behavior was wordly (a term used within the religion to identify outsiders). His speech was at times littered with profanity and absurdist, offensive jokes. He had lived a rough life, growing up in the border town of Laredo. But he had been trying to straighten himself out. He married a woman in the faith–another old friend of mine.

His internal struggle was between faith and oblivion. Mine was between faith and freedom.

When I formally left the faith, having spent years in turmoil doing what I could for the petite revolutionary cause, I knew I would lose him. His struggle, his recovery, hinged upon the rejection of apostates like me. There was the Josh who did well; attending meetings and conventions and proselytizing. And there was the Josh who did poorly; swallowing pills, drowning himself in ethanol, and associating with the likes of me. There could be no inbetween. He held onto our friendship for as long as he could, but his well being and self care were so wrapped up in the proclamations of an apocalyptic, millennarian religion that soon I became yet another subversive element to remove.

I miss him. And I miss her, too. Stephanie. A sweet girl I had grown up around, and another creative partner for which the deepest parts of me ache. Together, the three of us spent hours chatting and laughing and making absurdist, offensive jokes for a tiny but dedicated audience of YouTube subscribers. In those days there were no politics, there was no world outside our own. We had only our own brand of surrealist nonsense where even the faith became irrelevant.

She had moved two thousand, three hundred miles to Washington. When I said goodbye, I knew I would never see her again. There was no optimism that these old friends reunite. I knew she, too, would reject me for rejecting the faith. “I can no longer call myself a Jehovah’s Witness,” I told her through text. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to take your faith away from you.” I felt her heart break two thousand, three hundred miles away. She had just been baptized, entering into a formal contract with the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Speaking to apostates is a serious offense punishable by expulsion. If she were expelled, even her own family would be forbidden from associating with her. There could be no keeping in touch. Not even on social media.

If I could choose any two people to learn and grow with, to love and support and laugh and tell absurdist, offensive jokes to, I would choose Josh and Stephanie. But I’ve lost them; not to death, but to the regressive ideas of a religion. We will live and die without each other.

And now, when I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary only whispers to me: “They’re gone.”