I don’t think I ever made the conscious decision to be mean. It was something that had snowballed over the years, fueled by a number of factors that had followed me since childhood: being bullied in school, intense anxiety, and depression. I never imagined I’d be the type of guy who would immediately stop talking to a woman after sleeping with her, let alone the sort of person who’d readily talk about her behind her back.

My descent started after one too many toxic relationships. Was I attracted to people who cheat or vice versa? Whatever the case, after getting burned yet again, I decided no woman was worth my time and that I would get complete control over any relationship by exuding disinterest and contempt. Over the course of a few months, every potential partnership (and I honestly can’t remember how many there were) ended terribly and spectacularly.

I would have ended up a spot on the pavement had I taken my rough attitude to the real world.

Relationships weren’t the only place I’d channel my anger; I would pick fights with anyone. If someone made a snide comment on Facebook, I’d make damn sure my response was venomous and mean, warranting a major loss in childhood acquaintances. I would never get physical, knowing I had the power to annoy my opponent to the point of insanity. I probably would have ended up a spot on the pavement had I taken my rough attitude to the real world.

When I was 24, I decided to move in with my brother who, despite being four years younger than me, was wildly more mature. He was the kind of guy who would constantly question the world around him and showcase his way of thinking without forcing an ideology. Adam held me accountable for the things I would say and was the first person to ask me why I thought it was appropriate to call a woman a “slut” or ignore the texts of a love interest I’d grown tired of.

Then something happened that ripped my soul in two and made me reconsider everything I ever believed. My little brother, the only person I ever looked up to, died.

The months after his death were spent either in bed or cradling a glass of whiskey. I lost weight, I stopped going out, and I couldn’t stop thinking about everything I’d done to hurt people. The feelings emanating through my body were excruciating, and all I could imagine were people experiencing a sliver of my emotions.

His death motivated me to put my life under a microscope and extract the poisonous aspect of my personality that had caused so many so much pain. I had treated people—women, mostly—unfairly, and I knew I had to change.

Putting good out in the world would mend the catastrophic hole of sadness my brother’s passing ripped into my universe.

Eventually, I came out of the haze enough to move to a new apartment, take a new job, and start over as best I could. The change in me began out of sadness, as I had no energy to be anything but pleasant (albeit distant) with people.

Then, little by little, it started feeling good—like when you stop buying the generic and go for the name brand. I stopped dating around. I focused on repairing relationships and started talking to women I’d broken up with. I tried to visit my older brother and family as often as I could. And I all but disappeared from social media. Admittedly, I could have done more, but I knew I had to start small, and I had to be happy again. In my mind, putting good out into the world would mend the catastrophic hole of sadness my brother’s passing ripped into my universe.

It sounds silly writing it out, but I really loved making people happy. The little things were always the best: the way someone smiled when you held the door for them, seeing a person’s face perk up when you gave them a compliment, or knowing your over-generous tip would make a waiter’s day. What started as a coping mechanism to help get over the grief of losing my brother turned into a full-on lifestyle.

But it didn’t happen overnight. I had to struggle for months to regain control over my personality, as bad habits would creep back in. I went through periods of needlessly ignoring loved ones and lashing out at people for trying to help me.

Then I experienced one of those miraculous light bulb moments I never believed in. I was in Vermont with my parents, trying my hardest to feign excitement for Thanksgiving—Adam’s favorite holiday—when I got a text from a girl. Be honest, Jeremy. Are you avoiding me?

Then that stupid light bulb went off. I thought I was doing so well until I realized I hurt someone I deeply cared about. I wasn’t trying hard enough, and the outcome of my actions wasn’t even close to what I wanted. So I started over and tried again. I texted her back immediately and apologized for inadvertently taking out my anger and grief on her, for making her my punching bag. (She accepted my apology, and now we’re engaged—but that’s a different story.) That text inspired me to take a deeper look at all the relationships I’d previously crippled and to simply be better.

The most surprising part of this process? It stuck… and it’s still sticking. The difference between me-now and me-then is like night and day. I can’t believe I went so long being so terrible for the fun of it.

As it stands now, all the good energy I try to put out into the universe is still for my brother, but I see it as a joint effort between him and me to direct that energy toward other people. He was always the one to steer me in the right direction when he was alive, and now I’m putting his lessons into practice as tribute.

What started as a coping mechanism to help get over the grief of losing my brother turned into a full-on lifestyle.

I still have moments here and there when I slip and say something stupid, but I don’t sweat it; there’s no such thing as a person who can say the right thing every single time. I just make sure that I always acknowledge the urge, ask why I’m doing it, and then end it before anything happens. Sometimes I think about the amount of happiness I get out of actively trying to be a good person, and I wonder if I’m doing it all to satisfy my own selfish craving for pleasure. Though I figure, if that’s the case, I’d rather be a junkie for happiness than hate.