Chapter 3: Love and Loss

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I’ve put off writing this post for weeks now, knowing it won’t be easy. I need to divulge some very personal details of my life and in doing so I will expose some uncomfortable details of someone else’s life as well. I recognize that some people may not like that I’m sharing this and for that I ask forgiveness. However, I need to write this all down as part of my healing process and in order to provide context for those reading this blog. Also, mental health is a topic that needs to be discussed, not swept under the rug. Only in sharing our experiences can we hope to help others who are struggling. This is my truth as I know it, as unpleasant as it may be. But it’s a part of who I am and it’s what’s led me down my current path, so I feel it’s something I need to share here.

Seven months ago I lost my best friend. I had actually lost him seven months before that, or rather I had given him up, but in early April of this year he passed away. Kris King, my partner of four years, was in some ways the best man I’ve ever known. He was kind and caring and selfless to a fault. When he was at his best he was a magnet, attracting everyone to him with his smart, fun, witty energy. There was a side of him that was so bright and vibrant and full of life. But in the four years we spent together I got to know another side of Kris as well. The man I loved had a darker side that most people hardly saw. He struggled with depression and a severe amount of self-doubt and he refused to let anyone take care of him the way he tried to care for others. He held himself to an impossible standard and kept his emotions hidden away. He didn’t know how to handle stress and as a result he developed some very damaging, self-destructive habits in his attempts to cope.

Kris and I met in Denver at the most inconvenient time. When we met I had just decided to leave Colorado and had given myself a nine-month window to do so. We went on a few dates and then I broke it off, because I didn’t see the point in starting something new when I was just going to leave. Two months later I found myself thinking of him, so we met up one night and just like that we were dating again. Seven months later I moved to Chicago and a month later Kris followed me. I believe that Kris wanted to move to Chicago, not only for me, but to experience something other than Colorado. He left behind his brother (also his roommate and best friend) and an amazing job to start a new life in a new city. These weren’t easy things for him to give up, but he loved me and he was ready for something new, so he packed up and left.

The honeymoon phase of our relationship ended pretty soon after we moved to Chicago. I found myself in a terrible work situation working directly under a woman who despised me. Kris found work quickly, but soon found that his job was more challenging and less stable than he’d imagined. Kris’ insecurities surfaced and I learned that he didn’t think he deserved me, he questioned my love for him and he convinced himself that I’d cheated on him multiple times. The trust in our relationship deteriorated and I couldn’t find any way to rebuild it. We started drinking more and fighting more, which only made things worse. I started going to therapy a few months after we moved to the city and eventually Kris went as well. It seemed to help for a time, but we were seeing the same therapist and eventually she decided that was a conflict of interest and offered to help Kris find someone else, but he never pursued it.

I tried to leave Kris several time during this period, because I just didn’t see how we could ever wash off all the shit we’d been wading through. Each time though he convinced me to come back. We promised to work on things and try harder, but over the years things hardly improved. We’d take two steps forward and one step back, then one step forward and two steps back, putting us right back where we’d started. We fought over stupid things, although the fight was never really about what it started over. Kris didn’t share his emotions, didn’t let me in, so I wouldn’t know there was an issue until a fight would erupt, often late at night. These fights lasted for hours, because we just couldn’t ever seem to fight fair. Resolution and compromise would sometimes come the following day, but despite that we couldn’t break our pattern of abuse. In the three years we lived in Chicago, I don’t think we ever went more than two weeks without a bad argument.

Almost a year after we moved Kris was laid off from his job. Months of unemployment deteriorated his confidence even more and led to more drinking and volatility. I would leave work each evening with a knot in my stomach, never sure what I’d come home to find. When I started finding empty vodka bottles in the cabinets I knew things had gotten really bad. After six months Kris found a new job and things improved greatly. I thought we’d put the worst behind us. Unfortunately that was fairly short lived. The new job offered even less stability as they were laying people off every few months. This was a source of constant anxiety and discontent for Kris and his coworkers. Things had improved somewhat at my job, but I still brought home my own work-related stress and the two of us would numb ourselves with booze. And because we were drinking, naturally we’d fight. So ultimately, not much changed.

In July 2016 I decided we should move back to Colorado. Kris wasn’t happy in Chicago and often complained that he missed his old job, missed the mountains and missed his family and friends. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced a change of location would improve our situation, I felt I needed to make one final attempt to fix things and moving home would either make or break our relationship. In November Kris was laid off again. We were planning to move back to Colorado in April so I asked him to consider whether we should break our lease early or whether he should look for jobs in Colorado and move back ahead of me if necessary. He refused to do either. He seemed confident that he had enough money saved up for us to live comfortably and he had faith that he would find a job quickly once we moved back. He promised me it wouldn’t be like the last time, because he was prepared financially and had the move home to look forward to. For the most part he was right. We continued on with our “normal” level of dysfunction, but things didn’t get worse.

We moved home at the end of April and moved in with Kris’ brother in Denver. A month later, out of nowhere, Kris had a seizure. The staff at the hospital told us he exhibited classic signs of alcohol withdrawal. Despite our lifestyle and his behavior of the past few years, I didn’t believe it. Neither did Kris. I think we were both in denial. A month and a half later, I found a job. Kris was excited for me at first, but that didn’t last long. At that point he’d been unemployed for seven months and it was starting to wear on him. The job market in Denver had changed greatly in three years and he was no longer qualified for the job he’d had before we left. A month after the first seizure he had another. This time he went to a different hospital and there they weren’t so convinced it was alcohol-related. Instead they ran a bunch of neurological tests, but he left several days later with no conclusive results. I would come home from work each day to barely a greeting from Kris. His brother, Cam, was the one who would ask me about my day. I could hardly get Kris to tell me about his health or his job search or anything else that was happening in his life. I started finding bottles in cabinets again and although I knew I shouldn’t encourage drinking, I couldn’t help but drink a bottle of wine each night to myself. I was living with Kris and Cam, yet I felt so alone, so detached.

It got to the point where I felt like I was fighting for someone who had given up. That feeling was confirmed one afternoon when Kris was laying on the couch. He had a microseizure, so I went over to him and hugged him tight until it stopped. He told me then that he didn’t want to be here anymore, that he was so tired of being in pain and struggling all the time and that he was ready to give up. He said he wouldn’t act on these feelings, because he wouldn’t leave our dog. Then he told me that once Cooper passed he would end it. I was angry with him and told him he couldn’t give up. I asked him to think of his family, of me, and what that would do to us. He told me “You’ll be ok. It will be really hard for a while, but eventually you’ll move on and you’ll be all right. All of you.” For the first time I had to contemplate what would happen if Kris died and I had to decide if I would stick around to the bitter end or finally walk away and start living for myself. Just days later, I left, and for the first time ever, Kris didn’t try to stop me.

In the months that followed I wished fiercely that Kris would find happiness. I moved to Boulder and started to rebuild my life. I found a level of confidence and happiness that I hadn’t felt in years. I started dating again, worked on forming healthier habits and reconnected with close friends. I saw Kris a handful of times. Once was in the hospital just before Christmas. He’d had another seizure and I went to see him. At that point he’d finally come to terms with the fact that the seizures were alcohol related. I begged him to take care of himself and told him I wanted nothing more than for him to be happy. He would text me from time to time wanting to meet up. I tried not to encourage this, but couldn’t ignore him altogether. The last time I talked to him, he told me he was moving forward and getting happier, but that there was a hole in his life where I used to be.

In early April I was in Wyoming skiing with my brother and his kids when I got a call from Kris’ mom. She told me Kris was in a coma. That evening I drove straight from the slopes to the hospital. I’ve never dreaded anything so much in my life. Kris’ family was there with him and they told me what had happened. A seizure had caused a heart attack and although they’d managed to resuscitate him after eight minutes, he’d suffered major brain damage. By the time I got there he was almost completely brain dead. I left the hospital with his family and went to Cam’s house. My dog, Cooper, was there. His ninth birthday had passed just days before, while Kris was in the hospital. He must have known something was wrong. Kris had been gone for several days, I was back in his life for the first time in months, and people were in and out of Cam’s house crying and consoling. I spent the night at a friend’s house in Denver so I could head back to the hospital in the morning. In the middle of the night Kris’ brain started hemorrhaging and his family was told he’d be entirely gone within 24 hours.

I spent the next week in Denver with Kris’ family and friends. I guess you could say Kris had inadvertently prepared me to step up and help after his death. Four years of what we’d endured had made me incredibly strong and seven months apart had allowed me to start the healing process. I’d already mourned my loss of Kris once. Perhaps that made it slightly easier to mourn for him again. Although we were no longer together, I knew things no one else did, so in that sense I was able to help his family. I could fill in gaps in his health history for the Donor Alliance, I could write his obituary (a task nobody wanted, including me), and I knew how he would have wanted to be memorialized. Staying busy and having a sense of purpose kept me sane. I can’t imagine what I would have done if his family hadn’t welcomed me back into their lives and allowed me to be a part of this process.

In the days after his death I saw again the magnetic affect Kris had on people. Hundreds of friends and family members enveloped us in love, showing up at the hospital that final day, sending donations, checking in on us daily and braving the weather to attend his celebration of life. I felt him everywhere in those days through the people who like me, had loved him. Kris, in his self-effacing way, had convinced his dad he didn’t have any friends. When 300 people showed up to his memorial with only three days notice, he was absolutely stunned.

Seven months have passed now and we’ve all begun to heal. For four months after his death, I was at Cam’s house at least once a week spending time with Kris’ family and Cooper. I poured my love into my dog and received so much comfort from him in return. As long as I had him, I still had a piece of Kris. When Cooper passed my heart broke all over again. Losing Kris and Coop has made me face my own mortality. I realize now more than ever that I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth, so I should be wise with how I spend it. That’s why I’ve decided to leave for a year and travel the world. I have no idea what I’ll experience in the year to come, but I know that whatever I face will shape me in ways I can’t yet know. Just as I know that my time with Kris forever changed me and I can’t help but be grateful for all that I learned in the process, no matter how much pain it caused.

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