CTE took your mind but I still have your heart…

To: Zac Easter, Alison's late boyfriend

From: Alison Epperson (As told to Lauren Brill)

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Zac –

You told me you’d never leave me. But you did. I know you were just looking for peace. Yet sometimes I’m so sick with grief and sadness that I’m mad. I am mad that you’re not here. I am mad that I’m alone. I am mad at every person, moment and unknown that contributed to you developing that horrifying disease that ultimately took you from me and from the world.

The hardest part about losing you is trying to move forward in life, peacefully and happily when I still feel so broken inside.

Zac confided in Alison that he was struggling before he told anyone else.

I loved you so much that it’s impossible to describe. It was overwhelming. It started when we became really good friends in high school. I used to ditch fourth period just to go hang with you. It was my senior year, after you graduated, that’s we became more than just friends. Even when we were miles apart we spoke with such depth every night and our connection grew with each passing word. Our relationship wasn’t traditional and at times we kicked ourselves for it. But, as we always said, our story and our love was perfectly imperfect.

You were my safe space and my home. Affectionately, you called me by middle name, Winslow. You believed in me so ferociously.

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You once wrote to me, “Just know someday you will always have my vote for you to become president. Please go out and change the world. I love you more than words can explain.”

That unwavering confidence in me scares me. What if I don’t achieve all you believed I would? What if I do something disappointing? What if I can’t carry on your legacy the way your legacy deserves to be carried?

You were my confidant and to this day you still hold secrets no one else knows. You made me feel strong and loved.  I truly lost a part of myself when you left.

The night you died is still so fresh in mind. On December 19, 2015 I received a text from you at 12:24 am.

It read, “Thank you for everything.  You have helped me through so much and never ever blame yourself for anything. I love you and will always be over your shoulder to look after you no matter what. Always keep having fun. Always remember me. Always keep striving for greatness, or should I say, first female president.  Keep fighting for what you believe for. I love you, Winslow.”

My heart dropped into my stomach. I knew what was about to happen but I didn’t want to believe it. Shortly after, you shot yourself in the heart, not only to end your own suffering but also to help prevent others from suffering, too. You were only 24 years old.

My heart dropped into my stomach. I knew what was about to happen but I didn’t want to believe it.

Some mornings I wake up and it feels like it just happened; my gut wrenches all over again. The details are just so clear in my mind.

Almost everywhere I go and everything I do there’s a reminder of you. Of us. Discovering new music on Spotify, ridiculous dance moves at the bars and watching a movie I’ve seen a hundred times all take me back to you and me.

I am angry at the disease in general.  It began to develop likely long before I even met you. You started football in third grade. You loved football. You weren’t as big as the others but you were incredibly more powerful in your punch because you used your head. You weren’t afraid to do that.

Zac started playing football in third grade

One story I remember is you had this drill at practice and you went up against our very large friend, D. You definitely knocked him down and he was twice your size. You were determined and unafraid to go head-to-head with anyone on the field.

But as much as you loved football, you also felt betrayed by it. Because the disease torturing you stemmed from all the concussions you accumulated playing throughout your childhood and through high school.

There were so many late nights where you kept trying to articulate your pain and I kept trying to tell you to hold on. We used our connection and love for music to get you through the particularly rough nights.

You struggled to explain your disease. You had headaches and memory loss, among so many other symptoms.

I remember you told me,  “I just don’t feel right, I don’t feel normal.”

You didn’t feel like you had control over your mind.

You went to different doctors, who gave you conflicting answers. One said it could be Bipolar Disorder. Another said you would end up homeless or in a mental institution.  There were so many different answers, but no answers at the same time. So, you did your own research and accurately self-diagnosed yourself with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, also known as CTE, a disease that results in changes in the brain in response to repeated hits to the head. Once you realized you had CTE you knew there was no cure and no way to even confirm your diagnosis until after you passed away. Nothing could be done and you knew your symptoms were not going to improve.

Before you died you wrote journals, documenting your disease. You also left behind a note, asking that your brain is donated to science to help researchers learn more about CTE. You did all this so you could lessen someone else’s struggle.  And by the way, the researchers who examined your brain did confirm you had CTE.

I know you wanted me and your family to also help spread your message. You wanted us to tell your story and to warn and help athletes. I am proud to share with you that we started a foundation in your honor. It’s called CTE Hope. Our goals are to educate people about CTE and concussions, find ways to prevent CTE, and create better return-to-play protocol.

Alison created CTE Hope with Zac’s family

Now I am sure you want an update on my life, too. It’s been incredibly hard to navigate life without you. One minute I was embarking on a new chapter with you by my side, and the next I had the wind permanently knocked out of me. I became a three-legged table unable to keep steady. But I’ve had to learn. I’ve had to learn to be a three-legged table, if for no other reason than that’s what you wanted. I did it for me, but also for you because you couldn’t for yourself.

Do you remember that you specifically told me I would make it through law school and I couldn’t use you as an excuse not to graduate? Well, Zac, I not only graduated, but I also excelled in law school just as you expected. I won a national award, in part, because of the work you inspired. I interned for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I got hired by a great law firm. I moved to New York City, something we always planned to do together. I survived (and passed) the bar exam. I traveled the world. But as great as all those things have been, nothing, I mean nothing has been easy.  I always feel a slight sting of sadness because you’re not here to experience these moments with me.

Alison was named Law Student of the Year by the National Jurist

You did tell me to move on and find someone great to spend my life with. Now, when I first read those words, I was annoyed and defiant – how could I ever find someone else? Well, a little more than two years after you passed I did find someone. He is a great person, who supports me and loves me and approaches my past and grief with such grace. I often wonder, did you send me this wonderful human? Do you approve? Do you even want me to ask that?

I still live in this constant state of guilt. I truly love my boyfriend. But I miss you every second of every day. How do I live with that? How do I reconcile these two extremely powerful emotions? It’s tough to grapple with the hard fact that you had to die for me to find him.

Even though I am living my life as you advised and honoring your life as you requested, there are so many questions I still have unanswered. And some days I’d rather crawl back in bed, shut my eyes, and remember what it was like to just lay on your chest and feel your steady breath under me. I’ll forever have a piece missing, a piece only you hold. I’ll never stop loving you, or missing you, or wishing you were here. But I have come to realize, no matter how broken I feel or how much I miss you, I owe it to both of us to live my life for myself.

Alison is spreading Zac’s message as he asked her to do.

I have to show the same strength you did and live the life we both deserve. I have to accept this forever new normal and let myself be happy,  let myself move forward and free myself of the guilt. I have to be the best possible version of myself. Because by doing so, I honor you, I honor your legacy, and I honor the love we shared.

Zac, I would’ve done anything to heal you. Instead I am now doing what I can to keep your memory alive, while also trying to pursue my own joy in life. However I still can’t do that without you.  I know you found your peace but as I move forward in life, I keep you close because it is still you that helps me find mine.

I’ll love you until the end.

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