The crumbling of my late boyfriend at the hands of addiction, mental illness and fentanyl

by Chloe Bell

You see it on social media from time to time – someone you know losing their mother, young people in car accidents, various tragedies. The bereaved scramble to wrap words together as their various tiers of social ties speculate about details of the tragedy. It’s part empathy and part curiosity – all well-intentioned. I get it, and I never really knew the right approach either. Up until this point in my life, I had never experienced grief. I had my own personal struggles but couldn’t relate to the heartache people experienced when they lost someone they loved, especially unexpectedly. I never prepared myself for it either because no one expects these things at age 20.

Tristan and I met in 2013 at a wilderness, first-aid and swift-water rescue training course. We were the oldest two of the seven kids and were fast friends. He was shy but a great balance to my personality, and we began a whirlwind long-distance relationship. Almost every weekend we drove the three hours to see each other, stayed together in each other’s homes, went on vacations and generally had a much closer relationship than most in high school. Tristan was loyal, kind to everyone, determined, incredibly athletic and everything I thought I could ever want in my life. Tristan talked with the passion that all of his dreams would come true. His experiences proved it; he would turn his goals from somedays to todays, whether it was a trip or wakeboarding or a mountain-biking trick he wanted to land. That feeling was contagious, and I believed in him wholeheartedly. Maybe we were naïve, but it was perfect. We talked about getting married one day and all the adventures we wanted to have. You can probably tell by now that this is not how our story ended at all.

Tristan’s thrill-seeker mindset also applied to drug use. In high school, all I knew was that he smoked weed and occasionally used psychedelics. He didn’t drink much and was impressively knowledgeable about all the compounds and effects the substances had on the body. From that perspective, I trusted that he knew what he was doing. Tristan graduated from Bentonville High School in 2014 and came to the University of Arkansas in the fall. That was when we first saw a shift in him. He was depressed, disassociating from family and friends and although we didn’t know it then, he started taking Xanax. It tore me up. He broke up with me in such a cold fashion. It was unlike him. At the end of a very unproductive freshman year, he moved to Seattle with a new girlfriend and a dream of life in the mountains. Years passed; he would occasionally reach out with regrets, and there was always this feeling that it wasn’t really over because it wasn’t yet.

This past March, he called me. Tristan was visiting and contemplating leaving Seattle. I didn’t know it then, but in those two years he had become a full-fledged drug addict who, unbeknownst to all of us, was experiencing the onset of bipolar II disorder – a fate he did not choose for himself. After we reunited, he decided to move back home for me, and I was still blissfully unaware of the storm inside him. We were both so happy that we were back together after so long.

Then confessions came. He’d share a little more of his life in Seattle, each time painting a more awful picture of how he lost himself. A fun, recreational habit had turned ugly when he began self-medicating. He desperately wanted to get better but was slipping up with his drugs of choice: street-quality Xanax and cocaine. So we put in work, love and support, and some days there would be progress. One step forward then three steps back. I had lost Tristan once, and I wasn’t losing him again – after all, I knew the real him and thought if anyone could beat addiction, it would be him. He burned so many bridges that it felt like the only people left fighting for his health were his family and me. I can’t even get into all the crises he put us through, but the suffering was almost unbearable. I would lay awake beside him and watch him fall asleep – just so I knew he wasn’t going to go buy drugs. I let go of many of my responsibilities and spent almost every day with him because the only way I knew he was okay was if he was under my supervision or his mother’s. I held his face and reminded him of all the greatness he contained while he screamed about how much he hated himself for the trouble he caused. My heart broke everyday. A man who once conquered anything he set his mind to could no longer make a bed.

Summer came, and it was time for me to study abroad. I was part of the Tibetans in Exile Today program. We interviewed Tibetans exiled to India about their biographical history. I almost didn’t go because I had a gut intuition that something bad would happen. We last heard from Tristan on June 16, 2017 – exactly four years from the day I met him. And then on June 18, while shopping in Dharamshala, I got a text that I needed to call home at the next possible chance, and I knew exactly why. I ran through the streets, dodging cars and cows to my hotel room. I listened as my dad sobbed those words to me, and my plan, our plan for the future shattered. Tristan had died of an accidental overdose in my own apartment. My dear friend and co-worker Margaret held me through those moments, and I’m so glad I have someone like her. I was stuck on the opposite side of the world in the Himalayas with very limited access to communication with anyone who wasn’t part of my study abroad. I was completely broken. My group, as you can imagine, was stunned but handled the situation with such grace. I could not ever thank them enough for carrying me through the lowest of my lows.

Tristan sits on a rock at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in 2013. 

Chloe and Tristan pose for prom pictures in 2014. 

Our videographer, the ever-so-compassionate Craig Pasquinzo, volunteered to leave the trip eight days early to escort me home. As if international flights aren’t stressful enough, we battled monsoon season and my emotional fragility for 42 hours of travel. I barely slept or ate. I left Tristan’s camera, my passport and boarding passes behind on flights and then subsequently had multiple panic attacks, but Craig dealt with it all. My friends Nicole and Melissa arranged for me to stay at their apartment for the remainder of my lease because I would never be able to view that apartment as my home again. When someone dies, they take away the body, and it is your responsibility to clean up the mess or hire a very expensive service, which was off the table. There is no way for me to describe what it’s like to see where and how the life spilled out of the only person you’ve ever loved. I will forever have these images in my mind. His family decided on cremation after an autopsy and talks began of where we would spread his ashes. I got the news of his death Monday, touched down in America on Thursday, helped choose urns Friday, moved out of my apartment Saturday, attended a service for his friends that evening, went to a memorial picnic for family and friends Sunday and then mourned at his funeral the following Monday. Eight days passed in an absolute blur. Even now, we continue to take things day by day.

The toxicology report took about two months. He had what the coroner determined was normal levels of THC, Xanax and cocaine. What killed him was fentanyl – an opioid pain medication that can be up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It’s often cut into street drugs because it’s cheap, strong and can be used and transported in smaller volumes. Fentanyl had been laced into the cocaine he ingested, right here in Fayetteville, Arkansas. So, yes. Tristan was an addict which led to him doing drugs that day, but the final straw was something he didn’t choose to take. Tristan was very wary of opioids and warned us all about the increase in fentanyl overdoses – he knew, and it got him anyways. This is not just an issue of addiction or mental health, this is something even the occasional, recreational drug user needs to understand. You can’t trust that what you buy won’t do serious damage. I have friends that took what they thought was Molly, but it ended up being bath salts and meth. Does the benefit of living recklessly outweigh the risk of damaging your physical and mental health, potentially to the point of losing your life?

Young people, including my friends, rationalize their own behavior after Tristan’s death, because they don’t have the element of addiction or mental illness or don’t believe fentanyl is a real problem in our community. That is incredibly foolish. Overdoses have become the leading killer for Americans under 50. Every time you take any drug, you are consenting to altering your brain chemistry. No addict thought they would become an addict. It starts small and progresses. Mental illnesses are incredibly common and onset in a variety of ways – in Tristan’s case, it was hereditary. If you believe you are immune to these disorders impacting your life, you are very wrong. As for fentanyl, the Arkansas State Police seized 15 pounds on I-40 on Oct. 3. Eight nanograms is all it took for Tristan to die in combination with what he thought he was taking. If you didn’t know, a nanogram is a billionth of a gram. There are about 6,800 grams in 15 pounds. It’s astounding to think of how many people could have died just from the fentanyl that was in that one car.

After a tragedy like this, people will say to you, “Let me know if there’s ANYTHING I can do to help!” Well, I don’t need you to feel bad for me. Here is what I need – talk about Tristan and all the faces of drug abuse. Have hard conversations with people whether you think they’re falling into a bad lifestyle or not. I’m well aware that my peers don’t listen to D.A.R.E., their moms or scary statistics on this topic. Rather, at this age we tend to trust our friends’ judgements and experiences. Please, don’t justify a gamble of a decision by putting faith in the experience of someone who hasn’t been burned quite yet. Tristan was 21 and the fourth from his high school graduating class to die of an overdose. Unfortunately, it happens more than we’d like to believe. Every day I am reminded of this painful truth. I hope by sharing honestly and continuing to speak out that I can help the public understand the ugly and disgusting reality that is drug abuse, addiction and what it does to families. When I say this is Tristan’s message, it really is. In the last month or so of his life, he said repeatedly how badly drug education is needed and that maybe if his friends had asked him to go to rehab, he would have. In this college atmosphere and beyond, please consider using that same influence to help your own friends.