Kris Kristofferson’s 'dementia' was Lyme disease – inside his health struggle

Kris Kristofferson’s ‘dementia’ was Lyme disease – inside his health struggle

Suspecting that country legend Kris Kristofferson’s painful health symptoms were related to Alzheimer’s, doctors started treating him with medication that only worsened his condition.

After he was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease, and received the correct course of treatment, Kristofferson is now a healthy 86-year-old.

And, despite his immortality as a superstar, he accepts his mortality and wants the first three lines of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Bird on a Wire,” etched in his tombstone.

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The moment Kris Kristofferson shared his vocals, the world knew a star was born. His sky-blue eyes, silvery hair paired with a perfectly groomed beard, has kept him a fan favorite since he first started his career almost 55 years ago.

The beard, he says was not planned. “I had pneumonia and I had to go into hospital for a week, didn’t shave the whole time,” Kristofferson shared with the Guardian.

“And when I came out, some magazine took a picture of me and called it ‘the new face of country music’. Ever since then Willie, too, has just looked as wild as heck.”

Taking credit for Willie Nelson’s beard, the star of Marvel’s Blade franchise adds, “You know, he didn’t even have a beard back then. I had the very first beard in all of country music. And he used to give me a lot of shit for it!”

In addition to being a trendsetter for facial hair, the Texas-born Casanova is an Oxford scholar, a defensive back, a boxer, a helicopter pilot, a superstar actor and musician, and a family man, to name a few.

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As one of the truly great wordsmiths of our time, Kris Kristofferson has a special vibe – and for those that don’t get it, you’ll probably never get it.

Graduating Oxford in 1960, he then served in the military and later landed a job at Louisiana’s Petroleum Helicopters International, where he worked as a commercial pilot. In his off times, he would sit on an oil platform, penning future hits, like “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and “Bobby McGee.”

The aspiring musician, who met Johnny Cash while working as a janitor in the studio he recorded, made a bold move to get noticed.

“I discovered him, and so did a lot of other people about the same time,” said Cash, of Kristofferson, in an old interview. “That’s how I got many of Kris’s songs, but then he became so impatient one day he landed a helicopter in my yard and brought me a tape of “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” I thought, well, it’s time to really give this guy a listen, so I heard that song, and I did it on a network television show and talked about Kris, and he was on his way, then he went to Newport Folk Festival and stole my show, and he did great. I was proud of him.”

Kristofferson’s career reached heights that even a helicopter couldn’t fly.

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And his hits, like “For the Good Times,” and “Why Me Lord” have been performed by everyone from Cash to Janis Joplin to Bob Dylan, many that he calls his hero.

In 1985 he joined country superstars Waylon Jennings, Cash and  Nelson to form the supergroup The Highwaymen, with the title song from their first album winning single of the year by the Academy of Country Music.

“Every time that I’d be standing there on stage, at least at some point in the show, I had to just pinch myself to realize that I was really up there on the stage. Every one of these guys was my hero before I even knew them,” Kristofferson explained, saying he volunteered his services as a janitor one Saturday at Columbia Recording studios in Nashville because that was when Waylon was doing a demo. “I’d never heard anything like him. Because Johnny Cash, as human as he is –or was–he was always larger than life. He always felt like something right off of Mount Rushmore.”

His biggest hero is Bob Dylan, who also recorded at the studio Kristofferson cleaned.

Recalling his first encounter with Dylan, the “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” singer said, “It was a real eye-opener to see the way he worked. I was pretty much in awe of him at the time. But I never talked to him or anything. I didn’t want to bother him. I just emptied the trash cans and watched him.”

Kristofferson with Rita Coolidge at the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion / Wikipedia / Bozotexino

Since Kristofferson also became a star, he’s performed many Dylan songs and says, “He’s still a hero.”

“Every performer that’s performed my songs has done them better than I did. I guess Janis doing “Me and Bobby McGee” was one that moved me profoundly, because of our relationship,” he said of the singer, once his lover, who died in 1970. “I got to know her not too long before she died. But we were close. [The first time I heard her version,] unfortunately, she had just died. And it blew me away,” he said of the woman, whose posthumous version of “Me and Bobby Mcgee” held the number one spot for weeks in 1971.

Kristofferson, the father of eight children with three wives–Fran Beer, singer Rita Coolidge and current spouse Lisa Meyers–has been involved with a number of starlets like Jane Fonda, Carly Simon and Samantha Eggar.

Kris Kristofferson performs at Drammen Teater on June 2, 2019 in Drammen, Norway. (Photo by Per Ole Hagen/Redferns)

Though the chemistry was unmistakable between Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand, his co-star of A Star is Born (1976), the two were never romantically involved. Kristofferson, who performed his award-winning role as a rockstar, said he was in awe of the super famous Streisand, whose on-screen character was the aspiring singer. “I was scared to death of her,” he later revealed, adding that “it’s exciting to work with someone who has that much talent.”

It was in the late 1990’s that his health suffered a significant decline.

Kristofferson’s health was great until 1999 when he had heart bypass surgery, a procedure that was successful.

In 2004, he started experiencing a range of debilitating symptoms and doctors told him he had Alzheimer’s disease. He was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which should have been the first indication that a test for Lyme was warranted. 

Kris experienced excruciating spasms that spread across his back and legs, causing intense pain. The spasms were so severe that his nerve endings triggered painful contractions comparable to golf ball-sized knots.

To alleviate his condition, various approaches were employed, including acupuncture, heat therapy, and massage. Eventually, a rheumatologist administered a spinal cortisone shot, and a low dose of an antidepressant was prescribed to provide relief from the ongoing discomfort.

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“He had painful knees and annual knee shots, a pacemaker for arrhythmias–which we now know could be from Lyme–so much Advil for headaches that he got anemic,” said Lisa Meyers, his wife of 40 years.

“After a year of iron supplements and seeing a hematologist, he just wasn’t healthy-looking.”

Insisting that her husband see an integrative doctor, he was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2016. Meyers said she believes he was bitten by an infected tick while filming Disappearances (2006), where he spent much of his time crawling through the grassy-covered grounds of a forest in Vermont.

“He was taking all these medications for things he doesn’t have, and they all have side effects,” Meyers said of the medication for Alzheimer’s and depression. Meyers adds that after three weeks of Lyme-disease treatment, Kristofferson rebounded. “All of a sudden he was back. Some days he’s perfectly normal and it’s easy to forget that he is even battling anything,” she said.

But, when the days comes, Kristofferson wants etched in his tombstone these lines: “Like a bird on the wire, Like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.”

Kris Kristofferson has had such an amazing career! As a pilot, a scholar, an actor, musician and father, he really is top tier!

We are so happy he received a proper diagnosis and that doctors were able to help him manage symptoms from Lyme disease.