On October 21st, 2018, our lives changed forever. My 19 year old son, Tyler, died alone, in a bathroom at his 8th sober living from fentanyl poisoning. We have no addiction in our family. I was a stay at home mom, involved in their school and knew all of their friends. I had a false sense of security that this would protect my kids from using drugs. Tyler had been at that sober living for less than 12 hours. We thought he had been clean for over a month and they searched him when he went in, but addicts can be very sneaky. I never thought my son would die from drugs. I thought he was too smart and knew so much about the chemistry of every drug to ever die from them. That was before I knew about fentanyl.
When Tyler was little he was very attached to me. He would come into our bed in the middle of the night almost every night. He was obsessed with vacuums and brooms. He soon figured out that most clothing stores kept their vacuum in one of the dressing rooms. While I was shopping and trying on clothes, he would wiggle under the dressing room doors and pull out the vacuum. He was small for his age and it was quite a sight to see this tiny red haired little 2 year old boy struggling with a big vacuum. Tyler also loved to dress up and wore a pirate costume to preschool most days. He loved weapons and would pick out his Halloween costumes according to which plastic accessories they came with. Pirates and Power Rangers had swords, soldiers had rifles, Jedi’s had lightsabers and old time gangsters had machine guns, resulting in a young Tyler possessing all of those things.
Tyler was extremely intelligent, inquisitive and had mild Asperger’s and ADD. He was constantly seeking thrills to replace the dopamine he was missing, from climbing the tallest trees at the park to climbing on our roof and playing with fireworks. He was a perfect storm for addiction. My son was polite, brilliant, funny, helpful, could fix anything and was a genius hacker. Addiction didn’t care about any of that.
He started having anxiety and depression as a young teen and I believe he started smoking pot when he was 14 to self medicate. At the time, I didn’t think smoking pot was a big deal, as I had smoked it in high school and college. All of a sudden, he became popular and was invited to parties and hang outs. Tyler was like a little professor with a PHD in marijuana. He knew every strain, how it was grown and the best brand bong to smoke it out of. He hated school and would constantly call me to pick him up because he had a headache or an upset stomach. If he was interested in something he would do extensive research on it and he had little patience for school work he deemed unimportant. After constantly getting in trouble at middle school, we switched him to a private school for kids who were gifted and had a learning difference.
The pot led to Tyler sipping promethazine codeine cough syrup that he found in our house, aka Lean, made popular by rap artists. At about this time after consulting with an addiction specialist, we had him yanked from his bed in the middle of the night by a transport team and he was taken to a wilderness program in Idaho. After that, he spent a year at a therapeutic boarding school in Utah. He still disliked school and it was difficult for them to get him to do any work. He also was caught with some other boys huffing aerosol keyboard cleaner. I wasn’t sure if he did it because he had addiction issues or was he just trying to show off for the other kids. It was costing us $12,000 a month and we felt as though he wasn’t gaining anything by staying there any longer, so we brought him back to L.A.
He came back and lived in a couple of sober livings. He seemed to be doing well, so we had him come back home to live. He got his first job and was soon promoted. He seemed happy and healthy. A few months later he was introduced to smoking heroin by two female friends and the addiction cycle started all over. This led to detox, more sober livings, tough love, much therapy, another sober living, and a residential treatment facility. We later learned that he purposely relapsed at a sober living, so he could test positive and insurance would approve treatment. He brokered himself to a facility for one thousand dollars and he used some of that money to buy the fentanyl that killed him. After that facility he moved to a sober living close to home. Again, he was doing well and got a full time job at a retail store. He seemed really happy to be sober and was proud of himself. He was working the AA steps and regularly meeting with his sponsor.
The day before he died, we got awakened at 3 A.M. by a phone call from the owner of the sober living, telling us that he had overdosed on something. He said that they administered narcan, Tyler was okay and on his way to the hospital. After I got off the phone I was furious with him and planned on telling him the next day that we were done. We had spent over $200,000 on his treatment and since he didn’t want to be sober, we were done and he could go live on the street.
When I got to the emergency room, he told me that his tox screen was negative. He accidentally took too much Imodium and that was what caused him to overdose. Of course the story sounded fishy and addicts often lie, so I went to speak with the doctor. The doctor confirmed that indeed his test was negative for all drugs. I specifically asked if they had tested him for opioids including fentanyl and the doctor assured me that fentanyl would show up in the standard opioid test. I remember asking 3 times about the test showing fentanyl and 3 times I was told that the test was negative.
The sober living said he couldn’t come back there because it set a bad example to the other residents and they couldn’t take the chance of him being irresponsible with medication. They found a new sober living for him which was directly around the corner from my house. Before we went to the sober living, we came to our house and he was able to see the dog, his younger brother and dad. He died 12 hours after arriving at the new place.
The morning he died, I was home sorting laundry and my husband had walked to a nearby deli to get breakfast with a friend. About a half hour after my husband had left, he called me frantically to ask me if “the place” had called. I had no idea what place he was talking about until he told me that Tyler had hit his head and the paramedics were there. We rushed over and I remember seeing a police car and ambulance outside and thinking to myself that Tyler must have been caught with drugs on him when he fell and he was going to be arrested. I even remember thinking maybe that would be a good thing and would scare him. When we walked into the house, I expected to see him there with a head injury. It was weird though because the paramedics were just standing in the entryway and I asked if Tyler was okay. They told us that he didn’t make it and the words didn’t compute-it was like they weren’t speaking English. My husband later told me that I started screaming a primal scream like you only hear in the movies when a mother loses her child. The police were standing at the bathroom door and I asked to see my son, because it just couldn’t be real and I needed to see for myself. The officer then said the weirdest thing. He told me I didn’t want to see him like that, that there was blood. I was so confused at this point and asked what them what happened. How did he die from hitting his head? They then told me that they found part of a pen and a baggy with white powder in it and he must have smoked something and then fallen and hit his head on the shower. All I could think about was wondering if he fell and bled to death while waiting for someone to come help him and if he suffered a lot. The coroner later told me that he died from what he smoked and he hit his head after. This actually brought me a sense of relief, to know he died peacefully while high, feeling euphoric.
After he died, my daughter and I went through his phone. We played detectives and went through every text and message. We discovered that he had indeed overdosed the night before on fentanyl. Unbeknownst to the ER doctor, the hospital’s test didn’t test for synthetic opioids like fentanyl. We also discovered that one of the girls that had originally introduced him to heroin, had convinced him to get fentanyl for them to smoke together. We even found out the phone number of the drug dealer she referred him to and were able to reverse look up his number to find out his name and we were able to have him arrested. The DEA handled the case and he is now in federal prison for 13 years. I don’t blame him solely for Tyler’s death, since Tyler knew he was buying fentanyl. I just wanted to prevent him from selling to other people so no other family would have to experience what we have.
Tyler’s death has changed our family forever. Having to call his then, 21 year old sister, who was in college across the country, to tell her that her brother was dead, was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. To know that she would have to fly home alone, with a crushed heart, was unbearable. Having to tell his 16 year old brother, about Tyler’s death wasn’t much easier. My dad had died less than a year earlier and I had to have my aunt and uncle tell my mom. She and Tyler, or Tiger as she called him, were so close. I couldn’t handle telling her. My kids both suffered from panic attacks for the year after Tyler died and on some days still struggle with it. My daughter graduated, getting her masters and she had to take the next year off because she was experiencing so much depression. The last two years have felt surreal and my brain couldn’t process the fact that I will never see my sweet Tyler again. Every time I would come home, I would expect to see him sitting on the front porch, smoking a cigarette. It has only been in the last 6 months that the shock has started to wear off and it has become real. I have guilt for feeling a sense of relief that I’m no longer having anxiety about him getting kicked out of another treatment place or being worried about what he is doing. This is the plight of an addict’s mom, constant worry and PTSD while they are alive, and then once they are dead, guilt and second guessing everything you did their entire lives.
We were extremely lucky and never faced any stigma about Tyler having substance use disorder. We were open about his struggles all along and the first thing I said when I spoke at his funeral was, “They say it doesn’t matter how you die, it matters how you live your life, but I know a lot of you are wondering, so in a nutshell, Tyler smoked something white and it killed him.“ I wanted to put it out in the open so others could see there was no shame in having a child suffer from addiction or overdose.
I have now made it my mission along with another grieving mom to start a nonprofit called Moms Against Drugs. Trying to prevent others from suffering the effects of addiction, gives me purpose and a reason to get out of bed each day. Our mission is to honor the loved ones lost to this insidious disease. We do this by helping to erase the stigma of addiction and prevention through education, awareness and advocacy. (momsagainstdrugs.com)
I think about Tyler from the time I get up in the morning until I go to sleep at night. Many nights I can’t sleep and I replay the day he died over in my head. On a good night, I get to see him in my dreams. I miss him every minute, every second, every breath.