Shelly & Travis
Tell me the story of your child's addiction.
Shelly: Ty basically was a perfectionist with everything he did. If you said he couldn’t do something, he could do it. He started wrestling when he was four. When Ty was ten years old, he was wrestling a kid that was two years older. Ty had never been pinned in six years … and the kid almost had him pinned. Tyler posted his arm and used all his strength so he didn’t get pinned. While he ended up losing, he didn’t get pinned.
Ty started complaining that his arm hurt after the wrestling match. We took him to the hospital and they misdiagnosed it. I don’t think they really thought it was a fracture, but they casted him. And then it happened again. And it happened again that same year on his skateboard and this time we’re like, “OK, we’re going to a different doctor.” They ended up figuring out that he had pulled cartilage off his bone. I believe it was May of 2011 that he had his first surgery.
Travis: So the doctor found a hairline fracture in his right elbow. The ligament was still attached to the hairline fracture but it kind of turned over upside down and it was healing wrong. As soon as the doctor figured this out, he said we had to do surgery. The first time he had surgery, Ty was 11 years old. That was the first time he was exposed to opiates.
Shelly: We just gave Ty what the doctor prescribed. I had no clue what opiates were.
Travis: Tyler was really athletic. He played every sport there was. He continued to get dinged. Ultimately he broke his arm four times. What we believe happened is that somewhere during his senior year in high school, he started using prescription pain pills. We put the pieces together after the fact. We didn’t understand any of this while we were in it.
Ty eventually had another surgery on his right elbow shortly after he graduated from high school and then had another surgery. Ty became addicted to the opiate prescription pain pills. When he could no longer get the pain pills, it led him to heroin. Four out of five heroin users begin with the use of opiate prescription pain pills.
We slowly started seeing a change in him his senior year. We kind of saw a change in him during his junior year, but you just kind of write it off and blame it on being an adolescent.
Shelly: So he stared changing a little bit. And that Christmas during his senior year was the first time I saw him react in a crazy way. Signals started going off.
Travis: So, we had no idea what we were in. I certainly had no idea what we were in. He pretty much moves out but he’s only staying right up the street from us. And he’s mad at me. He and I are battling a little bit just from the mess we’ve been in. We know something’s going on. We’re just not sure what it is. At the point you turn 18, you’re kind of your own guy. Parents aren’t in charge anymore and all that kind of stuff.
He was enrolled in Akron University and he was supposed to take night classes. We had kind of mended the fence a little bit. We helped him get a car. He was staying with the neighbor up the street from us. And I came through and noticed that his car was there. So I called him and I said, “Hey, I thought you had class tonight.” He said, “Yeah I do. But, uh, I have no gas in my car so I’m not going.” I said, “Well, I have gas in my car and I’m coming to get you and we’re going to class.” So we’re driving to Akron University … and … he was just out of it. I didn’t know what opiate withdrawal was at the time, but that’s what he was in.
Opiate withdrawal is like the worst flu you’ve ever had times about 50. You’ve got shakes. You’re sweaty. You’re vomiting. You’re aching. You’re just really in bad shape. And I knew something was wrong with him, so I stopped and pulled over and I said, “Tyler, what is wrong with you? What’s going on, man?” And he said, “Dad, I’m using heroin.” The first person he told he was using heroin was me. And so … I turned the car around and came back home and told Shelly where we were at.
We immediately started trying getting him into treatment. She got on the phone. Calling everybody. Looking everything up.
Shelly: And we couldn’t get him into treatment. They told me to call back every hour to get him into detox. I was calling back for two straight days. Finally Travis is like, “That’s it. We’re just taking him down there.” So we got him in the car and took him down. He had to argue with them and he told them, “You’re going to see him.” And then they took us in, did an intake and then sent us back out in the waiting room for hours. Finally we just left. But he had his intake so he was able then to get in their outpatient program.
Travis: The next five years looked like relapse, recovery, relapse, recovery. His best spell was when he was on Suboxone. At the time, there were nowhere near the amount of doctors treating patients with Suboxone as there are now. And the only place around here was a doctor an hour from here. So three days a week I had to drive him up there and go through counseling and then he would get his strips [a film that dissolves under the tongue] for Suboxone. During that time, he was clean. He’s going through recovery. He walks on the golf team at Walsh University. Gets a golf and academic scholarship. Plays half of the golf season for Walsh and is doing great. But it was also a huge pain to get from here to there. And we would take him because we didn’t trust him to go by himself. I would drive him up there and sit in the car and wait until he came out.
But Tyler eventually missed a meeting and the doctor kicked him out of the program. I don’t know if he had a class that evening or a test or something. That was the rule though. The doctor was pretty clear at the start and said if you miss a meeting, you’re out — because he had all sorts of patients and could only treat 50 and he had 100 in line. But it wasn’t that he missed a meeting to miss a meeting, he missed a meeting because of school.
When he would relapse, we would go four to five weeks with him on the street. Didn’t know exactly where he was. We would text and be in contact with him. But he was definitely using. Then we would get in contact and get him back into a treatment facility and he would then go through another short-term treatment program. We actually took him to Michigan once. We got a sponsor from a friend that was a $10,000 voucher. I drove him up there and stayed with him.
Shelly: They put him under anesthesia to get all of the opioids out and then they gave him a generic version of Vivitrol. It lasts in your body for a month and then wears off. And so he came home. We got a couple months of Vivitrol for free, and then we had to start paying for it. He was on it for about five months. At the end of one of the months, we were gone on vacation. And since Vivitrol wears off at the end of the month, he had used and relapsed before we even got back from our trip. And we usually didn’t go on trips because we didn’t want to be far away.
Travis: Vivitrol was a shot. And I gave him the shot. So we knew it was in his system and we knew you’re only supposed to give it every 30 days but that it does wear off at 27, 28, 29 days. Then it came down to pills because we couldn’t afford the shots. The shot was about $1,000 per shot. And we did it for a while and we couldn’t afford it. So then we went to the pills. When you are on the pills … if you don’t watch him take them … right? So, he relapsed.
Five years of our life looked like that. Relapse. Recovery. He did a lot of great things. He did a body-building show where he was clean for a big stretch and was crazy about working out. He did Junior Mr. Ohio and was runner-up. First show he ever did. First time he ever tried it. He was a really talented kid … smart … athletic … good-looking — and of course I get to say that because I’m his dad.
Shelly: He had straight A’s until his senior year.
Travis: He could do anything. There were times he struggled with self-confidence. But there were other times he was a real risk-taker and showed strong will. He had tons of friends.
Ultimately … Tyler relapsed. He was on the street for a while. Living in his car. All of a sudden his buddy gets in big-time trouble. He steals a car. He breaks into the neighbor’s house and steals guns. At that point, we didn’t know if Tyler was involved in that or not.
We had gotten Tyler into rehab and that was a chore in itself.
Our insurance was two times inpatient, lifetime, 21 days. My insurance would pay for 42 days of inpatient treatment. So we obviously exhausted that. And were financially exhausted because we had put him into treatment and then we were down to state-funded programs. So … Tyler completed his 21-day program. Shelly and I decided we would start making plans for when he got to the end of rehab. We were going to get him into a sober-living home. Because we were not bringing him back here. We were not doing that dance again.
So we let him pick a place with his counselor. He picks Delray Beach, Florida — the capital of the world for sober living and treatment. This is in 2013 around Christmas. Shelly and I take him from Ashtabula, Ohio, and drive him straight to Delray Beach, Florida, to this sober-living home. He’s there for his birthday, which is December 23. He’s there for Christmas. And initially he’s doing pretty good.
Shelly: We get home Christmas Eve to celebrate with our girls. It was our second Christmas we spent without him. And that was really hard.
Travis: So he’s in the program for a couple months. It’s a sober-living dorm. They have a men’s side. A women’s side. You have to go through outpatient treatment and counseling. You’re supposed to get a job. I send money to pay his bills for his rent and those kinds of things. We pay for his groceries. You’re not giving him the money directly. He has an account set up because you can’t trust him.
Shelly: Some time in February, they called us because he had relapsed. So they put him in a detox center. After maybe a week there, not very long, we find out he’s on the street and homeless.
Travis: So he’s on the street in Delray Beach, Florida. We don’t have any family there. We don’t have any friends there. He doesn’t know anybody there except people he met in the program. I’m in contact with him pretty regularly. He has a cell phone. We had it set up so all he had to do was call a number and a treatment provider would come and get him and take him off the street. We had set it up several times so he could just go there. But he would never show up. He was homeless and on the street in Florida for five weeks.
Shelly: Our faith is the only thing that got us through this. This was all new to us. We’re learning to let go of him and let him try to help himself. And at that point, we pretty much knew we were out of control. God had him. And we had to let him figure this thing out. It was pretty much the hardest thing we had to do, was to know that he was on the streets.
Travis: So there’s a fine line between enabling the person and unconditionally loving them. Because I didn’t understand addiction as a disease — I made all of the mistakes in the world. There were times I was too tough. There were times I looked at it as if it were a phase. I made every mistake you can make. But here’s the mistakes I didn’t make — and these are the things I encourage readers to do. The mistakes I never made were I never stopped loving my son, I never stopped believing in my son, and I never stopped trying to get him help. And we lived in that lane — not understanding what we were up against — not understanding it was a disease, not understanding he had a brain disease, not understanding the power of addiction and why he couldn’t just stop.
Shelly: We didn’t raise him this way. We didn’t understand. He was the most caring and compassionate kid growing up. He knew better.
Travis: And we don’t claim to be saints, but our kids were in church. We have good jobs. We have a nice home. We are active in our community. Understand that we played by the rules. And Tyler could have done anything.
So he’s down in Florida. He relapses down in Florida. He’s always telling me, “Hey, you gotta send me some money.” “Yeah, I cannot send you money Ty. Call this number. We’ll get you into treatment. All you got to do is call the number.” Ty: “I’m not doing that. I’m hanging out with this Army Ranger. We’re going up to Fort Lauderdale and we are going to start working.” And then he’d call me from Fort Lauderdale and say, “Hey — you gotta send me some money.” In one breath he’d say, “I’m dying out here on the street,” and the next breath he says, “I’m going to be okay. I’m going to be working.” It was crazy. We know at that point, we are out of control, meaning there’s nothing we could do. And the only thing we could do was provide him a number for treatment. He’s got to make the call.
Shelly: And not only that, he had his driver’s license and birth certificate stolen, so had anything happened to him or if he had overdosed down there, we probably would have never known.
Travis: So for about five weeks, he’s homeless on the street. Eventually he calls the number. They come and pick him up, take him to the rehab facility when we get a call saying, “Listen, we couldn’t accept him into the rehab. We had to take him directly to the hospital.” I ask what’s wrong with him. They say they can’t disclose that to us. HIPAA laws. So Shelly calls the hospital. Of course they didn’t want to share much with us. We explained to them, “Listen, we’re in Ohio.” And finally Shelly got through to a nurse.
Shelly: I’m like, “If this was your kid, what would you do?” And she said, “I would come down.” So we’re like … all right.
Travis: Within a day we leave for Florida. We drive to Florida. And this is just heartbreaking but it is a fact of life. He’s in this hospital. He’s diagnosed with MRSA in his right arm, the same arm he broke four times, the same arm he had two surgeries on. And his arm is swelled up. Just huge.
Shelly: But it wasn’t only in his arm. He had MRSA systemically through his whole body. He had pneumonia. And he had a blood clot in his leg.
Travis: We get there and we walk in the room and the first thing you notice is the stench. The smell of a homeless kid on the street for five weeks. He’s kind of laying in this bed. He’s got the homeless man beard going. The homeless man hair going. Kind of laying in his gown. Half in it and half out of it. And they bring this nurse back and the nurse just starts saying, “He’s been argumentative, a little bit combative,” and blah blah blah. And I’m like, “Time out. Can we start by giving the kid a bath? Can we at least start there?” I was pissed. It was heartbreaking. Because they treated him just like they treated every bum on the street. And to us, that wasn’t a bum on the street; that was our kid.
And so I got the nurse out of the room. I said, “Just go. You don’t want to take care of him? I’ll take care of him.” And so we got him up. Got him in the shower. Got him cleaned up. I shaved him. And we start bringing him back to life even though he’s in a lot of pain. He’s got MRSA running through his body. He would get very tight convulsions in his stomach. Just gut-wrenching.
They treated him with IV antibiotics for two weeks. They would have let a normal person go home. But because he was an IV drug abuser, he had to stay in the hospital. Plus he had no home to go to.
Shelly: And he wasn’t withdrawing from opioids because they had him on Dilaudid. And of course every time they asked him what his pain was, he’s like, “10,” smiling. But he had to be on it to get to rehab because we didn’t want him detoxing there.
Travis: We sat with him for the next two weeks in that hospital. Changing his bed every day. Getting him in the shower. Feeding him his food. The hospital was set up with travelling nurses. You were seen by the same person only two or three times. No one really gave a shit about what they were doing.
Shelly: The whole stigma was seen there. Had we not gone down, he probably would have never gotten a bath.
Travis: But a lot of those two weeks were good memories for Shelly and me. Once we got four to five days into it, we started heading out and would bring him food he liked. We’d sit and watch golf. We would clown around. He would need to grab his stomach because I’d make him laugh … and he couldn’t really laugh.
Shelly: We got to spend some time with him that we hadn’t spent in a long time.
Travis: We were there every day. First thing in the morning we’d be there and spend time with him. Go back to our hotel in the evening. We did this for two weeks. Hotel bills the whole time. We spent our whole tax refund. We’re financially a mess … but that’s another story.
Ultimately, we got him out of there and into treatment. Once we got him into the doors of treatment, we drove home. And he got back into sober living after 21 days.
Shelly: But the thing is after those 21 days, he was begging them to let him stay. And they tried to get him a grant, but it didn’t go through. Probably because he’s not from Florida. The point was — he knew he needed longer. He knew he wasn’t ready. So they send him back into sober living. He’s there maybe a month.
Travis: We had planned a family vacation where we were going to take our girls and go to Florida where he’s at and spend two weeks down there and see Tyler. It looks pretty intentional to us at this point, but Tyler failed out of the program two days before we got there because he knew we were coming. We had called him and texted him and we picked him up on the street somewhere. At this point, he’s going to stay with us. We go into some of his counseling and spend some time with the counselors. And get a better feel for where Tyler is at. A lot of heartburn in those conversations for Shelly and me.
We have to make a decision. We were wanting Tyler to stay down there and stay in the program. But Tyler’s like, “I’m not staying here. I’m coming home. Either I come home with you or I beat ya home because I’m going to hitchhike or take a bus or something. Because I’m coming home. I’m not staying here one more second.” And so Shelly and I and the girls talked about it. We made the decision to bring him home.
He stayed here at our house for a couple nights. Hooked up with an old girlfriend. Was doing pretty good there for a while. He then moved in with her family. He was talking with Walsh about getting back into school and back on the golf team.
So Ty had two roommates while he was sober living in Florida. In July, his second roommate died. He jumped the I-95 bridge and committed suicide. That kind of screwed up Ty.
We don’t know exactly when he relapsed … whether it was the end of August or early September. But he relapsed again. Now his girlfriend and her family are going through it and they don’t know what the signs are or what this thing looks like. We tell them. Finally, Tyler comes clean. He’s relapsed. We need to get him back into treatment. I no longer have health insurance for him. We no longer can financially afford to put him into any type of treatment. So we get him lined up with the ADM Board [Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health] in Summit County. He signs up. He wants to get into treatment. They put him on a three-week waiting list before he can get help.
We’re in communication with him. He’s using one of our cars. He’s like, “Hey. Come and get the car so I have no way to go anywhere.” So we went and got the car and took it from him. He takes off on foot. And his girlfriend calls and says, “Hey. Tyler’s taken off. He’s not around.”
Shelly: And we’re kind of used to that. He would leave for days and so I’m like, “All right.” It will be all right.
Travis: Yeah. We’d been down that road before. That was typical relapse — him disappearing for two or three days and then texting you for something.
So the story is … and of course we figured this all out after the fact in the police report. Our youngest daughter was a senior in high school and she had her homecoming that Saturday night. You’re supposed to be celebrating that and we’re trying to do the best we can. Of course we know Tyler’s relapsed. The girls really don’t know at this point.
Shelly: I got up that day and I actually felt really good. I had written some stuff in my Bible and gone to church. Some people that had been praying for us took me aside and were praying. I came home. Travis had left to go to a golf outing. And someone comes to the door. It’s two sheriffs. And … I’m like … all right. Come in. I should add that we’ve left some things out. Ty had been in trouble with the law many times. He had been through drug courts, speeding tickets, all kinds of issues. And my first response is, “Please just tell me he’s OK.” And the one sheriff looks me dead in the eye and says, “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that.” I just immediately take off and go in the office and just start screaming and crying. My youngest daughter, Taylor, was upstairs and heard it. She said immediately she just knew. So she came down and was in there with me and consoling me.
Taylor tries to call Travis and has no luck for a long time. I’m in the office. I’m just bawling. Holding pictures. And Taylor finally gets a hold of Travis and —
Travis: — so she finally gets a hold of me. I’m on the golf course getting ready to play golf. My daughter calls and says, “Hey Dad. You have to come home.” And I’m like, “Hey, is everything all right? What’s going on?” And she’s like, “You gotta come home.” I say, “Taylor, I’m at a golf outing. I’m an hour away. Can I handle this?” And I could tell in her voice when she said, “Listen, you gotta come home.” I said, “All right.”
I come in through the garage right there and my youngest daughter is in my office. I see her face and I walk over here and Shelly comes out and meets me right there in the kitchen and she says, “Tyler died.” And so we both just kind of fell on the floor. Cried. Taylor came out. We just laid there and cried. And we decided we had to call our oldest daughter. She was at work and we kind of did the same thing for her and told her, “Hey, you just have to come home.” Can’t tell someone their brother died on the phone. And so she comes in. We tell her. We all lay on the floor there and just cry. And then you have to continue the process. We have to tell Shelly’s mom and dad. You can’t do it on the phone, you have to go tell them in person.
Shelly: Tyler was the first grandson. Tyler was their everything.
Travis: Tyler was super-close with his grandpa and his grandmother. He was the first grandchild. He was the golden boy. They cherished him and Tyler cherished his grandparents too.
Shelly: Driving there, we had to stop several times because our girls were throwing up. And my mom and dad live maybe 12 minutes away. It’s not very far.
Travis: So ultimately what happened with Tyler was … Tyler takes off on foot. Meets this kid at a gas station who is also addicted to heroin. They decide to get together and go buy heroin. It’s pretty routine for guys to know who’s using and who’s not using. They communicate pretty well with each other. And so Tyler hooked up with this kid, and within the buy, Tyler decides to take it. Within four to five minutes it puts him into an overdose. Because they’re not friends, this other kid panics. Drives down to a vacant lot, pulls Tyler out of the car, dumps him in this field. They find Tyler the next morning.
Shelly: The weird thing we found out from the lawyer is that the kid went home and used the rest of the heroin dose and was fine. It didn’t put him into an overdose.
Travis: That dose of heroin was laced with Fentanyl. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin. So Tyler probably got all the Fentanyl. The other kid takes the rest of it and it is heroin and it doesn’t kill him.
Shelly: They immediately caught the kid because he dropped his driver’s license.
Travis: A resident found Tyler that next morning while walking through the neighborhood. Called the police. Police find this kid’s driver’s license lying next to Tyler. They go arrest him. He goes to work with law enforcement. They make two more buys to the drug dealer. They then arrest the drug dealer, who’s an 18-year-old kid. He’s the one who sold the lethal dose of heroin laced with fentanyl that killed Tyler.
Shelly: We had to go through the chance of having a trial. It never ended up going to trial. He ended up pleading and we got him to plead out.
Travis: This happened real fast. So now … our life has been flipped on its head. We’re walking down this lonely, dark road. Shelly’s in her journey and I’m in my journey. And … for me … and I don’t know why I am the way I am, but I am. I’ve had some things happen to me in my life. I lost my brother when he was 18. I was 11 years old. So when I got the call from the sheriff saying we got this kid, I knew almost instantly that that wasn’t going to do anything for me. It wasn’t going to change my life. It wasn’t going to bring my son back. I also knew at that point that I needed to start moving into the lane of forgiveness. Because if I couldn’t get to forgiveness, I was going to self-destruct. I was raging. I mean … we used to have some picnic tables and chairs in our backyard. I burned everything up in my fire pit over that week. My buddies started bringing in cords of wood for me, going, “Man — you’re going to burn your house down.” I’m a mess.
So I’ve got this internal struggle going on saying that I’ve got to start moving to forgiveness. And it’s not that it’s easy. We have a whole lot of people we have to forgive. I’m pissed at the doctors. I’m pissed at the drug dealer. The lack of treatment. I’m angry. And I have a lot of people to be angry at, including myself. Because I didn’t understand the disease. I made all kinds of mistakes. I have everybody in the world to forgive, including myself. And if I can’t get in that forgiveness lane, I’m going to self-destruct.
It took about a year and a half to get to this trial. And over that time, we’re talking and realizing we didn’t want to be dragged through a trial. This is Tyler’s name. At the end of the day, it won’t do anything for me. So we encourage the prosecution to cut a deal. If you sell a lethal dose of drugs that kills someone, you are charged with involuntary manslaughter. The maximum penalty for involuntary manslaughter is 11 years. Most cases get seven to eight. In this case, this kid got four. We encouraged them to cut a deal because we didn’t want to go to a trial.
At the sentencing of the drug dealer, Shelly spoke. Her sister spoke. My girls spoke. A couple of Tyler’s friends spoke. One of the things I knew I had to do is I had to look this kid in the face and tell him I forgive him. And that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I didn’t do it for him. I did it for myself because I knew I had to do it. I did it for my girls so they could start working towards forgiveness. So they could see that if Dad could forgive, maybe I could forgive and I can start moving on with my life.
Tyler was the third young man to die of a heroin overdose in this community within 11 months. My youngest daughter, a senior in high school, has two friends who also lost their brothers to an overdose. So these three girls start working with the guidance counselor. They decide they’re going to put a program together and start sharing their story.
Shelly: They shared it from what they experienced. Each one of them. Going through it with their brother. They talked about how their parents weren’t able to be there for them.
Travis: Within two months of Tyler dying, they had a community event at the Lake High School auditorium. Over 800 people in the community showed up. These three girls each share their stories. For me — I’m sitting there watching this thing and watching my 17-year-old youngest daughter have more guts and more courage than her dad has, leading our family and telling our story. During this whole time, no one knew what was going on in my life. I didn’t tell my closest friends. I didn’t tell anyone at work. I sat in shame. I sat in embarrassment. I thought I’d failed as a father. Shelly and I would get into arguments. She would say, “Hey, we have to start talking about this.” I remember getting really mad at her one time and saying, “If you think I’m going to be the heroin advocate, you’ve picked the wrong man.” Shelly wanted to start shedding light on it. I didn’t. In my job, I have to get elected every three years. I work for the Teamsters Union. I could see the negative ramifications of how our story could affect my career and affect me. I’ve always done the right thing. How did I raise a heroin addict?
Any person who knows me and knows our family or knows Shelly was in shock. Everyone was in shock. All of my friends and a lot of our family found out about Tyler by watching the news on Channel 8. And now two months after that, I’m watching our youngest daughter courageously tell our story. So I sat there — very proud of my daughter. Proud that she learned guts and strength and courage. But I was embarrassed for myself. I was embarrassed for a couple things. One: I didn’t have the guts to tell our story. Two: One of the things I heard her say there was, “The first time I ever saw my Dad cry was when we told him Tyler died.” I was embarrassed for myself that I didn’t have enough guts to share my true feelings with my family and with my girls because I was always tough. Not that I didn’t tell them I loved them. Not that I didn’t hug them. But I didn’t show feelings. I can get tunnel vision real easy and can really grind. And I did for almost six years through Ty’s addiction.
Once these girls started sharing their story, they spent the rest of their senior year visiting schools throughout Star County and Summit County. Shelly’s sister then creates a Facebook page. We dream up this name. We call it Breaking Barriers, because of all the barriers you have to break that are associated with the disease of addiction. We start advertising where these girls are going to go out to speak. And that is how our organization starts to grow — through my daughter.
Shelly and her sister come up with a backpack program for the holiday season. Shelly starts reaching out for names in the community of people that have overdosed and died. We reach out to their families and ask them to put a picture of their loved one on with a letter about their loved one that would be received by a homeless woman. It was through RAHAB Ministries [Reaching Above Hopelessness and Brokenness] which ministers to prostitutes and drug addicts. So they had all of the kids’ names embroidered on backpacks. Names and dates. They had gloves and hats and snacks in these backpacks and we gave them away. Shelly called that project “Hope Is Alive.” And so we called our organization “Breaking Barriers: Hope Is Alive.” The thing we know is hope.
Shelly: The mother I started the support group with — we knew each other from high school but I only knew her name. Our girls played basketball together and we’d say hi. Her son died five months before Tyler. When someone dies from addiction, it’s not the same as someone else who loses a child from cancer or even a car accident. Because you have that stigma. We knew what that felt like.
Travis: Not only are you going through the grief of losing your child, OK, but you’ve brought all of this additional luggage to the table: the shame, that you weren’t a good parent, that you didn’t raise your kids right, all that stigma associated with addiction. You’re just dealing with all that. No one understands that lane unless you’ve been in it.
Shelly and Sue decided they were going to start a support group for families who lost a loved one. I think the first meeting had 27 people. Now the average is about 12. It’s mainly women. This group has been up and running for a year and a half now. There is such a solid core group of about 15 that have brought each other back to life. I go there sometimes and share and speak. What I’ve learned from that group is I’ve watched them be broken and shattered and then come back to life. When I’m self-involved and it’s just me, myself and I — I drown in my own self-pity. But when I start sharing and I can encourage you and you can encourage me, we bring each other back to life. Often people say, “How do you do this? How do you share your story?”
Shelly: My son took his last breath on the land this rock was on. It just had a special place for me. It was really hard at first to go to the lot. I would just break down. After a while it became my favorite place to go. I would go and pray over that land. I started feeling like something’s going to come from this. We’re going to get this land and we’re going to do something on this land.
Travis: Shelly would start going to this lot and she would walk over there and spend time there. Then she would tell me about it. She would bring home some flowers she picked there. Wild weeds is what they were, but she’d bring them home and call them something beautiful. Then she even started taking a couple friends over there that she’s close with and they started praying over there.
Shelly finally convinces me that I have to go over there. So the first time I went to the property, I threw up. I stood there for maybe a couple minutes. And then I slowly started going over there. It was better than the graveyard.
Shelly: At the one-year anniversary of Ty’s death, we decide to have our closest friends and Ty’s closest friends go over to the property. We got permission from the guy who owned it. There were probably about 20 of us. We went and had a remembrance circle. We played a song. We had a pastor that prayed for us. I had little roses and at the end everyone took one. I had made a memorial up by the road — a cross my dad had made. I added flowers, a picture of Tyler and the dates. Everyone took a rose up there and placed it at the memorial. And that’s when I took this rock. Basically, I was claiming that land.
Travis: Shelly started suggesting we should do something with that property. I would tell her to take a deep breath. And then she’s no longer asking. She’s telling me, “We’re going to buy that property. I want you to get a loan. I want you to start negotiating a deal to buy that property. I want you to call a realtor.” I really didn’t want the property. I wasn’t that excited about it.
What happened in between there was we took the next steps to become a nonprofit 501(c)(3). We formed an executive board. We started speaking in middle schools and high schools. We started sharing our story in churches and community events.
So we’re doing our thing and going to the next level. We had our national convention coming up for the Teamsters Union. As union leaders, we are also community leaders. And there’s nothing affecting our community bigger than this epidemic. So I put a letter together, shared our story, telling about our nonprofit and I float out there that I’d like to speak at the convention and get the awareness piece going.
I really struggled internally with whether I should write it. Who are you? Who do you think you are? Right? Like you’re going to change something. So I wrote the letter and brought it home and shared it with Shelly. She said put it in the mail. Send it.
I got a call back from the international office a few days later saying they agree with me and to plan on speaking at the convention. I figured the next call I was going to get was that before I share my speech I had to share it with them. And they were going to edit it and tell me I’m limited to five minutes. But that never happened. They said, “You take as long as you want and you say whatever you want.” So I gave this speech at the Teamsters convention. Shelly was with me. My oldest daughter was with me. Out in Las Vegas. It was about 15 minutes. It’s on YouTube.
There were four or five thousand Teamsters in the room. After I gave my speech, Teamsters started coming to the mic from all across the country. First donation was $5,000. Second donation was $10,000. Third donation was $50,000. And it went on like that for the next hour and forty-five minutes. People sharing stories. Walls came down. People saying I’ve never told anyone I’m in recovery. Just crazy things. People coming to the mic saying, “I lost my nephew. I’m pledging $5,000.” Another guy coming to the mic saying, “I’ve been in recovery for 25 years and never told anybody because I never had the guts to. I’m pledging $5,000.” And this went on for an hour and forty-five minutes. We raised $1.4 million.
Shelly: We have received $1,375,000, so we’ve received almost all of it. They also took a floor donation and raised $22,000.
Travis: The next day after I told my story, they passed the hat and took $22,000 cash right off of the convention floor. Largest donation in the history of the Teamsters. So it was crazy. And now I get to tell Shelly we get to go buy that property.
Shelly: The property is not big enough and won’t work out for what we want to do. But the property started the vision for something bigger.
Travis: One of the things I said in the speech was our mission is to buy the property and put a treatment facility right there where they found our son. Our vision has grown because now we have tangible money and we can really do something. That property is not big enough to do it on. There was a used-car dealership next to it, but if we had bought it, we would not have had any money left.
At that point, we start working with Summit County and the ADM board [Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health] and start talking about trying to fill the gaps. Ultimately, that leads to forming a partnership with another nonprofit group. And the county donated 28 acres to us.
We started talking to the county. We told them they had an obligation to this epidemic too. Help us solve this problem. They decided they had to tear down the sanitarium because of asbestos. They spent $800,000 demolishing the buildings and getting the land ready to sell. So I’m going to them and saying, “Hey, I want you to give me this property.” And they’re saying, “Hey, we just spent $800,000 to get this property ready to sell. We’re not giving it to you.” So Shelly and I talk a little bit and we realize we don’t need 100 acres. If we can get 25, we can do everything we want to do. So I go back and try to get them to give us this property. And they say we’re not giving it to you. And I say I need 25 acres. Give me 25 acres. I don’t need it all. We finally convinced them to do it. The epidemic is that bad. Summit County gave us 28 acres for long-term treatment, relapse prevention, wellness, and sober-living homes. It will be a sober-living campus.
The Teamster’s pledge gave us a whole bunch of money. It gave us credibility. To raise money as a nonprofit, you have to be credible and you have to have resources. You can have the greatest heart in the world, but if you don’t have resources, you can’t get anything done. If you’re not credible, you can’t raise resources. People are not going to give money to someone they don’t trust.
How did you feel after you raised $1.4 million at the Teamsters convention?
Shelly: We were calling people to tell them about it and no one believed us. I am so glad I was there because it was the most awesome thing to see.
Travis: The Teamsters union has its own stigma. There were a bunch of grown big hard Teamster guys and at that meeting they were crying. We were breaking down barriers. It was crazy. It was an incredible experience.
Shelly: We were still at the conference for two or three more days and we could not go out of our room without people coming up to us. It almost got exhausting because everyone was sharing their life stories with us. It just knocked down walls.
It allowed us to dream big. We already knew the gaps, but we were now really able to identify them and see how we could fit in. We will be providing education, awareness, support, recovery and a wellness center that will treat people once they get out of treatment so they don’t fall through the cracks.
Travis: Here’s what we know: All scientific evidence says it takes a year for the brain to heal from opioids. But we only treat people for 30, 60, 90 days and then tap them on the butt and say good luck. And then we wonder why people relapse and go through treatment and then relapse and relapse. 70% of people who go through treatment relapse within the first year. Usually the first week in coming out of treatment. Because treatment isn’t long enough.
We need long-term treatment. And the nonprofit organization we are partnering with is going to provide long-term treatment on this property.
The next gap is sober-living homes. When you’re talking about sober-living homes, everyone says, “That’s great, but don’t bring those druggies into my neighborhood.” So what we do is we put them down in the inner city, two streets down from the drug dealer. And everyone wonders why they fail. The biggest gap is that not everyone can get into long-term treatment. What we’ve decided is we’re going to build a relapse prevention wellness center that’s going to be named “Tyler’s Redemption Place.”
Shelly: We are lacking community. That is partly why people have addictions because they’ve lost connection. They are also lacking coping skills and life skills.
Travis: What we know about addiction and mental health is that some form of trauma happened in that person’s life, whether it’s spiritual trauma, mental or emotional pain, or in my son's case, physical pain. He broke his right arm four times. Had surgery two times on his right elbow. He had pins in his elbow. Pain is the driving factor in mental health and addiction.
We share our story in an effort to educate about the opioid epidemic, but also to try to bring hope. Because life is painful. And we’re on a painful journey, but we’re trying to use it in a way to offer hope back.
Shelly’s Bible is one of the things we wanted to show you. Every day when we were in active addiction, I would come down the stairs and Shelly would be in that chair reading her Bible. She just didn’t read her Bible; she wrote in her Bible and read it so much that the pages are falling out. I would come home or get up in the morning and I would kind of have my head down and Shelly’s in there crying and crying out to God and working through her Bible and praying and continuing to volunteer in our church and continuing to volunteer in our community even though everything in our life is a mess. Everything in our life is a mess.
Shelly: Let me just share this. This is the page I opened to. This is a verse I believe God gave me on 5/6/12. That was our anniversary. It says, “I will go before you and level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness which are stored in secret places so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel who summons you by name.” And I felt like God was giving me this verse and my perception was He is going to heal my son. He’s going to go out there and help others. I wrote several different times, on 1-13-12, on 3-2-14, and on 9-22-14, five days before Tyler died — I wrote, “Claiming your promises. God with faith.” I know now that He gave me that verse. And that is what He is going to do with this and that is how He is going to help others.
Travis: Some people might say, “How does a heroin addict end up in heaven?” Right? Some people might say, “How does someone die of a heroin overdose and end up in heaven?” Obviously, they don’t understand the Bible. They don’t understand the cross. And they don’t understand what forgiveness really is. Once you accept Christ as your savior, you don’t bounce in and out of heaven because of your behavior. Once you accept and you are forgiven, you are forgiven for your sins and your future sins.
Shelly: But listen, I struggled after because it was so contradicting. I knew my son received Christ. I knew he prayed with me when he was young. I knew all of these things. But it still was like … you know … I needed to be reassured. And I just prayed, “Lord, just show me.” And I’m cleaning my bookshelves one day and going through them all. Not looking at any book. I pulled this one out and happened to open it.
Travis: So this was a bible I had when I was in the Marine Corp. What you’re supposed to do is write your name in it. But for whatever reason, I gave this to Tyler. On 3/4/01 we wrote Tyler’s name in there and wrote “from Dad”. And Tyler signed it on 3/5/01. This was Tyler’s bible. We didn’t find this until later when we’re working through our own problems. And so now we sit this book out as a golden treasure.
Travis: The thing that drives me now when I want to give up or when things don’t go my way, what I hear now is Tyler pushing me back with things I used to say to him. You know … “Well, that’s not what you told me. Why aren’t you going to work?” The best way for us to honor Tyler is to become the very best people we’re capable of becoming. And in that, we will honor Tyler’s legacy. And we’re not going to say Tyler’s story ended because Tyler is with us in this journey. There’s a lot more to this story than just death. Or just a heroin overdose.
How is your child doing today?
Travis: Tyler overdosed and died on September 28, 2014.
When did you first realize you were dealing with a drug addiction problem?
Travis: When Tyler told me he was using heroin in October, 2010. He flat-out told me. That’s when it became real life for me. Shelly probably knew there was a problem before that. Tyler was always doing a lot of things right and in my eyes Tyler was going through a phase
You’re going to see your son or daughter take the things in life they love the most and pull back. In Tyler’s case it was golf. This kid would play golf from eight in the morning until six or seven in the evening. We’d drop him off at the golf course when he was 12 years old with a packed lunch and he’d play all day with the old guys, young guys, he’d play with everybody. But once you start getting into active addiction, you start withdrawing. Because now you’re being driven by addiction. And nothing is important to you. The things you love, the things you treasure, your family, your friends, you start pulling back.
The other thing that makes no sense in this is when Tyler was using, he was doing all the right things. Meaning he couldn’t function unless he was using. So when he was using, he could come around us. When he was using, he could go to class. He could go do his normal activities. When he was in withdrawal was when you actually thought he was using, because he’s laying in the basement sick and he’s laying there for three days and you think he’s using drugs. But no, he’s actually in withdrawal. It’s the total opposite and I didn’t understand that until after the fact.
During all of this, what was your biggest fear?
Travis: Well, our biggest fear happened: death. We got the knock on the door. And when you’re in active addiction and your family is working through this, you fear death. You can’t sleep at night. Every time the phone rings, you jump. To this day, I don’t sleep well. I wake up every day of my life between 3 and 3:30 a.m. I come down these steps. I walk to that door and I check it. I walk to the front door and look out because his car used to park right in front of our house. And every day I still do that. I still do that now. Our biggest fear happened.
Travis: Tyler would sometimes respond to me in a certain way when we were going at it. Like … when we were on the phone, he would say stuff to me like, “Hey Superman, take a deep breath. Relax a little bit.” He only called me Superman when he was trying to get under my skin. And this Superman keychain is the last Father’s Day gift he gave me, when we were in Florida.
When you think back, was there anything that put your child at risk for drug addiction?
Travis: My father was an alcoholic. My mother struggled with alcoholism. Both of Shelly’s grandfathers were alcoholics. Just like we pass down the cancer gene, we pass down the addiction gene. There’s no doubt in my mind that we have the gene.
Shelly: As I look back, Tyler struggled with anxiety and stress from a very early age. Probably around age five or six he started having night terrors. We had to take him to the doctor because he would get an upset stomach. Finally we realized it was just stress. So anxiety and not having coping skills were part of this.
Travis: Listen. I made a lot of mistakes. And coping skills … I don’t know if we did a great job at teaching those to Ty.
Shelly: We didn’t.
Have you wondered whether you could have done something different as a parent to prevent your child’s addiction?
Travis: I made a lot of mistakes. I set a standard that was really high in our home. And part of that was because of my life. Part of that was the Marine Corp in me that demanded excellence. And so I demanded excellence all the time. Not just of my kids, but of myself, too. Looking back, some of the things I did with Tyler was me wishing I had a father that did that to me. I didn’t have a father demanding excellence out of me. And so I did that. And there is no doubt I was too tough at times.
Has your child’s addiction affected how people treat you?
Travis: The very hardest thing for me was … and I’m over this now … but in the beginning … if you didn’t acknowledge that my son died, I was angry with you. Meaning we would run into each other and you’d be like, “Hey! The Cavs are playing tonight.” And I’d be like, “Wait a minute. We’re going to talk about the Cavs?” I wanted to choke them. That’s how angry I was. Now if you acknowledge it and say, “Hey, I’m sorry about what happened to Ty,” I was good. And we could talk about whatever else you want. But you had to acknowledge it with me.
Shelly: There is a difference between your kid having a “real” sickness and having an addiction. When kids are sick, normally people help the family. When people have an addiction, nobody is bringing a casserole. No one is asking, “How can I help?” They’re just like, “My kid’s not playing down there with them.” There is a stigma and you feel it.
Couldn’t your child have made better decisions and not abused opioids? Was your child just weak-willed?
Travis: I don’t know about that. Tyler was given opioids from a doctor because of surgery. So the very first time he was exposed to opioids had nothing to do with his behavior. He was given them from a doctor at age 11. Now … did he have a gene that got turned on because he was exposed to opiates?
Shelly: It has absolutely nothing to do with being weak-willed. If it was about will, Ty could have done it.
Travis: Addiction had nothing to do with him being weak. Lifting weights is not only a physical event, but also a mental event. Ty was 18 years old when he lifted 505 pounds. That was more a mental event than a physical one. It has nothing to do with willpower.
Did you ever try shaming or punishing your child to make them stop?
Shelly: Yes. It doesn’t work.
Travis: I did everything. It doesn’t work. One chaotic event leads to another chaotic event. Crazy produces crazy. One of the things I learned is you want to control an environment. You want to diffuse an attacker, you have to be more aggressive and you have to be bigger than the attacker. And all that does is leads to chaos. Because you’re not showing love and compassion to the person that needs love and compassion. And the hardest thing to do sometimes is to love the people that don’t seem to deserve it.
I’ll tell you this — I learned this after the fact and I’m learning this right now. You cannot control the events in your life. You cannot control the outcomes. The only thing you have direct control of is your response. So how you respond to their craziness will help either diffuse it or make it worse.
Shelly: Or make the whole family crazy.
Did you ever feel ashamed or disgusted with your child?
Shelly: We both did.
Travis: I’ve spent my life trying to develop a name for myself, a name I felt my son was destroying right in front of me. It was really difficult. I worked my whole life trying to do the right thing. Trying to treat people right, trying to lead people, trying to raise my family right. And I felt like it was all going to be wiped out because I had this drug-addicted son that I didn’t understand.
Tyler's wrestling pins.
Did you ever feel hopeless or want to give up on your child?
Shelly: We never gave up. I think there were lots of times we felt hopeless. Even in our actions going to church and trying to get help, they gave us no hope most of the time. We finally found a church where we currently attend where the pastor actually put time and gave into Tyler’s life. But the first church we went to — we got nothing from the counseling pastor to the youth pastors. They didn’t understand it.
Travis: There were times we felt hopeless. And hopeless to the sense of not knowing what else to do. But never hopeless to the point that we would ever stop fighting or that we would ever stop believing in Ty.
Parents in your position are often stuck between wanting to help their child and wanting to cut them off. Were you ever worried you were enabling the drug abuse by trying to support your child financially or providing meals or housing?
Travis: We did. We did all of that. But here’s the good news. And I had to say this to Tyler. Everything I did to you, Tyler, when I was tough on you, when I was this jerk you sometimes hated, everything I did was out of love. I didn’t do it to make you want to hate me. I did it because I loved you. Every time I did enable him or did the wrong thing, I did it out of love.
Shelly: And you do what you know at the time.
Travis: You have to educate yourself. The first thing you had better learn is that your son or daughter is a king manipulator. They can sell a snow cone to an Eskimo. And you want to believe them. It is your natural instinct and you want to believe them. And the other thing I would tell a parent is, if you think your son or daughter is using, you’re probably right. Moms figure it out much faster than dads. At least that’s my experience. Moms know. They just know. If you think they’re using, start investigating.
How many times did you give your child money and worry they were just using it for drugs?
Travis: Did Tyler ever steal from us? Yes. Did we ever give him money that he used for drugs? Yes. Did Tyler steal us blind? No. Did I have to put locks on my doors and on my bedroom and on his bedroom? No. In Tyler’s addiction, I think he respected his mother and me and the very last people on earth that he wanted to steal from was us. Now, did we find that $20 was missing? Yes. Did we find a necklace that we gave him ended up in a pawn shop? Yes. Those things happened.
Shelly: We gave him money but over time we learned.
Travis: Where we held out the most was when he was homeless in Florida, begging for me to send him money every day.
Shelly: So Travis would order him a pizza and the pizza man would deliver it to Ty.
Where do you think the line is between supporting and enabling your child?
Travis: There’s a difference between unconditional love and enabling. The example is I can’t give you 20 bucks because you might go buy heroin. However, I can go buy you a hamburger. Or I can put gas in your car. Or I can take you to work. But if I give you 10 bucks, I probably can’t trust you.
I said this at Tyler’s memorial service. The two toughest lessons Tyler taught me were patience and unconditional love. He taught me those the hardest way in life. Because I had to continue to be patient with him as he continued to screw up. I continued to love him even though sometimes he was unlovable. And he’s pulling my heart out and he’s dragging my family down the road, but I had to unconditionally love him. And I did because that was my son. At the end of the day, he was still my son.
Shelly: I think it is a little different for everybody. But there’s definitely that far side where you’re just giving and they’re just using and taking advantage. And then there’s the side where you’re not willing to help and you’ve kicked them out and they don’t have a chance. And so it’s coming somewhere along the middle and just doing the best you can. You’re going to make mistakes.
Travis: The more you’re aware, the more tools you have in your tool box, the more you’re going to control that line. If you can start knowing all of that from the beginning instead of learning as you go along this road … what I’ve learned from other people who’ve been down this lane is your child is going to lie, cheat and steal. And so if it doesn’t sound right, it’s probably not right.
Shelly: And through that process, if you quit enabling at an earlier point, it could help them get into treatment or to seek it out if they are not getting what they want.
What happened or needs to happen to get your child into recovery?
Travis: Tyler needed to own where he was at.
So here’s what happens with young people. Most young people are going out and drinking a few beers on a Friday night, going to a bar, playing some pool, hanging out with their buddies.
What happens to a young person in recovery is they start justifying things. They’re like … “OK — I went through treatment; I’m no longer using heroin, but I can go out and drink a few beers with my buddies. Because I’m not doing heroin.” And so they justify that in their own mind. Those few beers will lead them back to heroin. It will take you right back to heroin or cocaine or whatever your drug of choice is. One of the hardest things for a young person to get in their minds is that you can’t go out and drink a couple beers. And that’s so hard for a young person. And that cuts off about 90% of their friends — or whatever the number is. But when you understand it as a disease, you realize those beers are driving you the wrong way. And that is so hard for young people to get. And it takes a long time to accept that I can’t go out and drink beers with my friends like everybody else can.
Can you identify anything positive that has come from your experience with opioid addiction?
Travis: My whole life has changed. I am not the same person I was before Tyler died. You cannot prepare to lose a child. And you have two choices. You can become bitter or you can become better. You’re going to become bitter. You’re going to hate the world. You’re going to hate God. You’re going to hate everybody because this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Or, you can become better. You can start educating yourself and understand it as a disease.
There have been a lot of positive changes for me. I would hope my girls today would say I’m a better person today than I was. I would hope Shelly would say I’m a better husband and a better person. Tyler made me better. He taught me the hard lessons in life. Tyler taught me love and compassion.
For me to sit here and say there’s nothing good that came out of this, I can’t do that. Now, is it what I want? No. Would I give it all back to have Tyler back? Yes.
Shelly: I agree. I think we’ve all grown. Just the positive things that are coming from what we are doing. For me, I always had a desire to have something that I was giving to. I went all over the world on mission trips and I could never find that niche. And this is my niche. I want to pour into people. I want to help counsel people. I want to work with people one on one and still have hope in them. We’re getting to do some of that now. And this is all inspired by Tyler. Tyler had a heart. Tyler was a fighter. So we can’t lay down and just give up.
Travis: I have more compassion for people than I ever did. And I think that’s a good thing. You know, I was just your typical dude that didn’t show a lot of emotions. Wasn’t warm and fuzzy all of the time.
Shelly: Now he hugs everybody.
Travis: And I cry. I cry openly. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. What I’ve learned is that in my weakest moments, that’s where some of my strongest moments are. But listen, I had to learn this all the hard way. And that’s okay.
What are you doing to cope?
Shelly: I have been doing a lot of self-care, studying and learning all I can. I feel that these things I am learning will all be great skills for people in recovery, because they all need them. There was no time for self-care during Tyler’s active addiction. So I’d say the biggest thing I’m doing to cope is focusing on relaxation and my faith.
Travis: For the first 18 months after Tyler died, I had to go to the gym and physically kill myself to cope. I had to go to the gym and it was ridiculous how hard I had to train and how hard I had to work out to physically exhaust myself. To get me to settle down. That’s where I coped. To this day, I still don’t have a great network of men around me to share. I’ve never been great at that. It’s not a strength of mine. I’m working to get better. It’s natural to want to lay there. It’s natural to not want to get out of bed. It’s natural to want to feel sorry for yourself. You don’t have to work at that. That comes easy. That does not take effort. Everything in your body drives you that way. And so therefore you have to work at trying to get better. I am putting new tools in my toolbox. I’m growing in my faith. I think God has continued to stretch me. I arm wrestle with Shelly all of the time [laughter]. She challenges me. Shelly has always challenged me to grow.
How are you doing today?
Shelly: We’ve had a rough week. I went to a training last week and I was away from Travis for the first time. Travis was home by himself for the first time. And so we came back together emotionally bankrupt. And we’ve had a great journey of everything we’ve shared. But it has come to a point where we have to think, OK — what do we do next? We’re struggling a little. But that’s life.
Travis: I didn’t feel great today. I didn’t have the same energy that I sometimes have. I didn’t have the same desire to go to the gym and do some things. Emotionally, I didn’t feel good. I’m being pulled in lots of directions. In my job, in trying to push this Hope United adventure further. I feel a lot of pressure. And so some days I don’t do well. And today was one of those days. That’s life. Some days you don’t feel like doing it. So what separates average from great? What separates people is even when they don’t want to do it, they push through the edge. I didn’t want to do this interview with you. I’m just being honest with you. I mean, we emailed a couple times, right? And then I kind of went blank. And I didn’t really want to do it. Not because of you. Not because I don’t believe in what you’re doing. But because of me. And because it’s going to push me once again out of my comfort zone. And Shelly will tell you that I would have never done something like this a few years ago. So I am always being challenged to stretch myself. The difference between average and excellence is sometimes pushing yourself even if you don’t want to.
Do you have any advice for parents currently trying to help their child deal with opioid addiction?
Travis: The first thing a parent needs to do when they recognize they are in this lane, is to understand this is a disease and their child is sick. Therefore they have to work, just as if it was cancer or diabetes, and get the right treatment. You didn’t fail as a parent.
Shelly: And if their child is a teenager, I would encourage them to try and force them into help before they turn 18 and the parents have no control. Catch it early and get them into treatment instead of letting it go and thinking it is a phase.
Travis: Recognize this is a disease. And then own it. The quicker you own it, the quicker you are going to start moving into positive outcomes. Because I ran from it. I didn’t help Tyler as well as I could have. If I had understood addiction better, I would have fought for Tyler like nobody’s business.
And if I can help one parent understand this thing, then they will fight for their kid. And don’t give up on them. Never stop loving them. Don’t listen to the outsiders. Don’t listen to these fools who haven’t walked down this lane before who say, “Yeah, I’d let them hit rock bottom,” and think they’re going to coach you up on something they have no experience with. And that might be your own family. Because they just don’t know. Go get yourself educated. Just as if your kid had cancer. You’d want to know exactly what form of cancer they had.
Shelly: When we were going through this, I was googling it and gathering as much information as I could. But I still didn’t understand the disease of addiction. You will handle things differently if you understand it. You will understand it is a brain thing. And they are going to lie, steal, manipulate, whatever they can to get the drug. Because the front of their brain, the rational part of their brain, is not working. And that makes sense to me now.
Travis: The front part of your brain is how you reason. If I am in active addiction, I’m driven by the inner core of my brain that says I’m going to drown, I’m going to die, I’m going to suffocate unless I feed my addiction. And therefore I can’t reason. So I’m going to lie, cheat and steal to feed my addiction because I can’t reason. I don’t care if I disappoint you. I don’t care if I stole the car to get to where I’m going because I can’t reason. All I am driven by is that I am suffocating.
What advice can you give to parents of younger children so they can help their kids avoid opioid addiction?
Travis: If their child gets hurt or injured and the doctor talks about treating them with opioids, their head should spin off. They should ask questions. They should know how addictive opioids are. Because it can happen innocently. Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin, tramadol. Those are all opiates. And they respond in your body just like heroin.
And the next thing is to work to teach Johnny coping skills. For Johnny to learn coping skills, he has to fall down, he has to skin his knee, and he has to come up with his own way to solve his problem.
Shelly: They are saying that if you just talk openly to your kids about drug addiction, there will be a 50% less chance of those kids using drugs. Just by talking to them. Having that conversation at dinner. Have dinner together. Try it once per week and sit and talk about those kinds of things.
Travis: Now … we talked to our kids about drugs. We had all of those conversations with our kids.
List two things you think need to happen that will help put an end to the opioid crisis.
Shelly: Relapse prevention treatment is huge. Addiction is a lifelong disease. They need to have a community and supports and all kinds of tools right there for the rest of their life. To get them through the roughest part those first five years, there needs to be better treatment.
Travis: We have to understand this as a disease. The debate on whether this is a disease or not is what’s keeping this problem going longer than it should. Because if we don’t understand it as a disease, then we’re going to always respond with, “You knucklehead, why can’t you stop?” And we’re never going to invest time, money or resources in a knucklehead. Because we just don’t. That’s who we are. But if we understand it as a disease, then we can respond the way we do with every other disease. And that’s with love and compassion. So that’s the number-one thing.
Then two: Relapse prevention is the absolute next step. Your journey through recovery is a lifelong process. So what we’re going to do at Hope United is we’re not going to be with you just for the day, or for the week or even the year; we’re going to be with you for as long as you need somebody beside you. And that is what long-term sobriety is. It’s a lifelong transformation. If you talk to anybody who’s in long-term recovery, they’re going to tell you that they work on it every single day.
Why do you want to remain anonymous and not have your picture connected with your interview? Why do you want to have your image connected with your interview?
Shelly: We’re not ashamed of it. We’re out there trying to share our story to help others.
Travis: I ran in shame for five years during Tyler’s active addiction. And I’m not running any longer. And so I’m three years running the good race or however you want to say that. I have a lot of work to do. I already ran in shame. I already did that. I already hid. And that didn’t work for me. There’s no freedom there. I’m different now.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Travis: What we probably didn’t talk much about is family support. We spent most of our time talking about addiction and the person who is in active addiction. We haven’t spent any time talking about what that does to the family. How this impacted our daughters. How this impacted Shelly and I. How this impacted grandparents. There need to be programs out there to support families. The stigma associated with this disease won’t even let me say, “My grandson struggles.” I won’t even say, “My nephew struggles.” Right? Because I don’t want a nephew who is struggling with addiction. So families are held in shame. And so there needs to be more support for families.
Shelly: I’m hearing more and more that the addict is sick but the family is just as sick. And it’s true. It’s not like you’re trying to be, but you’re sucked up into it and you’re dealing with it the best way you can. And you pull 11-year-old and 14-year-old younger siblings into that. That is a lot for a family. I would have done anything to have some kind of support. I had a couple friends who prayed for me and would talk to me, but they weren’t in my shoes. It is incredibly powerful to sit and talk with families that have also gone through this, so I could start feeling like I wasn’t a failure.
Shelly: Tyler had a gold cross that we bought him. At one point he sold it. And the weird thing was I had found out just by chance. A girl happened to have told me that he had sold it. I went to the Hartville resale shop and I was able to buy it back. I want to say it was on one of his birthdays … we gave it back to him. And Ty started crying. He couldn’t believe it. And it was just one of those things where I think God spoke to him. Anyways, he ended up selling it again later.
When Ty was sober for so many months, I would sometimes just buy him something. One time I bought him this cross I am wearing. To me, it symbolized the struggle of light and darkness. He took this to Florida with him and he actually had it on in the last picture we had of him. And he was homeless. And this necklace was one of the things that made it through all of that. Sometimes I wear it.
Travis: So now you have to tell her what the green necklace is.
Shelly: The green one is Tyler’s fingerprint.