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by Sharon Southard

My name is Sharon,  I have been a preschool teacher for 18 years, married for 30, and am a mother of 3 children.  Tyler was the middle child, my first born son, and 24, when he died by suicide on July 28, 2018.  First, I have to tell you that I couldn’t be where I am today without my faith, my church, and God’s help.  He has pulled me up from the depths of despair to where I am now. Starting over new, step by step, and taking the tragedy I have experienced to now tell my story to warn other families about mental health and marijuana. We are all here for a purpose, and only God can help us turn tragedy into triumph!

I could tell you a million stories about my son Tyler. He was one of the great loves of my life!  He was so smart, kind, and creative. When he was little he loved cars and trucks, drawing, and Lego’s.  When he got older, it became skateboarding, painting, songwriting, and playing music. He was one of those kids with a Midas touch, everything came easy to him.  When he was around 4, he decided he was ready to have his training wheels taken off. I took them off while his father was at work. The house we lived in then had a sloped driveway, he got on the bike, I held him steady for a few seconds, then let go.  He rode down the hill of the driveway, and that was that, he never fell!

My son Tyler

He was a straight A student, played with a band in his middle school and high school talent shows, started painting these amazing pictures, and always had lots of friends.  To this day, all those paintings are something I treasure the most (of course, I hung his brother and sisters art too), they all hang throughout my entire house. Sometime in middle school, Tyler started having anxiety issues, at first I thought it was minor, when he was at the mall one day with friends, he felt like people were staring at him.  That can be a normal feeling for a lot of kids when you are a teenager and dealing with raging hormones. We talked, but he didn’t feel it was necessary to see a counselor at that time. Later it was a fear of his hair falling out, like an uncle, and he would become bald at a young age, again we talked. I offered again, to take him to see someone. This wasn’t something constant, it was just these few instances during middle school.  Bi-polar ran in his father’s family, but I wasn’t seeing any major mood swings, other than what to me seemed normal teenage moodiness, but l was beginning to realize he was obsessing over his fears. Looking back of course, I wish I had been adamant and took him, because now I’m smart enough to know that they could have helped teach him coping skills, on what to do when he had those feelings. After Tyler got out of high school, he started shaving his head bald, in the summer months, so he was trying to deal with his fear on his own, before they could get him.  Then in the winter months, he would grow his hair longer, get a pretty full beard, and wear an army jacket. I would look at him and think “I wonder if he’s trying to scare people before they could scare him”. Every time someone would compliment him on his beard, I would just think, I want my handsome son back.

We are pretty sure that Tyler started experimenting with cigarettes, and then marijuana during middle school, however, we didn’t find out till right after the start of his sophomore year of High School, that he was smoking, and doing drugs.  We received a phone call to come to the high school. They told us that someone had come forward and turned Tyler in for threatening to kill himself, by choking himself with a belt. It turned out to be an ex girlfriend who had broken up with him. We knew about the breakup. I knew he was devastated by it, this was the first girl he had ever loved.  I kept having conversations with him about it, but it turned out that wasn’t enough. He ended up in the hospital for around a week, and then was in therapy for a year. I of course, now wonder, if I had gotten Tyler the help he needed much younger, if it would have stopped it from reaching this point. Unfortunately that is an answer I won’t have until I can ask God someday.  That was the first time our families life changed. We never had the same secure feeling with our son again.

 After that day, in the back of our head we were always wondering if he was lying to us, if he was doing drugs, if he would try to hurt himself again.  His grades went from a 4.0 at the end of his freshman year to his getting a combinations of A’s, B’s, C’s, and D’s throughout the rest of his high school years. He just didn’t seem to care about trying anymore.  Sometimes he would luck out. He wouldn’t do any math homework, but then would ace the test, and that would keep his grade up. But do you know how devastating that is for a parent to see your child, who is so talented, go slowly down the tubes and not know how to stop it, or how to make him care again about the life around him.  He was basically starting to show signs of depression, and self medicating with marijuana. Eventually though, with so many people, it becomes not just marijuana anymore. They start experimenting with other drugs, but he never got hooked on anything else, it was always marijuana he was addicted to. He was barely 21 when he got his first DUI.  It wasn’t for drinking, it was for taking Xanax, and then trying to drive home in the early hours of the morning, from a friends house a couple of towns away. He was swerving on the road so much, that a lady followed him all the way home. He ended up totaling his car by driving it into a tree, down the street from our house. He ended up losing his license for a year, and had to pay thousands of dollars in attorney fees, and court costs.

That same friend whose house he had left, had his own drug problems, and ended up in and out of rehab.  I think that played a part of Tyler’s never wanting to go into any kind of rehab in the future, because he just saw his friend go right back to the same habits over and over, every time he got out of treatment.  My husband says he had another friend kill himself after getting out of rehab. After Tyler graduated high school, he became very interested in reading articles on the internet, he would get on a health kick, try and kick the pot habit, eat healthier, exercise, and try to stop smoking.  It would work for awhile, but then he would start back up again. He always said marijuana was the hardest to quit, even worse than cigarettes. Eventually, we started realizing he was starting to do weirder things, eating almost raw steak, barely cooked off the grill, because he said it had more nutrients that way. Drinking raw eggs, and coconut oil, because they were supposedly good for you.  Then it was on to not using shampoo or deodorant anymore because it causes cancer, and other things. On their own, it’s not wrong to try and get healthier, but he was going to the extreme, because the paranoia was starting to take over. But during the last six months of his life, it became scarier, such as “the government is listening in on him at the gas station where he was working. Then men in suits were coming in to his work to tell him what a great job he was doing, because somehow they knew he was trying to help other drug addicts recover through his music. He was just becoming someone who we didn’t know anymore. Three years after the first one, he got a second DUI, this time for drinking.  Prior to this he hadn’t been a big drinker. One day he told me “God told him to drink because how else could he help alcoholics if he didn’t know what it was like to be one”. He had pulled into a gas station, started pumping gas, when he fell and hit his head on the concrete. He thought he passed out for a minute or two, then got up to go inside the gas station. The gas station clerk noticed his drunk behavior and somehow got his car keys away, but when he was trying to help another customer, Tyler was able to grab them away and take off. The police found him a couple of blocks away. Now since this was a second DUI, he knew he would probably have to do a little jail time, and lose his license for up to 5 years.  A few months later, he went to the first court appearance and was assigned a public attorney. Then a month later he went to a second appearance but did not go to the third one, a month after that. He lied to us and said they had somehow goofed up the court docket date, so it was being rescheduled. A few weeks later he was dead! After his death we found out that there was a warrant out for his arrest. He had put himself in a position with no where to go. Maybe purposefully, so he would have to go through with killing himself. We had taken him twice in those last few months to a crisis center, but he would not let himself be admitted, and he was over 18, so we couldn’t force him. He kept saying he could conquer it on his own.  After Tyler died, I started doing research. I now know that he had a suicide ideology, that had started sometime in middle school. I could see it in the poems he had written, that I had found. But in that last year he started suffering from marijuana psychosis (which are delusions and hallucinations), and the beginning of schizophrenia, We did not know of the connection between marijuana, psychosis and schizophrenia until after he died. Yes there was mental health illness in the family, but nobody in the family history had schizophrenia. There is no schizophrenia gene, but instead it is a constellation of genetics and environmental factors that make people susceptible to schizophrenia. The Surgeon General has now come out to say that there is a definitive link between early marijuana use and schizophrenia. There are changes in areas of the developing brain during adolescence, which continues to grow into the early twenties. He stated that 1 in 5 people who begin smoking marijuana in childhood will become addicted.  The amount of THC in marijuana has increased so dramatically in the last 20 years, that it’s risen from 2 or 3% to as much as 99% now, such as in vape pens, which Tyler was also using, when he was trying to quit smoking. But deep down I know Tyler gave up because he didn’t think he would ever be able to quit smoking weed. In Colorado, which was the first state to legalize marijuana, there has been a 77% increase in suicide deaths in the age group of 10 to 19yr olds with marijuana in their system.

 On the day of Tyler’s death, my husband woke up on a Saturday morning around 8:00am.  He saw my son’s bedroom light on, and his door open, but Tyler wasn’t in there. He went downstairs, saw our bathroom door closed, and turned to walk away, but something made him stop and turn around.  He called my sons name, and started knocking on the door. When there was no answer, he started to open the door. He could only open it a couple of inches, but he saw blood all over the floor. He instinctively knew Tyler had possibly killed himself. He ran upstairs to our bedroom, and woke me up by saying, as he was crying “I think Tyler just killed himself downstairs in the bathroom”.  That day forever changed our families life, with a devastation that we are still living with.

Even though marijuana has become legal in many states, including Illinois, where we live.  Don’t let that fool you into thinking it is safe. Yes it may help some people deal with pain management for medical purposes, or may even help seizure disorders, but for the general population it is not worth the risk. Especially when you are young. Nobody knows if they will be the one who starts having paranoid delusions, or worse. Some people can smoke it hundreds of times and be ok, but others can do it only once and not be. There are thousands of stories out there just like my sons!  Smoking marijuana is just not worth the risk! It’s not worth your life, or the life of others!

When it comes to your friends, or the other students around you, speak up if you think they are struggling or need help!  Talk to them, or tell an adult. Their life is more important than a friendship you might be afraid to ruin. That girl that spoke up about Tyler, just might have given us nine extra years with our son!  Do what your heart tells you is right, and always follow your instincts! They warn us more than we realize. And please, please, don’t be afraid to seek out help, for yourself, if you are dealing with your own fears, anxiety, grief, or anything else.  Talking helps, and counselors have the resources and knowledge to help you! If you want to get involved there are so many great organizations out there. After Tyler died, my daughter, my younger son, my son-in-law, and myself, raised over $1200 for an “Out of the Darkness” walk in Chicago, through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  But there are also more local locations for them each year. Thank you for listening! Stay safe!

Sharon Southard is pre-school teacher from Illinois.

Artwork by Tyler Southard