Tyler O’Reilly Tyler O’Reilly
By Juanita O’Reilly, mother of Tyler O’Reilly (February 7, 1986-April 26, 2014)
I’ve never known a more loving, outgoing child than my son Tyler. He loved making friends. Like most boys who grew up in the late 1980s/early 1990s, he loved Ninja Turtles, Batman, and riding his BMX bicycle. Tyler was also a talented athlete. His winters were spent playing hockey and the summers were spent playing baseball.
However, Tyler didn’t have the best experience in school. Socially it was great; he had a lot of friends and was popular, but he really struggled with schoolwork. Every year, I spent many hours meeting with teachers and counsellors, trying to find ways to motivate him or what could be done to help him succeed. By the time he was 15, things really started to change for the worse. He was skipping school, staying out late, and sometimes not coming home. He stopped playing sports altogether.
So started a cycle that lasted around ten years. There were periods of Tyler “doing good” and of Tyler doing “not good.” When I look back now, I find it so strange that I didn’t worry about him possibly dying from his problematic substance use. I worried about him being homeless or getting involved in criminal activity, but not dying. He moved around, living and working in different cities. Eventually, he did go back to school and obtained his high school equivalency, which was a proud moment for him.
One day we were talking about his future and he said he really wanted to be an actor. He was always creative. He loved drawing, sketching, and writing in his journal, so I wasn’t surprised he wanted to pursue something artistic. I was a little apprehensive, but I wouldn’t want him to not try something he was passionate about. He moved to Toronto and enrolled in school to study acting. He loved it, and I could see such a positive change. He still struggled with substance use, but not the same as before.
When it became financially impossible for him to stay, he left Toronto. He didn’t let this discourage him. He made plans to work and save money so he could go back to school, and he did it. He returned to Toronto. He found a place to live. Tyler was ready to start classes and was so focused. So, when I received that call in April of 2014, it just did not make sense.
My Tyler was gone. He died from an accidental heroin overdose. There will be no more big goofy grins. No more big bear hugs. No more “I love you Mom.” Grieving the loss of a child is so painful. I feel like a different person, changed right down to my DNA. As if the grief wasn’t bad enough, losing your child to an overdose is often compounded by guilt and shame. Society treats deaths from overdose differently than other causes and I felt very protective of his memory. I did not want Tyler being judged, painted as one dimensional by his problem with substance use and death by accidental overdose.
“There will be no more big goofy grins. No more big bear hugs. No more ‘I love you Mom.'”
So, I did not talk about it. Not a good idea. Fortunately, I found a group called Moms Stop the Harm. It has given me such support. I realize after educating myself that if I want to educate others, I need to share my story. If I want things to change, I need to help end the stigma that isolates substance users and their families. My silence only reinforces the stigma.
Here are a few of the things I wish I knew when Tyler was alive:
- Stop making abstinence the only standard. Recovery is not a long, straight, quick process; and what works for some does not work for others.
- Be compassionate. I know when Tyler relapsed and I was disappointed, it hurt him. I knew it then, but I didn’t know enough about problematic substance use to understand what he was going through.
- Have conversations about the dangers of drug use. There was a long period of time when Tyler had not used substances. When he relapsed, I believe he thought he could use as before. Naloxone should be carried by everyone who uses or knows someone who does. Do not use alone.
- Stop using stigmatizing language. Use “people”-first language. Problematic substance use is a health issue not a moral one.
I speak out now because I do not want another family to have to live through the heartbreak that my family has had to live through. I miss Tyler everyday.