Jul 17
  • Written By Scott Drochelman

  • #193 – Travis Bornstein

    #193 - Travis Bornstein

    Battling Addiction After His Son’s Fentanyl Overdose

    Travis Bornstein is the father of Tyler who died at age 23 of a Fentanyl overdose. Tyler had been successful in school and sports, but injury and the subsequent surgeries brought on an addiction to opioids which eventually moved to heroin. 

    This began 6 years of addiction and relapse. The family did everything it could to provide a path to recovery, but eventually Tyler ended up with Heroin laced with Fentanyl. The person he was using with panicked, and left him to die in a vacant lot. 

    The immense grief overwhelmed Travis and his family. It was his daughters that found the first outlet for their grief by bringing Tyler’s story to their school and starting Hope United, their answer to the plague that had taken their brother. 

    Then Travis used his own voice to share Tyler’s story at a union conference and speak about the problem facing their community. He raised 1 million dollars in donations in a little over an hour.

    The family has used their platform and their immense effort to create “Tyler’s Redemption Place” a recovery community organization which will open this year. The mission is to treat the whole person, without any time limit, so they can truly receive the help they need to heal.

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    Episode Transcript

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Coming up on this episode of The Courage to Change sponsored by lionrock.life.

    Travis Bornstein:

    My wife and I, we really just sat down and we just looked each other in the face and said, “We’re going to take the worst thing that could possibly happen to us as parents, but we’re going to do something different. We’re going to try to be part of the solution and try to bring real change.”

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Hello, beautiful people. Welcome to the Courage to Change: A Recovery Podcast. My name is Ashley Loeb Blassingame, and I am your host. And today, we have Travis Bornstein. Travis is the father of Tyler, who died at age 23 of a fentanyl overdose. Tyler had been successful in school and sports, but injury and the subsequent surgeries brought on an addiction to opioids, which eventually moved to heroin. This began six years of addiction and relapse. The family did everything it could to provide a path to recovery, but eventually, Tyler ended up with heroin laced with fentanyl. The person he was using with panicked and left him to die in a vacant lot.

    The immense grief overwhelmed Travis and his family. It was his daughters that found the first outlet for their grief by bringing Tyler’s story to their school and starting Hope United, their answer to the plague that had taken their brother. Then Travis used his own voice to share Tyler’s story at a union conference and speak about the problem facing their community. He raised $1 million in donations in an hour and a half. The family has used their platform and their immense effort to create Tyler’s Redemption Place, a recovery community organization, which will open this year.

    As you can imagine, this story is tough, it’s hard to hear, but it’s a reality that so many people in America are facing, losing people they love to fentanyl. This father has taken his story, used it to help others, and it’s incredible when you hear the story about how he spoke up at this union conference and how many people showed up for him. There were probably 5,000 people in that room. Travis is trying to create space and time for people who are struggling like his son was, and he’s using his story to make the world a better place and what more can we ask for? I hope you are as touched by Travis and Tyler’s family story as I was, and I hope you hear something that helps. Without further ado, I give you Travis Bornstein. Let’s do this.

    Speaker 3:

    You are listening to the Courage to Change: A Recovery Podcast. We are a community of recovering people who have overcome the odds and found the courage to change. Each week, we share stories of recovery from substance abuse, eating disorders, grief and loss, childhood trauma, and other life-changing experiences. Come join us no matter where you are on your recovery journey.

    Travis Bornstein:

    So Ashley, let me say this to you. I listened to your first podcast this afternoon. And first,. let me tell you how proud I am of you. You got a really crazy story there, and I think you’re using it in a positive way. As a parent, I just want to tell you awesome job and I’m really proud of you.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Thank you. Thank you so much. I appreciate that, I really do. I have to tell you that I don’t get very nervous about these things, but your story, as a former opiate addict and the mother of two young boys, it scares me. It does. And it scares me because I can easily see our family in the same situation and I see all the treatments and all the things that you went through and all the stuff that you did, and just the powerlessness of what this disease can do and that you can do all the things right. You can try all the things, and it’s just, I’m really grateful and honored that you’re coming here to tell the story, and also it hurts. Like, I can feel the hurt, I can imagine it myself, in your shoes.

    Travis Bornstein:

    Yeah, yeah. Thank you. How’s your parents?

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    My parents are amazing. They are very grateful and relieved, and they know that we are super lucky and not the norm, and they’ve also, with my aunt dying in 2010, we got both sides of what can happen and on both ends, the passing of my aunt from a lifetime of this disease, and then also my story, which I took 17 years on the 7th of January. And so I don’t think they wake up every day with that tightness in their chest, but there’ve been some close some calls. I think they really do understand that there are no guarantees.

    Travis Bornstein:

    Yeah. Well, I think it’s so hard when you’re an active addiction as a parent, once you really understand it. It took me a while to understand where we were at as a parent. But once we got there, man, wow. It is absolutely gut-wrenching.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Yeah. I care very, very much and I wish I had more answers than I do.

    Travis Bornstein:

    Well, I think once you’re in this space, there’s so many moving parts. There’s so many different areas to work on. That was a little bit of us in the beginning. We were trying to be everything to everybody, and then you got to just dial in who you are and what you can do to try to help change your space, with not trying to be everything to everybody, but becoming great at something. Because when you try to do everything great, you end up doing nothing great. There’s so many working, moving problems that need to change for us to really start solving the epidemic. The wheels of justice move slow at times.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    They do. And for our listeners to get a good view of your experience, I want to start off a little bit with your background. Because of course, the person that we meet today is, I’m sure, a very changed human being than when you started this journey with Tyler. To understand who were you before it was your own child that was going through this thing that you probably didn’t see coming.

    Travis Bornstein:

    Yeah, so I was the typical parent. I was probably pretty rigid. I spent four years of active duty in the Marine Corps and two years in active reserves. Pretty athletic growing up, I spent most of my time in sports. And my parents were divorced as a kid. My dad was an alcoholic. I didn’t have much of a relationship with my dad. And so I grew pretty tough and pretty stern and probably held things real close to the vest, didn’t let people in, didn’t share feelings. And I think as men, we don’t do a great job with that. We’re pretty much taught, hey, YOU can’t show pain, can’t show feelings, toughen up, all those kinds of things. And then you throw the Marine Corps on top of that, and so you develop that sternness.

    I think the biggest transformation that my family, and I hope, I’ll say it this way, I hope the biggest transformation within me with my family and my friends who truly know me is that I have changed. I have a lot more love and compassion. I understand the difference between sympathy and empathy and walking with people and coming alongside of them. And one of the things that constantly pulled me that way is once this happened with Tyler, you’re crushed. You’re crushed in spirit, and dealing with that took me a while. But then ultimately, it was like the best way for me to honor Tyler or try to, all the things that I was trying to teach Tyler as a man, integrity and all those kind of things that you’re trying to bring up a young boy into a man, that you want him to have, that’s kind of over. And so the best way for me to do that is live it out. If I can live my life the way I was trying to coach him up as a parent, then that’s the best way for me to honor him.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Can you take me through what Tyler was like before opiates were introduced to his life, into his life, and what that progression was?

    Travis Bornstein:

    Yeah, so let me just tell you a little bit about my family. Shelly and I, we’ve been married for 33 years. I started dating her in 8th grade, she was in 9th grade. And so we went together all through junior high and all through high school, and we broke up off and on along the way. And the first couple years I was in the Marine Corps, we weren’t together, but the last two, we were back together and got engaged. And so ultimately, I get out of the Marine Corps, we get married, we both got good jobs. And our life, I wouldn’t say it was perfect, but I mean, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a nice, middle class life.

    And we started having kids and started having a family, and Tyler was the oldest. Got two girls from there to, I don’t know, 15, 16 years old. I mean, it was just awesome. I mean, ours was just a typical, middle class family. We played by the rules, we had good jobs, we went to church. We were active in our community. We were just doing, I want to say the all-American life. And not that it was perfect, you know what I mean? But it was perfect for me and it’s real perfect as I look back at it now.

    But ultimately, Tyler, he ended up breaking his right arm four times and having two surgeries on his right elbow. So the first surgery was at age 11, and the second surgery was at age 18. So the first time he was exposed to opiates was at 11 years old. Of course, I didn’t even know what an opiate was. Nobody was talking about that. The doctor didn’t explain to us anything about opiates and anything like that. And so we didn’t see a lot of drastic change then. Ultimately at about 15, 16, Tyler’s pushing back a little bit. You know, you get in these little skirmishes from time to time, but no real issues, no real issues.

    One of the things I always kind of talk about with parents is Tyler checked all the marks. He ended up graduating magna cum laude, he was an all-league, all-county golfer, he ended up doing a bodybuilding show in 2013. He was runner-up Junior Mr. Ohio. He ended up on a golf and academic scholarship. As a parent, he checks all the marks. For me, I was a little more like, when you’re seeing some signs, I was like, “Hey, come on, man. The kid’s not perfect. He’s going to experiment with some things, so let’s not,” you know what I mean? And mom was a little more attentive to what was really going on.

    Ultimately, at 18, he breaks his arm again and he has to have another surgery, and this is shortly after graduating high school. And I mean, it is on. He gets addicted to the opiate pain pills, and now all those little problems are starting to become big. Me and him are clashing pretty well. Mom’s pushing back hard and things are very difficult for us as a family. Pretty much flipped upside down. I certainly didn’t understand addiction as a disease at the time. I was your typical parent that, “Hey, you’re making bad choices. Why are you doing this? Why can’t you stop? You’re killing your mom.” All those kind of things. And so the stigma that’s associated with this thing, I fell into, my own personal pride.

    So when we were going through this, I didn’t talk about it to none of my friends. I didn’t talk about it to even some members in our family, and I held it personally real close. I kind of kept my head down. I did my job, stayed focused at work, and tried to keep my family as normal as I could, which was not normal. You know what I mean? We spent six years of active addiction. Shortly after he graduates high school, he kind of enrolls at Akron U, but he is not staying with us. He’s staying at a friend’s house, which is in our neighborhood.

    I come home one evening and I noticed that his car was in the driveway and he was taking night classes, so he wasn’t at class. His car’s in the driveway at his friend’s house, so I just go up and knock on the door and say, “Hey, where’s Tyler?” He’s like, “Hey, he’s here.” I go, “Hey, I thought you had a class.” He’s going, “Well, I don’t have no gas in my car.” And I was like, “Well, I’ve got gas in my car, let’s go.” So I put him in the car and we start driving towards Akron. He is just out. At the time, I didn’t understand it, but he was going through withdrawal. So he wasn’t using, he was in withdrawal. And until you understand it, withdrawal looks like you’re using, it looks like you’re a mess, right?

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Right. You are.

    Travis Bornstein:

    You are a mess. Yeah, you are a mess.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Yeah, it’s part of the cycle, but not the, it’s hard to determine where.

    Travis Bornstein:

    And I didn’t listen. I didn’t understand none of this at the time. So I could just tell this is not right, man. So I pull over the car off the side of the road and I said, “Tyler, what’s wrong with you, man? What’s going on?” And he said, “Dad, I’m using heroin.” And I was the first person he told that he was using heroin. I’m crushed. At that point, I just turned the car back around. We go back home, we tell his mom what’s going on and where we’re at, and that was our initial beginning getting him into treatment and working from there.

    The thing is, I look back at that is that,.z Even how difficult our relationship was at the time, he trusted me the most to be the very first person he told. Like, that’s an honor to me now. You know what I mean? That he had enough confidence in me and trust in me that he could tell me. So from there, the next six years is relapse, recovery, relapse, recovery. Very painful, hard circumstances. My girls are still in school. My oldest daughter’s in college, and it was just hard, man. It was hard.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    So he tells you that, “Hey dad, I’m addicted to heroin.” And of course, this is your first time dealing with this and entering into what would end up being this cycle of recovery and relapse. What was the first thing that you did to contact treatment? Did you contact somebody that you knew who knew about recovery, or how did you know where to send him to treatment?

    Travis Bornstein:

    So we didn’t know anything. So my wife just really just started getting on the phone and started making calls to treatment providers. Of course, there’s no beds, there’s no treatment available. You know what I mean? Everybody’s beds are full, all that kind of stuff. We initially got him into an outpatient type thing to get him kind of moving in the right direction. So we learned some really difficult, hard, painful lessons over the next six years. And a lot of those lessons is the foundation of Hope United and the things that we’re working on trying to change just because of the resources or the lack of resources that was available to us as a family is some of the things that we’re working hard on now. We get him in some initial outpatient type thing. He does pretty good, 30, 60 days, and then he is back out there, and that just went on and on and on.

    And so we’d get him back into a treatment program. Ultimately, my insurance, I had to time, 21-day inpatient treatment. Two-time lifetime, that was what my insurance paid for. So the first time we get him into treatment, 21 days in an inpatient environment, blah, blah, blah, relapses, overtime. The second time we get him into a 21-day treatment, it’s a little bit different. He’s coming along a little bit. He’s been on this journey for a while. So things are a little, it’s a little bit different, but it was all just gut-wrenching. Obviously, 21 days ain’t enough.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    So something I like to stop on here is a lot of parents, the belief is that once my child finishes this 21-day program or this, whatever, 30-day, 60-day, 90-day, they are going to be better. I’m curious, did you have some of those same thoughts in the beginning where you didn’t know?

    Travis Bornstein:

    A hundred percent. Yeah, a hundred percent. It is like, “You just went through treatment. Why aren’t you all right, man?” Let’s go, man. You know what I mean?

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Right. Yeah like, okay, we did it. We did the thing. Yeah.

    Travis Bornstein:

    Right. Right. Again, that’s very ignorant, but I was ignorant.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    It’s so normal. When my dad talks about his sister, putting his sister in treatment thinking the same thing, and then also many years later, putting me in treatment and okay, the same thing. So I mean, it is so normal, even for people who’ve interacted with the system to have that belief and so I think it’s important that we mention it’s really normal if you think that, it’s also not accurate.

    Travis Bornstein:

    Yeah, for sure. And I think the stigma that’s associated with the disease of addiction holds families back and holds people back from raising their hand and saying, “I need help.” That’s exactly where I was at. I felt like I failed as a father, I didn’t understand addiction, I didn’t talk about it, I was ashamed, I was embarrassed of my son. I was embarrassed of myself because I felt like, man, what did I do? All those kind of things. So it was very, very tough.

    And during that time, I am still real stern. I’m not driven by trying to understand the disease and learning the disease model and educating myself in that, I’m driven by trying to get my son okay. As a parent during that time, I made every mistake you could possibly make. But the two mistakes I didn’t make is I never stopped loving my son, and I never stopped trying to get him help. So I didn’t fail there. I often talk about Tyler taught me the two toughest lessons in life: unconditional love and patience.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    For the parents that are going through this right now that are listening to this, what are some of the mistakes you made that you would do differently now, knowing what you know?

    Travis Bornstein:

    I always kind of say it like this. This debate within our society, whether this is a choice or whether this is a disease has to stop. Because we’re never going to solve this problem if half the country thinks that this is a choice, because we’re never going to put money or resources into bad decisions. As we look at this thing and if it’s a choice, our response as a society is, “You knucklehead, knock it off,” and we’re never going to put money into bad decisions.

    But if we understand it as a disease, like all scientific evidence says it is, then we’re going to respond like we do with every other disease and that’s with love and compassion. So the first thing we have to do as a parent is to understand that your child or your loved one is sick. They are sick, just like diabetes, heart disease, leukemia, and all of those things. They have a chronic brain disease. Their brain does not function right. That’s the first place you better get to. Because until you get to there, you’re not going to be able to move to the next steps, because you’re all caught up in yourself. You’re all caught up in, “Why are you doing this to me? Why are you hurting our family? Why are you hurting your mother? Why can’t you stop? I raised you better than this. What do you mean you can’t stop?” All those things that make absolutely no sense and is not helping anything. That’s the first part and not only for parents, but we got to get there as a society. We have to. We have to get there as a community if we’re truly going to start having impact on the worst drug epidemic in the history of our country.

    From there, I think you got to understand that all scientific evidence says it takes at least a year for your brain to begin to heal off opiates. So the traditional model is 30, 60 days, tap you on the butt and say, “Good luck.” Well, 70%, some stats are even higher, 80, 85% of people relapse in the first year. If we’re failing at that rate, the traditional model is broke. It’s not working. And again, I learned that lesson the hard way, because Tyler could never get a year. During our six years, he could never get a year. He could get six months, he even got eight months one time, but he can never get a year. He can never get a year.

    The other thing I would say to parents is that once you recognize your son or daughter has an active addiction, you better get off the short-term clock and get to the long-term game, because this is a long-term game from here on out. You’re living proof of it. There’s no easy fixes, there’s no short fixes. This is a long-term game. The other thing I think is huge is get over yourself. You know what I mean? Get over yourself because just like you said, it’s not about you. Your son or your daughter, your loved one, they’re not trying to hurt you. They’re sick. But we focus on our self and our pain and our disappointment and our shame and all those things. Which is all real and I don’t want to act like it’s not real, but you’re not really helping solve the problem here when we’re stuck.

    So I think the trick bag parents are in is the fine line between enabling and unconditional love. And a lot of times we respond with tough love. An example would be, “Hey, Tyler. If you’re under the influence, you can’t stay here. You can’t be in our home.” Trying to protect some boundaries and trying to protect the other family members in the home. That might protect some of them, but what does that do to Tyler? So that automatically puts Tyler in a place where you don’t have nowhere to go, so he’s immediately going to leave your house and go directly to the drug dealer. That’s where he is going. Soon as you say, “You can’t stay here,” he’s going to go there and he’s going to numb his pain, because that’s his mindset.

    So I often tell parents, you have to develop some boundaries, you can’t continue to enable. A hundred percent agree with that, but daggone, man, we got to respond with unconditional love and understand, fully understand that if you say, “Hey, you can’t stay in my home,” and you kick them out of your house, yeah, that might be the one that leads to an overdose. That might be the one. You know what I mean? So be prepared for that, because that’s the space. And there’s no easy answers. There really isn’t. There’s no easy answers. And so what I often tell parents is you’ve got to set the boundaries within your home that you can live with. Look in the mirror and make sure you can fully live with the consequences of those decisions, because that’s where you’re at. For some people, that’s different. As I heard your story, you talked about your parents letting you stay in the basement with your boyfriend because they knew you were going to be alive. And listen, I get that. I get that. At least I know my son or daughter’s okay.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    The interesting thing about that, and I don’t know if I talked about that in my story, is that as a result of my parents prioritizing my wellbeing and me being there, that boyfriend abused my younger sister. And we worked through that, but that was certainly not a safe thing for everyone. And one of the things that is so hard, like you said, is how do we make this decision? How do we decide when to draw the line? Because I have also seen many times people say, “You can’t live here if you’re using,” and no dealer wants somebody at their house who doesn’t have money. And if they’re living with their family, they typically have enough money because they’re offsetting their living costs.

    And so I’ve seen people have to get sober and have to get help because they didn’t have anything if they weren’t living with parents. But then you see the opposite, or I’ve seen, I do talk to parents of young women differently than I talk to parents of young men when we talk about letting someone live on the streets. Are they going to collect more trauma that is going to make it more difficult for them to get sober in the end? Is there another way? Is there anything else we do? Whereas a young man, I’m not saying stuff doesn’t happen, but it isn’t quite the same.

    Travis Bornstein:

    Right, a hundred percent. And I agree, there’s just no easy answers as you try to work through it.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    I want to echo something you said, which is something I also tell parents, which is that I can say as the expert, subject matter expert as ex-addict, all the things, I can tell you what I’ve seen work, what I believe will work, all the things till I’m blue in the face. But ultimately, it isn’t my child. I would like to think I would do all the right things when it’s my child, but I don’t know that I would, and there is no way that I don’t live with the consequences, as you said, of those decisions, and I’m aware of that. And so when I tell families and when we’re talking and I’m like, “No, really, this is really important,” I also understand that they’re the ones that live with the decision that they have to do things that they can live with. And that is a really, really important piece of this is you do have to, all the experts in the world can tell you whatever you want. It has to be a decision you can live with and I respect that, I get that.

    Travis Bornstein:

    The other thing I would encourage families to do, and again, this is within the Hope United part of our organization, is we have groups for families who are in active addiction, okay.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Yes, cannot recommend enough.

    Travis Bornstein:

    Yeah. And get around some people that’s walked in the space that’s not going to judge you up, that can sit and just give you real good honest answers and not necessarily to give you the answers maybe you’re looking for, but least to have an opportunity to say some of this stuff out loud, get it off your chest, vent a little bit, and work through it.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    A place to be compassionate and angry and have people who really can relate to that. And all of those feelings, it’s invaluable and the families that do do it, they fare so much better. Tell me about the outcome of Tyler. What happened and maybe the last six months, did you know where you guys were headed? What did that look like?

    Travis Bornstein:

    Yeah, so like I said, it was relapse, recovery, relapse, recovery, and we did that journey for like six years. And during this time, Tyler is on Suboxone at times. He’s on a golf scholarship, he’s going to college, lots of good things are happening, but relapse is in there all through the journey, too. And so ultimately, he relapsed, and it was after Thanksgiving but before Christmas. And it was dead of winter, he relapsed in real tough circumstance with me and him, but ultimately I got him, I got him out of the house and got him home and we got him into a treatment facility. So he went into a 21-day treatment facility.

    And then while he was there, he made a commitment to go into a sober living facility in Florida. I don’t bring him home. I take him from the treatment provider straight to Florida. Me and mom take him straight to Florida. We don’t take him home, we don’t let him see his sisters, we don’t take him to grandma’s house because all those things, it’s just opportunities to say, “I changed my mind.” You know what I mean?

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Yes. Right on that plane.

    Travis Bornstein:

    I mean, we drove.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Yeah, even better, even better.

    Travis Bornstein:

    We just drove and I remember it was the dead of winter, Ohio, and we had taken him down to a sober living facility, helped him get checked in, stayed a couple days down there just to help him get acclimated. And then the next day before we were leaving was like his birthday. He made that commitment. It worked well for, I don’t know, a couple months. And then ultimately he relapsed while he was down there. They kicked him out of the program. The good news was is that I had daily contact with him.

    So the way I kind of did it is, I had it set up, I go, “Tyler, all you got to do is call this number. You call the number, they’re going to pick you up right where you’re at. You just got to tell them where you’re at, they’re going to come and get you, and we’re going to get you right back in the treatment.” “Well, come on, dad, send me some money.” “I’m not doing none of that, Ty. All right, this is where we’re at, bud. I’ll talk to you every day. You call me anytime you want. I want to love you and encourage you, but the next move for you is you have to decide that you’re going to call this number.”

    Well, unfortunately, it took him five weeks. He was homeless on the street in Florida for five weeks. Ultimately, he did make a decision to call the treatment provider. They picked him up and then we get a call from them and say, “Hey, we’re not going to be able to put him into treatment. His right arm’s a mess, so we’ve got to take him right to the hospital.” So they take him to the hospital. Takes us a day to kind of finally talk to the hospital. They didn’t really want to talk to us because of HIPAA and all those kind of things. And then finally my wife got a reasonable nurse and said, “Listen, this is our son. If this was your son, what would you do?” And basically she said, “Hey, if this was my son, I would be coming down here.” So we drive back down to Florida.

    And so Tyler had MRSA in his right arm, and it was traveling throughout his entire body. I tell this story because, it’s again, I think it’s part of the stigma and how we have a tendency to treat people with mental health or substance use disorder. So we get down there and get into the hospital and they kind of got him back into a section by himself, not a whole lot of people. And I walk into the room and he’s laying in bed. He’s got the homeless man beard, he stinks. He’s been on the street for five weeks and the nurse is saying, “Ah, he’s been a pretty tough patient. He’s been a little combative,” and all this. I said, whoa. I said, “Let’s take a time out.” I said, “Let’s get the kid out of the thing and let’s give him a shower. How about we start there? How about we let the kid take a shower? Can we do that?” She’s just kind of looking at me all weird. I’m like, “Hey, I’ll handle it. I got it.”

    So get him up out of there, we get him in the shower and he’s hurt and he don’t feel good, he’s doing withdrawal, his body’s beat up. I’m crying, I’m crying like a little kid in the shower with him and bathing him. And so we get him back out of there and they basically got to keep him in the hospital for two weeks because they got to run this IV through his system. I never forgot that because listen, how long would they let the kid set in bed if mom and dad don’t show up? How long do they let this homeless kid stay in there and not shower and not change his bed and not treat them like a normal patient? How long does that happen? That kind of thing provoked me. It provokes me to walk into the space now. It drives me to try to change the stigma associated with that.

    So ultimately, we stayed down there for two weeks man, I had some flexibility, had some vacation I could take and my wife and I, and we stayed there and every day we came to the hospital. Every day I changed his bed. They had had the traveling nurses thing, so nobody really gave a whole lot of attention. It got better the longer we were there because they actually realized that we were going to stay there the whole time. There’s some kind of cool memories there, because some things that mom and I got to cherish with him, just me mom and him, and working through it. We got him back into a treatment facility. We came down for a vacation with my girls, and he was in the sober living home and while he’s down there he said, “Dad, I’m coming home.” I go, “You’ve only been down here three months or so.” He’s like, “Yeah, I’m coming home.” He said, “so we can do it the easy way or the hard way. I can come home with you or I can hitchhike home and I’ll probably beat you.” You know what I mean? And that’s kind of just the way he was, too.

    So we just kind of talked about it as a family and it’s like, we can’t make him stay here. There’s nothing we can do to make him stay here. And so we spent two weeks down there on vacation. He stayed with us a lot of during that time, he went to meetings, he was still kind of working the program, but when we came home, he came home with us. It’s not something we really wanted to do, we didn’t really think it was the best thing, but it was also, we knew he was coming home and we had just went through that journey of homelessness. It was hard. It was very hard.

    So he comes home, doesn’t stay with us, stays with his girlfriend. Has about another month or so of sobriety, and then I get a call from him and he was using one of my vehicles I had loaned him. And I get a call from him and he said, “Hey, dad, come and get the van.” He said, “I’ve relapsed, and if you come and get the vehicle, maybe that can kind of hold me down a little bit.” So I went over and I got the vehicle, and at that time, we had already exhausted our two-time lifetime treatment. We had already exhausted financially us being exhausted of putting him into treatment. And so he raised his hand to get in a state-funded program. And at the time in Summit County where we lived, there was a three-week waiting list for him to get into a state-funded program.

    So think about that. You got diabetes, you’re sick. You say, “Hey, I need help. I raise my hand. I need help.” “We’ll see you in about three weeks.” And so during that time, he ended up taking off on foot and hooked up with another heroin addict. They went and bought heroin. Tyler decided to use it, and it immediately put him into overdose. And so the kid he was with, instead of calling 911, he took my son to a vacant lot and dumped him in the field and left him there to die. And so the next day, the Summit County Sheriff showed up at our house and said, “Hey, a resident found a dead body in a vacant lot,” and it was our 23-year-old son.

    And so from that moment, our lives were changed forever and you know, you cannot prepare for that moment. It was uniquely different for myself and for my wife and for my daughters. It was on a Sunday, I was playing in a golf outing. My daughter, my youngest daughter called me and said, “Hey, dad, you got to come home.” And I’m like, “Hey, I’m in a golf outing. What’s going on?” She’s like, “No, you got to come home.” And I knew immediately I had to leave. So I left, and Shelly’s parents are a little older and I thought maybe there was something going on with her parents, but most likely I knew it was Tyler. And so it took me about 45 minutes to get home. I get home and my daughter is in my office and she’s just sitting there, my youngest daughter. My oldest daughter was at work. My wife came out and said, and so I just fell on the floor and started crying and my wife laid down there on the floor with me and we just started crying.

    And my youngest daughter came out, we just all laid on the kitchen floor crying, and now we got to tell the rest of our family. And so we had to call my oldest daughter and say, “Hey, you’ve got to come home.” “What do you mean I got to come home?” “No, you’ve got to come home.” You can’t tell somebody something like this on the phone. And so she comes home and we tell her, and for an hour, me and my wife, my two daughters are just on the kitchen floor crying and just a mess. Now we got to tell Shelly’s parents, we got to tell Shelly’s sister, we got to start telling our family. And I remember driving over to Shelly’s mom and dad’s house, and I had to stop the car two times for my daughters to get out of the car and throw up. It was just so gut-wrenching. It was just so gut-wrenching.

    And so we get through all of that, and it was just so, so hard. You can’t prepare for it. You know it’s in the cards once you get deep into this space, you know what I mean? It’s the call that you never wanted but you think you could get it in time. It was crazy, I’ll share this with you, and I don’t share this too much because I think people sometimes they kind of roll their eyes or think, “Yeah, whatever.” Listen, I’m a man of faith. My family’s, we believe in Jesus Christ. I don’t claim to be a saint. I commit lots of sins, I’m not a role model. You know what I mean? I’ve made lots of mistakes, but I have faith and I’ve had faith my whole life. I remember sitting in my office and just crying out to God, “Come on, man. This is how my story’s… You know what I mean? Where are you? Why can’t you show up? Why didn’t you show up?” And just crying and just being so hurt.

    We hadn’t even buried him yet. Real quietly, real softly in my spirit, I heard, “I’ve prepared you,” and I had no idea what that meant. I had no idea. It was comforting. It was comforting in its own weird way, and it’s not like the sky opened. It’s not like, you know what I mean? It was just real softly, real quietly in my spirits. “I’ve prepared you for this.” And I don’t share that too often because most people just roll their eyes. I share it with my family and my close friends and stuff.

    So we get through the hard things of burying your son. My oldest brother passed away at 18. I was 11, and so I had that trauma of burying my oldest brother. Half brother, we had same mom, different dads. And that was so traumatic on me, and my biggest memory as a kid is seeing my brother laying dead in a casket with blue lips, and I couldn’t even go back and look at this. We did a real small showing of just our immediately family, and I couldn’t do it. I said, “I am not going to let my last memory of my son looking at him dead in a casket.” I left it up to the rest of my family, if you guys want to, do it, don’t judge me up because I can’t. You know what I mean? I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it.

    Once we get through that, what we start learning is that Tyler was the third young man to pass away of a heroin overdose within a year within our community. We’re in a real conservative community, a Mennonite type community. What I didn’t know is that my daughter was working with the other two girls who lost their brother and working with the school system of how we’re going to get this conversation going in our community. They were going to tell the story of losing their brothers, and my daughter was going to tell the story of recovery. Well, that didn’t work out. And this was pretty quick. Tyler passed in September. This happened in November.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    And what year was this?

    Travis Bornstein:

    2014. So these three girls worked with the guidance counselor and they decided to share their stories about their brothers. Kind of had the whole community come in, it was crazy. I mean, the whole gymnasium, the whole auditorium filled up. Some of it, I think were some people just being nosy, wanting to know what’s going on. Others, I think, came with real, “Hey, what’s going on in our community? What’s happening here?” I’m sitting there in the audience watching my 17-year-old daughter tell our story and having more guts than her father, and I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself that I couldn’t talk about this and that I couldn’t share it with my friends. But I was beaming with pride that my daughter had enough guts to lead our family in a time where I couldn’t.

    So kind of going back just a little bit, the first time my closest friends found out this was happening with Tyler is because it was on the front page of the newspaper. My closest buddies were like, “Trav, what’s going on, man? How come you didn’t share this with us?” And I didn’t share it with anybody. I just kind of kept my head down. I kept trying to keep my family together. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. And so that, now, listen, I can’t run from my story no more. It’s on the news. It’s on the front page of the Beacon Journal, and now my daughter’s talking about it. And so I kind of just made a commitment to myself at that point, and man, like I said, I was embarrassed of myself that my pride was holding me back from sharing.

    So these three girls spend the rest of their senior class traveling the tri-county area, Stark County, Summit County, Portage County, and sharing this story. They go into schools, they go into churches, they go into communities, they go into recovery groups and share this story to get this conversation going. My daughter was the beginning of us forming our nonprofit. That’s kind of how that evolved is we started putting Facebook pages out. “Hey, the girls are going here. The girls are doing this.” And then from there, my wife and I, we really just sat down and we just looked each other in the face and said, “We’re going to take the worst thing that could possibly happen to us as parents, but we’re going to do something different. We’re going to try to be part of the solution and try to bring real change.”

    I’m not stupid enough to think that I can change the world, but I’m smart enough to know that I can change something. I can impact something if I just respond the right way. Through that, we formed a nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) based on three pillars: education, support, and recovery. The education piece looks like that. We kind of get out, we share our story. We go into schools, we go into churches, we go into communities. I’ve had the opportunity to speak all across the country. Been given some really, really great opportunities to kind of share our story and talk about how to bring solutions into our communities and what can we be doing.

    The support piece is my wife immediately formed a support group for families that have lost a child or a loved one to the disease of addiction. She’s been doing that now for over six years. She’s worked with several hundred families within our community. She’s helped develop leaders. So as she’s come alongside these… And it’s mainly women. As men, we don’t share well, we’re all guarded, and it’s a lot of moms that have come together. She’s developed leaders, and now they’re starting to help us lead these groups. It’s been real transformational, watching it from a distance, because I kind of watch it from a distance. She’s just done a tremendous job.

    So the other thing I would say as we’ve walked into this space, my wife and I are equally yoked as we walk into this space. It wasn’t like I wanted to do it and she didn’t or she wanted to do it and I didn’t. We were equally yoked. We were both driven the same way, saying, “Listen, we’re going to do something. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re doing something.” It’s been healing for us as parents, but it’s also been huge for us to be able to persevere, to get this far down the road.

    Now, our grief journey’s a little different. We don’t go through the exact same things at the exact same times. Sometimes one person’s happy, the other person’s hurting, but we’ve done it together and I give her a lot of credit, and she’s special. She really is. And so we have a support group for families who have lost a child or a loved one, we have a support groups for families who are in active addiction, and then we kind of created this other, it’s not really a support group, but it’s just something we decided to do.

    We call it Love Bears All, and we have these teddy bears that people in the well, the support group, they kind of come together once or twice a year and they stuff these teddy bears. We put a little t-shirt on this teddy bear that says Love Bears All, and we give them out to first responders and fire departments and police officers and so forth. And as they go into a home and maybe mom or dad has overdosed, or maybe there’s a child, a young child there, they’re able to give this child this teddy bear, which is comforting to the child while they’re going through this traumatic event, but inside this teddy bear has resources within the community for that child to get help. Whoever comes alongside that child, mom or dad or grandparent or whatever, there’s some resources in there to help that child.

    Then the recovery piece is the third pillar. That was our kind of big ambition piece that we really reached for the stars on. I work for the Teamsters Union. Okay, I’m the president of Teamsters Local 24 in Akron. So every five years within the Teamsters Union, we have a convention where all the delegates from all across the country come together and we work through the business that we have to get through. So this was in 2016 was our convention. We had formed our nonprofit. We were a couple years into the nonprofit, and so I wrote a letter to our general president and kind of said, “Hey, as union leaders, we’re community leaders, and there’s nothing impacting our community more than this epidemic, and we need to be doing something. We need to be talking about it.” The general president gave me an opportunity to speak at our convention.

    I got to back up. My wife and I find comfort differently. So for instance, neither one of us liked going to the gravesite. So my wife started going to the lot where they dumped Tyler’s body. She found some type of comfort there, and then she finally to the point where she started taking a couple friends and they would go over there and pray, and she would come home and say stuff to me like, “Hey, I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do something. We got something to do with this lot. We’re going to do something.” And that just progressively got more demanding. Not her talking about it, her kind of saying, “Hey, we’re doing this.”

    And so she kind of came up with this idea. She said, listen, she goes, “I think we need to buy this lot and do something right here on this lot.” And so at this point, we do have a nonprofit. We kind of take it back to our board and say, “Hey, what do you guys think about the opportunity of us buying this lot and maybe doing something right here on this property?” And they all loved it. We kind of just started saying, “Okay, we’re going to buy the lot. We’re going to buy the lot.”

    Now that takes me to the convention. I wrote a letter to the general president, he gave me the opportunity to speak. There was probably, I don’t know, four or 5,000 people in the room from all across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. And I gave about a 15-minute speech, and really it was just telling our story and kind of just pouring out my heart and trying to explain this thing. But the most incredible thing happened. So after I was done, delegates started coming to the mic and making pledges to support our nonprofit. And so they started making donations. So the first donation was $10,000. Second donation was $20,000. The third donation was $50,000. This went on for an hour and 45 minutes, and we raised $1.4 million. As I’m watching this, delegates started coming to the mic and they started saying, “Hey, my nephew’s struggling,” or, “My parents are struggling,” or “My son’s struggling,” and then make it a pledge to support us.

    And then, you had some delegates come to the mic and said, “I’ve been in recovery for 20 years, but I’ve never told anybody because of the stigma associated with this.” And it was one of the most craziest things I’ve ever seen watching it. And so I was really glad that my wife was with me and my oldest daughter was with me to be able to see this happen. We raised all this money. The other thing that was just crazy about it is we have this thing in union halls that we often do if somebody’s hurting or somebody has an issue, we pass the hat and we raise a little bit of money and give the guy a couple hundred bucks or whatever.

    Well, they passed the hat at the Teamster Convention, and we raised $22,000 in cash right off the convention floor. And so I kind of tease a little bit and tell the story. It’s like they called me back and they say, “Hey, Trav, come back here. Bring your wife, we want you to see this.” So I go back in the back room behind the stage and everything, and they got all these trash bags, and they start dumping all this money on the table, and it’s like tens and twenties and fifties and hundred-dollar bills. And I’m looking at all this money and we’re in Vegas, the Teamsters convention in Vegas, and I’m like, “How am I taking this home?” You know what I mean? Obviously they didn’t give me the money, they wrote a check and they deposited and all that and wrote a check.

    So it was just so incredible to watch that kindness, the act of kindness. And so I say it like this as we work through it it’s like, some people go, Travis, “You’re a passionate speaker. You gave a great speech,” and all those kind of things. And I say, well, that’s great to say, but honestly, you don’t raise that kind of money because you’re a good speaker. You raise money because that epidemic was real and every person in that audience could feel it. It was happening in their neighborhood, it was happening in their community. It was happening at the job site sites that they represent. That’s why that thing took off the way it did. So my wife and I really dreamed this thing out and were like, “Hey, we can do something special here.”

    We wanted to be actively involved, hands-on, on how we were going to help change this, because this has changed our lives. So we started doing a bunch of research, just really trying to working real good with our alcohol, drug and alcohol and mental health board in the county and started to try to fill the gaps. I kind of say it this way, because I think the gaps are real, and I think they’re in every community. So I think the gaps are three things. I think it’s long-term treatment. So traditionally, it’s 30, 60, 90 days, tap you on the butt, and it’s say good luck. And then we wonder why 70% people fail in the first year.

    I think another gap is sober living housing. Everybody says, “Oh, that’s great. But not in my neighborhood. Not in my neighborhood.” We got to work through that. And then I think the biggest gap, and this is the space that we walked into, is aftercare relapse prevention. Because the journey don’t start because you went to treatment. The real journey starts is when you come out of treatment and what kind of resources can you get beside you and what kind of help can you get beside you? And I went back to my wife and I just said, “Listen, we’ve got a million dollars in the bank. We could build a heck of a nice house for a million dollars.” I said, “So what do you think about building a home and just hitting the commercial code?” We hit the commercial code on it, but we build this home.

    So from there, I kind of approached the county and the property that we initially bought was kind of small, it was only a couple acres. So I approached the county, I bought some property that I was aware of and went into some time trying to convince them to donate the property to us. Ultimately, it happened. They donated 10 acres to us. So once I convinced my wife to kind of land on the house, then I kind of said, “Well, we just don’t want to build a house. What do you want to build?” And she’s like, “Think we could build a log cabin?” “I don’t know, I’d love to build a log cabin.” “She’s like, me too.”

    So we started vetting out log cabin builders, and we got a pretty good Amish community within a couple hours of where we live. And so we went down there and started vetting out a lot of cabin builders. The one company said, “Listen,” after sitting down with us, they said, “Hey, we built this home out in Pennsylvania that I think you guys could tweak and modify a little bit. We wouldn’t have to do much. Would you be interested in looking at it?” So we drove three hours out to Pennsylvania and seen this log cabin and kind of just fell in love with it from there.

    So the name of this facility is called Tyler’s Redemption Place. It’s an RCO, which is a recovery community organization. It’s people in recovery reaching back and helping people in recovery. So what we know for sure is we have to treat the entire person for them to recover. Mind, body, spirit in a community setting. So all the programs we will have will be set up to treat the mind, body, and spirit. It’s free for people in recovery to come. They can stay in the program a year, two years, five years, 10 years, keep coming back as long as you want, long as you’re on your recovery journey. And we’re just going to change the culture and love people where they’re at with love and compassion and see how we can start right in our community and try to change our neighborhood.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Incredible. That’s incredible. We’ve talked about a ton of resources. Where can people go to find more information and access some of these resources?

    Travis Bornstein:

    Specifically on Hope United, you can follow us on Facebook. We got some information out there. We got a website. We’re on Instagram, LinkedIn, and those kind of things.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it. I appreciate all that you’ve done and our time together and you sharing your story with me and the listeners. It’s inspiring, it’s heartbreaking, it’s all the things and it’s exactly what people need to hear, so thank you. I appreciate it.

    Travis Bornstein:

    Yeah, I really appreciate the opportunity share with you and I’m proud of you and I’m proud of what you’re doing. Thank you very much.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    All right. Talk to me, Goose.

    Speaker 4:

    This is the overwhelming feeling I had. Are you ready? Every time that people tell a story like this, every time people have to share this, it is so hard. I can’t imagine being a parent like that. And at the same time, I kept thinking, I’m just glad he’s on our side. He’s just an amazing guy. He can speak about this in such a unique way, in a way that really grabs a hold of you, and I think that sort of dogged determination is really clear in what they’ve been able to do and what they continue to do. And we kind of chatted for a second at the end of the episode, and I do think there’s just something, too, about what they’ve created in this particular space where it’s like land and it’s this log cabin. There’s like some little shift in setting that can be kind of a reset.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, the kind of guy, a Teamster who was in the Marines, whose closest friends did not know his son was struggling till the day after he died, that person speaking out and talking about that. The person who is that way is only going to listen to another person who is that way. It’s imperative that we have him on our side, that we have him talking to those people, because I am not going to carry the message to that person, convince them to talk about their feelings or talk about what’s going on. That is something he alone can do. And so bringing the diversity of those different messages and those different vehicles that they come in is really important.

    Unfortunately, this is a club that no one would ever want to be a part of, and that’s not up to us. That’s not the decision that we get. We wouldn’t have chosen this path, but we were put on it and we get to choose how we respond. I think that’s the part that we have to get really well acquainted with, is we have to choose how we’re going to respond and that that’s not just addiction and family and whatever, that’s everything. There’s a saying that goes, “You’re not responsible for what happened to you, but you are responsible for how you respond to it.” This is another iteration of that.

    It’s just, as I told Travis, it’s so hard to hear because I mean, aside from the obvious reasons that it’s hard to hear, it’s also really scary as a parent listening to all the things that one can do for someone and ultimately have this as the outcome. And I know that. I hear that all the time, I know it. And to know all the things that I know and all the experience and still be terrified that this addiction thing is something that I’ve passed down to my kids. There are pieces of it that are a blessing. Being in recovery has, I’m not better in spite of my recovery, I’m better because of it. So there are pieces of it that are a blessing, but it’s not something you wish on someone. Definitely not your kid.

    One other thing I wanted to add, one thing that we talked about in this podcast was around boundaries. The line between boundaries and enablement. And it’s a really tricky conversation that Travis and I danced around a bit. And one thing that I think is important to remember and that Travis said, no situation is exactly the same. We need to look at the individualized pieces. But I have seen a lot of people once resources are cut off, that they’re able to then make different decisions and get help. And then I’ve seen, my aunt included, the ability to access resources, be the thing that killed them.

    So I really encourage people to reach out, if you are able to, to professionals who work in the industry. And I know that sounds slightly convenient, but I say that, I would do the same thing in my own family. I would hire or get with, talk to someone else, boots on the ground in this epidemic that knew inside and outside the disease. Getting outside perspective and getting help on how to respond is really, really, really important from someone who knows how to manage these situations because I have seen parents continue to give their kids housing, money, shelter, gift cards, all sorts of, vehicles, in hopes of keeping them from being homeless. And it killed them faster than being homeless would have.

    That’s not the case for everybody, and it’s not a perfect solution, but I do think that you are not going to treat cancer by yourself. You’re going to bring in an oncologist. You’re not going to source insulin, you’re going to use chronic disease experts to help you manage chronic diseases and to guide you and I really, really want to encourage people to engage addiction experts, experts in the chronic disease of addiction in helping you make decisions about what’s enabling and what is a good boundary.

    Speaker 4:

    Yeah. Well, again, I’m amazed with what Travis and his family has done with this. I would’ve loved to meet his wife Shelly, as well. She seems like a powerhouse and that’s awesome.

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Oh yeah.

    Speaker 4:

    But I think if you’re in the Ohio area, I hope you check them out and I’d say follow Hope United to see this incredible project come to fruition and all the good work that they’re going to do. If this is your situation and you don’t know what to do, as always, we’re a resource. You can reach out to us at podcast@lonrock.life and Ashley can point you in the right direction. Ashley, anything that you want to leave the people with this week?

    Ashley Loeb Blassingame:

    Yeah, just to what you just said. I’ve had several parents email me at podcast@lionrock.life or my email, ashley@lionrockrecovery.com, and I text with them about their kid just randomly here and there. What do you think of this? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. People who are listeners of the podcast. So when people reach out to me, I reach out to them. I absolutely make time and reach out. So if you have questions or need help, please do not hesitate to reach out. I really do respond.

    All right, everybody, stay safe out there and we’ll see you next week.

    Speaker 3:

    This podcast is sponsored by lionrock.life. Lionrock.life is a diverse and supportive recovery community, offering weekly over 70 online peer support meetings, useful recovery information, and entertaining content. Whether you’re newly sober, have many years in recovery, or you’re recovering from something other than drugs and alcohol, we have space for you. Visit www.lionrock.life today and enter promo code COURAGE for one month of unlimited peer support meetings free. Find the joy in recovery at lionrock.life.

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