"When you're told over and over, 'Your child's a problem child — he's bad, he's bad, he's bad, he's bad!' ... You believe your kid's bad."
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SALLY GREENO: He loved the outdoors. The more he was outside, the better. When he was a little one, we had a sandbox outside, and I remember looking out and he was bare a-- in the sandbox. [Laughs.] But, yeah that was — those are some good memories.
BESS O'BRIEN, HOST: That was Sally Greeno. And this is My Heart Still Beats, a project from Writers For Recovery and Vermont Public Radio. My Heart Still Beats features conversation and original writing from the recovery community all around Vermont. People in recovery from substance use disorder, and people helping those in recovery rebuild their lives. I'm Bess O'Brien.
I met Sally Greeno six years ago. I was struck by Sally's compassion and honesty, and her deep devotion to her husband Dennis and her two sons Ryan and Tyler. The Greeno family is tight. They snowmobile together, work hard at their jobs and do their best to take care of each other. On an overcast day in November 2018, Sally and I sat down in her living room outside of St. Albans, to talk about Tyler.
BESS O'BRIEN: He struggled for years with addiction to both opiates and alcohol. But according to Sally, his troubles began from his earliest years in school, when he became the "bad kid" in class. Here's Sally.
SALLY GREENO: He struggled in school right from kindergarten. And eventually Tyler was diagnosed with A.D.H.D. But back kindergarten, he was just the "problem child." And then it followed him to first grade and second grade and third grade.
And one example is, he was in third grade, and we get this frantic call from the teacher like, “Oh my god. Tyler's, like, over the top. We need to have a meeting.” And so we went to the school to have this meeting, and we were told that Tyler acted up on the playground one day. So they took that recess away from him and then he acted up on a different recess, so they took that one away from him. Then he acted up into lunch, at lunch. So they took lunch away from him. So, recesses and lunch he had to spend in a little room, either by himself or with an adult to watch him. And now it's just escalated so far: "He's acting up all the time — in class, out of class, and we just we cannot control him." And I'm like, “Well, how long has this been going on?" "Well, he hasn't had a recess for three months."
And I'm just hearing this? Are you kidding me?
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: Was part of it that as he as he got older and went through elementary school that that he sort of got pegged as the "bad kid"?
SALLY GREENO: He had that target on his back from a very young age. And Tyler didn't really say much about, you know, like the different stuff that went on at school. You ask him, you know, "How was school?" "Oh, good." Out the door. So he, so he never elaborated. It's almost like he just let it slide.
That was on the outside. But I think it would eat away at him on the inside. When Tyler was in high school, that "problem" child X on his back followed him all the way up through. And that really defined who he was as an adult. If I wouldn't have squashed my intuition, I would have kicked a-- in that school a lot longer. It took me until Tyler was in ninth grade before I started like stepping up and saying, “You know what? This ain't right." You had nine years plus kindergarten, so 10 years before I finally found my big girl f---in' panties, and got into that school and did something. And psychologically, when you're told over and over, you know, your child's a problem child — he's bad, he's bad, he's bad, he's bad. [Crying] So you believe your kid's bad.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: Do you think that Tyler feeling like he didn't fit in led to his starting to experiment with drugs?
SALLY GREENO: I think that was a big part of it. I also think it was the reason he became addicted. Because he finally fit in.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: When is the first time you found out that he was experimenting with drugs or alcohol?
BESS O'BRIEN: It was when he came home and his eyes just looked weird. It's like, yes, what's up here? When he was, gosh, 16, 17? He ran away. That was frickin' torture. You know. Couple of weeks before I think — it was like a week, two weeks. Just felt like forever. A lot of struggles.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: What can you tell us — what did it started with? Did it start with drinking and then move on to prescription drugs?
SALLY GREENO: I think it was drinking, the marijuana, and then into the prescriptions.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: So when did you know that he was addicted to prescription drugs and opiates? And what was happening in the household? And what was that like during that time?
SALLY GREENO: Just missed curfews, and started to get in trouble with the law and you're just so worried, you can't function. Like, you know, if I'm here worrying and praying and, you know, all that praying should keep him safe. But if I let my guard down and go enjoy myself and forget to pray, he might not be safe. You know, you just — you just stop living. You stop living.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: Did his personality change?
SALLY GREENO: When he drank and did pills, he was extremely violent. One night, he used and, you know, pills and drinking. And he came home, we were all in bed and all of a sudden I woke up to Ryan screamin'. Tyler had kicked Ryan's door in and attacked him in his sleep. He was just, like, fightin' and screamin' and swearing and punched holes in the wall. And Dennis and Ryan actually tackled him. I ended up having to call the cops. While we were waiting for the cops, Dennis and Ryan had Tyler pinned down. And then when I knelt next to him, he says, “Ma,” he says, “I hate your f---ing guts.” I said, "I know you do, baby, I know you do. We're going to get you some help."
BESS O’BRIEN, ON TAPE: Where did he go for help, Sally?
SALLY GREENO: He went to Maple Leaf. They actually did like the family counseling stuff. And I went to the counseling, every time I could. One time, the counselor said to me 'You know, if you could tell Tyler anything at all, what would it be?" And I said, "Tyler," I said, "I love you with all my heart, but I hate your f---ing addiction." So, yeah. Lotta talking and healing and forgiving.
BESS O’BRIEN: So Tyler was in recovery for three years. He was working and living from home. He was doing the things he loved best, like snowmobiling and dirt biking. He was trying to get his life back together again. Then one Saturday night in March 2011, Tyler went out drinking with his friend Tim.
SALLY GREENO: Saturday morning I had to work. So I went to work, and then just all of a sudden I just got this god awful feeling. I just shut down my computer and I came home.
And Tyler was standing in the garage. And we watched a movie that night and the feeling disappeared, and I f---ing let him go. And he didn't come home.
[Crying.] All those sleepless nights and all the worry and it was like deja vu when that f---in' officer knocked on the door. I just started screaming.
Tyler and Tim were involved in a car accident, and they both died. It was maybe a mile from the house.
BESS O’BRIEN, ON TAPE: So it's been how many years, since Tyler's passed?
SALLY GREENO: Six and a half.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: And people say, "How do you survive a child's death, I — I, well, what is [deep breath] What is it like?
SALLY GREENO: Lotta ups and downs. Roller coaster. I mean, yeah, we used to have belly laughs in this house, like, all the time. Somebody was always doing something goofy. Always. And that all kind of disappeared after he died.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: Does it get easier at all, or is that just a saying that people say?
SALLY GREENO: That's a saying. You have some days that are easier, and then, you, you know — I call them my little mini-depressions. Some days are harder than others. Sometimes I'll be, you know, my mini-depression might last a day or two, sometimes a week. When I'm helping others is when I feel the best. We started the Tyler Greeno Fund, and we started working with the schools and we ended up funding some trauma training to all of the teachers. It was actively involved at trying to plant seeds for change.
BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: As a parent, you know, if you start to see your kids start using prescription drugs, or get into drugs and alcohol, what are some advice that you would give parents?
SALLY GREENO: Have a conversation. Don't be afraid to sidestep that conversation because you're afraid it's going to cause a fight or make it worse or ... And as hard as it is, recovery is so worth the work. Don't give up. Whether you're the one going into recovery or you're the family member, you know, just give it all you've got because it is so worth it.
Three years of recovery and I saw a side of Tyler that was totally forgotten. You realize the amazing little boy we had actually was an amazing man. In the years of using, you kind of forget all of that. But boy, after he cleaned up it was like, "Oh my gosh. I forgot that he was kind and compassionate." So the real Tyler came back, and just the the beaming smiles on his face, you know it was fulfilling for him. It was like, pure joy.
BESS O’BRIEN: That was Sally Greeno. And this is My Heart Still Beats.
My Heart Still Beats is a production of Writers for Recovery made possible with support from Vermont Public Radio and the VPR Innovation Fund. Producers for this series are me, Bess O'Brien, and Gary Miller. Erica Heilman is the editor, and Angela Evancie is VPR's managing editor for podcasts. The music in this episode was by Brian Clark. Writers for Recovery is made possible through major underwriting from the Vermont Department of Corrections, The Rona Jaffe Foundation and Nat and Martha Winthrop. For more information about Writers for Recovery and how to join a workshop go to writersforrecovery.org.
If you like the show, please take a minute and review us on Apple Podcasts or Facebook. This helps new listeners find the show. I'm Bess O'Brien. Thanks for listening.