A Greenwood mother will always wonder what triggered her son to put a needle in his arm again after one of the longest stretches of sobriety in his adult life — 60 days.

And Jeanette Mails will always remember the day she found her son lifeless in her garage. With his history of drug use, she suspected it was an overdose that had taken him, but she had to wait months for lab test results to confirm it.

In her grief, she found gratitude that he didn’t become a missing person, gone for months, and she was never called by the police to identify her son’s body, as do many parents who lose children to drug addictions.

The last two months of Tyler Coffey’s life were the brightest his mother had seen in years. He had a job, he was working out, he was attending recovery meetings and they had worked out a plan for him to file bankruptcy to help pay off the more than $90,000 in bills from his rehab stays.

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“We really thought this time was it,” Mails said.

But about two weeks before Coffey’s death, his mother noticed an old friend who had been around during her son’s past drug use return to his life. Still, she was hopeful. He had a new group of sober friends and he was going to meetings everyday he wasn’t working.

“We thought he had turned a corner. He told me he didn’t think he had many chances left,” she said.

Sadly, he was right. On the sixth overdose that his mother knows about, Coffey died. He was 23.

In the four months since, his mother has been reflecting on her son’s life and what might have led him to use that final time. But she knows she will never get that answer.

“I wish I knew. I wish I understood,” she said.

Addiction wasn’t an issue Mails thought her family would struggle with again. Coffey’s father was an alcoholic and as a kid, his mother was open with him about his father’s struggles and the chance that addiction can be passed on through genetics, she said.

Coffey would often talk about how he never wanted to be like his father, and in elementary school, he wrote about how he wanted the world to be drug-free.

Through much of his teenage years, Coffey and his mother were close, talking often and attending church together. By his mid-teens, Mails felt comfortable that her son wouldn’t struggle with addiction like his father did.

He was the class clown, doing anything he could to make his friends laugh. He played baseball, football and basketball and he wrestled. He had a ton of friends, his mother said.

But in eighth grade, Coffey was expelled from school when he bought steroids off another student — his quick fix for him to slim down to be better at sports, she said.

After he was expelled, he stole his mother’s car and crashed it, and his mother had to report it to the police since her car was involved in a hit-and-run. He began experimenting with marijuana and Spice, and he admitted it to his mother, saying he just wanted to find a way to escape his anxiety and depression and finally feel better, she said.

“He never dealt with emotions very well. He never wanted to talk about them. He just wanted to feel better,” Mails said.

They sent him to Fairbanks, but Coffey was kicked out when he refused to go to meetings. They tried court-ordered therapy, and it really had no effect.

His mother kept on him, with the expectation that he would finish school. He went to Greenwood Community High School briefly, then to Whiteland Community High School and then the Clark-Pleasant Academy. When he was close to failing out of that program, Coffey took the steps to transfer to the Franklin Academy, where he completed his credits just a few months after when he had originally been set to graduate.

Coffey had dreams of becoming a video game or computer programmer, but he didn’t have the initiative. And when he moved in with some friends, his path to self-destruction and the worst year of his life began, his mother said.

At age 18, Coffey tried heroin for the first time, his mother said.

“He said it was nothing like you ever felt. It just took it all away, and that’s what he was searching for,” she said.

But to others, Coffey was clearly slipping away.

The usually tidy young man, who made sure his shoes matched his pants and that he smelled good, would go days without showering. He stopped working out. His skin broke out.

His mother, terrified, convinced herself the problem wasn’t as bad as it was. He was still going to work, she reasoned, so he must be OK.

But six months after he moved out, Coffey called his mother at 1 a.m., saying he needed help and that he wanted to move back home.

From that day on, the next few years of their life was filled with stints in jail, treatments, rehab stays and brief periods of sobriety, followed by relapses and overdoses, Mails said.

Coffey tried Suboxone, but that didn’t last long because he had to go to get the dose everyday, and had to pay for it everyday. He went back to using heroin again.

In 2015, 2016 and 2017, he spent several months in jail, often for violating his probation on previous drug charges.

In 2016, he had a successful stint in rehab in Michigan and then a sober living facility in California. But he missed home, and he came back and soon after was using again, had overdosed and then was back in jail.

And then came 2017, a rough year when Coffey lost two close friends — one to suicide and another to an overdose. He relapsed and slipped into depression. At one point, his probation officer was concerned enough to violate his probation, sending Coffey to jail for two weeks and forcing him to get clean, his mother said.

The last two years were full of extraordinary highs, when Coffey was out of rehab, confident and making plans for the future, and extreme lows where he struggled to get a job due to his felony convictions. He worked in factories and restaurants, which were about the only places that would hire him. And then he would relapse, she said.

“Every time he relapsed, it was harder and harder to come back from because he was so hard on himself,” she said.

“People just don’t understand. They’re so human. He didn’t want to be this way.”

Using had stopped being a choice for Coffey a long time ago, and he didn’t want to keep doing it. He hated the pain, he hated what it was doing to his family, she said.

In the summer of 2017, Coffey started a new treatment program, was put on house arrest and he got the Vivitrol shot, which temporarily works to take away the feeling of getting high when using.

And life started getting better.

Coffey was becoming himself again, working out and taking care of his appearance. He was proud of his job, and he was looking toward the future, including what he wanted for Christmas and scheduling a tattoo for the following week.

On the day he died, he was getting ready to go to work, plugging in his house arrest equipment to charge, changing clothes.

“He wasn’t planning on dying that day,” his mother said.

At some point, he shot up with heroin that was laced with a large amount of Fentanyl, causing him to overdose and die on the floor of his mother’s garage. Police officers searched their home, looking for any kind of drug paraphernalia, but didn’t find anything. So his mother strangely hoped Coffey died of natural causes, that his body just gave out.

But lab tests later showed that wasn’t the case.

At first, after his death, Mails didn’t want to share her son’s story. She didn’t want people to know what his struggles were. But then she began remembering how open he had been about his addiction, including sharing his story social media and in person, and that changed her mind. Coffey was open about his struggles because he didn’t want others to have to live the way he did, his mother said.

She knows about the people who say that people addicted to drugs don’t deserve to be saved with Narcan and call drug use their choice. But she has a strong support group that rallied around her after Coffey’s death, and supported her decision to share their story. She knows they look at her and think they are no different.

“I don’t think people think about it so much until it hits close to you,” she said.

“It’s not the ‘poor kids,’ it’s not the ‘druggies.’ It’s anyone. It’s your neighbor.”

Since his death, she has met so many people he impacted, from people who attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings with him to a woman he let borrow his car when the air conditioning went out in hers.

“He helped so many people. He just didn’t know how to help himself,” she said.

“I’m happy they have these memories. I just wish he would have found a way to do it for himself.”

About this series

The United States is in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in history.

Opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, are killing Americans.

The Daily Journal is taking a yearlong look into the public health crisis that touches nearly every segment of our community and crosses all socioeconomic lines, from families who lost loved ones to health and law enforcement workers on the front lines.

Addicted & Dying also will explore solutions and a path forward.

This week, we talk to families who have lost loved ones to overdose.

Got an idea for our project? Contact us as 317-736-2770.

About the problem

Addiction: Addiction is considered a brain disease and a chronic, relapsing condition. Opioid drugs change the brain.

Stigma: Families affected by cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s Disease get help and support from the community. Families affected by addiction often struggle in silence due to the stigma attached to addiction, which is an obstacle to recovery.

Number of deaths: 32 in Johnson County in 2017, not including people who die at an Indianapolis hospital.

Hospital visits: 105 people in Johnson County went to emergency rooms for treatment of an overdose in 2015, which is similar to numbers reported from other, larger counties, such as Allen or Hamilton counties.

Prescription rate: For every 100 residents in Johnson County, 84 opioid prescriptions were written in 2016.

Finding a solution

We asked families touched by addiction what would help address the crisis.

Jeanette Mails

Less expensive treatment, and longer treatment. Thirty days is just not enough. It isn’t just the medical part, you have to deal with emotions too, and you can’t do that in 30 days.

Drug dealers also need to face stiffer penalties. People do make the choice to buy the drugs, but maybe if there were more consequences, they wouldn’t be out there selling.

Author photo
Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at agoeller@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2718.