Ex-addict's mom will offer Ripon parents a ?wake-up call'
Ripon Commonwealth Press - 4/12/2018
Sandi Lybert's diagnosis of what was killing her son is simple.
"I was loving him to death," she said.
The drugs Tyler Lybert were abusing had the potential to end his life, but Sandi believes she was enabling him over the edge.
"We are not the same family that we were almost nine years ago," she recalled. "... We were this family divided. I mean, it was horrible."
From the outside, the Lyberts appeared to be a family straight off a Christmas card: a loving wife and husband - with one son and one daughter - who always ate dinner together.
Much later, as Sandi went around speaking to families across Wisconsin and beyond about how to catch the warning signs of possible drug use by their children, she remembers a woman saying to her, "I don't mean to offend you, but you don't look like a mother of a heroin addict."
Sandi replied, "I hope I'm not offending you, but what am I supposed to look like?"
Behind the pristine veneer of the apparently perfect family, something was rotting away the Lyberts' relationships.
And at the center of the turmoil was Tyler's descent into addiction, dependency and near-death, which "almost destroyed absolutely everything in our lives" according to his mom.
"I would have lost my husband, I would have lost my daughter, I would have lost everybody to keep Tyler safe from that drug addiction," Sandi said. "... [My husband and I] blamed each other for Tyler's use."
It began with alcohol in just sixth grade. Then marijuana in seventh grade. Then prescription drugs in eighth and ninth grade.
By the time he was a junior in high school, Tyler was using heroin.
Finally, his mother couldn't take seeing her son wasting away any longer.
While he was in a drug house in downtown Milwaukee contemplating suicide, Sandi called Tyler and gave him an ultimatum: "You can continue doing what you want to do, but we will no longer be part of your life."
Either Tyler had to get himself into rehab treatment (again) and be serious about it, Sandi told him, or else his family was done with him.
That began a process that finally seemed to snap Tyler out of his downward spiral.
"He was going to lose us, for the very first time," Sandi said. "I was never as strong as I was the last time."
Today, Tyler is in his early 30s and has been clean since 2008.
After years of darkness, the Lyberts saw light through counseling, support and, perhaps most of all, outreach.
Sandi will bring their story - and advice on how local families can keep it from becoming their own story - April 25 to Ripon High School.
That evening, a resource fair with information on substance abuse and mental health issues, along with free pizza, will be offered starting at 5:45 p.m. until Sandi's adults-only (21 and older) program begins at 6:30 in the auditorium.
The program, "Wake Up Call," is set up like a normal teen's bedroom but with hidden clues and "red flags" that could indicate a child may be dabbling in drugs.
PASSION TO EDUCATE
Sandi knows she didn't read the signs in time to try and prevent Tyler's progression to addiction, but she hopes that by looking back at what she overlooked, other families won't miss the same markers.
That's why she and her family founded Your Choice to Live. Wake Up Call is just one of the programs the organization offers.
"I didn't want to be silent about it anymore. I wanted to put a face [to it], a family that has lived through the addiction," Sandi said. "But I also wanted to show the hope, because so many people were talking about drug addicts and people dying that there was never that hope and there was never that education component.
"And that's really where my true passion came from, was really starting to educate."
At the time, Sandi couldn't identify any educational program quite like the one she was proposing.
And she had difficulty even finding a willing test audience.
"We had so many doors close in our faces," she said. "... ?We don't have a problem; we don't have a problem in our community; our kids are never going to go down that path.' And, you know, I was one of those parents."
One person she met who was on board now serves on the board as vice president of Your Choice to Live: Katie Westerman.
Before the opioid epidemic in rural communities was making headlines across the country, drug addiction was seen as an "inner-city problem," Westerman said. Families didn't want to talk about it because it wasn't "our schools, our communities, our children."
"None of us - I mean, none of us - are immune from it," Westerman said. "It can affect anybody."
Every day, she added, she speaks to someone who knows someone suffering from substance abuse.
WHY DO YOUTH USE?
Fortunately, many communities now appear to be taking the problem seriously, and Sandi sees Ripon as one of them.
Her program, though, takes a different angle than most other efforts aimed to inform families of the dangers of teen drug use.
"Instead of being quiet about it, instead of ?Oh, here's another statistic,' ?Those are just those drug dealers out there,' ?Oh, they're just an addict,' it's starting to put a face and a family and emotions and feelings behind this epidemic," Sandi said.
From her personal experiences with her son, Sandi explained that she recognized trends of increasing suburban drug use.
"Tyler used with about 55 friends; he lost 44 friends, only three of whom made it out," she said. "That scares me to death. That scares me to death."
She has been wrestling with the problem of youth substance abuse for years.
"The big question is ... why do we have all these kids starting [to use drugs]? ... Why do we have kids that are anxious, depressed?" Sandi said. "... If you talk to psychologists and you talk to people, we've not allowed our kids to handle depression. We've not allowed them to handle boredom. Simple things ... They don't have any coping skills."
"Every human is stronger than what they realize and are more resilient that what they realize," said Ripon High School counselor Jolene Schatzinger, who has helped bring Sandi to Ripon and plan the event.
Offering support, help and resources while de-stigmatizing those in need of that help can be key, Schatzinger added.
"It's not that they can't do it alone," she said. "They don't realize that they have it in them."
"We need to know how to do that," Sandi agreed. "We need to empower that child that ?You're OK; you can do this on your own; you don't need that substance.'"
But she also believes in the need to empower families to tackle these issues head-on, whether they believe they are affected by addiction or not.
That's why Sandi encourages adults of all walks of life to show up at the Wake Up Call event. Doing so indicates "You just want to learn. You want that knowledge and that power," she said.
IDENTIFYING RISK FACTORS
Despite the heaviness of the subject and the weight of her own experience, Sandi tries to keep the program "gentle" and lighter in tone than may be expected.
"I'm pretty strong with parents," she said, as she discourages behaviors that enable children the way she enabled Tyler. "... But I offer them hope."
"It's going to be serious, yes; but it's going be in a way that is approachable" Schatzinger said. "And no matter if you feel like this is affecting your household or not, you can learn so much from being in this."
Westerman added that the program "sheds a light" on issues parents understandably may want to avoid even thinking about.
"Obviously, we don't want to think about our babies doing these things," she said. "And hopefully you won't find these things."
But, if the need arises, those who participate may have the knowledge and resources to address what may come.
As far as her son is concerned, Sandi now recognizes how many boxes Tyler's behavior checked for substance abuse risk factors:
? Family history. "Both [my husband] Rick and I have addiction on both of our sides."
? Mental/behavioral problems. "I thought [Tyler] was going to get kicked out of preschool at 3 years old ... He was like this wrecking ball."
? Using addictive substances at young age. "[Tyler] started at 11."?
Risk taking. "He comes out [of rehab and treatment] and buys a motorcycle ... We were like, ?We didn't lose him to drugs; we're going to lose him to a fricking motorcycle.'"
? Gregarious and outgoing. "That's one of the reasons that he started, is he wanted friends. And you know who's the easiest people [to make friends with] is the people who use drugs or alcohol."
A FAMILY REMADE
The Lybert family went through this trial of fire, and they are some of the lucky ones who came out the other side.
Tyler now is going to school to be an alcohol and drug counselor.
Sandi and Rick's daughter, Ashleigh Nowakowski, is the executive director of Your Choice to Live and earned a master's degree in public administration.
Sandi herself, meanwhie, gave up her career in banking to pursue what she now recognizes as her life's calling. And part of the power of her advocacy, she believes, comes from her and her family's relatability.
"We still fight; we still argue," she said; but now "we are a very different family."