A family grieves a son lost too soon to drugs
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series about illicit drugs in the region.
When Karen Tinsley was pregnant with Elijah in 1997-98 it was smooth sailing—no morning sickness and she could eat anything. She felt great. As a child, Elijah was happy-go-lucky with a big smile on his face. It wasn’t until he started William Monroe High School in 2012 that things changed; the smiled dropped, he began to experiment with drugs and he became more defiant and started skipping school.
Karen now carries a portion of her eldest son’s ashes in a locket around her neck. The rest are in an urn on a table in her home.
Elijah overdosed on methamphetamine, likely mixed with rock salt, late on the evening of June 8, 2019. He passed away at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, June 11, at the University of Virginia Hospital.
“I feel like the system failed me and my son,” Tinsley said recently. “We did outpatient rehab but he was meeting fellow local addicts and they were selling drugs to each other. About a month or two before he passed, he had failed numerous drug tests for cocaine, heroin and meth—which was his drug of choice. I watched my child lay in the hospital for three days while he died.”
Tinsley said she and her husband had tried tough love with him, had given him money for an apartment (that he blew on drugs, she found out later), helped get him jobs and worked to get him admitted to in-patient rehab.
“We tried everything,” she said. “No addict is going to get help, no matter how hard you push them, unless they want to.”
In the beginning
Elijah had the biggest smile, Tinsley said, which she misses—as well as his voice.
“He was just goofy, in a good way,” she said. “He could make you laugh.”
Tinsley had saved a few voicemails from Elijah and when she recently got a new phone she lost them, causing her great pain.
“I couldn’t listen to them a lot, but just knowing they were there gave some comfort,” she said.
Elijah started using marijuana when he was about 13 or 14. Tinsley always told her children before they did anything to stop and think about the consequences.
“Elijah, bless his heart, was a follower and he happened to just get in the wrong crowd and he was not one to say no,” she said.
Tinsley believes Elijah started using hard drugs somewhere near January 2018.
“He wasn’t even on those hard drugs (but) maybe, what, a year and a half,” Tinsley said. “I used to tell him that not everybody who smiles in your face is your friend. Underneath it all, he had a good heart. He was a good kid; the drugs just totally changed him. He became a stranger.”
Tinsley said watching her son go from a happy-to-lucky kid to a junkie broke her heart. But, Elijah was always a risk-taker, Tinsley said; it was just part of his personality.
“If someone told him to go jump off a building, he would do it,” she said. “When he was with his so-called ‘friends’ and they got drugs, he would be the one to try it first to make sure it was safe.”
Once Elijah turned 18, Tinsley lost the power to require his admittance into rehab.
“At first I was in denial,” she said. “I had no idea about meth; it’s not a good drug and it affects your brain. I never talked about meth or anything with Elijah. I just didn’t know.”
Tinsley said a parent should never have to bury their child.
“I’ll never see him grown up, whether he beat his addictions or any of that,” she said. “I wanted him to be better than what I ever did in life and to excel.”
Elijah had taken heroin, as well, and developed hepatitis C due to unsafe needle use. He also had asthma.
“Fentanyl is basically a death sentence and that scared me,” Tinsley said. “I’m in a support group on Facebook for mothers who have lost a child to overdose and about 90% of them lost their child because of a drug laced with fentanyl. And the youngest one was 13 years old, so they’re starting young with the hard drugs.”
It only takes a small bit of fentanyl to kill someone.
When she told Elijah she was afraid she was going to lose him, he told her that she wouldn’t lose him to addiction.
“People would call me in the six months before he passed away, people I didn’t even know would (message via) Facebook, saying they were finding Elijah passed out in the street,” Tinsley said. “I’d ask him about it; he would say these people were making stuff up about him. I knew they weren’t.”
Tinsley recalled when a dead body was found in a park in Charlottesville; she felt like she couldn’t breathe while it took Elijah hours to respond to her texts.
Elijah had stolen to afford his habit, not able to hold down a job for very long. In fact, he was on probation when he overdosed.
“The Monday before he overdosed, he failed a drug test with his probation officer—for meth and cocaine—so I’ve kind of been angry at his probation officer. Why didn’t she throw him in jail being that was not the first drug test he failed?” Tinsley asked. “I would rather my son got life in prison and be alive. I still would be hurt, but at least I could go see him.”
Tinsley said sometimes the family would go days without hearing anything from Elijah and then he’d call her starving and though she didn’t give him money anymore, she would never withhold food from him.
“Even if I couldn’t physically get it to him, I would ask for the address of where he was and I would have food delivered,” she said. “I was dumb at first and gave him money to cut his hair or buy clothes or whatever. He would blow whatever dime he got to buy beer, cigarettes and drugs. When he did have money, he had all kinds of friends; they all got drugged out and then the money was gone. He did have a couple of friends—I won’t mention names for privacy—that did a lot for him and I really, really appreciate it. They’ve gotten clean and they tried to help Elijah.”
Tinsley said when someone is on drugs like methamphetamine or heroin it’s almost as if they’re not in our reality; they are, physically, but not mentally.
“It made me angry,” she said. “It’s hard to explain. When he was gone, I missed him and wondered when he’d come around; and when he was on drugs, I could choke him. We would try to help him; he stayed with quite a few people who tried to help him and as soon as they mentioned rehab, he’d leave.”
Tinsley said she believes her son wanted rehab, but “the high was just what he wanted more.”
A family’s pain
“Hard drugs are killing our youth,” Tinsley said. “The year that Elijah overdosed, most other ones were also 25 years old or younger.”
Tinsley, who graduated from William Monroe High School in 1995, was already a mom of two kids by the time she was 25 years old.
“I was burying him at the same age that I was when I gave birth to him,” she said. “I feel like in a way he committed suicide. (Addicts) are taking a chance with each hit; it’s like putting a gun to your head with that one bullet in.”
Tinsley said it’s not just an addict that struggles with addiction, it’s the whole family. His younger brother is still in shock, Tinsley said, and she cries a lot.
“That very first Christmas was hard, right after he passed away. I couldn’t eat,” she said. “When Elijah passed away, I kind of shut myself away. I feel I neglected my family some. I wouldn’t want to go on family vacations and if I experience any joy now, I feel so guilty because Elijah can’t do that anymore.”
Elijah would have been turning 23 this year.
“I see a lot of his classmates out here doing stuff and I’m happy for them,” she said. “But I feel like Elijah kind of robbed me of that, too.”
Tinsley said she has blamed herself.
“You can teach them right from wrong, but it’s totally up to them,” she said. “I felt I should have done more. One thing I didn’t realize (was) when he was doing heroin at first, I checked his arms and there were no needle marks; they’re doing it between their toes and fingers. I never thought to check in between his fingers and his toes.”
When Elijah was in the hospital bed, nurses told Tinsley that he wasn’t going to make it, but she was in denial.
“When they told me that he was not going to live for the 15th or 20th time—and I feel sorry for the other people who were in the hospital on that floor—I started screaming and crying and fell on the floor. I was pushing anyone away from me,” she said. “I was angry at them for telling me that.”
Tinsley said she’s grateful for all the staff at the University of Virginia Hospital Medium Care Unit did for Elijah, though.
“I’ll always love him. We miss him and I’ll always have two sons. I’ll always keep his name alive,” she said. “When you’ve carried that child and they’ve kicked inside of you … it literally is like a piece of you has died with that child. Part of my heart is just gone.”
Tinsley said she hopes someone sees Elijah’s story and gets help.
“Just know that there is hope. Do not give up,” she said. “Contact a friend, a pastor, even me, anyone. Just do not give up.”