Related stories about the heroin problem
by Joni Astrup
For Tom and Janet Weishalla, of Elk River, the first sign of trouble came when their son, Bobby, was in seventh grade.
“He made friends with this one kid, and that’s when everything started,” Tom said.
That year Bobby got caught smoking on school grounds. It began going downhill from there and at some point Bobby started using illegal drugs. He eventually dropped out of school. He sold everything he had of value to support his drug habit, then began stealing from his parents.
In 2011, he accidentally overdosed on heroin and nearly died.
His parents said Bobby went into treatment numerous times, but nothing produced lasting success. Two days after checking himself out of what would be his final attempt at treatment, on Dec. 10, 2012, Bobby died of a heroin overdose at age 20. He left a suicide note. His parents firmly believe he’d still be here if he could have kicked his drug habit.
“He wouldn’t have killed himself if he wasn’t on drugs,” Tom said.
Added Janet: “It (heroin) just changes who you are. It’s not you. He was so totally different, somebody else, when he was high on heroin. We always knew when he had it in his system. It was awful.”
Bobby was the youngest of their three sons, and nine months after his death his parents are still trying to come to grips with it all. They go to two support groups and attend church twice a week.
“It’s still a struggle for us, day by day,” Janet said. “There’s days when I still wake up and I think, ‘Is this a dream?’”
“Nothing compares to losing a child,” she added. “You bring them into this world, you raise them, and they’re supposed to be here long after us.”
They are telling their story because they want people to understand the seriousness of the heroin problem.
“If this can help one person stay away from drugs or prevent a suicide, then that’s one more reason to tell others about this,” Janet said.
A kind, smart, likeable boy who loved sports
The Weishallas moved to the Elk River area in 1992, the same year Bobby was born. They initially lived in Otsego but moved to Elk River after a few years.
His parents described Bobby as a kind, smart, likeable kid who loved playing sports — especially basketball — and anything to do with the outdoors. He wanted to become a coach.
One online memorial posting read: “He went to Elk River High School and was loved by everyone. Bobby always had a smile on his face and if he wasn’t talking sports, then he probably wasn’t talking.”
Bobby was part of the Elk River High School Class of 2011, but didn’t graduate with his class. He got his GED last summer.
“He was very proud of that,” Janet said. “He was embarrassed and he felt bad that he didn’t finish out high school, but that’s what drugs do to you.”
The Weishallas said illegal drugs are rampant in the Elk River area, and kids can readily get things like marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
Bobby’s descent into drug addiction progressed over time, ending with a dependence on heroin. They found out during one of his drug treatment programs that he had been using heroin for two years before his death.
He had told his mother that the original reason he started using heroin was when he worked overnights at a machine shop, he had trouble sleeping during the day.
“There was somebody else there that was using it and said, ‘Here, use this. This will help,’” Janet said. The heroin made him sleepy, she said.
They said it was hard for them to fully grasp just how bad their son’s addiction was.
Tom explained: “You don’t want to believe it. We were in denial. We knew that he had a problem, but you want to deny that it’s that bad. It’s almost like you’re living in a dream world that it’s not happening.”
Tom said he’s never tried an illegal drug in his life, and trying to understand a son who did was challenging. He said Bobby was always a special kid, easy to get along with. But when he started using drugs and getting into trouble, it made him hard to like.
Both he and Janet felt anger and disgust over their son’s drug use.
“That’s the one thing that’s the hardest to do when somebody is on drugs is to show them love,” Tom said. “And that’s exactly what they need to get away from it.”
Parents see a flaw in treatment system
Over the years, Bobby went into treatment about eight times to try to shake his drug use.
“Some of the times it worked for a short while,” Janet said. “The longest I think he was sober was three or four months. You could see such a difference from when he was using and when he was not. That’s what we miss. That was the real him. He was such a nice guy, such a good person. But he just couldn’t stay away (from drugs).”
The Weishallas believe there’s a major flaw in the treatment system and that’s the fact that adults can check themselves out before they complete a drug treatment program.
The last time Bobby was in treatment, the Weishallas said he was allowed to check himself out even though he was under the influence of a narcotic.
“That’s where the flaw is,” Janet said. “The state is saying, ‘Well, he’s an adult. Anybody who is an adult can check themselves out.’ I think if you’re an adult and you make a decision to go into treatment, you should sign a waiver saying you cannot be let out until your program is done.”
She also disagrees with letting people in treatment programs use the Internet.
“What do they do? They’re going to talk to their other buddies that are using or their contacts that get them stuff,” she said.
She remembers visiting Bobby while he was in a treatment facility and taking him to lunch at a nearby McDonald’s.
“I remember he seemed real fidgety. Then he said he had to go to the bathroom. Thinking about it now, I bet he went and got something in the bathroom because it was the very next day that he used and was kicked out of the treatment facility,” Janet said. “They should not allow them to go on the Internet.”
It’s their desire to get new rules and regulations at treatment centers in the hope of helping more addicts.
As for the authorities, they believe the police are doing their job but they’d like to see them get the people who are supplying the drugs.
As Tom put it: “Bob is the side effect of somebody that’s giving drugs to somebody else and then saying, ‘If you need more, here’s my card.’”
For parents, it’s one moment at a time
Their grief is raw. When doing the most everyday things, like shopping at Walmart, they’ll see someone who reminds them of Bobby. Memories are everywhere — cars that remind them of one he had, driving by one of the places he used to work or the home of one of his friends. Sometimes Janet wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders if it really happened, then can’t fall asleep again when she realizes her son is gone.
“The saying is one day at a time. For me, I think, it’s one moment at a time,” Janet said. “In a whole day, I can have so many ups and downs.”
In retrospect, they really don’t know what they could have done differently to prevent Bobby from going down the road to drug addiction. In the months since his death, they’ve worked through a lot of “what ifs.”
They’ve wondered: Should they have been stricter parents? Should they have spent more time at home instead of going to their lake cabin, especially when their kids were older and didn’t want to go along? Would it have made a difference if Bobby had gone to the long-term, faith-based recovery program Teen Challenge, which they wanted him to go to but he refused because of its length?
“It doesn’t do any good to blame, but it’s hard not to have some guilt that if we could have done this or done this differently maybe (things would be different),” Tom said. “But the bottom line is he had a pretty good childhood. He could have done whatever he wanted to do with his life. He was smart enough. One thing about Elk River is we have a good school district. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on, but if you want to stay on the high road, I think it’s a good launching pad. There’s a lot of resources. You think about what if.”
Tom said if he had it to do over, he’d do some things differently. But he also believes Bobby made a lot of poor decisions.
“That’s the hardest part with your kids,” he said. “You see them make mistakes and decisions that, boy, you wish you could make it for them, but you can’t. They’re adults.”
He said the one thing he always tried to stress to his kids was to choose their friends wisely and to stand up for what they know is right.
He’d tell them: “Don’t ever go down that slippery path because you don’t know where it’s going to end up.”
For more information or help
For more information about drug abuse, go to www.drugfree.org. For help in a mental health crisis situation, the Mental Health Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-635-8008 or 320-253-5555.