DULUTH, Minn. - It started with pain pills.
"I tried a couple of painkillers, because at that time I thought they were safer because they came from the doctor," said Tyler Conley, 24.
He was sitting at a small table with his mother, Tia, at the Encounter Youth Center in downtown Duluth, where Tyler is director of the center's skate park. They had taken a circular route to this moment. The head of the Lakes Youth for Christ, which owns and operates the Encounter, had invited Tia to create the skate park when Tyler was 8.
"I never knew why I was led to build the skate park, which is what's super cool," said Tia, now a middle school English teacher in Superior. "And then here, 15 years later, it actually saved his life."
Tyler's story offers a snapshot of the opioid epidemic that's gripping the nation and the Northland. It's a story about how easy it is to become addicted, and how hard it is to overcome that addiction. His story also demonstrates that, with help, it's possible to escape addiction's grip.
Tyler was 15 and a student at Denfeld High School when he started experimenting with pain pills, he said. He drank some alcohol and smoked some marijuana at 14, but neither had a hold on him.
Opioids were different.
"The feeling I got from that was - I kind of fell in love with it," Tyler said. "I was taking them daily because I was bored at school."
After a couple of months, he noticed that if he didn't take the drugs, he'd feel uncomfortable and start to panic.
"Then I started to learn more about addiction and I thought, 'Oh crap, I'm addicted,' " Tyler said.
But he kept that knowledge to himself. Not wanting anyone to know he had a problem, he'd try to quit on his own. It didn't work.
"Minutes start to feel like hours; hours start to feel like days," Tyler said. "You're just panicking. ... You can't do anything. You've just got to lie in bed like you've got the flu, but 10 times worse."
Tia said she had no idea of what was going on at the time. Outside of some behavioral issues that she attributed to normal teenage behavior, Tyler didn't show any outward signs of his problem. He didn't get in trouble with the police.
He never missed school, even when in the grips of withdrawal. "I'd sit with my head down all day, shaking, and I guess nobody cared to notice," Tyler said.
He graduated on time.
The truth came out after Tyler graduated, when Tia suggested that he use $3,000 in savings bonds toward purchasing a car. But the savings bonds were long gone; he had used them to buy drugs.
"I'll never forget," Tia recalled. "He brought me to the back deck. And he said, 'Mom, I need to tell you something. I made a really bad mistake. I started using prescription pills that led to an addiction.' And I remember him crying, and I'm crying."
With support from his parents, Tyler went through the rounds of treatment programs, from the outpatient program run by Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge in Duluth to the inpatient Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in the Twin Cities to the inpatient Teen Challenge program in Duluth and back to the outpatient program.
He both wanted help and feared it, Tyler said.
"When you know you're going to have to face withdrawal, treatment is the most terrifying - even though you know in the long run it's going to help you, it's actually terrifying," Tyler said.
At one point, he had a verbal confrontation with a supervisor at Hazelden, stormed up to his room, picked up a chair and sent it crashing through a window.
During his second outpatient stint with Teen Challenge, Tyler started to make progress. But it wasn't a smooth route to recovery.
Suffering from what's known as acute post-withdrawal syndrome, he experienced shakes, anxiety and depression. "You cannot feel joy," he said. "Your serotonin levels are so messed up, nothing makes you happy."
It was 2014, three years since his last relapse, but Tyler still was depressed, and he considered suicide, he said. "I was like, 'God if you're there, help me,' " he related. " 'Whoever you are, tell me who you are. I'm going to kill myself. I need help.' "
The next day, he said, he had a sudden impulse to resume skateboarding, something he hadn't done since he was 15. He was out of practice and out of shape, but it made him feel good, Tyler said.
Tia contacted Erick Hermanson, executive director of Head of the Lakes Youth for Christ and the Encounter. Although it was summer and the skate park was closed, Hermanson invited Tyler to use the facility whenever he wanted.
"Whatever would help Tyler in his sobriety, man, I was down for that," Hermanson said, after joining the conversation last week.
'Really good inside'
Tyler's addiction and withdrawal had left him socially anxious, but over time, he and Hermanson began having conversations.
"The more I got to know Tyler, the more I saw somebody that was really good inside and somebody that had a great heart," Hermanson said. "And I learned that Tyler was somebody that you could depend on."
Tyler didn't know it, but his mother was lobbying for Hermanson to add him to the Encounter staff.
Hermanson was dubious.
"I remember thinking, 'A recovering drug addict?' " Hermanson said. " 'He doesn't talk that much. I don't know if he'd be that good with the kids.' "
The youth center was struggling financially that summer, Hermanson said, and he had lost some of his staff. Given the circumstances, Hermanson invited Tyler to take a part-time position as skate park director.
By that point, Tyler was employed by a Christian organization, but he didn't yet think of himself as a Christian. He wasn't interested in any particular religion, he said, and he associated church with "listening to old people sing."
But when Encounter volunteer Sophia Amborn invited him to Westside Vineyard, where her parents are pastors, he agreed to try it. To his surprise, Tyler enjoyed it and "at this point I was thinking some of the things in the Bible actually are true."
At another service, he came to the front and prayed with Amborn and experienced what he described as the Holy Spirit. "You feel this overwhelming peace, but you're crying but you're not sad," Tyler said.
Amborn, now 20 and a student at the College of St. Scholastica, started dating Tyler the following summer.
Last year, Tyler became the center's full-time skate park director - like others on the staff, he has to raise half of his own support.
"People see the change in Tyler's life," Hermanson said. "They see how good he is with the kids. He's actually their friend. He's somebody that actually cares and would do anything for them."
Drug-free for nearly six years, Tyler still suffers from acute post withdrawal syndrome, he said. He wakes up in pain, has days when he doesn't feel well physically and struggles with insomnia. He's just gotten to the point where he's comfortable sharing his story.
In addition to her full-time teaching job, Tia has become a crusader for families struggling with addiction, developing a curriculum to help guide them through the process.
"There was nothing out there, really, for families," she said. "You feel very alone. And I don't want anybody else to feel alone like we did."
Tyler's story is a testimony to a changed life, Amborn said.
"He is a very strong, very dedicated," she said. "I think that's part of it. ... But then, also, it was straight-up God. Because God laid out every single thing to (bring) him where he is now."
To get involved
• A fundraiser for the Encounter will take place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, at the youth center, 201 E. First St., with a pancake breakfast featuring all-you-can-eat pancakes from Bridgeman's. $8 for adults, $4 for children, free for ages 2 and under.
• To learn how to support Tyler Conley's work, contact the Encounter at 201 E. First St., call (218) 722-9820 or visit headofthelakesyfc.com.
• To see the curriculum Tia Conley has developed called "Resources Against Drugs," visit sites.google.com/site/resourcesagainstdrugs/home/resources