Submitted by his mother, Lynda Stewart

Who he was

Russell Tenney

Russell was the middle sibling. His brother was two years older, and his sister was two and a half years younger. They were basically close.

When Russell was small, he was a mama’s boy. He was outgoing during his elementary years. He seemed to know everybody in the neighborhood. We’d be out walking, and everybody would be saying to him, “Hey, Russell, how’s it goin’?”

He had many friends. He befriended the two boys across the street when he was 3 years old. They were like two other brothers. That friendship lasted until the day Russell passed away. He was such a loyal person.

As a kid, Russell picked things up quickly

I remember teaching his older brother to ride a bike when he was 5. I’m out there running with my older son, and Russell gets on his bike and just whizzes by us. At 3 years old, he was riding a bike!

Russell loved baseball

It came to him naturally. He was in Little League and even played first base on the All Star Team. When he hit his first homer, he was given the ball. I still have that ball. He signed his name on it and gave it to me. I never missed any of his games. His favorite team was the Boston Red Sox.

Russell (right) with his siblings, Ryan (left) and Lisa (middle)

He had a gentle heart

Russell also loved animals. He collected tiny toads when he was little. We had pets from a bunny to cats and dogs. He was so gentle with all of them. He had such a lovable, gentle heart. As an adult, he was really tall. When he used to hug me, he’d pick me up off the floor. I miss his hugs.

And he loved children. During family gatherings with his nieces and nephew, he’d play dolls, blocks, backyard games and even get his six-foot-four body into toddler pools to play with them. I loved watching him bring joy to them. They loved their uncle.

He liked playing cards

Especially online poker. He played with the same group of people, and he became very good at it. He didn’t play for a lot of money. He would win $10 or something like that. He loved playing other strategy card games also. When he was little, every Saturday night our family got together and played card games or other board games together. Russell was always the jokester and was always making us laugh. He had such a great laugh.

What Russell was most proud of

When he was young, he was so proud of making the All Star Team. When he was older, he worked for restaurants and learned how to cook really well. He’d always try new recipes at home, and I was his guinea pig. We’d laugh a lot for both his successes and his failures.

Russell with his sister and cousin at Disneyland in California

He made a good meatloaf. Sometimes he would just put a bunch of stuff together. He taught me how to figure out how something’s rare, medium rare or well done. The trick he taught me works every time.

How drugs became part of his life

Russell got into drugs as a teenager. I was cleaning up his room and found empty spray cans under his bed. I knew he was huffing. He soon got into other drugs and alcohol, and I had to use the juvenile court system to get him help. That was the hardest decision I ever had to make. The court ordered him into treatment in a boys’ home, where he stayed for a year.

As a young man, he continued to abuse alcohol. Then one night he went out with a few guys, and they dropped Russell home early. He was bouncing off walls, could hardly stand up, and I thought it couldn’t just be alcohol. It wasn’t. I took him to the ER and found out it was a combination of opiates and alcohol. I knew things had gotten worse.

How our relationship changed because of his opioid-use disorder

When Russell wasn’t using, he was still his lovable self, but as he began using more often, Russell became depressed and stopped working. I was always afraid.

We argued about him getting help. He was in serious denial that he had a problem. One time he had a molar pulled. Russell went to the dentist, and the dentist ended up pulling it because he didn’t have insurance. And, of course, he came home with hydrocodone, his favorite drug.

Russell going to his high school prom

I begged him to get help with his depression, so he started seeing a nurse/therapist. But that backfired on me — he got her to prescribe him Xanax. After he passed, I found police paperwork. He was arrested three times in a few months for selling Xanax to an undercover policeman. I never knew that. I don’t know who bailed him out. He was never formally charged. The letter from his lawyer said since it took too long for the prosecutors to charge him, the charges were dropped.

Russell’s drug and alcohol use tore my family apart

The only thing Russell and I argued about was his drug and alcohol abuse. At times my other two kids would say to stop bugging him. Eventually, they told me to throw him out. I felt so torn between it all.

And then they blamed me. Russell overdosed twice at a girlfriend’s house on a combination of alcohol and fentanyl and was revived — and the paramedics found a chewed up fentanyl patch in his mouth. I was actually using fentanyl patches at the time. I’m disabled, with severe arthritis and congestive heart failure. My rheumatologist sent me to a pain clinic, and they put me on fentanyl patches, which I kept in a safe. Russell must have found the key. He stole them from me.

I decided to stop taking the fentanyl, and the pain was so bad I couldn’t walk. I became bed-bound. My other two kids stopped coming over to visit with my grandchildren. If I wanted to see them, I always had to go to their homes. They didn’t say so, but I think it may have been because Russell was actively drinking and using drugs.

What fueled Russell’s depression

Russell playing with his girlfriend’s son on a summer day in 2017

Russell was always in denial that he had a problem. I had a therapist come to the house twice to talk to him, but he refused the help. He tried to stop drinking now and then, but it never lasted more than a couple of days. He was very depressed and would confide in me often.

I think he was depressed about two main things: that his father basically abandoned him and that he always wanted kids of his own, like his brother and sister had. He felt like his brother and sister abandoned him, too, because they stopped coming over to visit. He just never made the connection that his disorder had something to do with that.

I never gave up on him. I drove him to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but he was still in denial, saying he wasn’t like “those people.” He struggled for most of his life.

I couldn’t kick him out. If I kicked him out and he was found down an alley, I’d be beside myself. I think, At least he died at home.

How he died

The thing I feel so guilty about is that I was upstairs in my bedroom. I kind of took a nap, and I thought he was out shopping. When I woke up, I thought, I better check to make sure he put the groceries away. Sometimes he forgets.

At the bottom of the stairs, you could see into the bathroom, and that’s where he was. I still to this day haven’t gone into that bathroom since.

I have flashbacks of that scene all the time. Even though he was 38, he was still my baby, you know?

Russell Tenney

Russell didn’t mean to overdose

He was diagnosed with migraines as a little boy. It runs in my family. The month before he passed, he came down with a painful migraine that wouldn’t let up. He took his medication, but it didn’t help. He went to the doctor a few times and the ER twice, but no one did any tests or tried to help him that I know of. Every day, once or twice a day, he was taking hot showers to relieve his pain. It would open up the blood vessels or whatever. I could hear him moaning because of the pain.

So I guess he took it into his own hands. I don’t think he meant to overdose. I just think he was desperately trying to get rid of this migraine. The coroner said he took a pill that had the deadly fentanyl in it that was killing so many people that year in my state. I could bet you anything he thought he was taking hydrocodone. That’s what the coroner told me. He said the pill was being sold as hydrocodone, and my son probably didn’t know the deadly fentanyl was even in it.

Russell’s death destroyed my family

My kids and sister haven’t talked to me since my son died. They blame me because my doctor put me back on fentanyl patches just before Russell died. I kept them in another safe I bought. I never told my son I was on it again. Again, he must have found where I hid the key. I didn’t know. But it wasn’t my fentanyl that killed him — it was the illegal fentanyl that was on the streets. The coroner said they have ways to tell the difference.

I wrote my kids this long letter and sent them the coroner’s report. I tried to explain to them that the drug that killed Russell was a fentanyl analog — a different kind of fentanyl. I showed them the difference between what I was on and the drug that killed him. But they still blame me.

Now I’m a mom and a grandmother without a family. I miss my son, and I miss my family. I still love them all so very much. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t cry. I was his mother, and a mother is supposed to protect their child, but the disease of addiction won. There will always be a lot of “If onlys,” but our bond is cemented forever.