Kolton Gage Herring is changing the world, one life at a time. He is doing it with the help of his mother, Lesli Dana.
“Kolton had a talent for making any story into an amazing adventure,” she said. “I always said that he was going to be an author because he could write like no other. He could draw. He had a pretty wild imagination.”
According to his step father, Ken, Kolton was drawn to animals and had a way with them.
“When it came to wildlife he could write about or draw anything,” Ken said. “He just liked animals, being around them and working with them.”
Kolton’s other interests included country music, being outdoors, four-wheeling, hunting, fishing and spending time with his dog, Coco. In most areas, Kolton could be considered a typical teenager. He had a girlfriend, was holding down a job with a playground development company and was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. But unlike many area teens, Kolton was also dealing with mental illness.
“When Kolton was born he had a lot of medical problems,” said Lesli. “He was never a happy baby. He just screamed and screamed. The doctors all thought he had colic.”
Eventually whatever discomfort Kolton was experiencing as an infant worked itself out. He was a curious toddler with mood swings typical of a young child.
From an early age, however, Kolton seemed to attract trouble.
“In daycare he started biting the other kids,” said Lesli. “So he was sent home and not allowed to return.”
Kolton’s moods continued to fluctuate through his early years. Sometimes he was happy to play with other kids or interact with people, sometimes he just wanted to be left alone and wouldn’t tolerate anyone invading his space.
“He was always well liked,” said Lesli. “His teachers seemed to like him. He had lots of friends. But he always seemed to find himself in trouble.”
In first grade, Kolton was diagnosed with ADHD and doctors prescribed Ritalin to help with his erratic behavior.
“For awhile it really helped,” said Lesli. “He was doing really well with his school work and everything.”
By fourth grade, however, the Ritalin seemed to be losing its effectiveness. The erratic behavior was back.
When Kolton was in one of his moods, no one could reason with him.
“One day he wouldn’t do his chores,” said Lesli. “My parents had come up for a visit and we were planning on going fishing. We said if your work isn’t done you’re not going.”
Kolton’s response was to storm off into his room and start screaming. But this was not the typical temper tantrum of a kid who does not get his way.
“He kept screaming over and over ‘somebody kill me, somebody kill me,’” said Lesli. “Now you have to understand that I had been told by his counselors not to buy into it, to not give in and do what he wanted. That if I gave in it was harmful to my son in the long run.”
Lesli and her mother went to the front yard to wait until Kolton calmed himself down and they could talk with him.
Ken went fishing with Lesli’s father as planned.
A distraught Kolton ingested an entire bottle of Ritalin. Then he called 911 and told dispatch what he had done. The ambulance arrived, Kolton was transported to the hospital to have his stomach pumped.
The following day everything changed for the Dana family.
“That was when I lost my parental rights and Kolton became a ward of the state,” said Lesli. “I was told he was a child in need of supervision. He was taken to a home for children in Evanston. I was devastated. One, it was his birthday. And two I had to turn him over to the state.”
After an intense evaluation, Kolton was diagnosed with having Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Pediatric Bipolar Disorder on top of his ADHD. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines Oppositional Defiant Disorder as “an ongoing pattern of anger guided disobedience, hostilely defiant behavior toward authority figures which goes beyond the bounds of normal childhood behavior.”
The definition of pediatric bipolar disorder states “formerly known as manic depression, Pediatric Bipolar Disorder is characterized by extreme changes in mood that range from depressive lows to manic highs that are typified by feelings of excessive happiness or rage.”
For the Dana family the diagnosis was both a relief and a punch in the stomach. Lesli now knew that her son was struggling with some very serious mental health issues. She knew that the diagnosis could mean that her son would finally get the help he needed. There was also some relief in learning that the extreme mood swings and erratic behavior her son had been displaying for nine years were not the result of her parenting skills.
But what mother would ever want to learn that her son had such an uphill battle to fight? And the diagnosis had come only after her son had been taken from her. Kolton was in Evanston for a short time before being placed at St. Joseph’s Children’s Home in Torrington, a psychiatric residential treatment facility. Again, things seemed to be going okay for Kolton. He did well in school and with the help of medication was able to make some sense of his life. But he was a different kid.
“When he came home for a visit as a 10-year-old for two weeks at Christmas he was on maybe seven or eight different medications and was very subdued,” said Lesli. “He was easier to be around but still had a lot of problems.”
Still, the Dana family remained optimistic that at last their son was on the road to recovery. Then Lesli received a phone call that her son had broken out of St. Joseph’s.
“Kolton was a smart kid and he knew how to play the system,” Lesli said. “He knew when the shift change was and he waited for them to unlock the doors at the shift change and he bolted. At that point I really thought they’d call me back and tell me my son was dead. I didn’t know if he’d hit the highway looking for a way back here. I just didn’t know.”
A second phone call did come. Kolton had been found.
“They found him standing on the train tracks watching an oncoming train,” said Ken. “He told them he was going to derail the train. A 10-year-old kid thought that he could derail a train.”
The Torrington Police Department transported Kolton to the police station and later released him without pressing charges. The train incident led mental health specialists to continue prescribing different medications for Kolton. When he returned home permanently at the age of 13 he was taking a regiment of more than a dozen different pills.
“I remember we took this whole tub of medications to the hospital to talk with our doctor about Kolton and the doctor took a look at that tub and said ‘there isn’t a kid in the world that needs that much medication,’” said Ken. “He said he was going to start weening Kolton down off of the pills.”
Less medication was music to the family’s ears. Kolton’s parents couldn’t help but recall one school break the year before. Ken had asked Kolton to put the dishes away.
“He was so over medicated that he couldn’t decipher where forks went or spoons,” said Ken. “He just couldn’t decipher what was what.”
Cutting back on medications a little at a time proved to be successful for several months. Then Kolton took a knife to school.
“It was a pocket knife with maybe a four or five inch blade,” said Ken. “He was showing the kids and someone told the school that he had a knife,” said Lesli.
The cops were called in and again Kolton was taken out of his home. This time he was placed at the Copper Hills Youth Center in Utah. He spent the next year there.
“At that point we didn’t know if coming back to Star Valley was the best thing for Kolton,” said Lesli.
Kolton moved in with Lesli’s parents in Syracuse, Utah and started high school with a clean slate.
“He really liked Syracuse and was doing pretty good,” said Lesli. “He was on the wrestling team and had a lot of friends.”
This time when things fell apart, Kolton said he just wanted to come home.
“Everybody in the family was trying to reach out and help him but they couldn’t get through,” said Lesli.
The next few years Kolton bounced around from his grandparents, to his father’s home, to Lesli’s sibling’s homes. He would last a few weeks or months, holding everything together and find some sort or balance and joy in life and then lose his footing on reality again.
“He would get to feeling better and then say he was doing fine and didn’t need his meds,” said Ken. “Then things would start to slide.”
Lesli remembers Kolton’s teen years as an emotional roller coaster. The good times were beautiful and fun and amazing. The bad times were a nightmare. Her son overdosed at his dad’s house. He drank bleach in her bathroom. He struggled with alcohol and drugs. But on the good days he had a winning smile and an contagious energy. He was charismatic and eager to try new things. He seemed to recognize that family was the only thing that mattered. He loved his younger brother and enjoyed spending time with his cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
“We were trying to get him through high school,” said Ken. “With everything else that was going on we just wanted him to get through school.”
The cycle of good and bad times swirled in a somewhat predictable fashion. But Lesli and Ken began to notice that the good days were becoming more and more rare and the bad days were getting to be much worse.
“I just kept thinking what do I do with him?” Lesli said. “How do I help him? How do I do this?”
Kolton got picked up for shoplifting. He ended up in the emergency room two different times with alcohol poisoning. He engaged in self destructive behavior that ranged from cutting himself to lying, cheating and stealing. At 17, after an overdose, Kolton spent five days in a coma in the hospital. For the second time Lesli had to face the very real idea that her son might die. But just as he had so many times before, Kolton rallied.
When Kolton turned 18, his parents officially lost a say in his treatment because Kolton was a legal adult. The ramifications of this didn’t fully settle in on the family until Kolton went through another bad spell.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Lesli. “I remember begging the cops not to release him when they picked him up or begging the doctors not to release him from the hospital after he overdosed. I knew he needed help but he would never say it. He just never said it. He wouldn’t sign the papers he needed to in order to get help. So he would get released. All I was trying to do is help my son.”
“He just knew how to play the game,” said Ken. “He was smart. He knew how to play the game.”
When things were at their worst, when the Dana family was coming to grips with the fact that their son was not going to pull through, a miracle happened.
Kolton found the strength to pull his life together.
“He called me and he said mom I can’t do this,” said Lesli. “He said he needed help.”
Those were the words his mother had been waiting to hear. With Kolton willing to seek help, there was at last something Lesli could do. All the time her son had been shutting everything and everyone out, Leslie had busied herself gathering information on different facilities that might be able to help her son.
Together Lesli and Kolton made the decision for him to enroll in the Wyoming Recovery Rehab Center. Once he’d managed to get clean of the alcohol and drugs, they would decide the next step. It worked. Thirty days after entering Wyoming Recovery, Kolton found and latched onto his new life with single-minded intent. He began working for a playground company in Utah and discovered that he had a knack for designing and building playgrounds. What was more, he absolutely loved the work. It allowed him to be creative and work with his hands. The steady paycheck meant that he could begin catching up on some of his bills and buy a new stereo for his truck. With a renewed sense of purpose, Kolton began piecing the relationships with his immediate and extended family back together. He mended the relationship with his girlfriend and had aspirations of being the perfect father to the baby she was carrying.
While on a playground job in Pinedale, Kolton phoned his step father and asked if Ken would drive up and see him. Ken made the trip, eager to share an afternoon catching up.
“He was talking to me about gold panning and if I knew of any good places to try that,” Ken said. “I had no idea he was off his meds. It was a good day.”
A few days later, Kolton phoned his mother and said he was thinking about joining the Army.
“I didn’t have the heart to tread on his dream,” said Lesli. “I wasn’t going to be the one to tell him that the Army would never take him with his record and history of mental illness. I thought, I’ll let the Army tell him.”
They ended the conversation with Kolton’s promise that he would call his mother the following night. But the call never came.
“So I called him,” she said.
Lesli talked to her son about making sure his financial obligations were met before splurging on any extras. Kolton talked about his baby and told his mother that he and his girlfriend were working things out and that he was going to be a great dad. The conversation turned heated when they began talking about what it meant to be a dad, the responsibilities of fatherhood and that Kolton needed to learn to take care of himself before he tried to take care of a baby.
“I knew he was mad,” Lesli said. “He wouldn’t answer my texts and wouldn’t answer his phone.”
Lesli never heard from her son again. On Sept. 30, 2011 Kolton Gage Herring took his life. He was 19 years old.
“My mom called and it was the middle of the night,” said Lesli. “She was screaming into the phone that he was dead. And I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I was thinking that she was talking about my dad. But then she said Kolton’s dead. I told her I had to call her back. I was in absolute shock. I hung up on my mom. Then I called her back and asked if she had just called me and said my son was dead. It just didn’t seem real. The whole way to Utah I kept thinking that he’d be there when we got there. That somebody had made a mistake and that he would be there because that is what had always happened before. He was always there.”
The funeral took place in Syracuse. More than 300 of Kolton’s friends attended the services.
“We buried him there because that is where he was happy,” Lesli said. “It’s my hometown. It’s where my family lives. He had lots of friends there.”
After weeks and months of playing the “what if” game, Lesli began to realize some important truths. They are truths she plans to share with Kolton’s son, Tagston Gage Herring.
“I am going to tell him that his father was a great guy,” she said. “I am going to say that he suffered from a mental illness and had it not been for that, Kolton would not have chosen what he did. There were a lot of things in life that he loved. I am going to tell my grandson that his father wanted to be here for him and that his father will always be with him to guide him and help him to live the right way.”
Lesli also hopes to carry Kolton’s message to families everywhere. It is a message of hope that mental health services will continue to improve.
“I want to prevent another parent from having to go through what I have gone through,” Lesli said. “If I can help just one then it’s worth it. Things have got to change as far as when a parent says my child needs help when it comes to law enforcement and mental health. We have to work together. Mental illness is real. My son wasn’t crazy, he was Kolton. And I will always love him.”
Since her son’s death, Lesli has been working closely with the Lincoln County Prevention Coalition on substance abuse issues. She is also working on suicide prevention and awareness.
“Everybody knows somebody who has lost the battle with suicide,” she said. “It is a battle. We need to start talking about it in the community and begin working together to prevent it from happening.”
Lesli has been instrumental in getting the Survivors of Suicide Support Group up and running. The group meets the third Thursday of each month in the Star Valley United Church at 7 p.m.
The support group is designed to help families and friends cope with the loss of a loved one to suicide.
“That is what Kolton would want,” she said. “He would want to help people.”
Lesli has made the choice celebrate the good person that Kolton was, rather than dwell on the darker side of his struggles.
“Kolton’s autopsy results came back clean,” she said. “He had absolutely no drugs or alcohol in his system when he died. That was both good and bad news. I wanted something to blame. But he was clean and sober when he died. But it is also a relief. It tells me something about my son that is a good thing to know.”