March 17, 1980 - January 9, 2004
From the moment my three children were born, something deep within me knew I would lose one of them. As they grew into young adults, this fear dissipated. It wasn’t until the last year of Bryan’s life that I knew it would be him. This is Bryan’s story, the story of a young man who, in his own words, was “an innocent, fun-loving, happy individual with everything to live for, suffering from a disease that robbed him of having the life he deserved.” 1
Bryan came into this world on St. Patrick’s Day, 1980. He was the long-awaited first boy born into my family of five sisters and the middle child of my three children. Amberly, his older sister by 3 years, was his idol and mentor. He and his younger brother, Cristopher, born only 16 months after him, grew up sharing the same circle of friends in school.
As a baby, he looked like a wizened little old man and as a child, he always seemed older and wiser than his years. He loved all the typical things that kids love … collecting baseball cards, playing soccer and softball, riding big wheels and racing down the driveway with his brother, Cris. He always had many friends and as he grew older, his sensitive side gained him many long-lasting relationships. Most of his childhood friends remained his friends into adulthood and his girlfriends -- and girl friends -- stayed close to him as well. His caring nature and loyalty, as well as the ability to really listen to people, was a trait admired by all who knew him. The mother of one of his good friend’s told me at his wake that when Bryan came to their house, he would always ask how she was doing. The difference was that he meant it. She said he would look twice at her when she said she was fine and ask again, sincerely, “Yes, but how are you really doing?” She said he was like an adult in a kid’s body and was the only one of her son‘s friends that she could talk to.
School and academics were not his priority. Although he was intelligent, he would rather apply himself to music, his friends, fishing, and having fun. He got passing grades with very little effort and when he graduated, he gave college a try but couldn’t get into it seriously. His dream was to go into the restaurant business and he aspired to open a restaurant of his own someday. To that end, he took a job at a popular restaurant in one of the nightspots of our city in the hopes of learning the ins and outs of the business. With our permission, he quit college to work full time and save money toward his goal of starting his own business. Several months into the job, he was working long hours and many night shifts as the restaurant was open 24 hours. We noticed a change in his personality and he seemed agitated and upset when we questioned him about it. Instead of saving his money, it seemed he never had any and was always borrowing. Finally, in desperation one night, he came to us and told us that he was addicted to heroin. I felt as if a knife pierced my heart … the fear that welled up inside me for him was overwhelming. Bryan had always been a strong anti-drug proponent, constantly reprimanding friends who played around with drugs, so we could not understand how this could possibly have happened to him. He never really told us how he got into heroin -- we were not to find that out until after we lost him. Immediately after he told us about this, we put him into rehab. Neither of us knew what to expect and two days later, he walked out of the facility, unable to deal with the withdrawal and other patients. We decided to take him out of state to visit his sister, so we took him there to work through his withdrawal. He was just miserable but swore he would never go near “that stuff” again. Migraine headaches plagued him, muscle aches and pains that he never had before, but he was determined to make a fresh start. That was in the fall of 2001.
He stayed in Delaware with his sister and we agreed to enroll him in college there in January of 2002. He got a part-time job to help subsidize his living expenses and all was going well for him. He was enjoying school, enjoying the area, and enjoying being clean again. We were all relieved and ecstatic that his addiction was behind him. Or so we thought. Unbeknownst to us, he met someone at work who used heroin and the temptation was too great to ignore. Having never been addicted to anything, it’s hard to grasp just what it can do to the human mind and body. I have learned much about it through Bryan, and it is a very real illness. While some people can quit and never go back, there are many who, by virtue of the chemical makeup of their genetics, simply can never stop. Unfortunately, Bryan was one of those. Of course, at this time, we did not know that or realize just how deadly this was for him.
Bryan finished the spring semester but his grades, which had been excellent, slid downhill at the end when he began using again. One night, Amberly found him in a bad state and got him to agree to go into rehab again. With her help, he was checked into a rehab in Delaware and managed to stay for 10 days. Then he walked out again. At this point, we went to pick him up and bring him back home with us. All was going well and he seemed eager to get his life back on track. But within days of being back home, I found empty heroin packets in his room. We spoke with several drug counselors who told us that he needed to be in rehab for at least 3 weeks, so we looked into a program that could accommodate this. We found one in Laguna Beach, California, and I felt that would be an ideal environment for him, far enough away from Pittsburgh that he wouldn’t be able to just walk out. So off he went in July of 2002 to spend a month in sunny Southern California.
Life was good! In California, he did well, blossoming in the sunshine and healthy environment. He made many friends in the rehab center, mostly middle-age and older people rather than the younger kids who were also there. I went out to spend the last week there with him and met many of the other patients. They all told me how Bryan was such a great kid and really had his head on straight. Five of the women took him out to dinner his last night and one older man, who owned his own company, talked to Bryan about the possibility of coming to work for him when he was out. I met him and as we spoke, I could see a bright future looming ahead for Bryan. We were both very excited about this opportunity. Bryan loved southern California and was very interested in doing this. He and I spent another few days out there doing all the “touristy” things like Disneyland and Universal Studios and just having fun. I wanted to remind Bryan that life is good and there are many other ways to have fun besides drugs. We had a wonderful time and left California with hopes for a new future for him.
Things went along smoothly but the job in California never panned out due to family problems that his friend there was having. So he began interviewing here and just after Christmas, he landed a great job as a sales rep for AT&T. He bought a new car, dressed up in a suit and tie every day, and went off to work. He excelled at sales … even though he was the newest employee, he caught on quickly and his bubbly personality and charm helped sell. Almost daily, he was setting sales records. He would come home so excited about his accomplishments and the growth potential within the company. He was told that within six months, he could become a senior manager and be making upwards of $60,000 per year. I had never seen him so happy! But then, suddenly, things started to go awry. Money became a problem and it should not have been. Then he drove off the road one icy morning and almost totaled his car. With the car in the shop for over a month being repaired, he was unable to go to work, so the job failed. And then we found drugs again. It was at this point that I realized that I was probably going to lose my son. We had many long talks and I told him my fears. He promised me that he would be all right. He explained that he really and truly wanted with all his heart to be able to stay away from heroin, but when he had money, it was a trigger for him. He could not resist the temptation. I sympathized with him but tried to make him understand that his life was in jeopardy and that he HAD to stay away from it. Again, he promised that he would stop. He claimed he hadn’t been using that much and would be able to do it.
But without a job and no money, he began stealing from us. When we found that he had stolen checks and cashed them for drug money, we were desperate to find a way to help him. At this point, I felt our only recourse was to get him into prison where he would be forced to get clean and face the consequences of where he would end up if he didn’t get away from drugs once and for all. This was the hardest decision I ever had to make. With a heavy heart, we had our own son arrested in a last ditch attempt to save his life.
Bryan was in prison for five days before he had a hearing before our local magistrate. She knew Bryan from when he was a child and knew he was a good kid who had just gotten mixed up with the wrong thing. In exchange for agreeing to go into rehab yet again, he was allowed to “get out of jail free”. Or so we thought. Off he went into another rehab.
All was good again when he got out this time. We went to Delaware to move his sister back home. She was able to get a job here in Pittsburgh and got Bryan a job through the same company. He was working again and things were looking up. He was cheerful and happy and spent his spare time jogging and working out. He was in the best shape I’d seen him in for a long time and we finally had hopes that things were going to work out for him.
After three months, he was suddenly fired from his job. All the signs of drug use started popping up again. And then the police stopped him one night and found drug paraphernalia in his car. Now he had to face drug charges in a different county, but this time it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He was put on probation where he would be drug-tested weekly to make sure he was clean. He had a wonderful probation officer who said Bryan was so different from the other kids he saw … he had so much going for him and was so bright that he really wanted to help him. He truly liked Bryan and believed he could save him. And then Bryan failed a drug test. Away he went to prison again, this time in Washington County instead of Allegheny County. His probation officer intervened and we were able to get Bryan accepted to a sober-living community in Florida where he could go once he was clean again. Since he would be clean in prison, we planned to send him there the day after Thanksgiving. He would spend Thanksgiving with us and leave the following day. The day before Thanksgiving, when we were on our way to pick him up from jail, everything came to a screeching halt. The old charges from Allegheny County -- from our charges which we thought had been dropped -- pulled him back into their system. So instead of going to Florida, he was sent to Allegheny County jail. 2
It took us until December 11th to get the old charges dropped and get him out of prison. Ironically, Bryan told us he knew we had done what we did out of love for him and he did not blame us. He was happy to be home yet, in typical Bryan fashion, he had actually gotten something positive out of his prison experience. He had joined a work group the day he got there in exchange for more food. He was a hard worker and was rewarded accordingly with TV and other privileges. Ever the optimist, he made friends and made the best of his situation. When he got out, he left his radio and other personal effects with other inmates who had befriended him, feeling they would need them more than he would. His kindheartedness never left him.
We had a wonderful Christmas with him … the entire family was together and it looked like everything was going to turn out well. We were able to get him rescheduled to go to Florida on January 12th, so he was looking forward to beginning a new life there and rebuilding his future. He was healthy and happy and for the first time in a long time, we felt that maybe, just maybe, he was going to beat this thing.
But it was not to be. On the morning of January 9th, when I tried to wake him, his door was locked and he did not respond. When I was finally able to unlock the door, I found him face down on his bed, not breathing. My world stood still as this was a scene I had envisioned in my mind every morning for the past year. I had even told him about it and he promised me that it would never happen. Yet it did. As I turned him over to begin CPR, I found the needle still clutched in his hand. His uneaten dinner was on the dresser beside the bed and the computer was turned on. It was easy to piece together what happened … he came home from being out with “friends”, took his dinner up to eat while he got online to do some surfing. He must have brought the heroin home with him and decided to do it one last time. It was the last conscious thing he would ever do.
Bryan’s story is not unique … it is happening to hundreds and hundreds of our nation’s youth. No one is exempt from this evil … it doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rich or poor, from an upper class community or the ghetto … drugs can and DO touch all of us.
No one knew better than Bryan the dangers of drugs. We were not to find out until after he passed how it was possible that he became addicted. In reading his journals that he wrote in rehab, we found an entry that explained how he became addicted. When he was working the night shift at the restaurant back in 2001, he was having trouble staying awake while other employees were peppy and full of energy. They offered to share their secret with him … a supposed supplement that they used that helped to keep them awake. So he tried it … a week later, they told him, laughing, that he had been using heroin. Although these evil people, in essence, murdered my son, Bryan never blamed anyone but himself. I guess he figured he should have known better than to take anything that he didn’t know exactly what it was. In all the time and all our talks, he had never shared this with me. It made me sad to know he had been tricked into something that I had believed was his fault. I wish he had told me.
During Bryan’s drug use, he had become distant from many of his friends and I know this saddened him. He felt that he was not good enough any more to associate with them and so he had fallen out of touch. When hundreds of them showed up at his funeral, including many of the girlfriends he had in high school, I could literally feel his elation. I felt his happiness and it helped me get through that very rough time. It was almost as if he was there with me! Even grade school teachers and his elementary school principal showed up. No one could believe this had happened to him. As many of his friends told us, Bryan was always the leader of their group, the one they turned to for advice. He was the stable influence that parents relied on when their child was out with him. He was, as one friend told us, “the man with the mojo … the girls all wanted to be with him and the guys all wanted to BE him!” Even those who disliked him ended up being his friend. An incident that occurred when Bryan was in middle school comes to mind. He confided to me that he was having trouble with another boy in school, that the boy wanted to “beat him up” and was threatening him. He wasn’t afraid of him but he didn’t want to hurt anyone. I told him to simply ignore him but that if he was ever hit first, then it was ok to defend himself. As it turned out, one day after school, he was shepherded into a group and the other boy threw the first punch. Bryan stood his ground, gave the other kid one swift punch and broke his nose! That ended the fight and, in fact, they became best friends. The friendship lasted throughout their lives and Josh still feels Bryan’s presence around him today.
Bryan was the type of person who had many friends and many of them considered him to be their BEST friend. He was loyal, selfless, and kind. He never said a harsh word to or about anyone. If you were in Bryan’s circle of friends, you were a friend for life and someone he would do absolutely anything for.
As his family, we miss him more than anyone can imagine. The love that just shone from those beautiful deep blue eyes was visible to anyone who ever looked into them. The wisdom beyond his years … the kindness that touched so many … all of that was taken away from us and can never be replaced. We will simply move on and try to live our lives in a way that will honor his memory … we will strive to be the kind of person he was. We hope his story will help others … we know he would want this. His essence will live on in our hearts forever ………….
1 - See copy of self-obituary written while Bryan was in rehab (click here)
2 - Postcards sent from Washington County Jail during Thanksgiving, 2003 (click here)
Please read Bryan's Journal of Miracles to learn of the many ways Bryan has been in touch with us from heaven ... and how he inspired me to write this story of his life.
To contact us, please click HERE.
Book by Carole J. Obley with a chapter about Bryan's connection to us ... click book to order
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