CLEVELAND, Ohio — Between November 2016 and today, Bryan Smith gave up heroin and took it up again, only to put it down for what he hopes is the last time.
He spent a couple of weeks in jail, started dating a woman, proposed to her, fathered a child and moved into his own apartment. Through his drug use, he also strained relationships with family. He was despondent that he couldn’t stay clean, no matter how hard he tried.
He was ready to give up. Now, he’s in the midst of his longest stretch of sobriety.
“I lost everything in my life pretty much,” Smith said. “I had to work to get it back.”
Smith was the focus of a cleveland.com profile in November 2016 that chronicled his struggle to stay sober. During the two months that a reporter and videographer followed him, he went through withdrawal, relapsed, checked himself into a detox facility and left a day later. He also racked up a drug charge and was wanted on a warrant.
He entered a rehab and sober living house right before the story published.
The Lyndhurst native’s newfound life – in which he claims 11 months sober – has transformed his outlook on the future. The 33 year old said his focus is solely on his child and his fiance and ensuring that he’s there for them.
The origins of his addiction and the struggles thereafter should sound familiar to anyone who has either struggled with or had a loved one deal with addiction. A doctor prescribed him pain medication, which he abused. The medication led him down a path to harder drugs.
By his early 30s, heroin consumed his life and his family was left wondering what else they could do to help him.
He’s been through sober stretches before, but this is the longest he’s ever stayed off drugs. It wasn’t the product of a long stint in rehab, but rather, in his words, wanting to show a judge and his loved ones that he could quit.
To be sure, a stretch of sobriety is not an indicator of the future. He and his family say something is different this time, though.
“My brother’s literally the best that he has been in at least his entire adult life, but really ever,” said Rachelle Smith, Bryan’s sister.
Struggle and repair
The best words to characterize the past 18 months of Smith’s life are “struggle” and “repair.” In November 2016, when cleveland.com published its profile, he had just entered a sober living facility in Sheffield Lake.
Smith stayed there until around Christmas, when he got into a scuffle with an employee and left. In the days after he walked out of the facility, he said he stayed at his mother’s house for a little while and then with a friend for a few months.
He snorted a little bit of cocaine and soon returned to heroin.
A pattern emerged in the first few months of 2017. Smith would snort some heroin and would then try to stay off of it for a few days or a week. He took Suboxone to curb his cravings.
Inevitably, he would run out of Suboxone and go back to using heroin.
Police arrested him on Feb. 27, 2017 on an outstanding warrant in Lyndhurst that stemmed from his mother finding his heroin months earlier and giving it to the police. An officer spotted Smith outside a Mayfield Heights gas station and took him into custody .
“That was it. Game over,” Smith said, adding that the officer said he recognized Smith from the cleveland.com video that went along with the profile. A reporter could not verify Smith’s account.
Smith stayed in jail for two weeks and was released when then-Lyndhurst Municipal Court Judge Mary Kaye Bozza dropped his bond from $100,000 to $10,000, he said.
With criminal charges pending and another failed attempt at sobriety, Smith went full-bore back into smack. He said he used heroin frequently for months, making little or no effort to stay clean. He showed up to court high.
“I went from maintaining, messing up every week or whatever to just all-out,” Smith said.
He said he didn’t care anymore and was determined to “party until the wheels fall off.” He was discouraged, wondering why he couldn’t stay sober despite so many tries.
In April 2017, he said he was set to plead no contest to misdemeanor charges and receive probation in a deal he struck with prosecutors. As Smith remembers it, Bozza refused to take his plea. In his re-telling, Smith said Bozza told him she was ready to lock him up because he couldn’t stay sober.
He responded by saying he’d bet her he stays on the right track. The next month, she agreed to give him once more chance, he said.
Bozza, reached for this story, said she remembers Smith as one of the hundreds of young, drug-addicted people she saw in her last five years on the bench. While she did not remember exactly what she said to Smith on that day, she did not dispute his account.
“I remember challenging him … by saying something like that to hope that it would flip around to the positive,” Bozza said.
Apparently, that was the kick in the pants he needed. He used heroin and showed up to court high on the day he entered his plea. He hasn’t touched it since.
Despite his addiction, Smith took steps toward getting his life on track during this time.
He worked construction jobs after leaving rehab in 2016. He set money aside to rent an apartment in Mayfield Heights, where he still lives today.
He also started dating his girlfriend Nikky. She didn’t want to be interviewed for this story, but Smith said their official anniversary date is New Year’s Eve 2016.
He is hesitant to talk about their relationship but said she is also a recovering addict and has been sober longer than him.
“She kind of stuck by me. It was rocky there for a minute,” Smith said.
Nikky got pregnant shortly after they started dating. Smith said they planned it. By May 2017, around the time he told the judge he could stay sober, he had already proposed and they had a baby on the way.
While the entire timetable may appear rushed, Smith said he proposed “because it’s the right thing to do.”
“I just put myself in her shoes and was like ‘all right. Well, if I was pregnant, I would at least want people to know I’m engaged,'” Smith said.
Vincent Smith, his son, was born Sept. 29, 2017. When a reporter and videographer from cleveland.com met with Smith on Nov. 30, the family’s small apartment had a couch, a TV, a crib, and was filled lots of unwrapped Christmas presents, many for his newborn son. The baby slept in a carrier, and his girlfriend took him out for errands during the interview.
Smith struggled to find the right words to describe seeing the birth of his son, who he calls Vinnie.
“It was weird because it was different feelings. It was just different feelings and it was a whole bunch of different feelings,” he said. “I can’t really describe it.”
Almost a year
A few days of sobriety turned into weeks, and then months. Smith’s now approaching a year off heroin. He works for a landscaping company. He also plowed snow this winter, after getting his driver’s license back in November.
Smith – who has gone through rehab several times – credits his change to focusing on his family and himself. He said he keeps a distance from his drug connections. He has heard from a few of them but they gave up when they realized he’s sober, he said.
Medication also helps. He still takes Suboxone for pain associated with scoliosis but it’s under a doctor’s care. In the past, he was buying it off the street to curb his appetite for heroin.
“Every other time I’ve used the Suboxones and then I’d go back to dope,” he said. “And then I’d use dope, then I’d do Suboxones and I’d keep Suboxones for when I needed to have dope, you know? Back and forth like that, but this is the first time I’ve continuously done Suboxones and haven’t done any dope.”
While he said he wouldn’t be doing heroin even without the Suboxone, he said the drug still helps him manage his pain. When asked what he would do without it, he said he “might feel like s–t for a week” but does not think he would turn back to heroin.
“I realize now this is a dangerous time of year,” he said on April 16, explaining that heroin use generally increases as it gets warmer out and people start working outside again, “but with the (Suboxone) I don’t even think about it, you know?”
‘He can hold a conversation’
The path he has taken to his sobriety – one with less rehab and more sheer will, albeit with a bit of medication thrown in – may not be for everyone, but Smith said it’s working for him.
He said he has a better relationship with his mother, the one who turned him in to the police. He also said he sat down with his father after the first cleveland.com story ran, to discuss his addiction.
Rachelle Smith, Bryan’s sister, has supported him while he has struggle. She has also been his biggest critic, being reduced to tears in conversations where he lied about the depths of his addiction.
She’s not the only one in her position but she is among the most important, especially since Bryan cares deeply for her and her two children. She has always held out hope, though.
“The way that I’ve learned to approach my brother, my brother’s addiction, anyway, is that every time he gets sober or is not using, I do my best to wipe the slate clean, but also to keep my eyes open for signs I’m going to miss,” Rachelle Smith said.
She said she thinks her brother’s fiance has been a huge help this time around.
“He looks great,” she said. “I can hold a conversation with him in a way that I don’t think we have since we turned 18.”
She hopes, just as he does, that this time is different.
It is incredibly common for opioid users to relapse. Bryan Smith, at least now, appears resolute to put it behind him.
While his child doesn’t even walk yet, Smith’s formulating the story he knows he will have to tell Vinnie about his life when his child is old enough to understand.
“That’s really all that matters,” he said. “What he thinks and what my girl thinks. That’s it. My family. That’s it.”