After nearly a year spent inside, Bryan Lindsay has now come home, back to his mother's place in Delmont, Pa. It's the house he grew up in. As of today—Independence Day—Bryan has been free from incarceration for just shy of two weeks. He's still attending group counseling on a regular basis, but he's no longer in the halfway house that comes after prison and mandated rehab. The only obstacle in the way of his freedom is himself now.
"I'm fortunate," he told me when we spoke last week. "Not a lot of people have a supportive family, but I do. They'll do whatever they can to help me. So my biggest fear is myself."
In a recent Facebook status update, Bryan wrote, "I guess in [prison] you have some hope—some dreams of the outside—and then you're out and you realize why you did the things to put you in there. Can't really escape reality…"
On Friday, June 3, 2005, eight years before he would be incarcerated on charges related to his heroin addiction, Bryan graduated from Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Pa.
Unpredictable weather made it difficult to determine the ceremony's location, and though the class had practiced outdoors, on the football field, when the morning of graduation hinted at rain, the proceedings moved indoors, into the gymnasium. As it turned out, it didn't rain, and families gathered in gymnasium humidity on the laminate yellow bleachers, to listen to the valedictorian.
I graduated alongside Bryan. We were born five months apart and grew up near each other; Bryan in Delmont, and me in Murrysville. A suburb of Pittsburgh, about a 40-minute drive from the city, Murrysville is the "gateway to Westmoreland County," according to the sign that greets drivers as they leave Allegheny County. (Seven heroin related deaths were reported in Westmoreland County last year, 27 in Allegheny.) Drive from Pittsburgh into Murrysville along Route 22, and you move down a gently curving hill until you hit a traffic light that brings the four-lane highway to a stop beside the McDonald's at the corner of Route 22 and Vincent Hall Road. This McDonald's made news headlines in January of this year because if you asked for a toy, you could buy heroin through the drive-thru. A McDonald's in East Liberty, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh, was the site of a similar bust later that same month.
Continue down Route 22 for about two miles and you'll pass four of the buildings that make up Franklin Regional: Heritage Elementary, Newlonsburg Elementary, the middle school, and the high school—where 20 students and a security guard were stabbed in April. In the shopping center that runs parallel to the school complex and 22, there's an Eat'n Park, a chain of diners synonymous with Western Pa., where everyone used to go after middle school dances. Unlike other Eat'n Park locations closer to Pittsburgh, it is not open late, which fits Murrysville's temperament: The town feels old, conservative, and white, like a Dennis the Menace cartoon where you're always in danger of stepping on someone's lawn.
Of the three main towns that feed into Franklin, Murrysville is the more affluent; Delmont and Export less so. If you turn off 22 and get onto Old William Penn, you'll pass through downtown Export. The houses have less privacy, are built closer together. Places like Jigger's, a bar with incredible wings, and the Export Moose, a bowling alley, are the kind of blue-collar businesses that make it seem like Western Pa. never emerged from the '70s; you can smoke in these establishments, and many patrons do. They are not particularly friendly to non-regulars there. Contrast them to the Panera Bread and Five Guys in Murrysville and you have easy shorthand for the divide between Murrysville and Export/Delmont. Delmont is the most rural of the three towns, though it's also home to a large shopping center and movie theater. There are practically no sidewalks in any of these towns. No street lights. You can get heroin pretty easily, though.
"Seek and you shall find," Bryan told me over the phone, four days after being released from the halfway house, the second phase of his step-down from jail after a mandated period in rehab. He first began using after coming home from junior college in 2006. He played football during high school and went to Buffalo, N.Y., to keep playing but it didn't work out. "I wouldn't say that I have mental health problems, but something happened up there," he says. "Perhaps it was just too much much freedom for me or something like that. I was in a real bad space." Bryan speaks with a Western Pennsylvania accent, a yinzer accent, and turns the word that into aht. Real becomes rull. The accent either warps or degrades vowels, elongates them to the point of exaggeration or grinds them down. Downtown becomes Dahntahn, said slow; color becomes a quicker, almost swallowed culler.
"I moved home and then I don't know," Bryan continues. "I got real self-destructive, and I sought out the worst people I possibly could. Before I knew it I was using heroin. I don't know. I know a lot of people got started on pain pills and shit. But I don't know, man."
"You remember John Doe?" (He uses the name of a former Franklin Regional student; the name has been changed.) "That's who it was," he says. "I started hanging out with the Doe boys and within a couple weeks it was a wrap for me."
When it's working, heroin picks the user up and sets you back down. After the euphoria, you typically experience a drowsiness that fades in and out, like highway driving. You nod off, then come back, only to nod off again. It is extremely difficult to overcome your dependency, and usually requires the aid of another opioid, like methadone. You step down from the drug.
As an addict, Bryan's been picking up and pulling away from the drug for years. After coming back from Buffalo, he worked a number of jobs but nothing for very long. He struggled with his dependency and would get in trouble with the police as a result. His first case was a DUI in 2010. Around this time, his relationship with the woman who would become his fiancee got serious. In early 2011, she became pregnant with their son. Inspired by this momentous development, Bryan got clean and stayed clean for nearly a year. A Facebook status from September 16, 2011 reads: "Instead of waking up at 3 a.m. and shooting up, I now wake up at 3 a.m. and make pie. Gonna be a daddy soon...had to grow up. My son will be in this world within a month!"
But it didn't last. And when he began using again, the old problems came back.
"I had to do things to feed the habit and get money," he says. "My incarceration, it's all little stupid stuff. Retail theft. I worked at Dakota Watch Company at the Westmoreland Mall, and I was required to make deposits and I never made the deposits." He laughs and it sounds just like exasperation, two exposed palms and a shrug. "They never made their way to the bank. That's one of my cases."
Bryan was also charged and pled guilty to endangering the welfare of children. When the police would toss his apartment looking for him after he stopped seeing his probation officer, they'd throw the child's toys around.
"The police in Westmoreland County have done illegal search and seizure," he says. "When the sheriffs were looking for me, they'd routinely break into my apartment and they're not allowed to do that unless they have visual proof that I'm there. I would find all my son's toys thrown around, his playpen turned over—things that there was no point for them to trash."
Eventually they caught up with him. "There was a warrant issued for me because my PO knew I was getting high and I'd stopped reporting to him. I was driving down to the methadone clinic and I passed a Westmoreland County sheriff. They knew my car and jammed me up. I didn't run, just took that one on the chin. " He was 26 at the time.
The charges brought against him, exacerbated for violating the terms of his parole, amounted to 10 months of jail time in Westmoreland County Prison, in Greensburg, Pa. (He describes this as sitting down: "Then I had to sit down for about 10 months.") When I ask about the location of the prison, Bryan relays it to me via its proximity to a King's, another local diner chain similar to Eat'n Park.
Withdrawal set in his first night. It hits you in the gut, makes you nauseous, and can bring on vomiting and diarrhea. You can experience pain in your bones, too. The guards, of which there were two for the approximately 90 men in his block, would've got him Tylenol or Imodium had he said anything. But it's best to not speak up. "They'll put you in isolation," he says, "and you'll be on suicide, so you'll be stripped down to just a pair of shorts. No sheet, no blankets. Most people don't say anything. I didn't."
Bryan's acute withdrawal lasted 10 days. But he says he didn't sleep for a month: "My body would shut down for 10 minutes at a time, but I didn't get a full night's sleep for probably two months. When you're incarcerated, sleep is your friend. It's the most important thing. You're not there."
Reading offered the other means to not be there. "There wasn't counseling available but luckily I am able to read and you could have books sent in. A lot of guys read those True Blood books. That's real escapist literature. I read Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck. Vonnegut is cynical and I maybe wanted something to back up the way that I was thinking."
In Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time, moving as if through liquid from one period to the next, adrift. For Bryan, nothing but stuck, there was only lost time. His fiancée could visit but she was not allowed to bring their child. Each visit was through the a glass window—no contact was allowed. "They offer a class that if you take it you're able to have visits with your children," he says, "but there are so many guys in there I wasn't able to get into the class."
As for his relationship with his fiancée, he says, "Both of us try to pretend that nothing's changed but I lost an entire year. Not being able to touch someone." He pauses for a long time. "I'm having a hard time coming up with the words to describe it."
Still, he is emphatic about the fairness of his sentencing. Twice during our conversation he describes it that way, fair. "I was given numerous opportunities and I blew it. I didn't want to stay clean."
He conceives of his addiction as inherited. His father, an alcoholic whom Bryan hasn't seen in nearly a decade, bequeathed to him a kind of trap that lay open and waiting in his son's future. "I'm genetically predisposed and once the opportunity [to use] presented itself, my fate was sealed. I can't blame anyone else."
Inside, another one of the books he read, the one he admits he read most often, was Desperate Journeys. Written by Edward E. Leslie, the book is a collection of non-fiction accounts of survivors of shipwrecks, maroonings, and plane crashes. "I read it as a way to not give up so much hope. When I looked at how drastic the situations these people were in, I realized that the time I'd spend incarcerated wasn't that much and that I knew when I was getting out, whereas these people had no idea if rescue was ever coming."
But if life outside is just as much of a maroon, what do you escape to? A normal life? That's the word Bryan uses when he sketches his future plans. "I need to do the things that normal people do," he says and his voice becomes more certain. "I need to get somewhere where I can start supporting my family. I do have a son and a fiancee. I want to become self-sufficient. At this point, I'd work at a fast food place."
It's like a bad joke. A fast food job; a fast food drive-thru pushing heroin. As a person born in this place, it seems like I should either laugh or get angry, given that I've already taken the third option and left town. It's a young person's fallacy to think that what you're seeing in your own age is the worst it's ever been. I remind myself of that. But in the last few years there have been two teachers who plead guilty to inappropriate conduct with students, a 21-person mass stabbing, multiple heroin busts, and when I talk to Bryan he lists classmates he knows who are struggling with addiction just like him.
At what point do you actually concede that this is, in fact, a remarkable sort of terrible, that this pain beneath the surface of a supposedly well-to-do and successful community is noteworthy? Having made the concession, what do you do? Bryan talks about harm prevention, and help for addicts—rehabilitation, not mere punishment—but he doesn't have a concrete plan for reform of the system he's exiting, nor should he. He's experienced the punishment but what of rehabilitation? That's something that can only be confirmed with each day. You are sober one day at a time, as the 12-step literature says. The 12-step programs offer stories about the power of prayer. Bryan initially thought it was "bullshit," but has changed his mind: "Hitting your knees in the morning and hitting your knees at night, it really does something mentally. It's helped me."
He tells himself a kind of story each morning and night, about all the things he wants for himself and how, first and foremost, he wants it for the people he doesn't like. I imagine it becomes like a text you memorize, the way you might memorize an account of a pilot stranded alone on an island after a crash. Eventually, the pilot's report gets back to the mainland, where it is repeated many times. That tale winds up in a book read in a prison. It means something to someone, becomes a truth to cling to. It's told.
"I believe in reporting," Bryan says, "I do." It's the last thing he tells me before saying goodbye and take care.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex. He was born in Pittsburgh.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]