ATHENS, Ohio — Bryan Darst was still in high school when he found himself speeding down a dark stretch of highway in the backseat of an old, burgundy Pontiac Grand Am. He and his friends were between Gallia County and Jackson County, Ohio, when he heard the gunshot.
Darst twisted his body to view a shattered back window and its culprit — a 12-gauge shotgun resting between a side mirror and the frame of a rusted and dented Ford Ranger. A rusted and dented Ford Ranger that Darst and his friends had recently broken into and stolen from.
No sooner did Darst see the gleam from the barrel of the gun than he had to dive to the floorboard as another round of buckshot impacted the Pontiac. Darst was tossed from side to side as the vehicle swerved to try to avoid the attacker. More shots peppered the car before they could make their escape.
“I was scared to death, but I didn’t let on to it,” Darst said. “That’s the lifestyle I was accustomed to. Looking back, I thought stuff like that was bragging rights. Now, I wonder: How did I even live?”
This was the normal life of a drug addict, whose experiences seemed more destined for a Hollywood film than for any form of redemption. But Darst has never forgotten the twists and turns on the road of the life he’s led and how he ultimately found a way to just be a normal person.
One scene of that movie might focus on a 13-year-old Darst crawling on the floor of his trailer, his face turned to the side, inches away from the carpet fibers. He kept an eye on his mother and stepfather in the living room. While she was exhausted from the day, his stepfather reclined stiffly, recovering from the effects of back surgery. Slowly, Darst bent a knee and pushed forward off the side of his foot. He reached ahead with his opposite arm and held his breath as much as he could to make as little noise as possible to avoid turning the adults’ attention from the television.
Reaching his stepfather’s bedroom, Darst pocketed a handful of the prescribed morphine pills which would fuel his budding drug ring along with pills from other students who could do the same at their homes.
Darst, a drug dealer, drug abuser, liar and thief, wasn’t a good man.
“I didn’t know what good was,” he said. “I didn’t know I had the capability at that time. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. I felt like I was scum. I believed I was scum. I didn’t have no potential.”
After graduation, Darst dabbled in different drugs but mostly pills and marijuana and his daily routine revolved around finding a way to get high.
“It was a constant plot and scheme, plot and scheme,” he said. “What can I steal? What can I rob? Obsession and compulsion overrode everything. There were brief intervals where I’d get my head out of my butt for a little while but then I’d go right back to the same old thing.”
For quite some time, Darst, now 32, considered himself a successful pot dealer. Through dealing drugs, he met a woman who liked pills just as much as he did. She also came with a large settlement from a car accident. With more money came more drugs and the introduction of Oxycontin.
Full of money and drugs, the two bought a truck and traveled to Virginia Beach to relax and get high. The ensuing weeks were a blur, he said. Darst consumed any narcotic he could get his hands on and he’d often wake up near the ocean with no idea how he got there.
In the midst of their travels, Darst learned he had an active warrant in Ohio for his arrest. Panicked, he fled with his girlfriend to a hotel in Indiana.
The thought of moving from his hotel bed was enough to create dread, Darst said. He managed to roll to his side to see his companion in even worse shape. His body started to cramp and ache all over. Cold chills juxtaposed a continuous sweat, and he was more nauseated that he had ever been.
“It was dope sickness,” Darst said. “It’s like death. It’s as close to dying as you could possibly get without dying. The worst case of any kind of flu you have put on steroids. And your brain is going chaotic because you know if you can just get to that next hit, it’ll all go away.”
He got relief from a family friend who had extra Oxys, except they were all the way in Gallia County. Fueled by desperation, Darst dragged his girlfriend to the truck and headed home.
‘Ten to life’
Darst was satiated for the time being but was discovered by police and taken to jail on the outstanding warrant. The charges stemmed from domestic violence from a public verbal argument with his girlfriend, not drugs.
During this time, Darst’s daughter, Coraline, was born. Even with this beautiful child depending on him, Darst’s self-destructive behavior didn’t wane. In fact, it escalated.
He made bail and fled to Point Pleasant, West Virginia. There, Darst approached a man on the corner of two rural intersected streets. The two had an arrangement for the purchase of drugs and with no one else in sight and under cover of night, now was the perfect time for the exchange. Instead, an argument ensued. Darst revealed a gun and proceeded to demand the man’s money, hitting and knocking him down in the process.
Not long after, Darst found himself in the middle of a friend’s methamphetamine lab. Someone pounded at the door, causing Darst to whirl on his heel and drop his cut from a recent sale. Police officers demanded to be let inside but Darst spied an open window and took his chances.
Falling from the third-story opening, Darst landed hard on the roof of an adjoining building. Uniformed officers with SWAT emblazoned on their backs surrounded the area and ordered him to surrender. With nowhere to go, Darst was ordered to a nearby electric pole and made to shimmy his way down into custody.
His hands and ankles shackled and dressed in orange, Darst half listened as a judge read his charges into the record. The words “10 years to life” echoed in Darst’s ears.
“Did he really just say 10 to life?” he asked his attorney.
“I almost fainted,” Darst remembered.
Dumb and alone
At 21 years old, Darst was hit with felonies related to manufacturing and operating a meth lab as well as a first-degree felony armed robbery that carried the possibility of life in prison.
Coraline was 18 months old when Darst was placed into Western Regional Jail. She and her mother were long gone, replaced by dozens of men facing their own criminal consequences and solid concrete walls. Darst was alone.
“I remember replaying that night in my head so many times and so many different outcomes,” Darst said. “I did not see my uncontrollable urge for drugs to be the issue. I didn’t look at the big picture and how I got myself into those situations in the first place. I drove myself mad thinking how I could have gotten away with it.”
A plea agreement allowed Darst to avoid prison, but he spent 16 months in jail before being allowed to enter a long-term, inpatient recovery center.
The lessons learned there didn’t last.
Six months after graduating from the recovery center, Darst had a toothache. A friend offered him pain pills and gave him a handful of Oxys. Darst crushed some, snorted them and ate the rest.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I lifted my head up, looking in that mirror, seeing residue in my nose and saying, ‘Here we go.’ I already knew,” he said. “All that knowledge — one is too many, a thousand is never enough, it’s the first one that gets you … But before the end of the night, I was back over to that house asking that guy if he wanted to sell some more.”
Shortly thereafter, Darst’s second daughter, Addalyn, was born. Just as before, it didn’t slow him down.
Needing money to continue to feed his habit, Darst cased a couple of gas stations.
With the intention of stealing an ATM, Darst shoved the gearshift of his truck into reverse and slammed his foot on the accelerator. The sound of crunching steel broke the silence of the night and the shattered glass found a new home on the floor of the Guysville Marathon. Darst pulled on the money machine only to find it bolted to the floor. With alarms shrieking in his ears and a crowbar having no effect on removing his prize, Darst fled back to Gallia County.
He decided to try again.
With a log chain at his disposal, the steel crunched again and the glass broke once more, this time at a station in Vinton. Darst ran inside with the chain, only to discover it was too short to do the job.
He went on the run again, staying with friends who would have him and hiding wherever he could.
On Feb. 3, 2016, deputies with the Athens County Sheriff’s Office caught up with him.
“I’d run for so long, it was actually kind of a relief,” Darst said. “I loved Addalyn but I was constantly looking over my shoulder, constantly running.”
In jail again, awaiting more felony charges in both Athens and Gallia counties, Darst had what he called his “moment of clarity.”
“I just said to myself, ‘I’m not doing this. I’m done. I don’t want drugs.’ I made that firm resolution and that was it,” he said.
Darst went on probation in Athens County and joined the Vivitrol program, which helps those addicted through recovery. He pleaded out to the Gallia County charges and was placed on two years of probation. He was also ordered to pay restitution of $495 for the gas station incident or be sent to prison for at least a year. He agreed, believing he’d have the two years to pay restitution. Instead, he was ordered to make the payment within 14 days.
Darst found himself alone in a motel room in Athens where he waited to apply for admittance to the Timothy House, a homeless shelter, the next day. Darst was sober now, but his mind raced with the events from his past that culminated in his current solitary.
“That night in the motel room was one of the scariest nights of my life. No one wanted to see me and I felt more alone then than any time I had been incarcerated in my life,” Darst said. “I’m still amazed I didn’t try to get high that night.”
Desperate, Darst thumbed through a nearby yellowed phonebook and called every church he could, just looking for anyone to talk with. His body shook as chills ran through his nerves and his breaths became irregular. The anxiety was almost too much to bear as he waited for someone to answer the persistent ringing.
Finally, Hattie, with the Central Avenue United Methodist Church picked up the phone. Darst bared his soul as the pain he’d caused so many others was revisited through the conversation. Darst told Hattie about his drug use, his crimes, his children and his mistakes. And she listened.
‘A decent person’
Darst was accepted into the Timothy House and, that following Sunday, he visited the Central Avenue United Methodist Church. A small stature of a women, wearing dreads in her hair and walking around barefoot, approached Darst. Hattie smiled at him and gave him a big hug before introducing him to the pastor, Joe Graves, who advised Darst to become involved in as many volunteer opportunities as he could and to follow his legal agreements to the letter.
Darst found recovery meetings and started his own. He volunteered for anything he could find, including the Gathering Place, an organization that helps advocate for those with mental illnesses or other needs.
“I still had this $500 I had to come up with in 10 days or I was going to prison and I just started to accept that. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I’d taken advantage of too many people,” he said. “I was just going to do anything I could to just be a decent person.”
Darst, however, did finally let a staff worker, Brittany, at the Gathering Place know the whole story. She didn’t believe him about the restitution timeline until she called the court herself.
“How can you be OK with that?” she asked Darst.
“I have to be,” he said. “I wasn’t going to go steal an ATM or anything. That hasn’t worked out!”
Darst kept volunteering. He kept going to meetings. He was even allowed to see and spend time with Addalyn.
Two days before he was to be sentenced to prison, Darst was told to visit the Gathering Place. Brittany was there and handed him a yellow envelope.
Confused as to its origin, Darst spun the envelope around in his hands and peeled it open.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Brittany smiled back.
“An anonymous person from the Central Methodist Church dropped this off for you,” she answered.
Inside, Darst found a money order.
“It was for $494 and I had a dollar in my pocket. That made the $495,” Darst said. “I asked her if she told anyone and she said she did make some calls and all she would say was that the person said to ‘Just don’t stop. Keep doing what you’re doing.’”
In retelling the story, Darst’s eyes struggle to keep back the tears. His hands tremble while folded in his lap atop crossed legs. He looks away for a moment and chokes out the words, “It changed everything.”
“It wasn’t a con or a manipulation or a scheme,” he said. “This was real. Whoever the person was had seen me doing what I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t take it for granted.”
Darst has been sober for more than three years and is employed at The Gathering Place as the Mike’s Bridge House program manager and peer recovery supporter. He is an involved member of Athens HOPE (Helping Overcome substance misuse disorder through Prevention and Education) — a partnership founded by Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, the Athens City-County Health Department and OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital.
Darst also has shared parenting of Addalyn but has yet to find a way to reconnect with Coraline.
He isn’t proud of his past, but he doesn’t hide from it. His past actions are part of him but he maintains his current convictions of trying to do what’s right — for himself and others.
When asked now if he’s a good person, Darst, almost apologetically, said yes.
“I’m everything I hadn’t been my whole life. I’m a father. I am an employee. I am a son. I am a grandson. I’m a community member. I’m a good person,” he said. “Years ago, I couldn’t have honestly said those things with pride. Today, I know I can.
“I’m just normal and it’s great.”
This story was provided by the College of Health Sciences and Professions of Ohio University. Find out more at: www.ohio.edu/chsp.