Brian Graham sits in a lawn chair in a dimly lit, unheated, hidden room in the dead of winter. It was two years ago. He’s in front of a table where a tea candle is lit. He holds a jar of freshly concocted methamphetamine fuel and in his lap sits a gas generator used to turn the fuel into a powder. The secret room discovered behind the drywall of his bedroom closet in this old Victorian-era style home now is a meth lab.
How much time elapsed is unclear but the next thing he knows, the 33-year-old is awakened from a stupor. He thinks he passed out from chemical fumes and exhaustion. It’s just in time to see the jar of meth fuel rolling down the carpet. The fuel meets the candle and in an instant flames consume Brian’s body.
“I ripped up the rug tried to roll over on it. I was already burned. It didn’t matter at that point. I was just trying to save the house,” Graham said.
By the time Graham puts out the fire he’s already badly burned. Later, doctors will tell him he’s suffered third-degree burns over 25 percent of his body. He crawled out of the wall and took his clothes off to assess the devastation his skin had just endured.
“As I took my pants off, my flesh just came off with my pants,” Graham said.
Graham looked at himself in the mirror and cried. He pleaded to God that he didn’t want this life anymore.
The drug death grip
Methamphetamine, a stimulant affecting the central nervous system, is a nationwide epidemic. Muncie, Indiana in Delaware County has been hit particularly hard. Brian and his wife Rhea’s home was the location of one of the 148 seized meth labs in Delaware County in 2014. That number climbed by almost 40 percent to 235 labs seized in 2015.
The Graham’s were once part of that problem. But now sober for two and a half years, they’re aiming to be part of the solution.
Abusive relationships were once a theme in Rhea’s life. From her brother growing up, to ex-husbands, Rhea had endured pain before.
“He tortured me and did bad things to me unspeakable things and it’s a wonder I’m a functioning adult now for some of the things I went through as a child,” Rhea said.
Even though she moved out at 14 years old, Rhea’s bond with her mother strengthened in her adulthood. When her mother died seven years ago Rhea said she felt lost. That’s when the heavy drug use started.
“I never grieved properly from my mother passing away,” Rhea said. “She was such an important part of my life and something to make me feel better and mask those feelings and never deal with them.”
In the beginning, Rhea enjoyed methamphetamine. When she began using everyday she became dependent on it.
“Going to the races with super high octane gasoline. Full throttle into a wall pretty much until I stopped, I had never felt that much of a euphoria,” Rhea said. “It’s false and it’s temporary, but it topped all the bad things that I thought about.”
It was nothing compared to the first time she shot meth intravenously.
“The minute I put a needle in my arm is the minute I lost every bit of control that I thought I had in my life,” Rhea said.
It was the same for Brian.
“When I first tried shooting meth it was over,” Brian said. “Today, I feel like when I pulled the plunger back on that needle, it just pulled at the fabric of my soul. I was trapped.”
Rhea isolated herself from friends and family. She would stay awake for days, even weeks on end. She wouldn’t eat or drink anything for days while she was high. Once 190 pounds, she dissolved to a sickly 105 pounds in less than a year. She would go so long without food she’d have seizures.
Rhea would catch herself staring out of the blinds paranoid that the police were coming. The hallucinations felt real. She could no longer differentiate reality from dreams.
“That line of reality and this constant dream state you felt like you were in from being up, your body shuts down your mind goes nuts,” Rhea said.
For Brian, meth wasn’t his drug of choice at first. He used cocaine. When he ran out of money for cocaine one night, meth was his only option.
“I looked at people who made meth or used meth like most people who don’t use drugs look at addicts,” Brian said. “I was like I can’t believe those people.”
But after a few uses, cocaine was old news. Brian had become one of those people.
A euphoric rush turned nightmare
Rhea and Brian knew each other 10 years before ever going on a date. They were in the alternative rock band “Chain Theory” together. When they finally got together, they were making more than music. Brian began cooking meth in his secret room. The room that shared a wall with the bedroom he and Rhea slept in. She had no idea.
Brian didn’t cook to make money. He did it to support his habit. Lithium batteries, lighter fluid, drain cleaner. He knew what went in it. That didn’t stop him.
“You don’t really think a lot about what’s in a drug,” Brian said. “It’s more about the end result what am I going to get out of it.” “It doesn’t take a chemist to make meth. It really just takes an addict that needs to get high.”
Brian wasn’t just addicted to using meth; he loved the process of making meth.
“It’s just as much of an addiction as the actual drug,” Brian said. “Most addicts become addicted not only to the drugs but the lifestyle.”
The drug use was as toxic to their relationship as it was their bodies.
“A huge part of meth is sex. Just the sex is incredible. It’s equivalent to ecstasy except to the ninth power of ecstasy,” Rhea said. “That part of it is addictive, as well. That’s an attractive thing for people who do meth.”
That factor became too addictive for Brian. He was unfaithful to Rhea.
“A lot of my drug use was fueled by chasing women,” Brian said. “The sex it was the enhancement of that.”
Rhea spent the majority of her money on meth. She lost her job and moved in with Brian. At one point she was spending $100 a day feeding her habit. Their house no longer had electricity, heat or running water. Rhea knew her two kids Madelyn, now 19 and Kira, now 17, couldn’t live in those conditions.
Madelyn remembers one Christmas she and her sister received toothpaste as presents. Rhea was short on money and could only afford the necessities.
She sent them to live with their father in Ohio. She had a gut feeling that something bad was going to happen and she was right.
Rhea was gone at the time of the fire. She found Brian passed out on the neighbor’s couch. He had Neosporin squeezed onto his burns with a sweatshirt tied and duct taped around his leg. He was hurt. It was bad.
“Brian looked at me at the time and told me to leave and get away from him and I wouldn’t do it. I refused,” Rhea said. By now police were on the scene but the couple was hiding in an unfinished bedroom of the house next door.
“We could hear them searching downstairs,” Rhea said. “I wouldn’t leave him because he was hurt. I just knew it was coming. There was just no getting out of this.”
Brian and Rhea peered out the window and saw a mass of police cars surrounding the two houses. It would be six hours before they are discovered.
He was taken to the hospital and she was taken to jail.
“Talking to my daughters on the phone from jail was probably one of the most painful things I’ve had to do,” Rhea said. “To hear my daughters cry for me on the phone and to feel all that guilt and knowing what I did to myself and to my kids was when I knew I had to do something different.”
Hearing the doors of the jail cell slam shut, Rhea realized she had a problem.
When Brian was released from the hospital he was taken to jail and put in a seg unit—a separate private cell away from the general population. He was on lockdown 24 hours a day. He was permitted no contact with the general population for fear of his injuries being infected.
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After three days in jail, he asked the guard to get him something to read. She came back with a Bible. For the next two and a half weeks Brian poured his heart out in that cell.
“I have never cried like that in my life,” Brian said. “It came out all the guilt and the shame and all the things I’d done in my life in that course of using from age 16 to 33.”
Brian sat on the cold gray floor of his concrete cell. A bulky cast covered his broken leg. It was then that he surrendered to Jesus Christ. He could not fight this addiction alone.
“My hands were up. I can’t do this God I need you to do it for me,” Brian said. “My life has transformed since that moment.” I consider that day in that jail cell when I really gained salvation.”
Brian has not used methamphetamine since.
The life of crime
Brian’s first arrest came when he was 23. Prior to that, he had received numerous tickets for infractions like minor consumption and possession of marijuana. At 27, he was charged with his first felony charge – receiving stolen property. At 30, he was charged with another felony – conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Brian says all the crimes he’s been charged with over the years have been directly drug related.
Brian faced three felonies in connection with that night of the house fire. He’s awaiting sentencing.
“I have earned a lot of support from those working in the probation office, Delaware County Community Corrections and the community … they are testifying to the change and my character,” Brian said.
For Rhea, she’s got a clean criminal record except for that fateful night two years ago. Even now, the couple still has trouble finding suitable work.
“It’s hard to find a job when you have three pending felonies, and they’re for meth,” Rhea said.
A new life ahead
When Rhea was released on pretrial probation, Brian was still in jail. She says she felt isolated and alone. It wasn’t long till she started using again.
“I spent a lot of my life with this mask on saying I’m okay, I’m all right,” Rhea said. “It was pretend. I wasn’t okay. I wasn’t all right. I just kept pretending, which led me down a dark road where I ended up.”
When Brian was released from jail on pretrial house arrest, he finally understood his addiction. To stay clean he knew he also had to change his surroundings, his friends, everything that would draw him to use.
For six months after the fire Rhea and Brian worked on themselves. They didn’t have much contact with each other. Brian temporarily moved in with his father and Rhea had an apartment with her kids.
They both found success through Narcotics Anonymous and a local support group, Reformers Unanimous.
“Narcotics Anonymous and Reformers Unanimous – those two programs are God-given programs to me,” Rhea said.
Narcotics Anonymous is a 12-step support group for recovering addicts. Reformers Unanimous is a biblical-based recovery program at Grace Baptist Church.
“In NA I found a fellowship of like-minded people that understand where I’ve been, understood where I wanted to go and loved me unconditionally,” Brian said.
Today, Rhea and Brian both volunteer for Narcotics Anonymous. Rhea sponsors 41-year-old Rachel Vicory, who has been using drugs since she was in middle school. Like most addicts, she didn’t realize at first she had a problem. When she lost custody of her sons, her house, and went to jail, she knew she was a full-blown addict.
Since getting clean, Brian and Rhea believe they have an obligation to stay clean and to give back where they can. Vicory lives with the couple so she can save up enough money for an apartment of her own. Vicory is nearing six months of being clean.
“Rhea and Brian have helped me out so much,” Vicory said. “I hope I can do the same to help somebody else out if they need it.”
On Christmas Day 2015, at a place they both had become intimately familiar with – Reformers Unanimous – Brian asked Rhea to marry him. In April 2016, they were married in front of more than 150 friends and family, just a little over two years into their recovery. Rhea’s daughters were junior bridesmaids and Brian’s 9-year-old was the flower girl.
“To have nobody wanting to be around you besides active addicts to that many people wanting to be at your wedding, that’s pretty amazing,” Brian said.
The word “believe” makes a number of appearances throughout the Graham’s home. On picture frames and decorative letters displayed on the wall. It’s their motto. A word they now live by. Rhea has the word tattooed across her chest. “Believe” was one of the first songs Rhea ever wrote for her band Chain Theory.
“Believe is the concept of when you hit rock bottom you just still have to keep believing that things will get better,” Rhea said. “I believe in hope. I believe in the concept that there can be something more then what I’ve had to deal with, and there is.”
They also believe in helping others.
Both Brian and Rhea visit inmates telling their own story of recovery. Vicory is now beginning to go with the couple to share her story, too.
“Going into a jail cell and hearing that cell door shut and knowing that I’m leaving in an hour that keeps me real sober,” Rhea said.
Kira, Madelyn and Bryleigh are proud of their parents. They witnessed their lowest or lows and have watched them change their entire lifestyle.
“I’m happy that my parents can make a change,” Kira said. “I’m extremely proud that they can touch other peoples lives.”
Brian and Rhea want to make a change. They want to make a difference in their community, the same community that has seen them at their worst. Rhea hopes to one day to be a drug and alcohol counselor.
Two and a half years after the fire, Brian now sits on a couch in a dimly lit living room. His wife and daughters are by his side. The only thing in his hand now, is his wife’s hand. Using methamphetamine is a distant memory for Brian and his family. A memory they hope to use to help others in the drug-stricken community believe in themselves.
“I want them to look and say recovery is possible,” Rhea said. “To be this light of hope to show somebody that there is a better way. That they don’t have to be miserable the rest of their lives, then every bit of suffering, is worth it for me.”
Seth Beiswenger reports on how the Delaware County Drug Court saved the life of Brian and Rhea Graham