Success Stories

Personal Stories of Recovery

Brian Strauss is living proof of recovery

Brian Strauss didn’t think he needed help.

Then again, he didn’t think he was hurting anyone either.

After years in prison, three decades as an addict, multiple suicide attempts, and estrangement from his family, Brian’s life was his to lose.

So that was his plan. Brian lived day-to-day, making his next binge his highest priority and not caring what the consequences might be.

“I was trying to die,” he said. “I didn’t see any reason to live.”

Brian had fought substance abuse, bipolar disorder, incarceration and homelessness for so long; it became part of his identity.

Neglected as a child, Brian’s anger swelled as he grew into an adult. His resentment toward his family culminated with an alcohol-fueled incident one night when he threatened to kill his father and step-brother.

The incident would cost Brian more than two years in prison but also serve as the impetus to confront the demons that had long plagued him.

“I knew that there was a good person inside,” Brian said. “But I could never find him.”

A lifetime of pain

Brian had never been ready to let go of his past because his past never let go of him.

Having come from a fractured family, struggle and dysfunction were ingrained in Brian from an early age. As a child, he was sexually abused on a number of occasions and was drinking alcohol by middle school age.

While he longed for the All-American childhood, Brian was in no position to maintain any semblance of one.

“I had a lot of resentments about my upbringing,” Brian said. “I watched shows like the Brady Bunch and the Waltons and had an idea of what life was supposed to be and I wondered 'why wasn’t my life like this?'”

Instead, Brian and his siblings were in and out of foster homes and lived with relatives. After he intentionally cut himself, Brian was sent to live in a state hospital and a group home, where he was once again sexually abused.

When he was 18, he quit school and moved to Florida, where he bounced between the street, jobs and jail all the while splitting his time between inebriation and sobriety. One night in particular, Brian drank himself into an especially costly stupor.

On his 21st birthday, Brian met an acquaintance and the two drank heavily. After a few hours of drinking, Brian went to the man's house, where they began playing with guns. Brian was handing one off when he fired a fatal round.

With a pull of the trigger, Brian’s life was shattered. He pled guilty to involuntary homicide and served 2 ½ years in prison followed by 2 ½ more years on parole.

Out of prison, with a load of guilt, no job and an addiction to feed, Brian’s life continued on its previous path: alternating between the streets and jail as his residence.

“I was out of a job, on the street, stealing for food and whatever I could get my hands on to fuel my addiction,” he said.

Brian did have moments of promise, like when he began began attending school and living with his mother, who had moved to Florida. But drug abuse and mental health issues continued to thwart his recovery efforts, and his mom, as well as the schools, eventually kicked him out.

Over the next five years, he roamed the streets without a home, attempted suicide a number of times and continued using alcohol as despair consumed him.

“I had a lot of anger and would wonder ‘why wouldn’t (my family) help me?’” he said. “I never understood it until after my mom threw me out that I wasn’t being enabled anymore.”

By this time, Brian had completed numerous addiction programs but none had properly prepared him to deal with the stressors and temptations he would need to manage. This especially became an issue when he moved back to Erie in the late 2000s.

'This was enough'

Though living with his mother, Brian's relocation to Erie meant he would be reconnected with his dad, a reunion that only served to open up old wounds.

“When I moved up here, I discovered that my only connection to my father was drinking,” Brian said.

Their mutual dependence proved to be disastrous.

On the night Brian was arrested, he blacked out and told police he would kill his father and stepbrother. He was detained and placed on suicide watch in the Erie County jail.

After a few days, he began thinking about the family  the one whose only commonality was the pain they inflicted on one another.

“When I was in Erie County, I thought about what I was doing to my family and I thought ‘this was enough,’” he said. “I tried to push everyone away and I thought I was just hurting myself until the last incident, then you understand there are many more (people).”

Brian knew he wanted to forgive and come to terms with his past, but just like his recovery, he would have to take the first steps in prison, where he would spend the next 2 ½ years.

Gaining peace

While locked up at SCI Albion, Brian started taking the correct medication for his mental illness, participated in a behavioral health program and began attending Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. When he was released, Brian launched his reintegration having stayed sober for the entirety of his sentence.

Armed with the necessary resolve and buy-in, Brian continued attending AA and NA meetings while living at Gaudenzia Erie’s Snow Halfway House and Stairways’ Gage House, a structured residential program. He became invested by asking questions and consuming any information relative to his recovery he could get his get his hands on.

But some lessons — like that of emotional isolation — Brian learned only through experience.

“I thought that if I didn’t let anyone in, then I couldn’t get hurt,” he said “But I learned the only way to grow as a person is to be open with other people.”

Brian continues to attend support meetings, be involved in therapy groups at Stairways and tell his story to others. In February, he completed a major step by graduating from the Erie County Community Reintegration of Offenders with Mental Illness and Substance Abuse (CROMISA) program.

Though coaxed by these supports to consider his future, Brian knew he could only move beyond his past if he personally faced it.

“I’ve gotten peace over my past and have overcome my anger,” he said. “They taught me that there’s no sense in worrying about the past because you can’t change it, but realize that I am an alcoholic and an addict so I have to understand my challenges.”

Brian still takes one step at a time on his path to recovery. And along the way, he’s found something he stopped looking for long ago.

“People love me now — it’s fantastic,” he said, his eyes brightening. “I didn’t think that would ever happen.”

Above: Brian, left, with Stairways blended case manager Lee Rohan.

"Stairways helped me to work on recovery, one step at a time." -Ron S

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