The gift of rebirth: A South Side man's journey back from addiction

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Sonshine Troche, president of Worthy Women Recovery Home, Brian Brophy, and LaPorte, Ind. Mayor Blair Milo. Both women are frequent guests on "Living Sober" and all three serve on the counter drug task force.

"Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life."

--J.K. Rowling

After chatting with Brian Brophy for 10 minutes you quickly realize he's funny, articulate, and the kind of guy you'd want to have your back when the going gets tough. His values are true to the South Side: love, loyalty, family. You'd probably never guess that six years ago he was completely consumed by a drug and alcohol addiction.

I didn't.

Three years older than me, I remember hearing his name somehow tied to the social scene of high school. He was a St. Cajeten/Mount Carmel guy from Beverly who played hockey in high school and drank moderately with his friends on the weekends - not so different from many other teenagers at the time.

While his peers started moving beyond occasional binge-drinking, Brophy's dependency started to deepen.

"I've never had just one drink in my life," he said.

Things weren't always the easiest. On May 14, 1991, Brophy lost his older brother, John - just 21 at the time - to a virus that traveled to his heart. It was an inordinate blow to him and his family. Several years later, after 32 years of marriage, his parents divorced.

Reeling from the loss of his brother, and in the throes of graduating from high school, Brophy needed a plan.

"College just didn't seem important then," he said. So through a family connection, he was able to procure a job with the Chicago Board of Education as a school janitor for seven years. "When I started, I was 18 years old making $20,000 a year and living at home. I had few expenditures and considerable spendable income to blow."

His weekend drinking evolved into weekends and two nights a week, then three until it reached the point of drinking every night - heavily. That impacted his work attendance and he was threatened with disciplinary action.

"Instead of ruining my connection to the board and making things awkward for them," he said, "I decided to resign."

Brophy knew he had to do something else, though. Having always loved radio, and with a small cache of money reserved in a CD, he enrolled at Columbia College, in Chicago, and was accepted into the radio program.

"For 2-1/2 years, it was super exciting. I was still drinking but totally dedicated to school," he said. And then the bottom fell out. His grades plummeted, he started skipping classes, and ultimately stopped showing up entirely. Alcohol tightened its grip on him.

"I had to leave Columbia 16 hours shy of graduating and in debt," he recalled. Internships were few and far between. "I was out of options. I didn't have a job or any benefits."

So he took a gig that was quite possibly the worst alternative: Brophy started bartending on Western Avenue in Beverly. "I had full bartender's privilege and would drink free all night and even after the bar would close. I'd invite all my friends in and wouldn't charge them. I stole the place blind."

Soon, his reliance on booze took on a life of its own. During the course of his alcohol abuse, Brophy was evicted five or six times from various apartments for failure to pay rent. He received a DUI in 1996, had his licensed revoked, drove on a suspended license and spent four days in Cook County Jail.

While intoxicated one night, he tempted fate and tried cocaine. Brophy quickly grew addicted, spending $100 a day and snorting every five to 10 minutes. "I always felt guilty about doing cocaine but never had a lot of guilt with drinking. I didn't think I had a problem."

Now a full-blown alcoholic, Brophy would consume a liter or half-gallon of Captain Morgan Rum each day, snort cocaine and sometimes smoke marijuana and drink beer as a chaser. "I was blacking out 70 percent of the time and used pot to counter it."

The turning point

Sleeping on his dad's couch, lying, sneaking out, consuming mass quantities of alcohol and snorting coke were at the epicenter of Brophy's existence. He also had a raging staph infection in his legs that he left untreated. It might have started with a bug bite in the Caribbean, but after he neglected the infection, it to cause him excruciating pain. The only thing that eased his agony was drinking. He would later discover he had lymphedema, a swelling of soft tissue.

His dad finally gave him an ultimatum of going to the hospital following the funeral of his grandma on Aug. 14, 2006. In typical fashion, Brophy drank at the luncheon, arranged for a friend to pick him up, and stayed out all night on a bender.

Next thing he knew, he was waking up in the emergency room of Little Company of Mary Hospital, in Evergreen Park, with a morphine drip. When medical personnel obtained the required information on alcohol and drug use, he denied any. Toxicology reports showed quite a discrepancy and a drug and alcohol counselor - whom he quickly rejected - was sent to speak with him. "My dad asked me why I turned away the help when it was obvious I had everything in my system. He was so disgusted from the negligence and abuse I had put myself through he left."

On a heavy course of antibiotics for five days and lying in a hospital bed gave Brophy time to think long and hard about the destructive path he was on ... and how he had arrived there. "I realized I had a serious problem and thought, what am I going to do about it?" He was sick, fearful, and exhausted. It took a lot of work to stay that messed up.

Once discharged, and on day two of being home, Brophy picked up a phonebook. "I didn't know anything about rehab. I called the first number I saw and it happened to be the Chicago headquarters for Alcoholics Anonymous."

It proved a lifeline.

Redemption through chaos

Ironically, when Brophy disclosed where he lived to the counselor on the line, he learned there was a local A.A. chapter just a block-and-a-half away in a church that had been holding meetings for 40 years.

"I knew I needed to do something and I couldn't do it alone. So I walked down the stairs of the church's basement saw everyone smoking, drinking coffee, laughing and smiling, and felt immediately accepted."

That meeting was the first step toward recovery.

"You are the most important person in the room. Everyone goes around and shares their own first experience with the group yet they're totally focused on you." He was told it was a very important meeting he showed up to - but not as important as the next one. "They were generally concerned about me coming back." For three years, Brophy attended every single day - sometimes twice a day. Six years later, he's still going to meetings. The same principles Dr. Bob and Bill W., founders of A.A., hammered out 77 years ago, are used today.

"The minute I tell myself I have it beat is the day I start drinking again," he said.

He also found support through Catholic Charities Addiction Counseling Education Services (ACES) where he was given supplemental guidance once a week for 2-1/2 years.

"I realized, years later, that the reason I drank was fear-based. I was afraid of disappointing my parents, and not living up to my brother's memory. I worried that without alcohol, I'd no longer be 'good-time Brophy,'" he said.

As tied as he was to the South Side, Brophy knew he had to leave it behind. So he relocated to Michigan City, Ind. where his family owned a summer home. One day, his mom invited him to attend a function where Ric Federighi, of WLS Shadow Traffic fame, would be present, having just acquired the AM radio station in Michigan City - WIMS AM 1420.

Brophy found the courage to broach Federighi and was completely forthright about his past. Federighi asked him to consider doing a show about his personal journey. Six months later, "Living Sober" was born.

"My show is my absolute passion. I'm carrying the message to others, which helps me stay sober. For an hour each Sunday, I interview someone in recovery and share their struggle with listeners."

In its first year, "Living Sober" won a Spectrum award from the Indiana Broadcasters Association for Outstanding Community Involvement.

"Because of my addiction I damaged relationships with the people who were closest to me. I was a liar and a user. I was a sick person - not a bad person. And I have worked to make amends and help others by being honest about myself, reaching out to the community and sharing my story of recovery."

Aside from the show, Brophy has served on the board at the Dunes House, a men's sober living facility, mentored elementary school children, and is a task force media relations adviser for LaPorte's Mayor Blair Milo.

The future continues to look bright. Brophy hopes to stay in radio indefinitely. But he's also thinking of returning to school and pursuing a degree in counseling. "I'm having more fun and am so much happier and full of joy than in the 17 years that I drank."

"Six years ago I was a 'what have you done for me lately' kind of guy. Now I make it my life's work to give back to others - every single day."

Check out Brian Brophy's show, "Living Sober" which airs 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. (CST) Sundays on AM1420 WIMS and streams live online at www.wimsradio.com

Jennifer Mifflin and Suzanne Witt are two Chicago-area writers on hiatus from daily assignments. When they aren't chasing terriers and a two-year-old or playing chauffeur to pre-teens, they throw caution to the wind and chronicle their journey as moms, friends and fellow neurotics on ChirpyGirls.com