On Saturday afternoon, Brian Dyer passed away.
Months earlier, in early 2017, Brian was 30 years old, and by all accounts a quiet, kind and caring young man. He was humble and accepting. He was also, unfortunately, incarcerated in Elmwood County Jail. You see, despite all his personal strengths, Brian had a particularly troubling weakness: Addiction. Since his teenage days, he had experimented with various drugs in varying methods – from smoking, to drinking, to intravenous injections. More recently, Brian had involved himself with a troublesome group of friends, whose petty activities had landed him in Elmwood. In short, Brian Dyer was a complex yet compassionate person, living a complicated and twisting life. However, the complexities of his world – the incongruencies and triumphs alike – began far before his time. They began, and continue to this day, through the even more complicated lives of his parents.
In prison, things were simpler. Prior to Brian’s arrest, his parents had struggled to form a reliable relationship with him. “We butted heads constantly,” Rick remembers, “We were too much alike.” At Elmwood, though, there was nowhere to run – only a sobering humility in bars and stripes. Rick and Bev, finally able to pin their son down, visited every weekend.
During those visits, Rick recalls, “We built a relationship. It was the first relationship that we ever had in his adult life.” Brian was cut off from drugs, and forging his path through a forested past. As that pathway grew – and with it, the parent-son relationship – Rick discovered an inexplicable joy. He considered it a gift, the rebirth of his own prodigal child: “I found my son again. It was awesome.”
After his release from Elmwood, Brian moved back home to Palo Alto with Rick and Bev. Free from drugs and criminal cohorts, he continued his search for a new job and life.
Then, there was the girlfriend.
While living at home, Brian had “fallen in love” with a girl he had known before getting arrested. But in truth, Brian was still trying to make sense of his own needs; he could not hope to take on those of another. Nonetheless, his girlfriend incessantly demanded attention. Battling issues of her own, she often threatened self-harm. Eventually, Brian cracked. Under pressure and in need of relief, he resumed using.
“He admitted to us,” Bev says, “That he had slipped a couple times. He had relapsed.” Four months after Brian moved in with his parents, Brian felt obligated to recover from addiction, but also to care for his girlfriend. As his mother believes, he was doomed from the start: “Brian felt like he needed to be this person’s protector. But that takes strength. That takes a suit of armor. He didn’t have his own suit of armor.” Like so many recovering addicts, Brian returned to the ostensible shield of drug use. Soon, Rick began finding drug paraphernalia; then, Brian’s paychecks (from his new job as a truck driver) were spent within the week. “Once you start using,” Bev notes, “Your emotional development is stunted. He might have been thirty, but as far as being able to cope – and deal with life on life’s terms – he was about twelve.”
Rick and Bev were forced to kick Brian out of the house, hoping to reboot the humility he had found in prison. Instead, their son moved back to Modesto – where the family had lived for some time – and was again entrenched with the wrong crowd. One month later, on that Monday morning in March, Rick and Bev got the call. Five days later, their son was dead.
Perhaps, at this point, you have a coherent picture of Rick and Bev Dyer. Perhaps you can comprehend their weaknesses, their struggles, the loss of their son. But you do not know them – yet. You do not yet know the arduous path which the Dyers have walked since before Brian was born. This, then, is an invitation: probe deeper, hold your judgement, and find yourself in an expansive story of suffering, misfortune, and redemption. The Dyers’ world perfuses public health crises, personal redemption, and the muddy human experience in between.
Like so many stories which find their crux in a son, this tale begins with a father – Rick Dyer, who himself grew up without one. Rick’s father, in his words, was “a drunkard” and never present in his life. From a young age, that abandonment led Rick to seek security in a host of other places. First, it was the military. Then, in his early twenties, alcohol. Finally, Rick – much like his future son – found safety in an unruly group of friends. At twenty-two years old, he was an alcoholic veteran with little formal education. In need of money (for both his survival and alcoholism) Rick committed petty theft. He would drive a getaway car, as his friend (who would come to be known in papers as “The Bicycle Bandit”) rode bikes around Napa Valley neighborhoods in search of unprotected homes. They would steal valuable property, sell it, and use the profits for food and liquor.
And then, they were caught. Rick was incarcerated for four years, on charges of “possession of stolen property.” Here, once more, Rick’s experiences paralleled those of his son. While imprisoned, he had a piercing realization. “Alcohol had destroyed my life,” and that thought permeated, deep through the mind’s regretful crevices, giving ugly credence to a fear he had held for years. “I was convinced that I would be dead by the time I was thirty.”
Bev, Rick’s friend and companion, was also a struggling alcoholic at this time; when Rick was released at age 26, both had been humbled by fear. Seeing what alcohol had done to their lives, the two enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous and started on the path to recovery. Two years later, they were sober. Not long after, they were married. To stay grounded, Rick and Bev remained close with their friends from A.A. – camping trips, group dinners and coffee chats kept them secure and accountable.
Brian, their only child, was born soon after, and was raised in the loving home which Rick was never given. Free from alcoholism, both parents worked steady jobs, and earned good money in Modesto. They bought a custom-designed home, replete with a swimming pool and multiple cars. Best of all, the Dyers were raising Brian in a safe space: “Our son didn’t grow up around alcohol; he never saw us drink,” Bev says of the time, “Although, we were honest with him [about our past alcoholism. He knew, but he also knew we were clean and sober.” Once slaves to shame and addiction, Rick and Bev had a family and community. The couple were free from destructive habits and holier-than-thou judgement. Theirs, at this stage, was a story of triumph and liberation.
Until, it was not.
Here, the Dyer story ties in with a much larger narrative – of oversight, addiction, and healthcare in the United States. That anastomosis begins with Rick. Sixteen years after getting clean, Rick was forty-four years old, with a family and house, “the whole nine yards.” He was also on strike, demanding higher wages alongside a group of Safeway truck drivers. As he walked up and down the pavement, carrying picket signs and shouting slogans, he felt a shooting pain in his back.
“I went into the doctor,” Rick recalls, “And she prescribed me some Vicodin.” Neither Rick nor Bev had ever taken pills before: “We didn’t even think about it,” says Bev. Apparently, however, their physician was equally ignorant. She had known that the Dyers were recovering alcoholics, who took strict measures to maintain sobriety. According to Rick, “I told her the first time I saw her, I was an alcoholic and I was in A.A.” Nevertheless, the physician prescribed opioid medications, promising relief for Rick’s back pain. In hindsight, Bev considers this oversight as just one example of a (now well-documented) larger national problem: “That just tells you how ignorant the medical community was about opiates at that time.”
But for Rick, an opioid epidemic was not some opaque national happening; it became life’s domineering fact. “[The doctor told me, ‘Take these and your pain will go away.’ Immediately, I became addicted.” Long after his back pain had settled, Rick was hooked and asking for more prescriptions. Time after time, his desires were assuaged. Eventually, Rick began asking for specific drugs and specific dosages. “Before you even realize that you’re addicted,” Bev remarks, “You’ve already crossed way over the line. You’re way too far gone.”
For years – years, the Dyers emphasize – the medical system was complicit in this recovered alcoholic’s fall into opioid addiction. Today, with the Department of Health & Human Services labelling the opioid crisis a “Public Health Emergency,” America realizes the national implications of such ignorance. But for Rick, the yet-unlabeled crisis was a visceral reality, one which would smear away all thoughts of redemptive liberation.
At first, though, the drugs were quite pleasant. Rick found the opioids so effective that, when Bev suffered a minor injury at the gym, he gave her some as well. Bev’s pain all but disappeared, and she soon began taking even more pills. “People don’t notice it unless they really know you,” Bev notes, reflecting on her own fall into opioid addiction. “It gives you a lot of energy, you feel like superman, but it’s not that noticeable. You can go to work, do whatever you want to do. You just do it with more stamina.”
Indeed, the Dyers thrived off subtle euphoria. But to fuel that euphoria, the couple needed greater supply. Knowing this, Bev visited the family physician – the one who first prescribed Vicodin to Rick – and secured her own legal source. For years after, Rick and Bev fed their addictions through a profiting medical system; then, when that source went dry (or simply became insufficient, it’s unclear which) they turned elsewhere.
“I was so addicted I was buying them off the street,” Rick remembers, amazed with his means and magnitude of opioid consumption. “I was taking doses which kill people nowadays.”
And lest anyone forget: The Dyers had a son. More than this, they had a family – a life, a multitude of blessings which flowed from that first great blessing, recovery. When discussing alcohol with Brian, Rick and Bev had always tried to shine an honest light on their past darkness. But now, when they desperately wished to hide everything from their teenage son, that light was blistering and focused.
In 2005, at the peak of their addiction, the Dyers’ lives had all but melted away. “We gave up everything for those drugs,” Bev remembers regretfully, “The house went, the cars went, the furniture went. The savings went, the 401k went. Everything was gone – and we still couldn’t give it up.” Rick even pawned a $500,000 coin collection, for the monolithic purpose of buying more opioids. All of this came to a head, as Brian – whose only prior experience with drugs had been the knowledge of Rick and Bev’s past lives – was staging interventions for his own mother. He turned to recreational drugs, trying to cope with the world his parents were throwing away. This was, after all, their own world which the Dyers were losing – and their own son. But for the couple, opioids could no longer be fought as personal demons: As Bev states, the drugs “became our god.”
“God” was not a highly-used word in the Dyer lexicon (at least, not yet) but was certainly an apt descriptor for their addiction. Yet there seemed to be no Exodus in sight, no freeing of the slaves, as Rick’s liver began shutting down in 2005. Resultant from both his past alcoholism and current opioid addiction, the damaged liver was unable to clear excess ammonia from Rick’s bloodstream; and soon after, his brain felt the toll. Eventually, while at work, Rick suffered a psychotic outburst which terrified his coworkers and superiors. He was fired shortly after. With little to no income, and a costly addiction to boot, the Dyers bounced between temporary housing and homelessness for the next two years. They salvaged what money they could, for sustenance and survival. But at this stage, even survival was becoming too much to bear.
“I remember walking up and down the sidewalk,” Rick says of the time, “Begging God to let me die. I chanted that, because I felt so terrible inside.” Bev was in no good place either – let alone Brian, now nearing young adulthood – but Rick was worse off than even he had ever imagined. “I was completely suicidal. That’s where I was in my life.” Recovery was gone, hope was gone. Now, life itself was following suit.
Until, once more, it was not.
In 2007, the Dyers moved back to their old home in Modesto. There, as Bev was cleaning out the garage, she opened an innocuous file cabinet. Inside – though they did not know it then – was recovery, hope and life anew. What she found was a pamphlet, about U.S. veteran recovery programs, which neither Rick nor Bev had known was there. At the time, neither of them cared: Rick was indeed a veteran, and he certainly needed recovery. Rick called the number on the pamphlet and found a ride to the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs shortly after. There, he intended to enroll in the Homeless Veterans Recovery Program (HVRP), hoping for a new liberation.
Oddly enough, that new liberation began with a novel lock-up. When Rick arrived at the Palo Alto VA, he was nowhere near in his right mind: he had a malfunctioning liver, was mildly psychotic, and (as doctors there marveled) “by all accounts, should have been dead.” HVRP would be of no use to a noncoherent, bumbling opioid addict with excess cerebral ammonia. As such, the VA began by placing Rick under mental health lockdown for seventeen days. Then, in early 2008, he enrolled in HVRP – a nine-month drug rehabilitation program, based on cognitive-behavioral principles of psychology. “They taught me how to live,” Rick gratefully recalls.
While HVRP taught Rick how to live, it was one therapist in specific, Rick claims, who showed him the way to life. That therapist was Dennis Bowers, a man who was deeply engrained in the Palo Alto community. Bowers was also a member of Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto and, sensing that Rick needed more than a set of rules or principles, invited Rick to church. Rick was introduced to weeknight programs at PBC – where he and other addicts could gather over food and music, while grappling with their common sufferings. He learned of weekly Bible studies, and developed friendships which ran deeper than any he had known before.
But for Rick – and Bev, who was getting sober through AA back in Modesto – the label of “Christian” was pushing it. It was 2009, and Rick was sober and attending PBC regularly; he had some vague idea of a Being, which wanted him free from addiction, but that was all. It would take two more years, and the first of two traumatic life events, for the Dyers to need anything more.
That first seismic shift occurred in 2011, when things seemed on the upswing for Rick and Bev. Yes, the couple were still facing difficulties: Their relationship with Brian, now 23 and living on his own, had been frayed and tattered by addiction; Rick still faced numerous health issues with his liver; and he and Bev were trying to reintegrate into a post-addiction world, halfway through life. Still, they had rediscovered sobriety and employment, and this gave them hope enough. But then, in what seemed another death of this nine-life cat, Rick’s very life was thrown off the hinges.
Only Bev recalls the episode: “He had an accident at work where he was thrown off some machinery, hit his head on the concrete, and he was out.” In fact, only Bev recalls what happened for a good while after, as Rick fell into a coma for eighteen days. During that time, Bev waited anxiously as her husband of thirty-two years laid in limbo: “When you have that kind of injury, they don’t know if you’re going to be in a wheelchair, if you’re going to be a vegetable,” she remembers worrying. “They don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Not alcoholism nor opiate addiction, not the birth of their son nor the loss of their home, had liberated the Dyers from their past or present shortcomings. Through every victory and loss, every remedy and affliction, remained a pernicious seedling of self-sufficiency. It was their own perseverance which freed them from addiction; their own strength which helped them rebuild, each time they lost everything.
But now, with mutual perseverance disrupted by a comatose husband, it was Bev who first saw a path through this wilderness. Members of the church, who had been by Rick’s side since 2008, now came in force to rally around his wife: “PBC came to support me, even though they didn’t know me very well. People offered rides, food, money – until you see these kinds of people up close, do you believe they actually exist?”
In moments where Rick’s vitals, brain function, and future remained uncertain, Bev leaned on these people; and in her most desperate moments, she leaned on something more. She looked past dry philosophies and muddled theologies, toward a visceral hope, promising light burden and easy yoke: “When it was down to the wire – and this was my best friend and husband of thirty-two years,” Bev says, “I had to lean on God. I think, for me, that’s when it really became apparent... There was something powerful there.”
Bev prayed and pleaded for her husband’s life, willing to take Rick back in any condition – whether normal, paralyzed, or vegetable. After eighteen days of sitting vigil, with the support of former strangers from PBC, she found her husband awake, with his cognitive faculties intact. “It was miraculous,” Bev says. But through those eighteen days, she realized, they had already been walking a living miracle: strangers and friends alike were pouring in from the church, giving physical sustenance and spiritual support. For both Rick and Bev, the episode was a dramatic declaration. Rick’s miraculous survival (again); Bev’s reliance on a God who upholds the afflicted; and the selfless service of others, all pointed not toward another way of living for the Dyers, but a new Life in and of itself. “People came together, they supported,” Bev recalls in wonder, “And when you see them talking the talk and walking the walk – it’s just mind-boggling. They’re not asking for anything in return.”
So, in 2011, Rick and Bev Dyer began living for Something else – greater than their all their indiscretions, all their imperfections – and engrained themselves within the “PBC family.” They heard the call, and they answered.
Some six years later, on a Monday afternoon in October of 2017, they received that other, fateful call. Unlike Rick’s harrowing tales of near-death escapism, this episode did not end in joyful victory. Instead, it ended with distraught and weeping parents – alongside their church family – holding a dead son amidst terror and confusion. They had no idea his condition was so critical, nor were they notified when his arm was amputated. “We were not expecting any of it,” says Bev, in confused remorse. “It was only when I held him… that I said, ‘Oh my God, when did they take his arm?’ ” All this transpired in one five-day span. The trial – more than any addiction, any illness, any job loss, any home foreclosure – seemed too much for the Dyers, who had endured trials the world over.
But in truth, the Dyers needed not endure it – at least, not on their own. Since Rick’s episode, the two had become part of a body; an all-encompassing reality which set their feet on steady ground, as all else collapsed beneath. And so, when Brian Dyer passed away on Saturday afternoon, there was only one place to go. “We got in the car and drove from Modesto, and we were at church [in Palo Alto on Sunday morning. Because I couldn’t think of any other place to be,” Bev says, as Rick chimes in – “There is no other place. There is no other place.”
Two people, former alcoholics and opioid addicts, grieving the day-old loss of a son; two people, living testaments to the destructive power of addiction; two people, in need a doctor for their bodies, and a Physician for their souls. When all else failed, Rick and Bev Dyer found forgiveness, love and acceptance in a living faith – borne out in the living community.
“Our lives have been difficult and different,” says Bev, without surprise. “When we talk about these things at PBC, nobody’s falling out of their chairs, they’re not shocked. These people are for real, and they really do care. They’re not asking for anything in return, and they’re not judging.” Embraced with humble acceptance by their friends and their God, the Dyers would live, somehow, with self-forgiveness and hope: “It was just eating me alive inside… and God stepped in, and allowed me to forgive myself,” says Rick, four months after the tragedy. Bev, too, is determined to live beyond her pains, so that she may help those who suffer as well: “Feeling [guilty doesn’t change anything; the facts are still the facts. If you’re wallowing, it’s going to hamper you from giving all of yourself – to another person, to society at large.” With the insurance of forgiveness and love, and with the knowledge of One who suffers and heals with them, the Dyers are moving forward. Day by day, they pray and work for a peace and joy which transcends their selves and stories.
“With God’s help, we’re here,” Bev says. “I want to feel good, I want to have a good life, I want to help other people. We just need to make sure the closet’s cleared out, so we can move forward.”
So, as the Dyers look forward – and backward, and downward, and in all directions – they themselves are living testaments. They are living stories, of suffering and hope. They have deep wisdom, borne from the deepest wells of experience. On the one hand, the Dyers have lived lives of addiction, making visible a notion which non-addicts seldom understand: “Addiction’s really hard to make sense of – it just makes you feel good. If you don’t feel good inside, and I offer you a pill that I guarantee will make you feel good, what are you going to do – not take it?” On the other, their unique perspective provides much-needed truths for the culture at large: “It just seems like nobody cares about anybody. People are jealous because you have a better job than I do, or a bigger house or a better car,” Bev says, of individuals whose addictions may not be physiochemical. “At the end of the day you’re not taking your iPhone with you, sorry.”
On a Sunday morning in January of 2018, months after the Dyers had leaned on God and the church to carry them through dark waters for the second time, Rick and Bev were still figuring life out. Rick was searching for a way to repair his teeth, which have decayed rapidly from an esophageal disease. Bev was preparing for the couple’s grief counseling, hoping to ensure that their closet was indeed clear. Both were working to interpret their past, present, and future amidst unimaginable tragedy and otherworldly hope. Rick and Bev Dyer were taking on their current trials, as they always have. But today, unlike before, they do not face this trial alone. The Dyers have the church. They have friends and professionals to counsel them. Above all, they have their God. The path forward will not be easy – it never was. But, as Bev relays through steady perseverance and strength, the Dyers will go wherever the call takes them.
“Whatever it is, I’m going to keep trudging; if I have to keep climbing that steep hill, if that’s where God is, that’s where I’m going to go. Because I’ve already been down on the other side, and I don’t want to go back.”