WHITE OAK — “… when they answered and said, ‘Horry County Coronor’s Office,’ I knew it was the phone call I always knew I would get.”
That Feb. 11 phone call to Doyle Owen changed his life.
Growing up in White Oak, Brandon Owen was the kind of son that made his parents, Doyle and Joyce Owen, proud.
“He was the most respectful person you’d ever come across,” Doyle recalled. “He was very intelligent, and he could do anything he wanted to.”
“He took a go-cart apart when he was little, and people said he’d never get it running again, because it was in so many pieces,” Joyce explained, with a sad smile. “Before you knew it, here he was coming around the corner of the shop riding in that go-cart.”
The Owenses described Brandon as the kind of person who always wanted to help others and “had a heart of gold.” But Brandon’s problems began as he embarked upon his high school years. At the age of 16, the once lively teen started behaving differently.
“I noticed the way he was dragging down,” Doyle recollected. “He had stayed out late one night, and the next day he was just staying to himself. You know your child, you know? And I knew something wasn’t right.”
Doyle searched his son’s room and found marijuana. He confronted the teenager, and Brandon assured his parents he would stop using.
However, when he began staying up late at night again, that, combined with acne that had never been a problem before and resulted in Brandon to constantly picking at his skin, caused his parents to suspect drugs. Doyle confronted his son one morning at breakfast, ordering him to empty his pockets before going to school. This time, the search revealed cocaine.
“I guess I was in denial for a while,” Joyce commented sadly. “Then one night I noticed he had been in the bathroom for a while, and I went outside and (sneaked) up to the window and looked in.”
Joyce began tearing up. “There he was,” she said, mimicking holding a needle to the crook in her arm, “shooting up. I knew it was true.”
“It just went downhill,” Doyle said. “He started using prescription drugs, doing roxies, Oxycodone, Opana — that was his main one. It got to where Opanas were $60 apiece, and it was just cheaper to do heroin.
“We started noticing all our teaspoons were getting gone, and we started noticing other things missing. He even stole our original wedding set. We bought that back several times,” Doyle said sadly, staring at his hand.
For the next decade, Brandon would go through periods of rehabilitation, and every time he would get clean, he would admit to his parents what he had done and where he had pawned their belongings, and the couple would go buy them back.
“He was always a good kid — the drugs didn’t change that — and he would feel bad about what he had done,” Doyle said.
From the age of 16 until he turned 26, Brandon was in and out of treatment centers. The Owenses spent approximately $130,000 attempting to get Brandon clean in rehabilitation centers all over the Southeast.
Carolina Crossroads was one of those treatment centers.
“Brandon was a good kid from a good home,” said Director David Chestnutt. “He just kept going back though.”
“You can pay all the money you want and make them go over and over, but until they want it, there’s nothing you can do,” Doyle explained.
Though they tried a number of facilities, they never wanted him in rehab nearby.
“His old friends were like buzzards in trees,” Joyce commented, quietly, “like they stayed up there watching for when he would come home.”
Brandon would always fall back in with the same crowd, despite his parents’ efforts to discourage the associations.
“They knew they couldn’t come on our property, so Brandon would leave money down the road, and they’d pick it up, out of sight, then come throw a bottle with drugs in it in our yard as they drove by,” Joyce recounted. “That’s the thing with drug users — when they want it, they’ll find a way to get it.”
Doyle and Joyce were quick to point out, however, they didn’t blame Brandon’s friends for their son’s problem.
“He knew right from wrong, and it was a choice he made,” they said in agreement.
During his 10-year love affair with opiates and cocaine, Brandon had moments when love turned to hate.
“He would just cry and tell me he didn’t want to be this way, and I would encourage him to keep on fighting,” Joyce said.
Eventually, however, the object of his affection overtook him. Feb. 9, 2017, a Thursday, is a day — though uneventful — etched in Doyle’s mind.
“I just knew something wasn’t right,” he recalled. “Brandon told me everything was fine, but I knew it wasn’t.”
Two days later, Doyle was having breakfast with his granddaughters when someone handed him a slip of paper and told him he needed to return an important phone call. When he dialed the number, the voice on the other end said words no one wants to hear — “Horry County Coroner’s Office.”
“Brandon always told me we didn’t have to worry about him,” Doyle commented. “But deep down, I always knew I’d get this call. I said please tell me this isn’t about my son. She said, ‘Yes, it is.’”
Because Brandon had owed a drug dealer money in the past, the dealer had mixed five times the lethal dose of fentanyl with just enough heroin to make the composite the right color to deceive Brandon into thinking it was straight heroin. Brandon injected the poison directly into his veins.
“The coroner told us that usually when people die of overdoses, they die relaxed,” Doyle remarked. “They just kind of let the needle go and lay down, and their heart just stops beating. Brandon died within three seconds, with the needle still clutched in his fist.”
Joyce turned away, the tears flowing.
“I just can’t get that picture out of my mind,” she sobbed, clenching her fist as if holding the needle herself, and staring at her closed hand. “Him dying like that. Alone. That was my baby.
“I just can’t get rid of it,” she repeated softly.
Brandon died on a Thursday, at the age of 26.
“I asked him all the time, don’t you know you could die?” Doyle recalled. “He told me he knew what he was doing.
“That’s the thing — these kids, they don’t know what they’re getting,” he added. “They don’t know what these dealers are really selling them.”
Since Brandon’s death, Doyle has become the District 13 leader for Parents Coalition for C.H.A.N.G.E, a group of North Carolina parents working together to combat the opioid and drug epidemic. The organization seeks to educate people about addiction and treatment, advocate for treatment reforms, offer grief support, and encourage legislation enforcement.
“There are a lot of parents in denial,” Doyle remarked, “and a lot of people are ashamed, or they think they’re going to be talked about. But it’s not that way.”
Visiting schools and organizations, Doyle’s overarching message is one of support.
“You’re not alone,” Doyle said. “There are a lot of people out there, and if you need to talk to someone, call me, and let me help get you, your child, your husband, your wife, your loved one in the right direction.”
Less than a year into the grieving process, both Doyle and Joyce are still lamenting their loss, in their own ways. For both both of them, however, talking about Brandon is part of the process.
“If talking about our experience helps save one life, it’s worth it,” Doyle remarked.
“It’s good to talk about him,” Joyce added, as she wiped her eyes. “Sometimes I see my granddaughter — she’s 4 — looking at the phone, and she’ll just start crying. She tells me it’s nothing, but I know she’s looking at pictures of Uncle Brandon. She misses him. We all do. I just want to see my son.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, Doyle offers his help. He can be reached by calling 910-308-8320. Parents for C.H.A.N.G.E also offers a crisis hotline, which can be reached by calling 844-709-4097.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing email@example.com.