Brent David Hamilton struggled with addiction much of his adult life.
By Sheila Hamilton, BeyondWell
I was just finishing editing a story on addiction when a text dinged.
“Brent is dead,” it read. “I just found out.”
Two lines, written by his sister, who was obviously in shock. I’d expected and anticipated and dreaded this news in a macabre, but devastatingly ordinary world where millions of addicts’ family members prepare themselves for the foreseeable death of a loved one.
San Diego News Headline: Man Found Dead in Tree Could Have Been There For Weeks.
Brent David Hamilton was 32 years old. We called him Brent David, the second child of four beautiful, healthy babies born to my charismatic brother, Steve, and his fiery wife, Holly.
He was gifted athletically, filming videos and narrating his skateboard rides. He was hugely creative, making up skits and donning costumes for funny comedic rants long before TikTok was a thing.
He was kombucha-like healthy when he wasn’t using: large round brown eyes, olive skin, and a jaw that made his Instagram feed look like a model’s life. He was “hot as hell,” according to comments on his social media.
He was so much more than a man found dead in a tree.
And while Brent never lacked for female attention, his primary relationship was with heroin, a complicated, twisted addiction that claimed nearly half of his life.
He was 6′5″ and his long, muscled frame was spotted splayed across the branches 10 feet up an old oak. A homeless man spotted him from San Diego’s railroad tracks. He’d started climbing trees again because each branch led to a new possibility, something his life had stopped offering.
Trying to piece together the details of a person’s death is impossibly difficult, especially when heroin is involved. Nobody wants to talk. Nobody knows anything. But Brent left a Facebook Live as some sort of clue to the last hours of his death.
The recording is pitch black, suggesting he started the video and then put the phone in his pocket as some sort of protection, or as a record of what might occur next. For several minutes, you hear the rush of semi-trucks, cars, and the crushing of leaves. He is walking along the side of a highway.
Seven minutes and 20 seconds after the recording begins, you hear Brent breathing heavily, then two men speaking in hushed tones. Then, Brent grunts, as if he’s been kicked or punched. Two more horrifying gasps later, the audio returns to freeway noise. Then, the sound of muffled activity, presumably him climbing the tree.
They never found his car. The police assume he died of an overdose because there were no outward signs of trauma, but no drugs were found on his body. The police also say they are investigating, but you can’t get to the bottom of every heroin addict’s demise. On average, 200 a day, someone in America finds a person who has overdosed. Most (136 deaths per day) can’t be revived.
The long reach of addiction
It’s impossible to comprehend the branches of America’s opioid epidemic; how far-reaching it is, how twisted it is, and how traumatic those deaths are to everyone around them. Intertangled root systems also run deep in families and through generations, and the insidious disease of addiction always cuts across racial, economic, and cultural boundaries.
Untold numbers of people struggle with complicated grief from the long, painful trail of substance abuse with its nauseating ups and downs, its glimmers of hope followed by crushing disappointments, as addicts struggle to recover, then relapse repeatedly. Families strive to keep their love alive for a person who has stolen from them, lied to them, embarrassed or harassed them, and who they never know whether to forgive or hold accountable.
They are confused about whether to try to help or set clear boundaries to avoid being seen as an enabler. They are encouraged by the recovery community to see the addiction as a disease, with complicated neurological, behavioral, and sociological origins, but daunted by the fact it is disease without a cure.
Even after several years of sober living, a heroin addict can use again and die unexpectedly, as Brent did. These well-meaning family members are as the leaves crunching under Brent’s sneakers; never seen and never counted.
The negative toll on families of this sustained stress, emotional turmoil, and devastating loss is impossible to measure, never even considered. For years, my sister was among the family members who supported Brent’s efforts at recovery, including work with doctors, therapists, substance abuse counselors, lawyers, drug court personnel, and police.
She never lost her love for Brent, she said, but the experience eradicated all her hope and her fear, for him and for her. My niece said she realized she could no longer hover over her brother as he slept, checking his pulse to make sure he was alive. And Brent’s mom observed, “Addiction is the pandemic of indifference, unless of course, it is your beloved who is sick.”
Opioid-related deaths are soaring during the pandemic, due to loneliness and lack of services, and a rush of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Opioids accounted for around 75 percent of all overdose deaths during the early months of the pandemic; around 80 percent of those included synthetic opioids.
In the months before Brent died, when he was surrounded by other people in sober living, he posted two obituaries for friends who had relapsed: “Lost another fine one.” And “R.I.P, buddy.” Then, he got kicked out of sober living for visiting his girlfriend.
Trauma’s role in addiction
I’m reporting and producing an eight-part series on the new science of addiction. And the recovery experts I’m talking with know more now about the reasons for addiction than ever before. Trauma is at the root of most mental illnesses, and it has its claws into the addict as well.
The individual’s traumatic upbringing, inadequate coping mechanisms, self-medication, lack of impulse control, and genetics are all implicated in the abuse. But so is the culture — with its refusal to acknowledge pain, its over-emphasis on material success, and its diminishing relationship to spiritual truths and ethical training.
And Brent grew up in a small town like so many towns that have been ravaged by opioids. Two of his best friends died from an overdose. He was 18 when he was first offered oxycodone at a new school.
The cool kids were stealing the drug from their parents and selling it in the hallways. Brent later told counselors he was shocked by the immediate need for higher and higher doses just to ward off severe withdrawal. He turned to smoking heroin. He quit for three years and then started using heroin again after he broke his leg snowboarding, and his prescription of oxycodone ran dry. When it ran out, he returned to getting his drugs on the street.
Many people talk about the physical cravings that result from opioid abuse, and Hollywood does a fine job of dramatizing the pain and anxiety of withdrawal. But what rarely gets talked about is the culture of addiction that encourages relapse: the partying, the theft, and the street culture. It is a life without limits or rules.
Five years ago, he called me, desperate for help. “Aunt Sheila, I’m going to die if I don’t get treatment,” he said.
I didn’t mention how many times my sister had paid for treatment only to see our nephew relapse. He arrived at the airport sniffling and emaciated, his belt on the final notch. I relied on the help of friends to find an opening in a treatment center. We rented adjoining rooms in a motel near the center so he could be rested and ready to check in for in-patient treatment the next morning.
Walking downtown after lunch, Brent noted every person who passed him was offering him drugs with their eye movements or their hand gestures. “It’s like they smell the addiction on me,” he said.
The night before he was set to begin treatment, Brent said he was going to the bathroom. Instead, he slipped out the door, walked out to the street, and scored a dime bag of heroin. It took him five minutes.
He returned, bleary-eyed and zombie-looking. I was furious. I was heartbroken. I was in over my head. A documentary on Anthony Bourdain played on the television set. Bourdain was talking openly about the moment he decided to stop using heroin because he knew it would eventually result in death.
“Whoa,” Brent said, in the throes of the nods. “Weird timing.”
Six weeks later, the director of the program called to tell me Brent had been kicked out. He’d been selling drugs. When I drove over to pick him up, he had already disappeared into Portland’s street culture.
The police finally contacted me when Brent was found attempting to stow away in a FedEx plane. “If only he used his imagination for good,” the police officer quipped. “That guy is something.”
In his final two weeks, Brent had been kicked out of sober living for another transgression. His friend, Chris, who was his sober buddy, also relapsed.
His death is a brief item in the news about a man found dead in a tree. Somewhere, I imagine the person who sold Brent his drugs is shrugging his shoulders and doing the next deal, backed up by organized crime, educated in gangs, and unfazed by death of any kind. We all know how this ends, after all.
Brent David Hamilton was surrounded by family who loved him.
The pain and joy of remembering
There is a great deal of shame and embarrassment surrounding addiction, and most people won’t mention it in their loved one’s obituaries. We will talk about the sensitive nature of the person or their love of animals, or in Brent’s case, his Frenchie, Gizmo. We will attempt to cobble together a memorial that includes the funny stories from when our relatives weren’t using and we will not mention the number of times our loved one was in prison, or when he stole from his family and friends, or how he lied so effectively we began to see him as selfish and destructive.
We may try to form a working narrative of our loved one’s life, but it is a painful archaeological dig. Was it four or five stints in recovery? Was it 10 or 15 middle-of-the-night phone calls to bail him out of jail? How many nights did you let him couch surf or how many months did he live at your house that time?
I called my sister, asking her to recall his best year, or the longest time Brent remained clean. It was when he left the city with her to help at her Buddhist retreat center in the Utah wilderness. He worked hard. He meditated. He started doing acro-yoga and charmed every lithe yogi in the retreat.
Another high point was when Brent had taken a teaching aide job at a private school for kids with special needs. He was gentle and kind with kids who otherwise didn’t garner a lot of attention, and the school administrators loved him.
Until they had to fire him. Brent failed to disclose former misdemeanor theft charges.
He was crushed with disappointment and unable to find work again.
Dr. Jim Polo, a psychiatrist and board member at Fora Health, which is sponsoring my podcast series on addiction and recovery, says, “The single most important element to preventing relapse is an individual relationship with someone who cares. Someone who is willing to forgive the horrible behaviors of the addicted person and walk with them through the hardest parts of their illness.”
But what do you say about a person who exhausted and cheated and lied to every single human being around him when he was using and, alternatively, charmed, loved, and worked hard when he was not using?
You say this: You are sick. You continue to need professional help. We will help you get that. But when you are using, you are not welcome in our homes.
It requires tremendous clarity, but often, you don’t see any payoff. Even having someone who will forgive the horrible behaviors and walk with the addict through the illness doesn’t ensure recovery.
Brent’s girlfriend is distraught. He’d followed her to San Diego, and she put up with his erratic behavior as long as she could.
Every time he’d quit rehab or get kicked out of sober living, he’d use again. And the late-night texts and visits would begin again, irritating her roommates. “I need help. Please come get me.”
The night Brent died, he sent the plea out at 7:30: “Will you pick me up, I’m in troy, trouble.” She tried him back at 10:30 and then again, the next morning. “His phone always died when he was using,” she said. “I thought he’d give me a call after his phone was charged.”
Grieving someone who dies from addiction is complicated by the false notion that we could have saved him. We can’t.
That’s why members of Al-Anon say, “I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.” But living with that reality, and the persistent uncertainty, is a discipline that even soldiers at war cannot hold. Needless to say, families of addicts also suffer from undiagnosed PTSD.
Portland author Sheila Hamilton writes with love and clear-eye compassion about her nephew Brent David Hamilton's struggles with addiction.
Pandemic adds to challenges
COVID-19 has been horrible on relapse rates. During national emergencies, substance abuse rates tend to skyrocket because it is the most inexpensive and easily accessible way to feel better. Until it feels worse. Until someone loses the job, or the girlfriend, or gets kicked out of sober living and ends up dead. “He’d been clean for months,” his girlfriend said. “He was so determined to show all of you that he could do it.”
“I feel so bad when families come into their first time in treatment,” Naomi Caster, Fora Health’s Youth and Family Clinical Director, says, “There are like, finally! We are here and this terrible addiction can end. But the truth is recovery is a lifelong process, and it often takes multiple times in treatment for an addict to decide to change for good, if they are able.”
Ultimately, all any of us can do to save our own lives is cobble together as many helpful resources and people as we are able, until one day we feel capable and worthy of taking up space on this planet.
“He didn’t want to keep disappointing people,” his girlfriend said. “The truth is, I loved him in life. I’ll love him in death.”
The man in the tree had a name, Brent David Hamilton, and he had a family who loved him, a family who had tried everything they could to help him survive.
Brent’s cause of death will be labeled in the obituary as “undetermined,” because the results from the autopsy won’t be finalized for four to six months. Some people who have listened to the Facebook Live recording speculate he was hit by the men whose voices appear on the tape, or that he might have sustained injuries in a car wreck earlier in the evening.
They are hopeful that Brent somehow maintained his hard-fought sobriety. But the lack of clarity lands under the dark spectre of drug use — realistically, the odds are Brent overdosed.
In the final moments of his life, Brent climbed to the safest thing near him, a 100-year-old oak, and he claimed that tree as his final resting spot. His options on earth were limited by disease and disappointment, but Brent found a way to touch the sky, his soul finally untethered.
More from Sheila Hamilton
Follow the series, The New Science of Addiction and Recovery at
Ep. 1 Why we become addicted https://beyondwellsheilahamilton.libsyn.com/ep156fora-health-dr-conti
Ep. 2 Medication assisted Recovery: https://beyondwellsheilahamilton.libsyn.com/ep157fora-dr-eowyn-rieke
Ep. 3 Understanding the Recent Epidemic: https://beyondwellsheilahamilton.libsyn.com/ep158dr-amit-shah
Ep. 4 Getting Treatment for a Person with Addiction https://beyondwellsheilahamilton.libsyn.com/ep159fora-kevin-mahon-and-nerissa-heller
Ep. 5. Complicated Grief/Death by Substance https://beyondwellsheilahamilton.libsyn.com/ep160-fora-dr-jim-polo-complicated-grief
Sheila Hamilton is a five-time Emmy award-winning writer, a health journalist, and CEO of BeyondWellSolutions, providing mental health programming for companies wishing to engage their employees in better mental health and well-being.
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Brent David Hamilton struggled with addiction much of his adult life.