The first time Barb Cypher walked into a school gymnasium after the death of her oldest son, she had to walk right back out.
The sight of the boys shooting hoops, the sound of basketballs hitting the hardwood and the familiarity of the scene were too much.
“When I think about him being in kindergarten, dribbling up and down the court with his pants falling down ... I couldn’t stay there,” she said. “I started bawling my head off.”
For years, Barb and Jerome “Jerry” Cypher were constant spectators of Brendan’s prowess on the basketball court. Jerry coached and Barb watched from the bleachers as Brendan broke 12 records while a student at Chartiers-Houston High School. They cheered him on when he followed Jerry’s lead, coaching Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and then becoming the youngest boys basketball coach in the WPIAL.
They also witnessed the years of drug abuse that ultimately ended his life.
At age 29, with a lethal combination of methadone and Xanax in his system, Brendan Cypher died April 28, 2014.
“Every day I go through, I can’t believe this. I can’t believe my son is dead,” Barb said. “I think of him constantly.”
She has to accept it, she said, because the loss is part of the family’s life now.
“We’ve got to try to pick up the pieces and go on,” said Barb of herself, Jerry and their two younger sons, Jordan and Jerad.
For years, Barb and Jerry didn’t talk much about Brendan’s death to anyone but family.
“I was embarrassed when Brendan passed,” said Barb. “There are people that believe your son died of a drug overdose, like we’re heathens. Like I screwed up. I said, ‘Children never came with a book.’ Then I think, I must have screwed up somewhere because how did this happen? How did I let this happen?”
They’re telling the story now, in part, to try to make sense of their senseless loss.
“There has to be some purpose for all of this,” Barb said. “Is this what it’s for – to help someone else through that pain? To have their child not go down that path?”
Coach of the Chartiers-Houston boys basketball team for nine years and founder of the Washington Wolfpack boys AAU team in the late 1990s, Jerry plans to go into schools and locker rooms to educate students about drug use and addiction.
‘It grabs hold of you’
In Brendan’s case, drug use started “like a whisper” and went out “with a bang,” said Jerry.
“I think it starts innocent enough and then it grabs hold of you,” he said. “Sometimes, in cases like this, there’s no way back.”
Throughout high school, Brendan, a 2003 Chartiers-Houston graduate, dealt with compartment syndrome in his legs. The condition, which occurs in athletes, caused him to experience numbness of his feet. It worsened and when he was a freshman at Bethany (W.Va.) College, Brendan had surgery on both legs. He was prescribed the narcotic Percocet for pain.
“That’s where he got his first taste of all that,” said Jerry.
His basketball career was over, but Brendan, who wanted to become a school psychologist, kept his passion for the sport alive by assisting his father and then coaching his own teams.
He graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. In 2008, he was hired as Burgettstown High School’s head boys basketball coach and was putting in hours at an internship toward becoming a school psychologist. In 2009, he earned a master’s degree in school psychology.
Burgettstown had playoff appearances each of the three years Brendan coached there. When they went up against Jerry’s Chartiers-Houston team, the younger Cypher prevailed – an accomplishment that still makes Jerry proud.
“In Washington County, there had only been one father to coach against a son, and he beat me,” he said.
While Jerry had hopes Brendan would coach at the college level, Brendan was content with his choices.
“Brendan’s response was, ‘I want to have a normal life.’ He was happy being a school psychologist, coaching high school, running basketball camps in the summer,” said Jerry. “He loved coaching, but he had other priorities, too. He wanted to have a family.”
Brendan seemed to have it all.
Until March 15, 2010, the day Barb said “was the beginning of the end of our family as we know it.”
On that day, Jerry and Barb got a call to come to the hospital. Brendan had collapsed during a meeting. He was taken to the hospital, promptly checked himself out, and wrecked his car.
On the discharge papers, Barb, who was a nurse, noticed a lengthy list of medications Brendan was prescribed: chloral hydrate, a sedative and hypnotic; Ritalin and Adderall, stimulants used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; Valium, a sedative; Suboxone, a narcotic used to treat addiction, and Soma, a muscle relaxer.
“I have 15 drugs here that I can’t fathom why he was prescribed,” said Barb. “I said, ‘Brendan, you’re on Soma? Why would you be on Valium, Soma and these antipsychotic drugs?’”
Brendan, they believe, was overwhelmed with work, the internship and coaching. He sought help from a psychiatrist he knew, who diagnosed him with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, ADHD, social anxiety and panic disorder.
Barb and Jerry, who question most of the diagnoses, believe Brendan started seeing the doctor in late 2009. By April 2010, their dependable, hard-working son – a perfectionist who loved his job and his family – overdosed twice, wrecked three cars, frequently argued with his family and sometimes couldn’t even tell them what day it was.
“It wasn’t him,” said Jerry. “I know everybody says that, but it’s true.”
“Brendan was not the Brendan that I raised,” agreed Barb. “He was a totally different person after the four months. Our lives changed totally and were never the same.”
Brendan was charged twice for driving under the influence of drugs. He lost his license and was caught with fraudulent written prescriptions.
Brendan’s plans for the future were derailed.
“All of the sudden, there’s a blemish,” Jerry said. “He lost his opportunity.”
In a letter to the doctor, Jerry wrote, “If you stay the course and keep feeding him drugs, I predict he will be dead by September 2010.”
What Jerry and Barb didn’t know at the time is that Brendan had used opioids as an undergrad.
“He had shared with my mother and I that he started taking them in college,” said his aunt, Theresa Cypher. “I think that’s where the addiction started to manifest itself. I don’t think he immediately recognized he had a problem because I don’t think people understood opioid addiction. I don’t think when he was going through that he recognized it.”
At some point, Brendan started to “doctor shop,” going to different doctors in the area to get opioid prescriptions.
“I would go and get the bottles and write the names of doctors,” said Theresa, an outpatient drug and alcohol therapist. “I would call them up and say, ‘I know about HIPPA (privacy laws), so you don’t have to say a word. I’m going to tell you that my nephew has an addiction issue, and he’s doctor shopping, and I need you as a professional to get him help. He’s not going to listen to me because he doesn’t want to let me down. He’s not going to listen to his parents. He’s not going to let them down.’”
In 2011, Brendan entered inpatient rehabilitation. Barb and Jerry have lyrics to a rap he wrote on notebook paper while there.
His words reveal a deep pain they didn’t see at the time:
“When I was down, I kept getting kicked harder and further into the dumps. It just feels like each day is like your once-a-week Wednesday. Every day to me, can’t seem to get over that day of hump. It’s like five years ago, I’d always pick myself off – brush off that dust. Never felt the way I do now. So it’s like lately, I just ... can’t get sparked back up. No way to remember those things I used to enjoy.
“People keep sayin’ it’s my decision, it’s what I chose. But they just don’t even know or have a clue what my mind feels like. So c’mon, let’s switch places. You feel my pain, take all my hits, all my blows. Just one time let’s walk one mile in each other’s shoes, at least.”
“This is hard for me,” said Barb, reading her son’s words. “To be honest, I didn’t know he was that depressed.”
‘We were powerless’
Jerry now believes Brendan’s mentality as an athlete contributed to his addiction. He wasn’t cocky, said Jerry, but he was confident, as is necessary of any athlete.
“He was a hard worker. He’ll outwork his opponent. With that, you get a little success, and then the ego steps in, invincibility steps in, and they’re all traps,” he said. “I think that part of Brendan’s problem was his ego. He probably thought he could handle it. Whatever he wanted to achieve, he did it. He wanted to be the youngest coach in the state: He did it. He wanted a master’s degree: He did it. Everything he put his nose to – athletes have egos and when you have an ego, you’re the most vulnerable. Because you think you can conquer and win because you’ve experienced so much success, you think you’re invincible.”
When an athlete takes an opioid, whether prescribed or not, said Jerry, “they think, ‘I can stop this anytime I want because I’m in control. I’ve always been in control.’ But then you lose control.”
Brendan had lost control, and the strain was wearing on the tight-knit family.
They felt powerless. They wondered if something traumatic had happened in Brendan’s youth to cause him to seek solace in drugs. They asked Brendan if he needed to tell them anything or share any secrets.
“We were questioning everything,” Jerry said.
Whatever it is, they told Brendan, you can tell us. We love you no matter what.
“He said, ‘No. Nothing’s wrong.’ No matter what the situation was, we weren’t going to reject him,” Jerry said. “We just want Brendan back. We had that conversation with him.”
Feeling like their lives were unraveling, Jerry and Barb, who always planned to purchase a house in Florida, packed and moved down with Jordan and Jerad.
“So we just picked up and left,” said Barb. “And when I think back about that, we were running away from the situation.
“This was our son’s life at stake, and there’s nothing we can do,” said Barb. “We were powerless.”
“This is coming from a head coach, an entrepreneur and someone who typically can take control of almost any situation and right the ship,” said Cypher, owner of the Cypher Group. “And I couldn’t right the ship.”
When they left, Brendan continued to live in the family home in East Washington. Theresa, who lived nearby, stopped to check on him. What she found was disturbing.
“Disarray. Dishes stacked up. Not caring, and that was so unlike Brendan. Every single hanger ... the hook was one way and neat. He was so meticulous about everything. He was so meticulous, he cared about everything,” said Theresa. “There were warning signs all over the place. When you stop caring, those are warning signs. He stopped caring.”
When Theresa would express her concerns about Brendan to other family members, and they would question him, Brendan would tell them, “Oh, Aunt Theresa’s crazy. That’s not true.”
“He was living in denial,” she said. “It was hard for him to admit.”
The family has reviewed the days leading up to Brendan’s death, trying to make sense of how he was spending his time and what his emotional status was.
At the time, Brendan was trying to get back into his studies. He had scheduled interviews for internships.
On the Thursday before Brendan died, Jerry called Theresa from Florida, concerned because Brendan wasn’t returning his phone calls. The father and son talked daily.
“I come over the hill, he’s getting out of the car,” said Theresa. “I parked on the street, rolled the passenger window down and said, ‘Brendan, call your dad, please. Call your dad.’ He said, ‘I will.’ He looked great. I would have never thought in a million years something was going to happen.”
Over the weekend, Theresa drove by the house several times, seeing that the lights were on, and cars were parked in the street, like he had friends over.
On Monday, though, Jerry called her again.
“My brother calls me and says, ‘Theresa, something happened to Brendan. I know it,’” Theresa recalls.
Getting ready to drive over to the house, Theresa received a text. Bobby, Brendan’s cousin and Barb’s nephew, had gone in, where he found Brendan dead in an upstairs bedroom.
“Me and Bobby stood there and watched his body come down in a body bag,” Theresa said. “And I beat myself up. What if I would have went that Friday morning? What would have changed? Could I have saved him? Could I have called the ambulance? Could they have …” she said, trailing off.
An autopsy revealed Brendan had been dead for a few days before he was found.
Brendan had just gone to the methadone clinic for the second time to get help with his opioid addiction. His family now believes that, stressed about his interview, he took too much Xanax. When taken together, the drugs can cause depression of the central nervous system with a resulting decrease in respiration, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“He didn’t fall. He laid peacefully down,” said Theresa. “And that was the end.”
Shame and guilt
The following days and weeks are a blur for the family. Theresa busied herself getting the house cleaned up, and Barb and Jerry had to get back from Florida. Jordan and Jerad took turns driving.
They were angry at God, angry at Brendan. They blamed themselves. Jerry and Barb blamed each other.
For two years, Barb moved between their homes in Florida and Washington.
“I could see how two people, husband and wife, could love each other so much, but then get into this situation and end up getting divorced,” said Jerry.
“Because we almost got a divorce,” said Barb.
“You can ask anyone who knows us, where she is, there I am. We’re basically best friends,” said Jerry. “We really are as tight as two people can be. We went for two years, I don’t want to say hating each other, but pretty much.”
“He blamed me. I blamed him ... and then I blamed myself for being an enabler,” Barb said. “I would take Brendan, I remember, he came to Florida. I would drive him around to the pharmacies to try to get his medication.”
Theresa has blamed herself, too. She wishes the knowledge professionals now have about opioid addiction was known five years ago. She would have handled things differently.
“My relationship with Brendan … was so strong and one of the things that I’ve struggled with is the self-forgiveness,” she said. “It was difficult for Brendan to forgive himself. That shame and guilt. It’s difficult for parents and siblings that are caught up in this addiction journey. And so part of my struggle in self-forgiveness is that I was so tight with Brendan and I felt like I let him down.”
The family wonders if he wouldn’t have had those injuries, if he wouldn’t have had surgery, and wouldn’t have been given a prescription for Percocet, would Brendan have ended up addicted to drugs?
“God only knows,” said Jerry. “I do think we need people talking about this in locker rooms and in schools to let these kids know, do not go there. It’s not a battle you win.”
Theresa believes athletes are especially susceptible to opioid addiction.
“Because they have to produce for the school. They’ve got their own self-esteem, self-worth tied into it,” she said. “Part of the mentality of a successful athlete is you have to have an ego. You have to have that self-confidence.”
Theresa said the family’s experience – from trying to help Brendan, to grieving his absence to their guilt for what they should or shouldn’t have done – has made her a better professional.
“Going through what we went through and watching my brother and sister-in-law struggle, that’s a hell of a place to be in, to whether you shut somebody off or not. If I throw you out, and you overdose, how do I live with myself? But if I keep enabling and not forcing you to change, how do I continue down this path? For anyone to judge, it’s because they’ve not lived it,” she said. “I’ve often said, from going through what we went through with Brendan as a family, as an aunt, as a professional, even the grieving ... five years ago, I would have said, ‘Sorry for your loss.’ But now, when someone loses a loved one to addiction, I know that grieving process. I know that pain that comes with it. I know that struggle.”
Jerry and Barb credit their faith with helping to save their marriage.
“We disliked each other all week, but never missed Mass on Sunday. They would say, ‘Peace be with you.’ She’d let me kiss her on the cheek, so I had 10 minutes of peace. Then, as soon as we got out of church, went back to the same old, same old. But then Sunday would roll around,” said Jerry. “I don’t think there’s any chance without having Christ in our lives that we’re sitting here. That was the cement. I’m glad we stuck together.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24-hour hotline for referral and information can be reached at 1-800-662-4357.