Daniel Brannon fought back tears as he spoke of going from childhood addiction to recovery in his 40s. He recounted those along the way who never gave up on him through countless stints of rehabilitation, homelessness, imprisonment and failed attempts at sobriety.
Now sober for nearly five years, Brannon, 48, graduated from Anne Arundel Community College in May with an associate's degree in applied science focused on addiction counseling; he now works at a treatment center. Brannon's triumphs have made him a finalist for the Pearson Prize for Higher Education, a national award honoring college students who serve their communities.
The Pearson Prize is administered by the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. The annual award recognizes 20 students, who are named Pearson National Fellows and receive $10,000 each. Another 50 winners each receive a one-time grant of $500. The winners will be announced this summer, according to the school.
Brannon, who grew up South Baltimore and now lives in Annapolis, said he hopes to earn a graduate degree online. An avid bass guitarist who plays in several local bands and at Calvary Community Church in Columbia, he says he hopes to launch an arts organization for at-risk teens.
He now works as court liaison and after-school facilitator for Right Turn of Maryland, an Owings Mills-based substance abuse treatment rehabilitation center. He went through a rehabilitation program at Right Turn six times.
"He's a remarkable fellow," said Charlie Powell, owner of Right Turn. "He first came to me in 1995, and failed and failed and failed. It's hard to believe that it took so many years for his light bulb to light up. He now wants to give other people a chance, too."
Now his hope is to help others as a way of showing gratitude to those who helped him.
"We spend our lives saying we're sorry, but I've learned through recovery that making amends doesn't necessarily mean going back and telling everybody that we harmed that we're sorry. Making amends means changing for the better," said Brannon. "If we can continue to use our past experiences to helping people in the future, maybe we can help people from going down the road that so many of us have gone down."
As a liaison, Brannon visits courthouses with clients, telling the court how they are faring with the Right Turn treatment program. It is a different experience of the court system for Brannon, who spent time locked up in facilities from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland.
"In my life I've had about 30 treatment experiences," said Brannon, who said he is the child of an alcoholic father who recovered from his addiction before dying in 1998. "The last grade I completed was the fifth grade. I started getting arrested. I started doing drugs and alcohol."
By sixth grade he ended up in juvenile detention, having begun a life of criminal activity that included robbery and burglary. He stayed in juvenile detention for about four years but ultimately got his GED in training school.
"I got a little functional for a little while and was able to maintain a job for a little bit of time," said Brannon. "At 19, I found cocaine, and for about five years I started smoking coke and my life deteriorated fast. I went to my first 12-step meeting, but I didn't stay clean and sober.
"I guess I wasn't ready. I wanted to make the consequences and pain go away, but I couldn't connect the dots the way I needed to do to change my life," Brannon added. "I've had half-hearted attempts, saying, 'If I could get all my stuff back, make her love me again, get my job back, then I would be OK.' I celebrated one year of being clean six times, then I'd go to using again."
Brannon spent much of the last 12 years of his addiction living on the streets, in halfway houses and in prisons. A girlfriend died of an overdose six years ago, he said, and over the last two years of his addiction he finally grew weary of the loneliness and began turning his life around for good.
"I found freedom in prison, freedom from addiction," said Brannon. "My sister sent me a bass guitar, and I rediscovered my love of music, and I spent about a solid year in my cell just writing music and it was the most incredible therapeutic experience of my life."
"Not everyone gets this the first time, and he's an example of that," said Powell. "We don't give up on people. They need to see that they're screwing up and screwing up before the light finally lights up."
Brannon ultimately spent time with a cellmate who was an accomplished musician who helped Brannon's passion for music grow. He met several musicians while in recovery and now plays in a blues band. He stages events for such musicians and is slated to play in Soberfest, an annual event in September at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds that features 12 bands made up of recovering musicians.
"There's a sense of humility that comes from being broken," said Brannon. "Being able to give to others, to initiate concerts and benefits for good causes, it brings people together. We're able to raise hope and the message that life can be wonderful."