Love and heroin don't mix: how these newlyweds survived a harrowing romance
Posted September 13, 2018 6:29 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — There's nothing sweet or adorable about the way newlyweds Brittany and Ryan Coleman first met -- no "meet cute" like in rom-com movies or romance novels.
It was 2015, and Brittany bought heroin from Ryan in a parking lot, and Ryan cheated her. Brittany called him some choice names, and Ryan shrugged his shoulders and walked off.
Despite that inauspicious beginning, and the many years of drug abuse that preceded it, the Colemans want to get out this message: There is life and love after drug addiction.
They want to give hope to those whose lives have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic, which kills more than 115 people every day in the United States.
"You just have to find the right people to get connected to to kind of show you the way out," said Brittany, 29.
Addiction, rehab and relapse
When Brittany Hokrein was 11 years old, her parents divorced, and she and her brothers and mother moved from Georgia to Pennsylvania.
She struggled emotionally, and at age 14 she started to use marijuana and alcohol so she wouldn't feel the hurt. Soon, pain pills became her drug of choice, and by age 18 she was addicted.
Ryan, now 37, was born into a military family, moving from Georgia to Germany to Texas and then back to Georgia. Like Brittany, he had a loving family, but as a teenager, he felt like he didn't fit in, and he started to smoke pot at age 14.
"I found that I could medicate that feeling. Life was great once I got high," he said.
By the time Ryan was 17, he was smoking pot every day, and he dropped out of high school senior year. He moved on to LSD and cocaine. By the time he was 20 he was hooked on painkillers.
His father, an Army drill sergeant, and his mother, a high school teacher, begged him to go to recovery. They told him a recovery program had saved his mother from alcoholism when Ryan was a child. But he rebelled and rejected everything his parents stood for.
By 22, he was strung out on heroin. "I had to have it," he said.
Over the next 10 years, Brittany and Ryan unknowingly led parallel lives. Hopping from city to city, they both used heroin, methamphetamines, prescription opioids, Xanax, cocaine and alcohol.
Brittany overdosed three times, and Ryan overdosed five times. Ryan got arrested 16 times, mostly for stealing so he could get money to buy drugs. Brittany stole, too, and had a stint at prostitution.
Their parents loved them and helped get them into rehab programs. Each stint ended in a relapse.
By 2016, both Ryan and Brittany had moved back to Augusta, Georgia.
They happened to end up at the same recovery group meeting. Eight months had passed since they'd met at that drug deal in the parking lot.
A forbidden love (and with good reason)
He's cute, Brittany thought when she met him again at rehab.
She's beautiful, Ryan thought. Really beautiful. And she looked so familiar.
He realized she was the woman he'd cheated in the drug deal.
"I thought, 'This was fate.' I walked right up to her and told her I needed to apologize for ripping her off," Ryan remembered. "I did want to make amends, but I also had an ulterior moment. I wanted to date her."
Dating was discouraged in their recovery program -- and Brittany and Ryan found out why.
As they fell in love, they spent all their time together and their lives became intertwined. At first they both stayed sober but then slowly, imperceptibly, Ryan slipped away, taking Brittany with him.
After about four months of dating, one Friday morning Ryan told Brittany he was going down to a park by the Savannah River to think about his life.
But instead, he drove two hours to Atlanta to buy heroin and cocaine.
He called her on the way and told her the truth. Brittany stood there with her phone in her hand. She wrote out a text that she knew she shouldn't send.
It said that Ryan needed to bring back some drugs for her. She stared at the text for a while. Then she hit send.
And everything fell apart.
Giving up heroin -- and each other
For the next week, Brittany and Ryan went right back to heroin, right back to cocaine, right back to meth, sometimes all at the same time.
"I even romanticized it, saying f*** all the rules, we're going to be heroin junkies together, all that 'Trainspotting' bull****," he said, referring to the 1996 film about young Britons on heroin. "Addicts have a sick way of romanticizing their drug use."
Then on October 3, 2016, they both overdosed on meth and heroin. Medics found Brittany lying on the floor of a gas station bathroom, and Ryan right outside, unconscious in his car.
The medics gave them doses of Narcan, the drug that reverses overdoses. Brittany had done so much heroin she needed two doses.
Ryan was wracked with guilt. He felt personally responsible for Brittany's near death in that gas station bathroom. He was the one who'd driven to Atlanta to get drugs when they were both working so hard to be clean. He was the one who said 'yes' when she asked him to bring some back for her.
"I had almost killed the person I loved the most," he said.
Brittany returned to Hope House, a treatment center for women in Augusta.
Ryan visited here there. Surrounded by his sponsor from his recovery group and Brittany's counselors, he got down on his knees -- and apologized.
"He held my hand and apologized to me in front of all those people," Brittany said, crying at the memory of it. "He was shaking and I was shaking. He said how sorry he was for putting me through all this and how scared he was to almost lose me."
They then had to do something they describe as just as hard as giving up heroin: They had to give each other up. For a month, they had no contact at all.
"The only way for us to survive was to focus only on our recovery, and not on each other," Brittany said. "It was the only way it would work."
Brittany then left Hope House, and the two met up at their recovery group's Thanksgiving dinner. They started back dating slowly, and then a year and a half later, on February 24, 2018, they were married.
Two years sober
Next month marks two years of sobriety for both Brittany and Ryan, and today they live in a small house with four cats in Augusta. Ryan works at a vape store, where he's advanced from part-time clerk to assistant manager to manager. Brittany works at a rehab center, helping others overcome their addictions.
They volunteer to help others in recovery and have also spoken at programs that train people how to use Narcan, the drug that saved both of them so many times.
When asked how they survived addiction where so many have died, they say it was the grace of God and to a large degree luck -- luck that those Narcan doses were available right when they needed them.
They also say they let other people guide them: their families, who never gave up on them; the rehab counselors who stuck with them; and their recovery mentors who showed them the way, including that they needed to focus on their individual recoveries and not on each other in order to survive.
All of those people joined them on their wedding day.
"It was really a culmination of all the good things going on in our lives finally really coming together," Ryan said.
Sometimes Brittany can't believe she's alive, much less in a loving, stable relationship.
"It's unbelievable. I don't think that I would have ever imagined that I would be married and happy and just planning a future with another human," she said. "I didn't ever picture that for myself."
They want people in the throes of addiction to see that despite the dire statistics, there can be hope.
"I want them to see people like us and realize that we were in that same place at one point in our lives -- and we got out," Ryan said.