Charles Ellenbrand fought the good fight against addiction. 

A Battle Lost

On August 1997, Style Weekly profiled Byron Knight, director of the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC), a residential program for men addicted to drugs and alcohol. In that story, we chronicled the life of Charles Ellenbrand, at that time a resident of ARC. Ellenbrand, 48, began his struggle with alcohol and drugs in 1975. He had a college degree and a promising technical career. Nearly 25 years later, the struggle is over: Ellenbrand's body was found in a local parking lot early in February. He died from alcohol poisoning.

On a recent, sunny Saturday afternoon, while frat boys sat like porch ornaments sipping beer from plastic cups, a small group gathered inside the nearby VCU Baptist Student Union to eulogize Charles Ellenbrand. Those present fell into two categories: men and women who have sought help for addiction as Ellenbrand had, and those who offer that help. After the sermon, pastor Ben Wagener opened the ceremony to its attendees.

Ellenbrand was remembered for his intelligence, openness and humor, and for treating others with respect and compassion, whether their station in life was higher or lower than his own. Friends and social workers alike described him as a hopeful person who never gave up the fight to stay sober. Even when he was "leaving-Las-Vegas drunk," said one, he begged for help and tried to understand and change his patterns.

One ARC resident haltingly recalled that Ellenbrand had taught him to use the computer. Another was grateful for a letter Ellenbrand had typed for him. Some who attended identified themselves as recovering alcoholics and were clearly shaken that someone with Ellenbrand's promise was ultimately defeated by addiction. One woman read a Bible passage, "To everything there is a season." Her voice shook, and her lost, wide-eyed expression seemed to ask, "If Charlie couldn't make it, how can I?"

Rusty Edwards, one of Ellenbrand's four older sisters, describes what she's been through: "It's been such a hard time," she says. "The last time I saw him, I got probably the most depressed I've ever been dealing with it. ... But I'll tell you something." Her voice breaks. "Charlie, to me, was probably the smartest, the most kind, and the funniest man that you'd ever want to know."

As often happens with addicts' family members, Edwards became caught in an unproductive cycle of trying to help. "I had to give up. I had to quit helping Charlie. It was probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do. ... I just felt that I would go down too. Not in the same way ... but I was afraid I'd make myself worse in the process of helping him. ... He was a great guy. It was just one of those battles that he couldn't win."

Writer's note: After the service, each guest was invited to take a white rose as a remembrance of Charles Ellenbrand. Mine is in a vase in my dining room, and it does indeed remind me of Charlie: Even as it wilts away, it is reaching for the light.


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