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Repository, The (Canton, OH)

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January 30, 2005
Section: Main Story
Some things, not even a mom can fix
TIM BOTOS
Repository staff writer
It wasnt a homicide. A suicide, perhaps. An accident, maybe. No one knows for sure what Brian
Stieber was thinking that rainy night earlier this month when he dropped three stories to his death
from his apartment balcony.
To those who didnt know him, it was shocking. A handsome, 26-year-old former athlete, dead
before he had a chance to marry or have children. But those closest to him knew better. Theyd
fought against, and feared, this day.
Im dangling on a thread, Brian often would say.
Like many moms, Debbie Stieber had solutions for Brians problems when he was growing up.
When he was a baby, she fed him when he cried. She fixed scraped knees. When he was a
teenager, she shouted from the stands at Canton South High School, rooting for her son to swish
a foul shot, or smack a game-winning single into center field.
But this problem was more complex.
Brian Stieber was mentally ill.
How do you convince your adult son that his friend Chris is not real, that hes a delusion? How
do you comfort him when he believes his uncles want to kill him? How do you assure him you did
not sleep with Wilt Chamberlain?
For much of the last five years, Brian believed all these things. The bizarre thoughts werent
merely suspicions. To Brian, they were reality as sure as you know the paper you are reading is
real and tangible.
Brians is a story of hope and despair. Its about a mental health system that provides certain
rights to adult clients, even when theyre not thinking clearly. But mostly, its about a moms love
for her son. Though she lost this fight, she wont surrender.
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The phone call to Debbie Stieber from Stark County coroners investigator Rick Walters came
around 10 a.m. on Jan. 5. That night, she was to begin teaching a 12-week course at the Stark
County Community Mental Health Board. The class educates and helps families touched by mental
illness.
When Brian was diagnosed five years ago, the only mental health affliction Debbie knew much
about was depression. Right away, she immersed herself, studying and learning. She bought books
at Borders. She joined the local chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. She quit her
management job in a doctors office.
It totally engulfs you; you can think of nothing else 24/7, she said.
Her son needed her.
Brian bounced from one mental health case manager to the next. Debbie cant remember the
names of all of them, or the psychiatrists and psychologists he saw in those five years. Along the
way, he was in and out of hospitals 30 times. The state hospital in Massillon, now known as
Heartland Behavioral Healthcare; Akron General Medical Center; Aultman; Barberton Citizens;
Windsor; the Crisis Center. Debbie traveled by his side, always faithful that some day he would get
better.
I wasnt going to give up on him, she said.
Brians official diagnosis: schizoaffective disorder. Its an ailment with characteristics of both
bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. Symptoms include extreme highs and lows, as well as
delusions.
The Brian Stieber who lived for sports and watched ESPN around the clock vanished. He spent
many of his days and nights lying on the couch in Debbies Osnaburg Township home. Im just
existing, not living, hed say.
Medicine made his most severe symptoms disappear. The trick was finding the right combination
of medication, antipsychotics and mood levelers, and taking them as prescribed. Like many with a
mental illness, he didnt always take medicine on schedule. Sometimes, his mom would practically
put it in his mouth.
Sometimes, he was out in left field, said Jerry Isom, a supervisor at the Make-A-Way Center in
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Massillon.
Brian often walked the seven blocks to the center from his third-floor apartment on Third Street
NE. He hadnt driven a car regularly for two years not since he accumulated more than a halfdozen traffic tickets, including one for driving the wrong direction on a one-way street, trying to
escape someone he believed wanted to kill him.
Dozens of people with health or mental health problems go to Make-A-Way social center every
day, to shoot pool, watch TV, smoke and play cards. Brian dressed nicer than most. Hilfiger, Polo
and Nautica labels peppered his clothes, though he was too depressed to bathe regularly. At a
touch under 6 feet tall, he weighed more than 200 pounds, 30 pounds heavier than he was in high
school.
When he was sick, he was ashamed, Debbie said.
On Brians best days, while on medicine, he had no problems at Make-A-Way. But when he wasnt
taking it or was in the midst of adjusting dosages, he was a handful. He floated the F-word and
much worse. He touched people. He talked about killing Jews. He badgered Isom, who was born in
Alabama, about the Civil War and freeing slaves.
Id say, it was 100 years ago; who cares? Isom recalled.

At Brians funeral at St. Paul Catholic Church of Canton, his 23-year-old sister, Kelly, said she
thought about this day many times, dreading and hoping for it.
I hated seeing him so unhappy, so incapable to get a grasp on life. I hated arguing with him,
yelling at him, disliking him because of his actions. I hated the hurt it caused my family. I never
actually disliked him; I disliked the illness, and it just seemed to overtake him. I no longer knew
Brian Stieber. He wasnt my big brother. He was encompassed with sadness, and I didnt take
enough time to help him.
Living in Canton and Canton Township, the Stiebers were an all-American family. Brians dad, Jeff,
worked at the Hoover Co. His mom, Debbie, was in accounts receivable for an eye doctor. Kelly
admired her big brother, watching Buckeyes football with him, and even playing the game in their
living room.
As a toddler, the first word out of Brians mouth wasnt Mommy or Daddy. It was ball.
Everything was ball. Even peas on his dinner plate were balls. So, it was no surprise he played
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football, basketball and baseball in school. His sister picked up an interest in sports from her big
brother.
From season to season, Debbie clipped and saved mementos of her children sschool-age
accomplishments. To this day, she guards four scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings, report
cards, photos, letters.
Debbie and Jeff were always there, said Rocky Bourquin, athletic director at Canton South, who
coached Brian in baseball.
Brian played baseball at Canton South for four years, graduating in 1996. He was an excellent
hitter, the coach said. However, Brians basketball career ended in midseason his junior year when
he quit the team. He told his mom he felt emotionally 2 inches tall while playing. Bourquin said
Brian and the coach had a personality difference.
Debbie and Jeff, who divorced in 1999, took their son to counseling during his senior year because
he was depressed. They figured he missed basketball. Besides, he was struggling just to get
passing grades.
Looking back, Debbie recognizes signs she may have missed, starting with the basketball situation.
After graduation, Brian had problems getting to classes at Kent State Universitys Stark and main
campuses. His thoughts were scattered. He couldnt carry on a conversation.
In the spring of 2000, Brian and a girlfriend, out of the blue, drove to Pittsburgh to visit a distant
relative, Peg Carpenter, who happens to have medical doctors in her immediate family. After
speaking with Brian socially, they recognized he was in trouble. He was fixated on death and
darkness. Peg phoned Debbie, recommending she take Brian to the Crisis Center right away. From
there, he went to the state hospital in Massillon.
Thats when the spiral began.
The medications, the doctors, the fights, the empathy.
Jeff Stieber said his ex-wife couldnt possibly have done more for their son.
In his last seven years, I think he was right only about two times, said Jeff. We could never get
a hold on this. Lots of times, you might as well be talking to the wall. He didnt hear you. All you
could do was put your arm around him.
The same Brian who was the team RBI champ in baseball now feared people were out to kill him.
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They sat in booths at restaurants where he ate. They drove in cars that pulled up next to him at
stoplights. Even his own uncles were up to no good, be believed. He was convinced his mom had
an affair with Wilt Chamberlain. He built a knee-high barricade of lawn chairs and bricks along the
edge of his moms yard to keep away his nephew, who lived next door.
The last time Bourquin saw Brian, until the funeral, was nearly two years ago at a Canton South
tournament basketball game. They spoke briefly, but Brian didnt resemble the boy who looked up
from the bench and said, What do you want me to do, coach?
It was not the same kid; he just had this blank stare, Bourquin said.

Over the Christmas holiday, Brian had conquered a big fear, by flying on a plane with his mom to
Virginia to visit his sister. When they returned, Brian remained at her house until Monday, Jan. 3.
Debbie and Jeff both wanted him to stay longer at least until he was better adjusted to his new
medication, an injectable form of Risperdal, an antipsychotic.
But Brian wanted to return to his apartment in Massillon, closer to his friends at Make-A-Way. Hes
an adult and there was no way to keep him from leaving, though he still was quite paranoid about
his uncles and men in general wanting to kill him.
Do I regret I didnt go get him? Debbie said. Of course. But do you know how many times I went
and got him over the years? If hed stayed at my house, hed still be alive today. But I think God
said this boy has suffered enough.
It probably was raining when Brian went outside his third-floor apartment, to a balcony. Authorities
believe it was between 7 and 7:30 p.m. when he went to the waist-high railing and over the edge,
plummeting headfirst to the concrete below. On the way down, he struck a galvanized spouting
pipe. He lay dead for 12 hours. It wasnt until the next morning that children waiting for a school
bus noticed blood nearby.
The apartment building in Massillon is owned by ICAN, an agency that provides affordable housing
to mentally ill people. No one in the other five apartments heard a thing on that Tuesday night of
Jan. 4 when Brian died.
Debbie didnt teach the Family to Family class at the mental health board the next night. But she
does plan to continue teaching it in other sessions, trying to help families cope with mental illness.
Her son Brians story was the exception, not the rule.
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At his funeral, she talked about the mental health system, what she learned, and what she hoped
to accomplish. I challenge each and every one of you to never turn away from another person
with a mental illness. Rather, educate yourself, so that you can understand. You will be much richer
for it.
Police and the coroners office launched an investigation into Brians fall. They still havent ruled on
the cause of death. Debbie believes it wasnt suicide. Hed spoke of killing himself before, but
always with a gun. She said Brian was delusional and perhaps running away from someone he
thought was trying to kill him.
But no one will ever know, she said.
And maybe its not important.
You can reach Repository writer Tim Botos at (330) 580-8333 or e-mail:
tim.botos@cantonrep.com

Copyright 2005, The Repository, All Rights Reserved.

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