When you meet Brryan, it would be impossible to guess his story. The 25-year-old American motivational speaker is healthy and full of life. It’s hard to believe that he’s HIV-positive, much less the horrific events which resulted in this diagnosis.
“My story is constantly writing itself,” he explains. “It wasn’t until my darkest hour that I realised I had something to share. This message is not only my own, but one of something greater than myself.”
When Brryan was born, his parents were overjoyed. But after his father – Bryan Stewart – returned from fighting in Operation Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia, something changed. Stewart had a suspicion that he may not be Brryan’s biological father. He became physically and emotionally abusive towards Brryan’s mother. Leaving the relationship did not provide the protection that Brryan’s mother had hoped for as Stewart started to make threats, saying, “Your child is not going to live beyond the age of 5.”
When he was eleven months old, Brryan had an asthma attack and was taken to hospital. Unbeknown to anyone, Stewart – who worked in a laboratory – had been stealing samples of infected blood. He’d even joked with co-workers about infecting someone with the viruses, commenting “they’d never even know what hit them”. As Brryan was left alone briefly in the hospital, his father seized the opportunity to strike.
Brryan explains, “My father insidiously injected me with HIV-tainted blood.” His vital signs were shaken, but Brryan was stabilised and sent home. No one realised what had happened, and they wouldn’t find out for another four years.
The many doctors who saw Brryan couldn’t understand why he was so ill. The young child came close to death more than once. Eventually he was tested for HIV, diagnosed with “fullblown AIDS” and given months to live.
His father was arrested, charged with first-degree assault and sentenced to life in prison, but Brryan would wake from night terrors scared that he would be freed and come back to “finish the job”.
Medically, Brryan was in a hopeless situation. He explains, “My T cell count was at zero, and I had a central line straight into my heart and was being fed through a tube.” He was prescribed over 20 pills to take every day.
“The doctors gave up hope, they sent me home at the age of 5 with hospice and funeral arrangements,” he explains.
Rejected at school
Brryan's mother wanted him to have as normal a life as possible, but the local school wouldn’t accept him and recommended home-schooling. But she was persistent and Brryan was finally allowed to attend school, subject to various conditions: he could only come for half a day and couldn’t drink from the water fountains or use the toilets (in the 1990s, people thought you could catch AIDS from a toilet seat, Brryan explains).
It’s by the grace of God that he’s allowed me to be here
Throughout his school years, Brryan wasn’t invited to friends’ birthday parties and other social occasions. His mother’s boyfriend, and father to his sister, left because he didn’t want to be associated with “the HIV family”. He became an outcast. This feeling intensified in the final year of primary school as other children slowly became aware of Brryan’s diagnosis.
“My own peers would run away from me in the hallways like I had a gun.” As he entered his teens he was bullied and called “AIDS boy, gay boy”. He began to internalise this sense of rejection. Brryan explains, “When I was a child I was completely innocent, I just wanted to be friends with people. When people didn’t invite me I couldn’t quite understand or comprehend it until I was older and that’s when I got into depression and a lot of mental health problems.”
Choosing to forgive
As a child, Brryan wasn’t fully aware of what his father had done. “I can remember writing a letter saying, ‘Why can’t you say that you’re sorry?’” When in his early teens Brryan realised the full extent of his father’s actions, it had a crushing effect. “It really broke my heart because all my life I grew up without a father and I would see all these fathers around me who wanted to be active in their kids’ lives and wanted to be that role model and that mentor…and that was robbed from me.”
He became angry and embittered. As these negative feelings deepened, he became depressed. “One night I had three knives in front of me, asking myself, ‘Which one will cut the deepest?’ That’s when I picked up the Bible and read a psalm that said, “Why so downcast, O my soul? Put your hope in God.” From that moment, life began to change. “I realised that I was still holding on to the past, that bitterness and that baggage, and the only way to let go was to forgive,” he says.
Inspired by his mother’s Christian faith and having met with God himself, Brryan went through a process of forgiving people who had hurt him. He realised that “as long as I hold onto the bitterness and baggage I am still defined by [my father]. I’m not supposed to be defined by him, I’m supposed to be defined by Jesus first and foremost”. The decision to forgive his father was a difficult one and Brryan is clear: “It’s only by the blood of Jesus that I’m able to forgive him.”
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. Twenty-four years after being injected with HIV-infected blood, Brryan faced his father for the first time. Brryan was at the Missouri Department of Corrections courtroom to testify against his father and ensure he was denied parole. He explains, “Just because I’ve forgiven him doesn’t mean that he should be completely free because he still has to answer for his actions.” The fact that his father has never apologised is particularly hurtful for Brryan.
People often ask Brryan, who is now a motivational speaker, “How are you always thanking God?” His reply is, “Doctors gave up hope…It’s by the grace of God that he’s allowed me to be here.” He is now on only one pill a day and is at the best possible level of health for someone who is HIV-positive. He explains, “My T cell level is at an all-time high giving me a zero per cent chance of passing on the virus…miracles have been persistent in my life, therefore faith has been persistent in my life.”