Saved by Dr. Drew

By Cathy Cassata 05/03/15

From incarcerated teen to accomplished therapist, Brandon Stogsdill credits education, God, and Dr. Drew for his turnaround.

Adam Carolla, Mike Catherwood, Brandon Stogsdill, Dr. Drew
Adam Carolla, Mike Catherwood, Brandon Stogsdill, Dr. Drew Loveline

Conceived by rape, Brandon Stogsdill was raised by his mother who struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness. “My dad was obviously never around and a lot of my childhood memories of my mom are her drunk, passed out and me wondering if she was dead,” says Stogsdill. 

As if that weren’t enough to bear, Stogsdill became the victim of molestation at the age of four. “I pretty much thought it was my fault, was ashamed of it, and kept it a secret,” he says.

Given the trauma Stogsdill endured, school was a challenge. “I was never really good at school. I was always a step behind and very anxious,” he says. “But my life was just my life. I didn’t know things were bad and that we were poor, even though we were on welfare, went to food banks, and stayed in shelters. I just thought it was the way things were.”

Stogsdill’s older sister looked out for him until she became pregnant at 16 and moved out. He continued to live with his mother and her various boyfriends until his mother went into a mental institution when Stogsdill was a sophomore in high school.

“Before this, I was just kind of moving along in life. Things started to change in 10th grade though. My mom left and my girlfriend broke my heart. I became suicidal and started picking fights with anybody, began robbing houses, driving around in stolen cars, selling drugs, and not caring about anything,” he says. “Then I messed with the wrong people who threatened to kill me so I got a .357 Magnum gun.”

This decision set the course for the rest of Stogsdill’s life. “I was quickly introduced to a power I never anticipated. From that point, anytime someone looked at me wrong or hit me up with a gang sign (even though I wasn’t in a gang), I’d just fire and shoot at them. I thought I was a vigilante taking care of the bad people and that no one would get hurt,” he says. 

When Stogsdill was 17, his friends got into a fight with a group of teens and turned to him for help. “I’d do anything for my friends. I had the mentality that anyone messing with them was a bad guy. I didn’t think I was going to get in trouble since I was just a kid, so I went after the kids that were messing with my friends and fired my gun twice at their car just to scare them, but one of the bullets penetrated into the trunk and lodged into a speaker just inches away from someone’s neck. Thankfully, no one was hurt,” he says.

Still, the police tracked down Stogsdill. After several months of pleading innocent, he eventually confessed and was sentenced to four years in prison. “I just got tired of all the bad things I was doing and being afraid of the police or other people coming after me, so I finally confessed. They didn’t arrest me at first, but then I got messed up in some other things and they eventually charged me as an adult,” he says.

Prison Time Proved Worthy 

Stogsdill went to prison a couple weeks after his 18th birthday and served about three and a half years. “At first I thought it was ridiculous that I was serving time and believed they were just trying to make an example out of me, but what I realized was that everybody in prison thought that what they did was someone else’s fault or the police’s fault or that their attorney screwed them,” he says.

Stogsdill says three things brought him to realize what he did was wrong: “God got ahold of my heart, gave me a purpose and allowed me to feel forgiven so I could move forward. I know it doesn’t make sense and I can’t explain or prove this, but with faith I started to feel convicted and began to understand that what I did was wrong and that I could've really hurt somebody,” he says.

Next to God, Dr. Drew also played a part in Stogsdill’s turnaround. “An inmate came to my door laughing hysterically. He told me I had to turn on Loveline, so I did and found it really funny. I listened to it at first to kind of laugh at how stupid some people sounded who called in, but then after months of listening, I started realizing that many of the callers had similar backgrounds to me and other inmates—no dads, abused, neglected—and I started really listening to Dr. Drew talk about how all of this affects people,” he says.

A Dose of Self-Reflection

Listening to the radio show encouraged Stogsdill to seek out counseling in prison, but his request was denied, so he continued to find guidance through Loveline. “Dr. Drew educated me on things I never knew about and allowed me to engage in self-exploration. I began to realize why my childhood and past lead me to prison. It just all began to make sense,” he says.

This realization lead Stogsdill to find his purpose. “While in prison, I was watching the news and saw this 17-year-old kid getting thrown in the back of a police car 'cause he was carrying an assault weapon, and I remember getting mad at this kid. I saw myself, and instantly I wanted to prevent other kids from doing the same thing,” he says.

Stogsdill tried to initiate a program for inmates to talk to at-risk youth in the community. “There’s a terrible program called Scared Straight that brings troubled kids to prisons and has inmates yell and scream at them. I designed a more effective program called The Real Experience that would have inmates talk to kids about what it’s like to make poor decisions in hopes of preventing them from going to prison, but I knew education was the only way I was going to be able to get the program rolling.”

So began Stogsdill’s journey of learning. “Starting school was the hardest thing for me because I was never smart in school, always a step behind, and always thought I was dumb. I mean, I graduated high school on bail with a 1.87 GPA, only because friends did my homework and only because I wanted to impress the judge,” he says. 

Yet Stogsdill enrolled in as many college courses as he could while in prison and received 32 credit hours during his first year. “Once I realized I could do it, I got a desire and thirst for it, and wanted to keep learning more and more,” he says. Inmates coined him "The Scholar,” and when he was released he took 187 college credits with him. Within an hour of getting out of prison, he went straight to Pierce Community College. “I had no money, but my prison teachers helped me secure a scholarship there,” he says.

At the same time, Stogsdill began volunteering at a church outreach program for kids. “I shared my story with them and took them snowboarding and bike riding, something I dreamed of doing when I was in prison,” he says.

After receiving an associate’s degree, Stogsdill got a full academic scholarship to the University of Washington and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. 

Dream Big

While at the University of Washington, Pierce College invited Stogsdill back to speak at its scholarship luncheons. “I started seeing people really inspired by my experience—they’d cry and hug me afterwards. I never anticipated that,” he says. 

At the University of Washington, Stogsdill continued sharing his story with professors. An anthropologist who conducts studies in prison heard about him and asked to meet him. “She was skeptical that I could just get out of prison and go to community college, so we met and we clicked instantly. She encouraged me to write a book,” he says.

Stogsdill took her advice and spent seven years turning his story into a book. The Boy with the Gun was published in 2013, and even includes a foreword from Stogsdill’s idol, Dr. Drew. 

“His show became monumental to my life in prison. Him and Adam Carolla essentially became father figures to me, and I wanted to thank them more than anything. When I got out of prison, I tried to call the show multiple times, but it was impossible to get through,” says Stogsdill. 

So he found another way. When Stogsdill heard that Dr. Drew was going to speak at Pierce College, he persistently asked teachers to arrange a meeting with him. “I couldn’t believe they made it happen. I was so nervous, awkwardly cleared my throat, and blurted out my story as quickly as I could. I told him that his advice changed my life and that I wrote a book with a whole chapter devoted to him,” Stogsdill explains.

To Stogsdill’s surprise, Dr. Drew took his manuscript and read the whole book. “He evidently read it on his plane ride home and then wrote me a two-page email about how much he loved it. Since then, we’ve kept in touch, and I consider him a friend and my mentor,” he says.

In 2009, Stogsdill appeared as a guest on Loveline. “It was the one thing in prison that I looked forward to and here I am in the studio. They put me on the air with comedian Jamie Kennedy. Dr. Drew was talking about my brain and how I had conduct disorder as a kid, but was able to turn my life around. Jamie Kennedy was making fun of me. It was an awesome experience.”

Theory Turned Reality

Once Stogsdill obtained a bachelor’s degree, he landed a job at a center for children and teens with severe autism. “When I applied, I told them I had a prison felony and they supported me while I fought the courts for over a year to prove that I had the integrity to work with youth,” he says.

Stogsdill continued to work with youth while working towards a master’s degree in clinical psychology. For the past five years, he has worked as a licensed mental health counselor and chemical dependency professional for Sound Mental Health, the largest mental health agency in Washington that provides counseling in their office, at prisons, in schools and in the community. “We work with the most challenging youth in the state, who come from broken homes, mental hospitals, are incarcerated, and who experienced abuse and violence,” he says. 

Stogsdill counsels kids one-on-one, and also uses action sports, such as snowboarding, indoor sky diving, bike riding, and longboarding to help channel their behavior into something positive. “If kids come in and don’t want to talk I’ll say ‘okay let’s go for a bike ride,’“ he says. “Recently, we worked with kids in an intensive substance abuse outpatient program and they didn’t want to be there that day, so I took them longboarding by the river. It was amazing to see them light up and have fun. Naturally, they began talking about how longboarding is similar to drugs because it’s risky, but fun and makes them feel alive.”

Sound Mental Health hopes to initiate The Real Experience program that Stogsdill developed in prison. “We were about to start it, but there are barriers, such as funding issues and the fact that right now prisons aren’t allowing kids to visit, but I have policies and procedures written,” he says.

On top of all that, Stogsdill is also working toward a doctorate in psychology, as well as publishing a psychological thriller, The Psychologist and Kill All List. “Working with sexual assault victims can be very heavy and dark, so writing this was my way of processing it all,” he says. 

The book details a series of sex offenders getting murdered, and leaves the reader guessing if the murderer is a psychologist, his clients, or a police officer. “Intertwined in the story, I aim to educate the public on sexual assault by including statistics and explanations of what it does to the victims,” says Stogsdill. “The book’s kind of a product of everything I’ve been through personally, seen growing up, learned while studying psychology and experience as a therapist.”

Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about how dance and movement can help recoveryConnect with her on twitter—@Cassatastyle.

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Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She is a regular contributor to Everyday Health and Healthline. View her portfolio of stories at Connect with her on Twitter at @Cassatastyle.