It took him 10 years, but Michael Brill finally earned a bachelor's degree from La Salle University yesterday. As the Mayfair native stood among his classmates during a sunny outdoor ceremony, Brill, 37, could not help but get caught up in the past.
"I examined where I was four years ago in my life and where I've come today. It's just magical," he said.
June 30, 2003, marked Brill's last day living in what he called limbo.
He said he became numb after his mother died of pancreatic cancer in 1996, and he dropped out of La Salle. Eight months later, he lost his father to lung cancer. Even though he still had his three older brothers, Brill said there was a gaping void after his parents' deaths.
Beer began serving as a soothing comfort and he soon succumbed to alcoholism.
"If I was awake, I was drinking," he said. "If I wasn't passed out or curled in a ball, I was drinking. Once I put the first one in me, I couldn't stop. I woke up needing it."
For the next few years, Brill managed to get by with odd jobs and performing gigs as an Irish musician in bars, where sometimes he would be paid in alcohol.
His lifestyle soon caught up with him. Bankruptcy hit him and homelessness followed. For seven months, he relied on friends' couches or the benches at Pennypack Park.
It wasn't until that June morning in 2003 that a divine intervention swept him out of his living limbo.
After awaking from a drinking blackout, Brill began to walk aimlessly. As he passed his beloved childhood Moss Playground in Cheltenham, he asked himself: "Where are you going?"
He decided to head to his brother's house to ask for help.
However, he stopped at a pub, sat at the bar and ordered a beer instead. As he finished it, the bartender placed another glass in front of him. Brill looked at the filled glass and broke down in tears. He took the new glass and the empty glass and placed them at the end of the bar.
That was his last drink.
"I can only describe it as an intervention of a higher power. I tried everything on my own accord to control and stop this drinking and I couldn't do it. And then I asked God for help," he said.
Brill checked into a rehab program that same day. A month later, after completing the program, he took his first breath of sobriety on July 1, 2003.
Jennifer DeBellis, a family friend whom Brill calls his "cousin," secured him a job at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania's patient accounting department. But he could only work on one condition: He had to finish his degree.
"Mike showed that it's never a person who changes you," said DeBellis. "It's you who change yourself. I learned a lot from him."
After working for about a year, he re-enrolled at La Salle last spring and graduated with a general studies degree. In the fall, he is returning as a graduate student pursuing a career in clinical psychology, a goal that emerged during his time in rehab.
While there, "I saw people that were generally happy. The reason why they were happy is that they have a thirst of helping other people. I learned I have to be selfless," he said.