Before opioids destroyed Grant Matheson's career, he was a pillar of his community. Respected physician, loving husband, devoted father, and trusted friend. Grant was a straight-laced kid who grew up to be a clean-living adult. No drinking, no smoking, and certainly no drugs. It took everyone by surprise, most of all himself, when he became addicted to narcotics in his 30s. His story hit local press when he was found guilty of professional misconduct related to his addition, including over-prescribing painkillers to patients so he could buy them back--an infraction that caused his physician license to be suspended.
Matheson's memoir is a gritty account of his narcotic addiction and all that it cost him: various relationships, his career, and almost his life. The Golden Boy takes the reader from the very first day of Matheson's drug addiction to that moment when he decided to rebuild his life through rehab and recovery.
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Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. February 2000.
I sat on a leather sofa in an expensively decorated living room. I had a persistent cough, making it difficult to complete a full sentence. My friend pulled out two Cokes from the refrigerator and handed me one. I thanked him, took a drink, coughed again.
We were both in our mid-thirties. We ignored the hockey game on the big-screen TV, made small talk about the event we were going to: a dinner put on by a drug company. A chance for doctors to socialize and enjoy a free meal at the local Italian place. An opportunity for the pharmaceutical company to make connections.
I kept coughing.
"You're driving me crazy, Grant. Go take some cough syrup."
"I'm sure it will go away."
"You'll interrupt the presentation. Go take some."
I sighed. "Where is it?"
I dutifully went to the bathroom, opened the cabinet, found the bottle, twisted the cap, took a swig, and put it back.
We both finished our Cokes, put on our coats and went outside. We scraped snow and ice off the car windshield.
As soon as I sat in the passenger seat, I felt a warmth rise from my shoulders to my head. And the voice inside — the one that had been berating me day in and day out about my failed marriage — it faded away.
I was at peace.
After my marriage broke up, I had an extreme amount of guilt. As soon as I moved back to PEI after graduating from Dalhousie Medical School, I started building a practice in a small, rural community. It didn't take long until I had a full patient load. As soon as I woke up in the morning — every morning — this voice in my head would tell me I had failed. (Sometimes the voice actually came from my mother. Sometimes it still does.)
I'd failed my parents. I'd failed my wife. My church. My children.
I'd fallen in love with another woman while I was legally married, even though said marriage had been over long before I met the woman who would become my second wife. We'll call her Beth.
Even though Beth, whom I married in April of 2000, thirteen years after marrying my first wife, was truly the love of my life, I was living with a tremendous amount of guilt. I had traded the life I'd been living for a life I'd chosen. I was a terrible husband. Was I a decent father? I became somewhat of a disappointment as a son. My parents didn't even attend my second wedding.
This chatter went on inside my head constantly. I couldn't shut it off.
I was overwhelmed and depressed, but I didn't really think about how stressed I was until that night at my friend's house, when I took that cough syrup. My first step into that world of substance abuse was so innocent and it happened at the age of thirty-five. It was seductive, though; it made all of the guilt go away. The voices finally went silent. I felt such peace and calm. It was amazing, really. But, even then, I never sought out any kind of substance again. Not until about seven months later, September of that year, when I injured my ankle.
I'd been a marathon runner. And I had an injury that prevented me from running. The pain was bad, and I had a lot of stress in my life. I was missing that runner's high.
My daughters were four and six years old at the time, and Beth had just found out she was pregnant. I was working day in and day out, with a successful practice in Charlottetown. I was not only working my regular office hours, but I was also doing evening clinics and taking regular shifts at the hospital. The money was great. Much of it was going to my first wife for child support and alimony, but I was doing well as the primary breadwinner for my new marriage, and I was helping to support my parents as well.
But here I was with this injury. I couldn't mow the lawn. I couldn't run around the yard with my daughter on my shoulders like she wanted me to. I was in pain.
One day, a patient returned a bottle of Percocet to me, to be disposed of. I thought I'd take half of one to see if it would make my ankle feel any better than it did with the Tylenol I had been taking.
And it did.
When the Percocet wore off, I took another one.
I was soon taking half a pill every few hours to keep the pain at bay. And I felt great. There was no shortage of Percocet in a medical clinic. Patients were leaving me with their unused medications all the time, and if I didn't have any, I just got more from the pharmacy. Beth was aware that I'd been taking this stuff, but neither of us was concerned. I was a doctor. I knew what I was doing. Besides, I was as straitlaced as they come. I would be the last person to ever develop a drug dependency.
I also enjoyed the extra rush of energy the pills were giving me. I had a hectic life. I was working through the week, picking up my daughters from their mother every Wednesday afternoon and every other weekend. While I had them, we packed in as many activities as we could. I was determined to play an active role in their lives.
The painkillers were not interfering with my life or my work, but they were certainly a constant. I had to have them in order to manage the pain, and to keep up with everything. As a doctor, I knew that the chronic pain in my ankle was worse because I was taking so many painkillers. Looking back, I should have managed that pain in a different way, but I'd already gotten myself hooked.
As Beth's pregnancy progressed, we started making some plans to celebrate. We booked tickets to go to Disney World together in the winter of 2001, to celebrate and to have fun as a family. I had a medical conference to attend in Orlando, so our accommodations would be covered. The timing seemed right. The girls were so excited! Both about the baby, and about seeing the "happiest place on earth."
But before Disney, Beth and I decided to book ourselves on a little getaway to Miami, to celebrate her birthday. I was making a lot of money during that time, and, boy oh boy, did I ever love spending it. I was on top of the world. Or so I thought.
Miami, Florida. February 2001.
One evening in Miami, Beth and I joined some friends for dinner in a great restaurant. I was on top of the world. I looked across the table into the face of my beautiful wife — the love of my life — and felt like I was the luckiest man in the world. She seemed especially beautiful there, in the candlelight, on the beach. Short sundress, long legs. Silky, dark hair.
Then, I could feel my buzz dying.
The bill came; I opened it. Dinner for two: $450 US. Unblinking, I set my credit card down on the table — nothing to it.
All the while the seductress was calling to me, like a siren would beckon a sailor into the sea. I needed to sneak away without raising alarm in my wife or our dining companions.
I was powerless. I loved everything about my drugs: the intoxicating scent, the thrill of possibly being caught with them, the way they made me forget about my problems and made me feel everything while feeling nothing.
I knew I shouldn't be thinking about getting high while I was out celebrating my wife's birthday. But I needed to.
I excused myself from the oceanside table and hurried to the restroom. I walked through the gauzy white curtains floating on the ocean breeze. Reached into the pocket of my pants until I felt the pill. Put it in my mouth. Swallowed.
That happy buzz was back. I reached the restroom, basking in the sensation of stillness sweeping over every nerve in my body.
Then I had a moment, right in that bathroom stall. I was in this incredible restaurant right on the beach in Miami, with my beautiful wife, and I'd taken so much Percocet that my bladder couldn't relax enough for me to pee.
That should have been enough right then and there to make me seriously examine my behaviour, but I still wasn't ready to admit yet that I had a problem.
I was my own doctor, and I had things in check.
After we returned home from Miami, we were getting ready to take the kids to Orlando when Beth suffered a miscarriage. We lost the baby.
I was suddenly faced with this terrible dilemma. We were totally devastated by this loss. Yet, the girls were so excited to go to Disney World.
I had an impossible choice to make: leave my wife home alone after just having lost our baby or tell the five- and seven-year-old girls we couldn't go to Disney World after all.
We agonized over the decision and decided I would go with the girls.
I remember having that discussion with them. That the good news was: we were going to Florida. The bad news was: there would be no baby.
My life started to get much more stressful, though, during that solo trip to Florida. I had this conference I was there for, and so I had the girls in childcare at the hotel. I would blow off my meetings in the afternoon, so we could have our time together, exploring the Magic Kingdom and swimming in the hotel pool. I was taking half a tablet of Percocet every few hours, and I was feeling okay. I know now that drugs had distorted my sense of reality while I was down there. I was feeling like Super Dad for having my girls there with me on my own, but I failed to recognize the only reason I was able to cope was because of a chemical. With the Percocet, the pain was manageable — the physical pain and the mental anguish over leaving my wife at home. The Percocet helped to quiet the voices in my head, allowing me to get through the days. When I popped a Percocet, my ankle wasn't as sore, and my mind wasn't so busy berating me all the time.
I kept on taking them when I returned home. Every day. Multiple times a day. Again, I was able to justify my behaviour, because I was my own physician. Nothing to worry about. I was an excellent doctor.
Then, the following year, I attended a conference in Halifax. And it's there where I learned that I might have gotten myself into some trouble.
Halifax, Nova Scotia. March 2002.
I was seated near the back of the banquet hall, waiting for the presenter to start speaking again. Dozens of doctors filled the rows of seats. I noticed there were fewer people there that afternoon, on the last day of the conference.
I looked down at the booklet on my lap: Health and Safety At Sea. Seafarer's Medical Certification.
I twisted the cap off a water bottle and swallowed the tablet I'd been keeping in my pocket.
The presenter changed the slide.
He flipped through the booklet to the corresponding slide:
Symptoms of Addiction
High tolerance to the drug
Must take drugs to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms (symptoms may include nausea, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, depression)
I could no longer hear the speaker reading the items on the slide:
Loss of control over drug use (user wishes to stop using but feels powerless)
Life revolves over drug use
I could no longer hear the speaker.
Continued use despite knowing the danger
I could feel my face flush. How did I let this happen? This is me. I am a drug addict.
Okay, Grant. This is enough. I'm done. We are done.
And I was.
Until I wasn't.
I honestly thought I was in control of my drug use. I was a doctor, for crying out loud! I knew how much medication I needed. And then I saw my own symptoms in that presentation. I had an epiphany at that moment: I'd been justifying my drug use all along, saying I needed the pills to make my ankle feel better. But I was using the pills when I shouldn't have been. And, as a doctor, I knew that with my pain receptors bathed in these chemicals, I was just making my ankle more and more sore, screaming for the stuff.
I didn't take any more pills after that.
Withdrawal symptoms kicked in right away. It was uncomfortable but not severe. It mostly left me feeling really depressed, tired, and weighted down. It felt like there was a bear on my back and every movement I tried to make was just so heavy.
I got back home on Monday and called the lecturer. I didn't give him my name, and this was before Caller ID. I needed to talk to someone.
I told him that I was a physician from the conference on the weekend and that some of the things he spoke about — addiction — he was talking about me. He said there usually is someone in the crowd that ends up calling him to talk for the very same reason. It made me feel a bit better to know that other doctors and nurses ended up in the same boat as me. He suggested I see someone, which was much easier said than done.
I had to be extremely careful about who I talked to. If I told my doctor about a problem with narcotics, he would have a legal obligation to report me and I could lose my license. And if he didn't report me, and the powers that be were to find out he knew about it, he could lose his license.
So later that week I spoke to the psychiatrist I'd been working with since my divorce. I couldn't tell him about the drugs, but I could talk about my depression. I was getting more depressed with the withdrawal, that was true.
I had taken that week off work because I had no energy and because I needed to right myself. I couldn't get off the couch. I was going through pretty standard withdrawal: nausea, diarrhea, hot and cold sweats.
Because I had to explain these symptoms without including the bit about drugs, my psychiatrist simply thought I was depressed. He actually suggested that I may be manic depressive. Perfectly sensible because I would have these highs (on drugs) and lows (not on drugs). I loved that I had this to tell people. Being manic depressive is way better than being a drug addict. I was prescribed Lithium, which did nothing for me, but I took it to make the College of Physicians happy.
I got through that week or ten days of discomfort (the withdrawal really wasn't all that horrible) and that was the end of that. I was doing well. By the time my birthday rolled around in April, life was good. I had been clean for a solid month but I was a little bit agitated. The best way to describe what I was feeling is that I was on edge for no good reason.
We were expecting another baby and we were thrilled about that, but I was feeling a bit unsettled. I gave up my hospital privileges at this time to alleviate some of the work pressure I was under, to see if that might ease the stress.
On Victoria Day weekend, we were attending a wedding in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. We booked ourselves into a little bed and breakfast. When we arrived, we realized I had forgotten my suit.
Great. Here we were in a small town with nowhere to shop for a suit except a thrift store.
There was one suit there that fit me and it was like a Halloween costume. I felt like a mobster in this wide-collared pinstriped suit. It was ridiculous. It smelled weird. It was horrible.
I was sitting there, feeling awful, between a friend of mine who looked so good in his expensive suit and my gorgeous, perfectly dressed wife.
I didn't have that numbness from my painkillers, so I decided to drink away my feelings. I had never been a drinker. Here I was in my late thirties, and the most alcohol I had had was a couple of beers in a social setting. I didn't have much of a tolerance for alcohol. And I never really considered how alcohol might affect me since getting off the Percocet.
After a few glasses of Rose wine, I stopped caring about the suit. I stopped caring about anything. I finally had that sense of calm back. The same feeling I would get from my pills.
So I kept drinking.
Four glasses of wine turned into eight glasses of wine turned into nineteen glasses of wine turned into twenty-eight glasses of wine turned into thirty glasses of wine turned into a memory I wish I could forget.
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. May 18, 2002.
I lay on the bed in my socks and underwear, pieces of my suit strewn around the room. Beth, her rounded abdomen visible beneath her nightdress, tried to pull the white duvet out from under me.
"You're so beautiful," I slurred. "I think I drank a little too much."
"Jesus, Grant, get up!"
But she was too late.
I was heaving the contents of my stomach onto the duvet.
Beth kept me propped up on my side. "No, no, no, no!"
My body lurched and went limp. I wiped my mouth with my arm, "I think I need some water."
She passed me a glass of water. I took a sip. I set the cup on the bed, spilling the rest of the water. I found my way to my feet, lay on the couch at the opposite side of the room, and passed out.
"You bastard," she said. She folded the duvet and carried it to the bathroom where she tried to scrub it clean.
Excerpted from "The Golden Boy"
Copyright © 2017 Grant Matheson.
Excerpted by permission of Acorn Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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