Josh Clatney is only 19 years old, but he's already been brought back from death's door five times.
Clatney, a handsome, smart teen who grew up in Ottawa's suburbs and was on the debating club at Catholic school, is not the kind of kid you'd expect to become a teenage junkie, recently out of jail.
"You'd be surprised who's an addict," said Clatney, who grew up in Orléans and now lives in Kanata. "There's a stigma, very strong stigma about what a drug addict looks like. I've been shocked myself."
Now Clatney is taking on a new role: that of an adviser and advocate on teen addiction. The day in May after he got out of jail on a breach of bail violation, he found himself sitting across from federal health minister Jane Philpott.
When it comes to fighting addiction, Clatney came by his knowledge the hard way.
'I was the nightmare, the disaster'
His addictions began in 2008 after his father was in a serious car accident and suffered an acquired brain injury. Clatney said his relationship with his parents changed after that, and said he started to act out.
"My way of coping with what happened was using drugs and it just went downhill very quickly," he said. It started with marijuana, and as he entered his teens he continued to experiment with different drugs.
"Opioids, cocaine, crack cocaine, benzodiazepines, basically anything that could make me feel normal," he said. "I would identify as a drug addict, for sure. I've been physically dependent and psychologically dependent on them. I'm clean now, but basically the last six years has been total addiction."
His behaviour and constant drug abuse led to fights with friends and family and too often caused relationships to fall apart.
He makes no excuses for his actions. "I was the nightmare, the disaster."
'I thought I was invincible'
For years, Clatney has gone from home to home, couch surfing and getting into trouble — all for what he calls the "immediate warm hug" that an opioid high can bring.
"It's like you're wrapped in a warm blanket, as if you've just accomplished something very significant, because opioids, they work by releasing endorphins," he said.
But he said when you become addicted, that feeling turns pretty cold, pretty fast. There's a point when drugs weren't getting Josh high anymore, he was just taking them in an attempt to feel "normal."
That led him to take more risks, both intentionally and unintentionally taking drugs laced with fentanyl, a cheap, synthetic opioid that can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Clatney wants people to know these dangerous drugs aren't just consumed in dark alleys, but inside homes in the sleepy suburbs — like where he grew up.
"I thought I was invincible," he said. "My use escalated. But I don't think I'd be here if it wasn't for naloxone and fast paramedic response times. That's what saved me."
Not proud, but not embarrassed
He's been resuscitated five times with the aid of naloxone, the medication used to reverse opioid overdose.
The drugs he has ingested have been tough on his body. He has suffered multiple organ failures, endocarditis, staph infections and surgery on his leg for an abscess.
Clatney isn't proud of what he's done or what he's become, but he's not embarrassed to tell his story — warts and all. Last year, he tried rehab more than once, but he got kicked out for bad behaviour and didn't make the changes he needed to stay clean.
"I ended up almost dying again," he said. "My family, for the millionth time, reached out to help me and that's what got me here."
"Here" is fresh out out of jail, showered, energetic, off opioid drugs and set to help become a teen advocate for We the Parents, a group of concerned parents in a west-Ottawa suburb.
Last winter, he reached out to the group, figuring they could use the help of someone going through the cycle of addiction.
The group has now appointed Josh as a special adviser.
"My goals are to reach out to as many people my age going through the same kind of things and to try to prevent the younger people who are in seventh or eighth grade and face the same kind of issues that I faced," he said.
Out of jail Tuesday, meet with health minister Wednesday
That's how Clatney found himself sitting across from Philpott. Two board members of We the Parents secured the meeting with the minister and took along two teenagers struggling with addiction, including Josh.
The minister and an aid asked to speak to the teens alone to get their perspective. Clatney reported back to the We the Parents board.
"She was very receptive," said Clatney. "The answers I was getting from the minister, I didn't have a sense they were talking points or spin doctor type statements."
He said there's a need for more medically supervised detox services and better harm reduction practices such as drug-testing facilities outside concerts and festivals.
"They were making notes throughout the meeting. I felt they listened," he said.
Death or jail
Moving ahead isn't going to be easy for someone who's been addicted to drugs since his early teens.
His short term goal is to stay sober. After that he wants to finish high school, then think about post-secondary studies.
But a relapse is never far from his thoughts.
"I know that if I use my path will be death or jail and am worried about what would happen if I relapse and just go back to my old self."
He credits his family for not giving up on him and giving him his "fifth or sixth chance" to clean up his life.
"I've been given so many chances and this is why if I don't do something to help others and help myself right now, I would consider it a failure if I become complacent and go back to my old lifestyle."