'You have no idea how devilish it makes you feel': Former opioid user talks recovery

At 17, Taylor Maxey was an Olympic swimming hopeful who trained nine times a week. By 21, he was an illicit drug user and homeless.

Taylor Maxey was a high-level swimmer until injuring a vertebra, sending him on a spiral of drug dependency

Former high-ranked swimmer Taylor Maxey speaks about recovering from an opioid dependency. (Elizabeth Withey)

Twelve years ago, Taylor Maxey was a high-level competitive swimmer in Calgary.

The Olympic hopeful, then 17, trained nine times a week at the pool, idolized swimmers like Mark Tewksbury and was ranked one of the best in the country in sprint-distance freestyle, backstroke and butterfly.

That all changed one day when Maxey was goofing around in the backyard with his siblings. His little brother kicked a soccer ball, hard, and it hit Maxey in the neck, chipping his C2 vertebra.

The accident set in motion a series of events that would lead Maxey to a dependence on opiates. Over the following decade, he spiralled from promising athlete to illicit drug user who ended up homeless by the age of 21.

Over the years, he attempted suicide several times and committed petty crimes to support his opioid dependence. He mostly used heroin but as things escalated, Maxey turned to carfentanil, an extremely powerful synthetic painkiller used to tranquilize elephants and rhinos.

"Two and a half years ago, I was full tilt," Maxey recalled. "I could literally [crush and] sniff 20 carfentanil beans in one line and it meant nothing to me, that's how high my tolerance got."

Prescribed numerous medications

After his accident, Maxey spent months in a cervical collar and was prescribed numerous medications for neck pain and chronic headaches, including hydromorphone, fentanyl patches, Oxycodone and pills for sleep and anxiety. Ever hopeful he'd recover and return to swimming, Maxey followed his doctors' orders at his mother's urging.

"I just wasn't functioning," he said. "And their answer was just, more and more and more and more. Little did I know anything about withdrawal symptoms, what it can do to you long-term."

A curious teen in Grade 11, Maxey started poking around online and discovered his medications could be used in recreational ways. "I went to the hilt with researching everything I could find out about it," he said.

He started crushing some of his pills and snorting them. It was fun to get a little buzz. He and a buddy would go to the movies and get high, for kicks.

"You suck the coating off, rub it on your pant leg and when it's dry, crush it up," he explained, then inhale the powder for a high. Their movie outings became a ritual.

You have this monster inside of you that's just caged, and half the time the door is open, it's running the show.- Taylor Maxey

As Maxey's dependence grew, his life, including his relationship with his family members, began to erode. His doctor began tapering him off his prescriptions, and Maxey struggled with withdrawal: insomnia, restless legs, diarrhea, extreme anxiety.

"I'd just pace at the detox centre from one in the morning until eight in the morning, just doing figure-eight laps because I couldn't sleep," he said. "It was ridiculous. And the nurses were like, 'We can't give you anything.'"

The school of thought in his early years of abusing opiates, according to Maxey, was much more geared toward going cold turkey, rather than today's move toward harm reduction.

High-functioning addict

While in hospital, Maxey met a guy who introduced him to illicit heroin. They shot up together, right on the ward at Foothills hospital.

"I tied off my arm with an Ed Hardy belt, then [he] hit the vein for me, and just did it," he said.

For a while, Maxey was a high-functioning addict. He had a couple of jobs, working as a waiter and at an antique store, and he was doing payday loans so he could use heroin in addition to his prescriptions. Fentanyl — the drug at the heart of the ongoing opioid crisis — had yet to appear on the streets.'

Sometimes Maxey would reach out for help, hoping to get into treatment and get better, but he remembers how shameful he was made to feel whenever he'd try to tackle his problem.

Watching friends die using opioids like fentanyl was what eventually spurred Maxey to get into serious treatment more than a year ago.

Seeing people OD in front of me and having to administer those  Naloxone  kits has just changed me inside- Taylor Maxey

"Seeing people OD in front of me and having to administer those Naloxone kits has just changed me inside," he said, his voice cracking. "It's just nothing you want to live through."

Today's opiates are so powerful, Maxey explains, that he has watched friends overdose on a speck so small, they couldn't even see it or tell if they'd actually done the drug.

"One minute someone's there and the next minute they're not," he said. "And I know it's going to sound sad to hear, but it took all the fun out of for me, too. I was already at a point where I was unhappy using, not happy when I was with it [the drugs].

"But when you're sitting around a group of two other people and they're both turning pale blue and you're constantly having to be like, 'Hey man are you ok, hey man are you ok,' it kinda takes the fun out of the whole night. You're worried about people dying in your living room."

Credits doctor with saving his life

Eventually, Maxey found an addictions doctor at the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre who he credits with saving his life, and he's been in an opioid treatment program for a year and four months. Every day, Maxey  takes 12 capsules of slow-release morphine called Kadian.

Because the drug has a street value, Maxey has to go to his pharmacy every single day to pick up and swallow his medication in front of pharmacy staff, in a private room behind the counter.

He has a close relationship with his pharmacist, and appreciates the staff's non-judgment, but admits "it sucks."

Without a car, he has to go on foot. That makes it difficult for Maxey to work, and his housing situation is precarious. Sometimes, he worries about relapse.

"I'm not going to lie, it's a possibility," he said. He makes a nod to the the Oscar winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was clean for more than 20 years before he slipped back into heroin use and accidentally died of an overdose in 2014.

Opiate addiction, he says, takes "every inch" of a hold on a person's life.

"You have no idea, how devilish it makes you feel, it literally makes you feel like you have a split personality," he said in an interview with The Calgary Eyeopener. "You have this monster inside of you that's just caged, and half the time the door is open, it's running the show. It's the worst thing. Your mind wants one thing, your body wants another."

At 29, Maxey is clean-cut and striking, with penetrating blue eyes and black hair. He is tall and lean and has worked as a model in the past. You would never guess his story — reinforcing the notion that opioid addiction does not discriminate.

He tries to focus on doing things he loves — going to Banff for the day, being outside, spending time with his best friend — and says it's important to focus on moving forward, bit by bit, rather than the slip-ups along the road.

"Setting the bar at like, 100 or zero, the all-or-nothing thinking they teach you when you go through the rigmarole of getting help, it is a key point to set your bar at a fluid level. It's not one fixed point in my life anyway," he said. 

"I'm not trying to constantly maintain this 100 per cent, or nothing."

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener.

About the Author

Elizabeth Withey

Journalist/Associate Producer

Elizabeth Withey is a journalist and associate producer with CBC Calgary's The Calgary Eyeopener.