Nova Scotia

How a sports injury turned an athletic teen into an opioid addict

Danielle MacPherson's story of how she became hooked on opioids is so ordinary, it serves as a cautionary tale that anyone can become a hardcore drug addict.

Danielle MacPherson was a high school athlete whose descent into drug abuse started with pain meds

Danielle MacPherson was a talented high school athlete (left) before she became addicted to opioids. She suffered 8 overdoses, had 6 suicide attempts and ended up in hospital (right) before turning her life around. (Danielle MacPherson)

Danielle MacPherson's story of how she became hooked on opioids is so ordinary, it serves as a cautionary tale that anyone can become a hard-core drug addict.

The native of Howie Centre, a small Cape Breton community, was an athletic teenager who got a natural high from sports. A high school cheerleader with a slight frame, she was the flyer thrown into the air. 

MacPherson aspired to play university soccer but a knee injury derailed her plans and put her on the road to drug addiction. (Danielle MacPherson)

She was also a good soccer player. In 2008, during a Division I Cape Breton championship game, she tore her meniscus — the cartilage in her knee — and stayed in the game.

She kept returning to the pitch, the pain numbed with someone else's prescription opioids for hydromorphone (Dilaudid) and Percocet.

At any cost 

MacPherson poses with her father on the day of her high school prom.

"My dream was to play university soccer. I would've went to any lengths do so," MacPherson, now 26, said from her home in Dartmouth.

Those lengths ultimately dragged her into eight years of drug addiction, over time going from ingesting pills to injecting them.

"I fell in the love with the needle," she recalled.

During the height of her addiction, she was putting a needle into her arm, sometimes her neck, every half hour or so.

"I could not stop."   

8 overdoses

She added cocaine and heroin to the mix, dabbled once with fentanyl and used steroids to bulk up as a bodybuilder. 

She managed to finish her university degree in psychology and a diploma in mental illness and addiction counselling, but her own battle took a heavy toll.

There were eight drug overdoses, six suicide attempts and a trip to the emergency room after a bad case of "cotton fever" — a condition associated with intravenous drug use. There were also bouts of homelessness.

MacPherson, seen here with her brother, turned to steroids to bulk up as a bodybuilder. (Danielle MacPherson)

Compounding her addiction battle, MacPherson has bipolar disorder and ADHD. Her mental illness and addiction often work against each other in a vicious cycle.

"My whole mindset changes when I'm using," she explained.

'A brewing storm'

When she's abusing drugs, she stops taking her medication triggering a manic episode. And when she's not taking her medication and experiences a manic episode, "recovery doesn't matter anymore."

She described her mental illness and addiction battles as "a brewing storm if not treated."

"It put me down to some big-time lows. I'm surprised to even be sitting here today with kind of like how my life used to be."

MacPherson says she's abused painkillers, steroids, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl. (Danielle MacPherson)

MacPherson is not alone.

According to the website of Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, people with a mental illness are twice as likely to abuse a substance compared to the general population.

People with substance use problems are up to three times more likely to have a mental illness. 

Sharing her story

For the last 11 months, MacPherson's opioid addiction and mental illness have been monitored through her participation in the opioid court program.

No one wants to be a drug addict.... It can happen to anybody.- Danielle MacPherson

She hasn't abused drugs and takes Suboxone instead of methadone for her opioid withdrawal symptoms because it does not interact with her bipolar medication.

MacPherson volunteers to visit high schools where she speaks openly about how she went from promising athlete to intravenous drug user.

The message is simple: she was once just a regular high school student, too.

"I was once in your shoes," she reminds students. 

"No one wants to be a drug addict.... It can happen to anybody."

MacPherson takes Suboxone to manage her addiction. (Danielle MacPherson)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

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