How a respected family physician found himself battling an opioid addiction

Grant Matheson came from a good family, developed an interest in medicine, and became a respected family physician in Charlottetown before an opioid addiction tore his life apart.

'Narcotic withdrawal won't kill you, but it makes you feel like you're going to die'

Former doctor Grant Matheson has written a book about his struggles with narcotics. (Matt Rainnie/CBC)

Grant Matheson came from a good family, developed an interest in medicine, and became a respected family physician in Charlottetown before an opioid addiction tore his life apart.

"The disease takes over all your thinking," Matheson told CBC's Island Morning.

"Every single day I would say just one more time. Tomorrow I'm going to quit. Every single day I would say that, but I couldn't."

I never even drank then.— Grant Matheson

Matheson, who says he has been clean from opioids since 2005, has now written a book about his experience, Golden Boy.

"My friends used to always call me that, because everything came easy for me. I grew up in a nice family and I really had a great childhood," he said.

Matheson set up a practice in Montague, P.E.I., in 1993.

"I never even drank then — not at all — because I did obstetrics then as well so I was always on call," he said.

He would drink a little socially while away on holiday, he said.

First encounter with narcotics

His first feelings that the shine was coming off his life was in 1998, when he divorced from his first wife. Where everything in his life had been good before, there was now this stain, he said.

Not long after that he had his first encounter with narcotics. It was the kind of experience that would leave no impression at all on most people, but for Matheson, there was something about that innocuous dose of cough medicine that he has always remembered.

"I was like, 'Wow, where has this been all my life?' I felt so euphorically good," he said.

Matheson says he started by taking the pills returned by his patients. (David Donnelly/CBC)

But that incident passed without developing into an addiction. About a year later, however, he suffered an ankle injury. He started taking Percocet, gleaned from patients who had returned prescriptions to his office, all in small doses.

He never thought he had an issue until he was at a conference and heard a speaker talking about addictions, and the signs of addiction.

"I thought, 'Oh my God. This man is talking about me.' At that time I thought, 'I've got a problem,' so I stopped," he said.

"It was hard, because I went through a little bit of withdrawal. It wasn't bad because I wasn't on big doses."

Part of what made it difficult was that he couldn't talk to anyone about his problem. As a doctor, he'd be reported and could lose his licence. It never occurred to him to connect to a resource such as Narcotics Anonymous. He got through that episode on this own.

Brother's death pushed Matheson to pills

Then, one day in 2002, his brother, who had broken his ribs in an accident, came to him and asked him for a prescription for painkillers.

His brother was suffering from obvious withdrawal symptoms, Matheson said.

I felt like I had killed my brother.- Grant Matheson

"I just wanted him to get out of my office, because I just didn't want to deal with it. I was fighting my own demons at the time," Matheson said.

Matheson told his brother he couldn't prescribe because he was a family member. His brother asked him if he could drink and Matheson said yes, go home and drink and you can see your own doctor tomorrow.

"It was flippant, and if I knew better, like I do now, I would have never said that," he said.

That night, Matheson's brother rolled his vehicle and died.

"I felt like I had killed my brother," Matheson said.

"I felt like I had let him down. I felt so bad about that that within two weeks I picked up an oxycontin and took it, and then the spiral just went crazy."

Bought drugs back from patient

Before long Matheson had progressed from taking pills to injecting intravenously, and needing a dose every three hours.

"If I didn't take it I couldn't function," he said.

"It wasn't even that I was trying to get high anymore. It was that I was just trying to function."

From there it was a three-year slide to rock bottom, every day promising himself that he would stop, and every day not being able to do it.

"Narcotic withdrawal won't kill you, but it makes you feel like you're going to die. You will almost run through a fire to get it," he said.

"I remember looking at this little pill and thinking, 'I'm stronger than this little pill. This can't affect me.' And it does. It crosses the blood-brain barrier and changes everything."

Eventually, in order to get enough of the drug, Matheson started prescribing to a patient and buying it back. When he was caught, his licence was suspended and he pleaded guilty to obtaining prescription narcotics by false pretense from a pharmacy.

He received a conditional sentence and two years probation.

Injected with toilet water

By the time he was sentenced in 2008, Matheson had already been off opioids for three years. He had signed up for a rehab program in Ontario, and remained clean ever since.

But his book opens with an anecdote that captures just how far he had fallen.

At the airport for his flight to Toronto for treatment, he knew he needed one more fix to get him through the flight. His flight was being called, but he rushed into the men's room and butted ahead of others and went into the toilet stall.

He needed water for the injection solution, but there was no sink, and no toilet tank.

"I took the water out of the toilet and then boiled it up and injected it into my vein with the Dilaudid," he said.

"That's pretty sick. I was a person that ran marathons and ate healthy, did healthy things for my body and here I was shooting up toilet water. It just shows how the disease can just change everything about you."

Becoming a better person

While it was hard to write the book, it was also therapeutic, Matheson said, and he feels it is important to share his story, to let people know that addiction can happen to anyone.

"Addiction tries to isolate you. It tries to get you by yourself and tries to get you to feel bad about yourself," he said.

"If anyone is out there feeling bad about themselves because they're suffering from this, if it happened to a physician who everyone thinks should have known better, then they realize they're not a bad person — they're a sick person."

Matheson got his medical licence back, but had a relapse in 2012 — not with opioids but with alcohol. Following that experience he decided not to return to medicine, feeling it was too stressful for him.

Matheson is still looking for ways to help others, and that's one of the key reasons he wrote this book. And despite all his trouble, he feels his experiences have made him a better person.

"I used to snub my nose at people that were down and out. I've been down and out. I've been there, and I think that it's opened my eyes," he said.

"I'm hopeful. I had no hope back then."

With files from Island Morning