The Doc Project

This mother got her son heroin to save his life

Mary MacKillop didn't know where her son Danny was, or if he was safe. But when she saw him tagged in a Facebook post, she stopped at nothing to find him.

"Don't ever underestimate a mother's love," Mary MacKillop says to her son Danny, a former homeless addict

Mary and Danny MacKillop. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)
Listen to the full episode27:21

This time last year, Danny MacKillop was living homeless in Toronto. He stole anything he could to buy himself fentanyl, heroin and cocaine.

He couldn't have imagined in his wildest dreams the transformation his life would undergo in the months to come. But one split-second decision last November triggered a tsunami of change.

I never thought in a million years that you would come and try to find me.'- Danny MacKillop

"I remember saying to myself all the time, how did my life get to this?" said the 39-year-old former addict. "Why can't I stop? What's wrong with me?"

But when MacKillop decided, in a split second, to return some cash to a Toronto police officer, he set off a chain of events that would lead to him reuniting with his mother and beginning his recovery.

'Dad was violent'

MacKillop grew up in Reserve Mines, Cape Breton, N.S., the youngest of three boys. He was passionate about baseball, never leaving home without his glove.

"When I was there on the field, I never had a care in the world, there were no outside issues," he said. 

Danny MacKillop loved baseball as a younger man. (Submitted by Mary MacKillop)

But other memories from his childhood paint a darker picture, like visions of his mother trying to protect him while his father raged.

"Dad was violent in the home. He would smash up the whole house. I remember calling 911. I was probably four or five years old," MacKillop remembers.

"His father liked to have a drink," said Mary MacKillop, Danny's mom. "Sometimes he would get angry, especially at the boys, for this, that or the other thing. He would throw things, and Danny was always terrified. I never wanted Danny to hear it or witness it."

Numbing the pain

Danny started drinking at age 12, then switched to marijuana, cocaine and crack, and eventually fentanyl and heroin.

His mother stood behind him for years, but it was when her son became violent that she was forced to distance herself.

(CBC)

"He fired a large ashtray, which went through the wall, inches from my head," said Mary. "At that point I knew he could have killed me had he hit me. So that's when I said, 'No. I'm not living in fear of any of my children.'"

Police removed Danny from her home, and Mary eventually sold the house, never giving her son the new address. Later, when Danny failed to go into rehab as he had promised, she also stopped sending him money.

Despite how troubled he had become, the Danny who grew up loving his family and friends never fully disappeared.

The turning point

One day last November, in Toronto, Danny was chatting with Jason Kirkwood, a special constable with Toronto Community Housing. He knew Kirkwood from previous encounters on the streets. Minutes later, Danny noticed money left behind in the ATM machine. Assuming it belonged to Kirkwood, Danny ran down the street calling his name, never suspecting the ramifications of that one decision.

Danny MacKillop and his mom, Mary MacKillop, on the bus on their way back to Hamilton, one hour after their reunion in Toronto. ( Submitted by Mary McKillop)

Kirkwood took to Facebook to express gratitude for Danny's honesty in that moment. This resulted in Danny's mom seeing the post, 2,000 kilometres away. 

When Mary saw that Danny was in Toronto, she hopped on a plane to come find him. It wasn't long after arriving in the city that she ran into her son on the street.

After an emotional reunion, Danny agreed to go with his mom to his aunt's place in Hamilton. It was there that another challenge emerged: withdrawal.

We decided we needed to get Danny what he needs. And what he needs is heroin. So that's what we did. We got him heroin.- Mary MacKillop

"About the third day he couldn't get out of the bed," said Mary. "My sister, who is a nurse, she said, 'You're going to kill him with what you're doing to him, without medical attention.'"

But Mary couldn't get her son out of bed, let alone to a hospital.

"So after a lot of talking we decided we needed to get Danny what he needs. And what he needs is heroin. So that's what we did. We got him heroin."

They acquired enough heroin to get Danny through the worst of the crisis, to keep his body from shutting down. Meanwhile, Mary and her sister were desperately trying to find a treatment centre for Danny. 

Cross-country road to recovery

In Mary and her sister's search for the next step, their close-knit Cape Breton community came to the rescue. A contact from Cape Breton knew someone working at a place in Vancouver, B.C., so the goal became getting Danny out west. 

With small amounts of heroin, he made it through the long bus ride from Toronto to Calgary. Then for the last leg of the journey, a friend drove him to Vancouver.

Danny arrived at the Together We Can treatment centre, where he shared a house with a dozen other men, all at various stages of their recovery. But he was experiencing withdrawal and sleep eluded him.

Danny MacKillop (centre) with his friend and sponsor Daniel MacEachern (l) and friend Landon Dorval (r). (Chris Steffler/Together We Can)

"I was starting to get really sick, throwing up, irritable, restless legs, and I remembered the Downtown Eastside," said Danny. "So I got the bright idea that, okay, I got 30 bucks. I can sneak away from here and go get my fix, come back and go to bed. No one would know."

But staff did find out. Fortunately, Danny wasn't kicked out, just moved to a separate house for closer monitoring.

Danny had tried rehab before, back in his early 20s. Now, despite this setback, he really did want it to work.

"I was just so beat up and broken coming in, I just was truly hopeless," said Danny. "Everything I've tried to do to quit didn't work, so whatever they were suggesting for me to do, I was willing to do it."

He started his treatment with methadone. He soon came off it, then entered and completed the centre's 12-step program.

Back to Cape Breton

This August, when he went back to visit Cape Breton, well-wishers were waiting to greet him. Those included his mother, daughter and other family and friends, proud to see him alive and recovering.

These days, Danny has rediscovered his old passion for baseball, playing regularly with a "recovery league" in Vancouver.

And while home visiting in August, he played some tournaments with old friends, thrilled to see him back on the field.

Danny MacKillop with his team, The Weekend Warriors, during the Jason Simmons Memorial Baseball tournament in Glace Bay in August 2018. (Submitted by Becki Haltom)

Meanwhile, Cape Bretoners and people across the country have tracked Danny's path to recovery. 

"It definitely makes me feel happy," said Danny. "But at the same time there's some sadness that comes along with it. Because it seems for every person that says 'That's awesome' or 'I'm so proud of you', it seems there's another person telling me 'Oh, I wish my son or my family member could follow in your footsteps.'"

Paying it forward

Danny continues to focus on his own recovery at the centre in Vancouver. 

But now, he also sponsors other men, newer to the program. He loves that work so much that he's starting an addictions counselling course in January.

Several times as a sponsor he's witnessed men relapse and leave the program. He worries for them, but said it doesn't shake his own resolve.

Today, he can still barely believe how events unfolded.

"I never thought in a million years that you would come and try to find me," Danny told his mother.

"Don't ever underestimate a mother's love," said Mary. "Don't ever. Because it's unconditional. Always."

Mary and Danny MacKillop, with Danny's daughter Danielle Lee, back home in Cape Breton. (Submitted by Becki Haltom)

Listen to the documentary by clicking on the Listen link at the top of the page, or download and subscribe to our podcast.


About the Producer 

From people around the corner to those around the world, Norma Jean MacPhee has more than a decade of experience telling their stories on the radio, TV and online. Lover of laughter, nature, Cape Breton, books, fine food and finer people, follow Norma Jean on Twitter @njmacphee or e-mail at norma.jean.macphee@cbc.ca

This documentary was co-produced by Alison Cook, and edited with Veronica Simmonds.

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