Now Or Never

'I was overdosing, I knew it': How a Cape Breton man fought addiction and found community

Steve MacLean of Sydney Mines, N.S., is now helping others beat addiction as a peer support counsellor.

Steve MacLean of Sydney Mines, N.S., is now helping others as a peer support counsellor

'When you're in active addiction, you're a failure in your own mind,' says Steve MacLean. (Submitted by Steve MacLean)
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Note: This story contains references to substance abuse and thoughts of suicide.


Contributed by Steve MacLean, as told to Now or Never

My name is Steve MacLean. I am two and a half years clean from all substances today. 

When you're in active addiction, you're a failure in your own mind. You believe that you're not good enough, that you don't deserve love, that you are going to be stuck in this forever.

You wake up and there's a nurse and a doctor standing over you, telling you that if you keep this up you're going to die. All I hear when they say that is: I'm a failure. I'm a failure. I'm a failure. 

This feeling of failure stems back to my childhood. I grew up in a home with addicts and alcoholics. I didn't get the love and compassion that a child needs. Because of that, I looked for it in other ways.

There's nights where desperation kicks in so deeply, and I become so dejected that I'm in my bed crying because I'm so alone and I don't know what's wrong with me.

I remember the day that I realized this has a hold on me and that I can't do this anymore.

Trapped in addiction

It was around 2008. I was six months clean at the time, and I was living in Cold Lake, Alta.

I was working out there and the job was over. A girlfriend had just broken up with me. I traveled to Fort McMurray to be with my mom and to look for another job.

My mom didn't really understand addiction at that time. She could see that I was hurting, so she said: let's go to dinner. At dinner, I ordered a drink. That led to me drinking until six o'clock in the morning. My mom came out of her bedroom and I still had a bottle in front of me. I'd used all night.

My disease was telling me: 'You lost everything.'- Steve MacLean

I gave her a kiss on the cheek and I told her I loved her and that I needed to go for a walk. I walked onto a bridge, and that was the moment that I realized I was trapped in addiction. My disease was telling me: you lost everything. This is always gonna be the pattern of your life. You're constantly gonna be drowning your sorrows. You're constantly gonna be using. Let's just get it over with.

The words that a police officer said to me to get me off of the bridge were: "What if you jump and you land on a car below and there's kids in it?"

Moving back home 

So I moved home to Cape Breton. But the problem with addiction is that it's a disease of our minds. And no matter where I go, I'm going to take me with me.

'People just want to talk. People just want a connection.' (Submitted by Steve MacLean)

On my 30th birthday, I woke up at around 8 a.m. and I couldn't breathe. I was overdosing. I knew it. I had just enough breath in me to call the ambulance. I woke up in the hospital, and remember there was two doctors and four nurses standing over me. All these machines were beeping. They all had a look in their eyes like a scared stewardess on a flight.

One of the nurses looked at me and said "If your heart rate drops two more beats, we have to put in an emergency pacemaker."

Luckily, my heart rate didn't drop those two beats. 

Healing through connection

On my third day in the hospital, someone woke me up. He was an old using buddy... Someone that was well known in our community as a drug abuser. But his appearance was completely different. His hair was cut. He presented very well.

He didn't stay very long, but one of the things that I'll never forget was when he was leaving I went to shake his hand. He said "put that away". He gave me a hug. That was the first time that another man had genuinely hugged me and cared for me.

That sparked my journey of recovery. It was the first time that I saw a way out.

When I'm with other addicts, and we're talking about our feelings — and how we can get through those feelings — we're talking about real things.

[It] was the first time that another man had genuinely hugged me and cared for me.- Steve MacLean

Now, I'm a peer support counsellor at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

Basically my role is is to build relationships with people. To build a connection. To meet them right where they're at and find out out how can I support this person. A lot of time, people just want to talk. People just want a connection.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear Steve's full story, click the 'listen' button above.

If you or somebody you know is struggling with problematic substance abuse, Canada-wide resources can be found here.