Admitting I was an addict was hard. Then came the even harder part

Health Fitness

This is a First Person column by Matthew Heneghan, who lives in Falkland, B.C. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

My name is Matthew and I’m an alcoholic. An addict. That sullen string of words has taken me a long time to say aloud, let alone write and lay bare for all to see. 

I began drinking at 18. It was a way of escaping the complexity of life at home. My mother was also an addict. Her vice was sleeping pills and pain medication given to counter the effects of her cancer. 

When I became a paramedic, I continued drinking throughout my career. I recognize the irony that my job often involved providing medical care to addicts, all the while denying being one myself.

Being an alcoholic isn’t a title I wear with pride. It’s a shadow that follows me — a dark whisper in the back of my mind. It all started innocently enough — a drink to unwind, a toast to celebrate, a shot to forget. But before I knew it, I was spiralling and caught in a dangerous dance with a devil that loves to lead.

Seventeen years — that’s how long I floundered in the tawny hue of a whiskey glass. 

Time seemed to slip through my fingertips when I wasn’t looking. It just vanished like smoke on a windy day. I’ve woken up on more occasions than I’d care to recall, and some I likely don’t, with nothing but stale booze on my breath and the sins of the night before to greet me. For years I felt alone. 

I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2017. Then, nine months later, my mother died by suicide. The pain of losing my mother and the horrors of my vocation intermingled to become the perfect cocktail of self-destruction. I began to drink even more than I had been. 

Heneghan’s drinking problem intensified while he worked as a paramedic. He was eventually diagnosed with PTSD in 2017. (Matthew Heneghan)

This led to an eventual intervention, of sorts, from my therapist who suggested I enter a rehabilitation facility. Knowing I was on the precipice of life and death, I obliged. 

Six years ago, beneath the flicker of a failing neon bar sign, I took my last sip. At the time I didn’t know it would be, but it had to be. My liver was hurting, my kidneys were angry and my soul was suffering.

Rehab was a hard reset, a necessary evil. I remember walking through those doors, a mixture of shame and relief churning in my gut. Admitting I had a problem is like baring my soul to a room full of strangers. I felt naked and vulnerable. Every fibre of my being wanted to run away from rehab. But running from my problems had led me there to that sterile room with its uncomfortable chairs and the faint smell of stale coffee permeating the air.

WATCH | Why trauma can lead to addiction: 

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Earlier this month, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a study that said nationally, the annual number of opioid overdose deaths doubled between 2019 to 2021. Dr. Gabor Maté, an addiction expert, says the link between addiction and trauma is a ‘scientific fact.’ With that in mind, he says ‘it is not accidental’ that Indigenous populations in Canada are at a higher risk of developing addictions.

The first few days were hell. The shakes, the sweats and the night terrors that clawed at my sanity. Detox isn’t a walk in the park; it’s a battlefield. But slowly, the fog began to lift. I started to see glimpses of the person I could be, buried beneath the layers of self-loathing and regret. 

As my days in sobriety mounted, I was forced to confront that I had used alcohol as a way to numb the pain. I started a podcast, chronicling my days in sobriety, including the reasons I wanted to drink and the reasons I didn’t. Eventually, I learned that I could cope even when the pain felt insurmountable. 

A typical day in rehab consisted of early mornings followed by long hours of one-on-one counselling and group therapy sessions, each designed to challenge the deepest parts of ourselves. All of my beliefs and understandings, contrived or otherwise, were scrutinized skilfully and painfully. 

After several arduous weeks, I left the confines of the treatment program that had become my sanctuary. I now had to attempt to navigate the world with a sober mind and of my own conviction.

In those early days, when addiction would beckon to me, I’d remind myself of where I had been, and where that drunken road leads. I took one day at a time. And when that was too much, I took one moment at a time. Eventually, I made it to the next day, and the next after that.

A smiling man holding a white paper rose sits at a restaurant table. There is a glass filled with ice and water in front of him.
Heneghan has been sober for six years. (Submitted by Matthew Heneghan)

Six years later, I look back at that time with a mixture of gratitude and disbelief. Gratitude for the second chance and for the people who stood by me when I was at my lowest. Disbelief that I’ve come this far. 

Sobriety isn’t a destination; it’s an endless journey. Every day is a choice, a commitment to stay on the path, no matter how tempting the detours might be. There are no shortcuts to success. 

I’ve also realized it’s OK to admit I’m an addict. Perhaps someone will see themselves reflected in my story and also get the help they need. Life is a series of moments, strung together like beads on a string. Some are dark, some are light, but each one is a part of the whole. And for me, these six years of sobriety are some of the brightest moments I’ve had in a life that’s finally worth living.

Cheers to that.

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