Former P.E.I. doctor opens up about struggle with opioid addiction in new memoir

CHARLOTTETOWN — He was a doctor, a father and a marathon runner, but beneath the white coat, Charlottetown physician Grant Matheson says his life was unravelling because of addiction.

Matheson says he took care of himself and his patients, but all of that changed when he developed an opioid addiction that almost cost him his life and put his patients at risk.

“Being a physician and being sick with this, it comes with a lot of guilt,” he said in an interview. “You feel really bad that you’re in this situation, and as hard as I tried to get out of it, I thought that I was smart and because I was a doctor that I could do this myself, and it was exactly the opposite.”

Matheson’s memoir, “Golden Boy,” chronicles his descent into addiction, opening with what he calls his ”low point” in 2005 while he was en route to receive treatment at a rehabilitation centre in Ontario after his medical license was suspended for buying drugs off a patient.

As he waited at the airport, Matheson says he needed a hit to make it through his flight to Toronto. He says before he boarded his plane, he rushed to the men’s room, cutting in line so he could find a private spot to inject himself with opiates.

After ducking into a stall, Matheson says he realized there was only one source of water for the injection solution. He says he dipped a vial into the toilet bowl, boiled it and injected the opiate-laced fluid into his bloodstream.

“I was a guy who ran marathons, and ate healthy, never drank or did drugs and worried about what I put in my body,” Matheson says. ”When I started using, my personality changed … I knew I wasn’t myself.”

Matheson, 52, says he was on the straight and narrow path until his early 30s, when he went through a painful divorce that “shook me right to the core.”

He says his first encounter with narcotics happened unwittingly when he took a swig of cough syrup he later learned contained codeine.

“I just felt this overwhelming peacefulness and euphoria that I thought, ‘Gosh, where has this been all my life?’” he says. “It imprinted something in my brain.”

About a year later, Matheson says he started taking low doses of his patients’ leftover painkiller prescriptions to self-medicate for an ankle injury.

It never occurred to him that his habit was becoming a problem until he attended a medical conference and felt a pang of recognition as the presenter listed off the symptoms of addiction.

“I never really got a lot of addiction training in school. They don’t talk about it much at all,” he says. “When I saw this, this epiphany came over me and I thought, ‘Wow, what am I going to do?’”

Matheson says he tried to seek help from a doctor, but he could not tell him he was using narcotics for fear of that he would be reported and lose his medical license.

In 2002, Matheson says his brother asked him for a prescription for painkillers after breaking his ribs in a motorcycle accident.

Matheson says he told him he could not write prescriptions for family members. His brother asked if he could drink, Matheson says, and hoping to get him out of his office, he said it was fine.

“He never made it home,” Matheson says. “He went to a bar, and he was drinking and driving and got killed half a kilometre from his house.

“That was a big turning point. I felt like I killed my brother.”

In the wake of his brother’s death, Matheson said his addiction spiralled out of control as started injecting opiates intravenously. He said he felt like a “circus character” as he tried to juggle treating patients and keeping his substance abuse secret.

He says he knew he had crossed an “ethical line” when he began prescribing narcotics to a patient and buying them back.

Matheson says he was caught by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of P.E.I in 2005 and his medical license was suspended. He says he also received a two-year conditional sentence after pleading to a narcotics charge around 2008.

Matheson says going to rehab in 2005 probably saved his life, and he has been clean from opiates since.

“Many times, I would say, ‘Today’s my last day,’ and then I would try to go through withdrawal, and I could never make it,” he says.

“I couldn’t do it until I went through those doors and turned it over to someone else. I was trying to be my own doctor … and I was a fool.”

After receiving treatment, Matheson says he tried to resume his practice, but after relapsing with alcohol in 2012, he decided to not to return to medicine.

He says he hopes his book will help reduce the stigma of addiction in the health-care community.

“Health professionals in particular have this sense of shame, because they think they should know better,” he says. “They felt like they put people in danger because of their addiction.”

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