What it feels like: Recovering from drug addiction

After years of drug use, countless overdoses and two suicide attempts, Matt Kieselstein just marked 900 days of sobriety.

Emma Jones 14 minute read October 28, 2021

Matt Kieselstein was only 11 when he realized he could get high from the Ritalin prescribed by his doctor for ADHD. Now he is enrolled in the Addiction Studies program at McMaster University. SUPPLIED

This story explores issues of addiction and which may be triggering to some readers.

Matt Kieselstein was 11 when he realized he could get high off of the Ritalin prescribed by his doctor for ADHD, which his mom gave to him every morning. What followed was almost 30 years of substance abuse, punctuated with periods of sobriety, opiate addiction, countless overdoses and two suicide attempts.

In Canada, cocaine use among individuals 20 to 24 years old is on the rise, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. While opioid use does not seem to be increasing (estimated to be used by 11.8 per cent of the Canadian population in 2017 versus 13 per cent in 2015), hospitalizations and deaths due to opioid use have exploded in recent years, most often attributed to a high prescription rate and tainted black-market drug supply.

Now 42 and more than 900 days sober, Matt spoke to Healthing about his experience with addiction and recovery, and how community has been the key to his success.

When did your addiction begin?
I was abusing substances at age 11. I was put on Ritalin for a learning disability. I learned quickly that I could hoard the medication — I learned that if I put the meds that my mom gave me every morning and put them in my pocket for three or four days, I could take them all at once and get a nice buzz out of it.

I had a lot of insecurities as a kid. In addition to being diagnosed with a learning disability, I was also a very late bed wetter — I wet the bed until I was 12. So I had all these insecurities that made me feel like I was just not developed like everybody else at my age.

Once I got to high school, drugs were rampant. I was more of a poly-substance abuser than an addict at that time, trying everything under the rainbow and loving it. But it’s not like I was doing these drugs on a daily basis. What led to my “career” — for lack of a better word — in addiction was cocaine. I was introduced to cocaine when I was 21 or 22 years old, and that was game over for me. It started a 12-year addiction, ten of which were pretty extensive, like a daily or every other day habit.

[The cocaine use] ultimately led to more depression, far more insecurities, far more rampant use of the drug and countless overdoses. Nothing that I did allowed me to stop. Most addicts, we always tell ourselves this is it, this is the last time, but we tend to only say that when we’re high. And once we’re sober, we’re waiting to make that next call.

After 12 years using cocaine, I just quit. I don’t know how it happened. I said I’m done and then I had about six years of no cocaine use.

And then pain brought you back.
Over the course of my life I’ve been in a number of car accidents — probably twelve, and three of them were fairly major. Many addicts will say it wasn’t my fault, but I wasn’t driving in ten of those accidents — I just had bad luck.

I developed a lot of pain from those accidents. So here I am, a [previously] heavy cocaine user, and then I get introduced to opiates. I had about a four- or five-year addiction to opiates coupled with horrible depression and two suicide attempts.

It was like the depression made the pain worse and the pain made the depression worse. I bought blackout curtains so I wouldn’t have to face the sun. I never spoke to my family. I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I knew I didn’t want to live like that, but I felt that if I got sober, I was going to be sick forever. I never believed there would be happiness in sobriety, because I would always need [drugs]. Which is a really messed up thing to think, right? Because now that I know what I know, I’m happier than I’ve ever been — even before addiction.

When I survived my last suicide attempt, it was in that moment I decided that I was done. Oddly enough, it was April Fool’s Day. I called the Bellwood Health Services (a treatment centre) and I was told there wouldn’t be a bed available until April 25, which was also my dad’s birthday. So Happy Birthday dad: rehab.

I actually just celebrated 900 days [sober].

What does an overdose feel like?
I can’t tell you what I felt. I remember that in one particular situation, I just blacked out. I had taken an obscene amount of something and I passed out in my friend’s car for about two hours. [My friend was] slapping me around, [trying to wake me up]; I couldn’t wake up [on my own].

I’ve had about three overdoses from cocaine, and I thought I was going to die — literally, my heart was beating out of my chest. It was absolutely terrifying. That was probably the biggest thing for me out of that experience was the worry of death. I probably should have gone to the hospital, but I was a very careless addict. I didn’t take care of myself in so many ways, but even that wasn’t enough to scare me. Even though it’s been years since I’ve done cocaine, just talking about it brings me back to that horribly frightening experience.

When you have an experience like that, and you’re coming out of it, what goes through your head?
What are you doing to yourself? You’re dying, you are on the brink of death and you are killing yourself and you need to stop. It’s this horrible battle — a fight of desperation with thoughts like, I wish I didn’t live like this. But then there’s that other little voice — it’s almost mechanical — that says, ‘But I have to do this. I’m going to get sick if I don’t.” It’s an endless battle of that kind of back and forth — and the back-side always wins.

That must have been really hard, to think that things won’t ever get better.
Yeah. That’s what led to my [suicide] attempts. I was thinking that I didn’t want to live like this, but I know I can’t get better. I believed I could get sober, but I would be miserable. So that was sort of my way out, you know?

What made you want to get sober?
I had two suicide attempts in probably about three weeks. The first one was really my cry for help; I didn’t really want to die. But I wanted my family to know what was going on without telling them. My parents didn’t know anything about [my drug use].  The depression was worse than it had ever been. I was so desperate to stop. It’s very hard to express what I was going through internally, but I wanted out. When I survived my last suicide attempt, which was about two and a half weeks [later], it was the most transcendental moment of my entire life. I realized I wanted to live, you know, and I really wanted to do whatever it took in that moment.

I’ve always been a very spiritual person, not a religious person, but a very spiritual person. I felt the hand of God, and the message was, You’re going to be okay. I truly believed it. And in that moment, I said, ‘I’m done.’ I can’t tell you how many times as I said I’m done and meant it, but I couldn’t do it. This time I said it, I meant it and that was it. I told my parents everything the next day.

That must have been difficult for them.
It crushed them, but they were so relieved to know what was going on at the same time. At this point I was 40 and I had been using — at least as an addict — for probably 17 years. They didn’t see it coming at all. I’m sure they knew that I would smoke marijuana in high school, but they didn’t see any of that, so [an addiction] was a hard hit for them.

But they also knew they couldn’t get lost in it. I told them I was going to put the work into looking into a treatment centre, and they got educated on their own too. They were with me by my side from the beginning, but with completely broken hearts — they were devastated. I’m sure they were disappointed, but they never showed it, it was all support for me.

After you made the decision to stop drugs, you stayed at your parents’ place to detox. How was that?
The first week, I was really, really dope sick, I stayed in bed almost the entire week. My parents sort of knew to stay away — they came in and brought me food and [I would] come downstairs a little bit at a time. I think after the third day [I would] leave the room to come down, just to move and get blood flowing.

It was really rough, but that focus that I had after surviving my suicide attempt —  I was just so hungry to get to rehab that things go progressively got easier. I just wanted to get well. And I wanted to learn how not get back to that place.

[The whole process took] about three weeks in total before I was feeling balanced. Not completely balanced off from the drugs, though. That probably took about a year.

*Editors note: Detoxing without medical supervision can be dangerous. Speak to a registered healthcare professional if you have any questions or concerns.

And then came rehab. Tell me about what that was like.
Someone greets you at the door, they [take your information] and bring you to your room — they make you feel so at home. They want you to feel safe there. They’ll go through your luggage to make sure you haven’t brought any contraband in or things that shouldn’t be there. My treatment centre had a dress code because of the ex-military guys, so you couldn’t wear camo, or army fatigues, because they could be triggering for a lot of these veterans.

The experience was everything I was hoping that it would be. I was kind of nervous — I’m not an introvert, but I felt really shy. Like, how do I talk to people? I didn’t really know what to expect. This one guy put his arm around me and said, “Come, we’ll show you the ropes.” I found out later that he was asked to do that, but he ended up becoming a really, really good friend of mine. He made me feel at home right away. He had an opiate addiction just like myself, and he showed me around the building, [he explained] and the scheduling.

I was like a six-year-old kid there — just so happy to be learning not just how to get sober and prevent a relapse, but also learning about my addiction and what led to it, like the bed wetting and the insecurity.

I did find myself not really wanting to leave rehab while I was in there though, because I loved it. That’s common among my peers, a lot of people didn’t want to leave — we call it ‘the bubble’. When you’re in there, it’s the safest place to be. But when you leave, and all those exposures come back…  you can call your old dealer, for example. It’s really easy. That’s why I think a lot of people don’t want to leave, they feel safe there.

Did you ever struggle with staying in the program?
I was really motivated throughout the entire thing, except for the last week and a half when I knew I was almost out. [I had] a little bit of anxiety just because I knew what to expect out there but now, I was totally clear headed, I was a totally different version of me. I didn’t know if I was going to commit, you know? I knew I was committed, but I had said that to myself so many times.

Once I came home, that was it. My parents were awesome. I had asked them to get rid of all the paraphernalia in my house. I had kept one pill because I wanted it to be sort of ceremonious for when I came home — I wanted to be the one to put it in the toilet and flush it down (which is actually a horrible way to get rid of any medication. You’re not really supposed to do that.) But my parents did it anyway. When I didn’t get mad at them and I could say, ‘thank you,’ I knew I was me again. The old me would have been like, ‘Why would you f**king do that?  The selfish me, the ego me was gone.

How did it feel to be on your own?
My brother lives two doors down from me. We have a really close relationship. I knew I’d be safe being so close to him and my parents. My parents [asked if] I want to come home with them and get settled and I told them that I wanted to get back to normal. It felt right. It felt good being here.

When I came home the energy felt different. It was very dark in my house when I was in that bad place — you could feel the depression in the air. But when I came back, I had such a sunny disposition that was just about being home again — it was like someone came in and swept all the bad energy away. [laughs] You know what I mean?

Sometimes it’s recommended that you don’t do [go home to your own house] because there are hiding places for drugs, and there could be triggers. But I knew I was in a good place, and that everything was out of the house, so I felt totally comfortable.

My parents had a little bit of worry in the beginning — definitely some mistrust of how I was going to handle my finances, which I totally get. But after the third month, they were like, Alright, we can take that step back now and just watch him. Let him do his thing. So they’ve been a really amazing part of my recovery process for sure.

What happened after the rehab program?
When left treatment, I joined the aftercare program at the same treatment centre — I still do it once a week. It’s for people who either did inpatient or outpatient treatment there. It helps keep me accountable because you can sort of get lost and think that you are good, but that’s the addict brain.

Have you experienced any stigma?
A lot of my friends did drugs in their younger days, so while they don’t understand addiction, they understand substance abuse. They just kind of get it. I’ve been fortunate to have really good people in my life.

Things have gotten better, I think, with a lot of light being shed on mental health, specifically. Not so much around addiction, but just mental health. I’d like to see it decline more around addiction. It’s still out there. It could be a family member who just doesn’t understand what’s going on and they’ll make you feel like crap, but they don’t mean to. Then there are the people who are just say, ‘You’re an addict.’ People can say pretty horrible things.

Tell me what life is like now. Are there things you have be extra careful about?
When I was using, I was an isolator, so I didn’t use drugs with other people. In that regard, I guess it’s a little easier in term of who I talk to, which was really just my dealer. [So I got rid of the dealer’s number.] The friends I have my life have been incredibly supportive. Some of them will drink or smoke on occasion, but there’s no heavy drug use.

But there are considerations around going back to work — it’s not advised that you go back to work right out of rehab. So I decided to take time off  and go back to school. I’m in the addiction studies program at McMaster University right now.

Isn’t that a financial strain? How do people leaving rehab survive financially if they aren’t supposed to go back to work?
They go back to work. I mean, if you have to, you have to. There’s no real set time with the advice of not going back to work right away. Maybe it’s a week, maybe it’s a month, maybe it’s a year. It sort of depends on where you are in your recovery process. I had to dig into savings and sell some investments, but I was okay with that because I knew at the end of the day this was the best form of self-care.

What are other things that are helping you to recover?
I have stayed really connected with my friends in recovery. We meet once a week, but we talk every day. I think that’s the best advice I’d give anyone fresh out of recovery: stay as connected to your friends, recovery peers and recovering staff because otherwise you might encounter stigma.

I want to highlight the importance of aftercare because it’s such an important element for everyone who needs treatment. I don’t know what I would do without it. Without these things, I wouldn’t have a lot of the happiness that I have in my sobriety because it just keeps me so connected — and connection is one of the biggest parts of recovery.


If you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction, more education and resources are available at Edgewood Health Network (of which Bellwood is a part) and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health