I grew up in Toronto with two loving parents and pretty much everything a kid could ask for. I attended a Catholic grade school. I had three older brothers and a sister and lots of friends. I loved playing organized sports – hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer. I really excelled at hockey and was always at the top of my team in goals and points. At the age of nine, I was breaking scoring records in my hockey league.
But in 7th grade, my troubles started. That was the year I discovered beer and cigarettes. My friends around the neighborhood were all older than me. We all played hockey together. After one of the games, the guys somehow managed to get beer. I tried one and loved the taste and smell of it. I instantly became a fan. That’s when I also started smoking cigarettes. Every weekend my friends and I would hang out together smoking cigarettes and drinking.
It wasn’t until 9th grade that I first tried marijuana. I had known the smell of it for a long time since I shared a room with my older brother, who used it quite regularly. He sometimes would lock me out of the room and stay in there with his friends or my other older brothers. When I was allowed back in the room, there would always be a strange smell – like a skunk I thought – and the air would be really cloudy. My friend, who was a year older than me, said that when his brother smokes marijuana, it smells the same way. We promised each other that we were going to try it one day. Years later, some of the older guys asked me if I wanted to smoke up with them, I was more than eager to try it. I remember taking drags off that first joint and almost coughing my lungs out. But the way it made me feel was amazing – like I was in another world with no problems and a feeling of perfect bliss.
I remember going home that night and telling my brother that I had smoked a joint. He just laughed at me. The next day, my mom gave me five dollars for lunch. But I really wanted to get high again, so I took the money and combined it with my friend’s money and we skipped class and smoked up behind the school.
In 11th grade, I joined the senior hockey team. Because I was a really good player, all the 13th graders took a liking to me and invited me to their parties, which were all about beer and girls. I had my own close group of friends though. We all liked marijuana the best, but I was developing an alcohol problem as well. I started to get cravings for weed and alcohol every day.
I took a job at a gas station after school. It didn’t pay enough to pay for my bad habits, so I started stealing from customers. If the customer wanted $20 worth of gas, I would pump $15 worth and put the remaining five in my own pocket. I would keep doing this until I had $20, which was the minimum my dealer would sell me.
By the time I was 20 years old, all my friends had either graduated or dropped out of school. My ability to play hockey was going down the drain, so I dropped out too. I got fired from the gas station when they caught me stealing and then found a job at a moving company with one of my friends. But I soon lost that job too for not showing up for work after a night of partying. The times in between jobs were really tough since I didn’t have enough money to feed my cravings for marijuana and cigarettes. I found another job driving a truck. It was a good paying job. But I was spending $50 a week on cigarettes and $180 on marijuana. On Sundays, I was also gambling on hockey and football. I was drinking a lot. My whole paycheck was going towards my addictions. A few years later, I lost that job as well because of too much partying.
In 2001, I took a job with a courier company delivering goods to dollar stores. My parents only wanted $50 a week from me for room and board; the rest went to my addictions. One day, I got pulled over by the police and got a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. It was only a $100 fine, but I never managed to spare the money to pay it. Shortly before Christmas that year, I got a notice in the mail telling me my license had been suspended. I lost my job as a result. The first thing I did after collecting my last paycheck was buy a carton of cigarettes. Then I gave my mom $50 and I took another $140 to buy marijuana. All I had left was $80 to buy Christmas gifts for my entire family. It wasn’t enough, so I used the money to gamble on football – which of course I lost. That New Year of 2002, I found myself penniless. The feeling inside of me was just one big hunger for marijuana and cigarettes. The cravings were so bad I started selling my things – my computer games, and my golf clubs. I even tried selling my hockey skates for a measly $10. I was really skinny, not taking good care of my health or my hygiene – all I cared about was getting high.
I looked in a newspaper and saw an ad for a moving company that offered to pay cash daily. The owner was badly in need of workers, so he called me the next day to offer me a job. My dad bought me a pack of smokes, gave me bus fare and off I went. Late into the shift, I was craving so strongly I could barely function. I faked an injury, collected my pay, and left the poor guy and his customers hanging while I went to my drug dealer to buy some weed and then hustled off home to smoke it.
A few days later, I was getting ready for bed around 1:30 a.m. Like I always did before going to bed, I smoked a water bong, which would usually put me to sleep right away. However, this time was different. After finishing the bong, a strange feeling came over me. The next thing I knew I was I was in my dad’s room shaking his shoulder to wake him up. I said to him, “Let’s go to Israel.” I remember seeing fear in his face, so I took my hands off him and left his room. Still dressed only in my underwear, I left our apartment and walked down the hallway, down the staircase and outside the building into the cold winter’s night. I walked across the street to the school yard and kept walking – straight into the school’s brick wall head first. I staggered backwards a couple of feet and then walked again into the wall, head first. A third time, I bowed my head and rammed into the wall. This time all I could do was fall onto the ground, unable to move. I remember lying there on the ground for a couple of minutes looking up into the black sky and thinking to myself, “Am I dead?” and yelling, “Oh God – no, no!” Everything went dark after that as I fell into a coma.
I don’t know how much longer I lay on the ground alone. Shortly after I had left my father’s room, my dad had gone looking for me around our building. He couldn’t find me so he went upstairs to wake my mom and call the police. The police checked around the building for about 45 minutes. They went up to the roof to check there and then headed back down the stairs when they found I wasn’t up there. On the way down, my dad looked out a window of the stairwell and saw a light shining on the ground across the street, lighting up the top half of my body. Where that light came from was a mystery since there was no streetlight in the area and that part of the schoolyard is usually totally dark at night. The source of that light continues to be a mystery to me and my family to this day.
I was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, where they found I had a broken neck, which left me quadriplegic (paralyzed in all four limbs). I came out of my coma three days later, which happened to be my 27th birthday. I couldn’t move a muscle. One of my lungs had collapsed and my other lung was on the verge of collapsing. A team of doctors ordered everyone out of the room. They thought I was going to die and called in a priest to give me my last rights. They hooked me up to a ventilator to keep me breathing. The doctors told my mom I would never again be able to move a muscle below my neck. So I lay in bed motionless with tubes down my throat for a month. One day I started getting twitches in my arms. I kept getting more and more movement until one day I was actually able to touch my nose to scratch it. That was like a dream come true!
They then took the breathing tubes out and gave me a forty-eight hour trial to see if I could keep breathing on my own. They put a hole in my throat – called a tracheotomy – which gives them access to my airways to suction out fluids to prevent me from getting pneumonia again. I passed the breathing test and was able to speak for the first time. When I was able to speak, a psychiatrist came into my room. He asked me what had happened to me. The only answer I could come up with was to say that God had done this to me as punishment for my sins. When he shook his head in disbelief, I felt angry and closed my eyes until he left the room. The psychiatrist diagnosed me as having a bipolar disorder and called my incident an “unexplained psychotic event.”
When I was well enough to be transferred to Toronto Rehab’s Spinal Cord Program for six months of therapy, I was fitted with a wheelchair – and for the first time in two months I was able to sit upright. The very first time I got up in my wheelchair I went outside for some fresh air and saw a man smoking a cigarette. Even though I had been tobacco-free for two months, I craved a smoke so strongly that I went up to this man and asked him if he would give me a cigarette. I was soon smoking almost as much as ever. Soon I became friends with another patient who always had marijuana and quickly resumed that habit as well. Any time I wanted to get high, I would just approach him and we would go for a joint.
My life as a patient was very difficult emotionally. Some of the staff tried to talk to me to help me sort out my problems, but I refused to talk to anybody about my feelings or the events leading up to my injury. I was living with depression and sometimes suicidal thoughts, thinking I was in hell and being punished for my sins. It was really scary.
I was finally discharged from rehab in October 2002. I spent the winter in a very bad depression. I didn’t want to talk to anybody or go anywhere. I just wanted to stay in my room by myself.
In March 2003 I developed a pressure sore on my tail bone. I don’t know how I got it, whether it was the chair or bed. It just appeared one day. It was really, really bad. I wasn’t allowed to get back into my wheelchair, so I had to stay in bed 24/7. All I wanted to do was smoke weed and cigarettes. I ended up staying in bed for two years.
By May 2005, my sore was healed, but I was so skinny. All my bones were showing. I had smoked so much weed and tobacco my muscles were withering away. The doctor at the rehab hospital admitted me for a six-week period. I spent most of the time over the first two weeks lying in bed thinking about my life and how it all seemed to be centered around tobacco and marijuana. My mom suggested I should use the opportunity of being hospitalized to stop smoking marijuana since it wasn’t doing me any good. I thought back about the times when my brother would rip me off or how I would crave it so badly when I couldn’t have it. I decided that I didn’t want to be a slave to it any longer.
The psychologist at the rehab visited me and for the first time I accepted that I had a problem. I told him what happened to me and that I believed I was in hell for my sins. He taught me about mental illness and helped me understand that I had probably been suffering from a psychosis. We also talked about scriptures from the Bible – especially the ones about Jesus coming to the world to save sinners not to punish them. I believed him and for the first time in a long, long time I started feeling good about myself.
When I finished my six weeks in rehab, I decided it was time to do something with my life. I decided to go back to school to finish my high school education. After getting my diploma, I took a peer support volunteer course. Now I spend a lot of my time at the rehab hospital visiting new patients and helping them cope with their injury and losses. I also decided to learn more about cannabis and psychosis. I learned that marijuana can trigger and worsen schizophrenia and other types of psychotic illnesses. I’ve learned about cannabinoids – the psychoactive chemicals that are found in the bloodstream after you smoke. I thought a lot about that night I broke my neck. The last thing I did before I snapped was that water bong. Knowing that has made me all the more determined to never ever smoke that stuff again. I’ve come to the conclusion that that night I had a psychotic episode triggered by marijuana use.
In October 2008, I also quit smoking cigarettes. I can now proudly say that I am addiction free. I continue to see the psychologist once or twice a week. I’m writing a book about my experiences. I can honestly say that right now I’m in the best mental shape of my life. I love speaking at the PARTY Program (an injury prevention program for students) telling my story.
And that’s where I am at today. Even though living in a wheelchair is very difficult, I can honestly say that I very much prefer my life the way it is now – without drugs and knowing that I can do things to help others.