My Broken Heart
To the outside world, I was a happy Toronto mom. Privately, I was fighting a serious heroin addiction. I recovered, but my heart didn’t
When I was 14 years old, I started experiencing brutal pains during my periods. The first one hit me one day at the beach. It started with a twinge in my back. A few minutes later, I felt as though a construction crew had fired up jackhammers and blowtorches, tearing down the walls of my uterus. When the pain reached its climax, I fainted. Dead cold on the dirty beach-bathroom floor, I woke up to the smell of concrete. I tried to figure out what was wrong, but everyone, even my family doctor, told me that periods are supposed to hurt. Just about every month after that, I’d pass out from the pain. On the floor of my bedroom. At the office at school. In the alley behind the bus stop. I later found out I had endometriosis, a disorder that causes the uterine lining to break off and attach to other parts of the body.
I didn’t let the pain ruin my life. After high school, I came to Toronto to study journalism at Ryerson. In my third year, I moved into an apartment on Jarvis Street, next door to my future husband. We met on a Sunday, slept together that Thursday and spent every day together for the next 17 years. I worked as an intern at the CBC in my fourth year and got a job as a research associate on Big Life With Daniel Richler before I graduated. I loved it there. I spent the next decade working my way up from associate producer to director to senior producer. I worked on CounterSpin, The Hour and Dragons’ Den. I even had the opportunity to host and produce segments on CityTV for a couple of years. I didn’t always like my jobs, but I loved my career.
Soon after we married in 2002, my husband and I bought a house in Leslieville. He’s an engineer, and he immediately got to work building closets and installing a fireplace and renovating the kitchen. I was in charge of cool lighting and paint chips and making him laugh. It was a cozy life. Every Sunday we had dinner with our closest friends, and every morning he’d bring me a glass of juice in bed and kiss me on the nose. We were very lucky for a very long time.
We both wanted children badly, but my endometriosis had left scar tissue on my fallopian tubes and ovaries, which was a major speed bump on the road to getting knocked up. We’d try at the right time, I’d wait to feel something, and, inevitably, the Endo Construction Crew would show up to rip down the walls of my uterus. One day I was crying in the kitchen. I told my husband that he should be with someone who could give him kids. He started crying too and told me he didn’t want kids with just anybody—he wanted my kids.
After five years of unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant, I began taking Clomid, a fertility drug. I’d start on day three of my period, take one pill daily for the next five days and have sex all the time. Within a few weeks, I was pregnant with twins. For the next nine months, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get over the pain I would experience during labour and delivery. By that point, endometriosis had scarred more than my internal organs; it was seared into my mind. When I went into labour, both babies were breech; they were delivered by C-section. Our twins arrived happy and healthy on December 23, 2008—a boy and a girl.
When we brought them home, I began to feel crushed under the weight of being a mother. One morning I took them to the grocery store, which is only about a six-minute drive from the house, but it took me about an hour to get there. I bundled them up and carried them one at a time to their car seats. I folded the massive double stroller and shoehorned it into the trunk. When we got to the store, I did the whole process again in reverse. I was exhausted.
I breastfed as much as I could. By the time I was finished feeding one of them, the other would be ready to eat. I didn’t admit to anyone—not even myself—that I wasn’t doing well. I wasn’t sleeping. Ever. Not just because the twins needed me, but because I was constantly fighting the anxiety that I was a terrible mother. In the morning, I’d soldier on, telling everyone how well everything was going. I’ve always been quick with a lie.
I was desperate to be a good mother. I bought cloth diapers (threw them out after two days). I tried making my own baby food (nope). I loved my babies desperately—we cuddled and snuggled and I would have died if anything ever happened to them. But I was trying too hard to do everything right. I’d constantly forget to put their laundry in the dryer and have to wash it again. I didn’t know what day the recycling or garbage bins were supposed to go to the curb. Bags of used diapers piled up all over the house. I didn’t know how to ask for help. When my husband started travelling for work, we hired a nanny. The first day she came I insisted she sit on the couch while I vacuumed the living room.
I went back to work on Dragons’ Den when the twins were seven months old. Soon, my periods returned—and they hurt. I was terrified of the pain. I was working and looking after the twins and dealing with depression. So I went to see my family doctor. I left the appointment with 15 Percocets. I was to take two a day, for five days every month.
I filled the prescription a few weeks later, as soon as I felt my back cramping up. I took one and the pain went away. One night I was lying in bed and I felt like my calves started glowing. A golden warmth spread through my body. After a few months, I found myself thinking about the pills. (“How many days until my period is due?”) When I was at home, I was constantly, vaguely aware that they were corked up in a bottle on a shelf. I wished they would come out and dance. Then it hit me: I could take these things even when I didn’t need to. That was the day I left my old life behind and became a drug addict.
Percocet was a revelation. I’d take two, lie down and have a two-hour orgasm. I measured time in pills—how long between when I took them and when I could take them again. My doctor gave me only 15 at a time, but after a few months I was swallowing four to six at once. I was constantly running out. I googled “how to create a fake prescription” on my computer and shazam! About a hundred examples popped up. I made a few changes, entered some fake names and started printing them out.
I hit small pharmacies and always paid in cash. I got 60 pills every time, for $20. I was refilling once or twice a week, and hid them on the top shelf of my closet. I did all of the stupidest things you could do. I went back to the same places too many times, and long before my “prescriptions” should have been finished. I messed up on the dates once and tried to fill a prescription for the following year. One day I went into a drugstore I’d never visited before. The pharmacist looked me up and down, took the script and walked into the next room. I saw him pick up the phone, so I turned around and walked out. Then I went to a different pharmacy. Within a year, I was taking 24 pills per day. Percocet has acetaminophen in it, which decimates the liver. So I gradually switched to a drug that was much stronger and cleaner: OxyContin.
My husband figured out what was going on after about a year. I used to put six pills under my side of the mattress before I fell asleep so I could take them at 5 a.m. In the morning I’d slip my hand under the mattress and grope around for the pills as quietly as I could. I could feel him watching and listening to me. I could feel his disappointment and his heartbreak.
He tried hard to understand what I was going through. When the twins were three, we left them with my in-laws and flew to Miami for a child-free vacation. He found a bag of Percocet hidden under the mattress. I did the classic addict’s shame dance about how I knew I needed to stop, and he started crying and told me that we’d do it together. We had a week away from the twins and our jobs, and he’d help me through the withdrawals. He thought by the time we went back home, everything would be okay. I loved him for that, but he didn’t know withdrawal. I told him I’d do it, and then I secretly used my backup bag of Oxy, which I’d crush into powder and snort.
My husband would usually get up with the kids, and I’d stay in bed until he had to leave for work. I’d drag myself to the couch in the basement and wait for the nanny to arrive. And then I’d go back to bed. The kids stayed with our nanny from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. She’d cook dinner and help get them ready for bed. They needed me, and my heart broke every time they’d try to climb into bed with me.
Our nanny was worried about me. She loved the twins and she loved us, and she tried to make things as normal as possible around the house. She mostly kept the kids away from me, and she stayed with us when I walked them to the playground. She kept our house sparkling clean, but I made her promise never to clean our bedroom, because I didn’t want anybody finding the pills I’d stashed on the shelves or under the mattress.
In 2011, we went to a friend’s wedding, where I found out that one of the guests was an addict. I didn’t speak to her at the wedding, but a couple of days later I Facebooked her and asked if she could hook me up with someone who could sell me pills. She gave me the name and number of a dealer she knew. Percocets were $5 a pill, Oxy 40s were $30 per pill, and Oxy 80s—he called them Green Monsters—were about $50.
At work, I was falling behind. When my colleagues and bosses started to figure out what was going on, I left the CBC and took a job as an executive at Shaw Media, overseeing programming for HGTV, Slice and the Food Network. My addiction robbed me of any sense of motivation, but at the same time I felt incredible pressure to meet deadlines. I was constantly faking it. I’d get to work, listen to music for an hour, then make notes on the episodes I needed to deliver that week. I’d leave at lunchtime and go home for two hours to take pills. After about a year, I just stopped showing up. I knew I was probably going to get fired—I think I was probably trying to get fired. But they didn’t fire me. So I quit.
The health care system had caught onto the fact that addicts were scraping Oxy pills into a fine powder to snort. So the drug company changed the formula to make the pills unsnortable gelcaps. For addicts looking to get high, they weren’t nearly as effective. The price of a Green Monster skyrocketed—anyone who had them could get about a hundred bucks a pill. The Internet was full of recipes for how to turn the gel pills back into snortable powder. I tried microwaving them, leaving them in the freezer overnight and pounding them with a hammer, grinding them down in a mug and screaming obscenities at them. Nothing worked.
One day in 2013, I was desperate to buy Oxy. My dealer said he didn’t have any. He offered me heroin instead. By this time, I had crossed so many mental lines that it only took me five seconds to say yes. I hated myself. While I waited for him to deliver my gram of heroin, I taught myself how to shoot up. I googled “how to inject heroin safely,” and a very helpful YouTube video popped up, instructing me on how to use a tourniquet and find a vein. I was kind of scared about using heroin, but I like feeling scared—it’s an emotion I confuse with being thrilled. I went to Shoppers and bought a bag of syringes—10 for $5—and texted the nanny to make sure the twins were nowhere in the vicinity.
I shot up alone that first time and every time after. I was being dangerous, stupid and irresponsible. I never thought about what would happen if I OD’d. My dealer had warned me to only use a point (a tenth of a gram), and I was as meticulous with the measurement as my desperation would allow. Shooting heroin was like walking into a vacuum. I didn’t feel bliss or like I was wrapped in a warm blanket or like Jesus was making love to me. It wasn’t like Trainspotting. I didn’t gain a feeling—I lost all feelings. It didn’t matter that my marriage and my career were falling apart. It felt like a very peaceful death, and I started dying a few times a day.
I took a job at a development company run by a few friends. I probably showed up to work once a week. After seven months, they noticed the track marks on my arms. When one of the owners suggested that I go to rehab, I quit. My relationship with my husband had turned into a horrible game of cat and mouse, where he would accuse me of being on drugs, and I would lie and say I wasn’t. He’d text me a picture of needles hidden in a drawer or a box in the bathroom. I’d freak out and call him, insisting that I wasn’t using, that he was finding old equipment that I forgot about. Every few weeks, he’d kick me out of our house, and I’d stay with friends, who had no experience with this kind of drug addiction. They’d trust me and listen to my bullshit excuses while I waited for my husband to calm down and let me come home.
At my husband’s insistence, I completed a 21-day inpatient program at CAMH. He told the twins I was on a trip, which was convincing because we both travelled regularly for work. I was determined to get clean, but I was a rehab rookie. My mom and mother-in-law came to the little graduation ceremony they had for us at the end. My mom even cried.
A week after leaving CAMH, I called a guy I met at rehab and bought more heroin. My husband was still travelling a lot, so my mom came to help with the twins. I spent months in bed, depressed and shooting up five times a day. I wallowed in my addiction.
One day in 2013, I got a phone call from a woman I used to work with at the CBC. She asked me to produce a show about the NHL during the Sochi Olympics. I felt intense pressure to get a job—from my husband, from my mom, from myself—as if working would solve everything that was wrong with my life. I tried to stop using heroin and switch back to pills, but it was too hard. The best I could do was shoot up less often and take pills in between to keep me going. There was no such thing as getting high in my life—by this point, drugs were the only thing keeping me from falling apart.
My dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer in January 2014. We weren’t very close, but I visited him often and brought the twins to see him when I could. I tried to do my job, be an active part of my family and support my dying dad. I was trying harder than ever not to use drugs. My husband and I were openly hostile by this point, and I knew he’d leave me soon. I didn’t blame him. One morning, I woke and found a video on my iPhone that I had recorded at 3 a.m. the night before. I warned myself that my husband was going to divorce me and take the twins. I told myself that if I didn’t stop, I was going to lose my job. Maybe I’d die.
I was fired from my job in July, after missing a shoot in New York with Dustin Brown, then the captain of the L.A. Kings. When I got back home, my husband tried to keep me out of the house. It was midnight, and we were both so exhausted that he finally just let me walk up upstairs and sleep in the guest room. I left the next day to stay at a hotel.
On July 13, 2014, I turned 40. I knew I was in trouble when nobody aside from my mom and twin brother called me on my birthday. Three days later, I went to see my father at the hospital for the last time. By this point I looked like a junkie. I was thin and pale. I rarely showered. I didn’t notice when the nurses gave each other a look after I asked what meds my father was on.
I was overwhelmed and dopesick—I hadn’t used since that morning—so I left my dad’s room and sat in the waiting room for a break. Two security guards approached me and loudly told me that there had been a complaint that I was stealing medication from the hospital. They told me they needed to search me. I hadn’t touched anything, so I told them to go ahead. They looked through my bags, I turned out my pockets, and they left.
When I went back to my dad’s room, my twin brother—who I didn’t see very often—had started to realize how serious my problem was. “Shannon, the nurse was just here with the police. They said you stole something,” he said. “I’m not angry at you but I’m not dealing with this today. Whatever you’ve got, get rid of it. Now.” I told him I didn’t do it, but he didn’t believe me. I wouldn’t have believed me either. I left the hospital to pick up drugs, and my father died an hour later. I wasn’t there.
A couple of days after that, my husband handed me two documents: one was a legal notice that he was divorcing me. The other was a court order stating that I was no longer allowed to be in our home. I knew I deserved everything I was getting, but my heart was broken. I had lost my husband and my children. My career was probably over. I couldn’t go back into my own house, and my father was dead. On July 24, my brother paid for me to check into a private rehab facility in Muskoka.
Getting clean was hard, but not as hard as I thought it would be. I was far away from Toronto and my life, and there was no option to use drugs. I spent a week in detox, sleeping and sweating out the heroin. Then I began attending group therapy every morning, individual counselling and NA meetings at night. I met people who were just like me: women and men who worked hard and fell down, who accepted that their lives had to change.
I stayed until September, leaving once to attend my father’s funeral. When I got back to Toronto, I moved into a furnished apartment in the east end that my brother rented for me. It was time to start my new job: recovering. I worked hard, attending meetings and therapy. I only saw the twins a couple of times a week for supervised visits. I applied for jobs, but no one would hire me. My husband started dating immediately, and when I saw his profile on Tinder—featuring a picture I had taken of him on a beach in Mexico—my heart broke all over again. But I accepted my situation and slowly crawled back into the world.
By March 2017, things were better. My ex-husband and I were figuring out our complicated family dynamic. Despite everything, he firmly believed that our eight-year-olds needed me. He helped me rebuild my relationship with our kids, and without his support I never would have made it. In rehab, I’d been tested for every drug-related illness I could imagine—HIV, kidney damage, hepatitis—and it looked like I was okay. My teeth suffered the worst: I was constantly getting gum infections, and after the divorce I had no insurance, so I put off going to the dentist. But I was hopeful that my past was behind me.
During March Break that year, I felt like shit. I could barely get out of bed. I couldn’t keep any food down, and just walking to the bathroom exhausted me. I could tell that I was hyperventilating, but I thought I was just tired. I was grey and clammy and thin, and when my mom and my sister saw me, they insisted I go to the ER. Reluctantly, I agreed. I figured I’d go to the hospital, wait for five hours and then get some antibiotics. I thought I’d be fine.
I walked into the ER at Toronto East General on March 19. Within minutes, they took my blood pressure (dangerously high), checked my heart rate (same) and found me a bed in the emergency ward. I was just grateful to lie down. They told my mom that I had double pneumonia, sepsis, MRSA and jaundice. I had waited too long before going to the hospital. Worst of all, I had a serious heart condition called endocarditis. It’s a notorious complication of IV drug use. The right side of my heart was bombarded with whatever garbage was mixed in with my heroin, and the valve had become thick and loose and infected.
One of the last things I remember was gasping for air. I felt like I was drowning. The monitor was behind me, so I couldn’t see that my blood pressure was 188 over 126. Blood pressure that high indicates that I was at severe risk of an immediate stroke or cardiac arrest. My mother, a nurse, somehow managed to hide how scared she was. My heart was on the verge of exploding.
My mom and my sister kept their eyes on me like tractor beams. They rubbed my back and said calm and gentle things. I’ve never tried so hard to do anything in my life—I breathed through my nose and counted between breaths, but nothing helped. My lungs were full of bacteria, my body was septic, and my mind was starting to comprehend that I was in serious trouble. I could die.
And then I was gone.
The doctors put me into a coma on March 23. I had no dreams and I couldn’t hear voices. During my coma, I went into septic shock, and my kidneys were compromised. They found out that I have a congenital heart defect—a patent foramen ovale, which is basically a hole in the heart (most people with endocarditis have an underlying heart defect). When they put me on the ventilator, the pressure caused the hole to open up wide, and it started letting bacteria flow into my lungs and then circulate through my body.
As I deteriorated, my mom called in my ex-husband to say goodbye to me. My twin brother flew in. My mom agonized when they asked her if she wanted me to get a feeding tube. It wouldn’t save me, though it might have provided my body with some comfort. But my condition was so delicate that she was terrified of doing anything that might trigger an avalanche.
For 19 days, I stayed in my coma as they pumped me full of Vancomycin, the nuclear bomb of antibiotics. After five days under, they moved me to Toronto General because I was too sick—I needed heart-lung specialists. When I got there, they admitted me to their ICU, and slowly, inch by inch, the infection backed off. On April 13, I was stable enough for them to wake me up.
The first thing I heard was my brother’s voice. I opened my eyes, and saw him and my mother. She was crying. I could feel a tube in my throat and hear something beeping and whooshing behind me. I realized I was on life support. I couldn’t speak because of the tube, so I tried to communicate by writing notes. My writing was like a five-year-old’s. My R’s and S’s were backwards, and I had to concentrate on pressing the pencil down. Every letter exhausted me. After two sentences, I had to stop. I had multiple IVs, plus a line that went directly into my jugular vein. I weighed 97 pounds. I couldn’t sit up, and I couldn’t walk.
My mother and brother continued to live at the hospital with me after I woke up—I don’t think I was ever alone. For the first few days, I was confused. I believed I’d been shooting a TV show in Miami, and that I’d gotten sick over there and been flown to the hospital in Toronto. My brother gently explained to me that I was hallucinating, but it was difficult to accept that my mind was lying to me. Later, I became convinced that I’d checked into East General and started partying with the staff there. I was sure that the nurses and therapists and doctors I saw at Toronto General were somehow the same ones who sold me the drugs. They were kind and patient with me. It took me weeks to realize that none of this had actually happened.
After I had been awake for a few days, the cardiologist came to see me. He said my valve was severely damaged and I might need open-heart surgery to replace it with a prosthetic. I was shocked and angry with myself. When I was using heroin, I worried about overdosing or collapsing a vein or getting a disease. I never considered that I could be damaging my heart. I had finished rehab almost three years earlier, but heroin was coming back to haunt my health. I had never heard of endocarditis.
The cardiologist was a serious guy—he told me I wouldn’t survive open-heart surgery at that moment. I was too thin and too sick, and my history as an IV drug user worsened my prognosis. It didn’t matter how long I’d been clean: after they replaced the valve, using heroin again, even once, would be a death sentence. Bacteria in the shot sticks to the implanted valve, which is a sticky thing indeed, and starts thriving. The body can’t send white blood cells to fight the infection, because it doesn’t recognize it.
At first I was offended. I thought he was suggesting that I might relapse. Which he was, because he didn’t know me and he’d probably seen it happen a thousand times. I also thought he was threatening to withhold life-saving surgery. Which he wasn’t—he was just suggesting we wait until I was stronger and he knew me better, and then we could reassess the situation. He was smart and honest and in a difficult position. Replacing that valve would be like giving me a loaded gun. With it in my body, if I ever went back to using—even once—I’d likely die. But without it, my heart might fail on its own.
Almost two months after walking into the hospital, I was discharged. The first thing I did was try to gain weight. I’ve put on 30 pounds in almost a year, and I feel better than I have in a long time. I check my ankles for swelling every morning, because they taught me in the ICU that it’s a sign of right-sided heart failure. If that ever happens, I need to go directly back to the hospital. For months, I constantly feared that my heart was going to stop.
The second thing I did was get a job. I was hired by a company I worked with as a director 15 years ago. I’m still there, and I love it. I forgot how much I like to work—and I’ve developed better boundaries. I guard myself against feeling like I need to go to extraordinary measures to please everyone. I do what I can.
In January, I visited my cardiologist again. He was very impressed with the state of my health, both physically and mentally. He did an EKG and all kinds of other tests on my heart, and told me that it’s compensating beautifully, despite major damage to the valve. I practically started dancing around his office. “Maybe I have a super-heart!” I said. He laughed and told me I just might—that I’m extremely resilient. He’s getting to know me better these days and told me he’s optimistic about my future. If I stay clean, stay healthy, and my heart maintains its current state of heroism, I might not need open-heart surgery for years. I might need it someday; my heart could eventually unwind. But the longer I can live without having my ribs broken and my heart removed from my chest, the better it is for my body.
I think about drugs all the time, but I never feel like using. Instead, I think about how I burned down my life for them. My ex-husband will always be scared that I’ll relapse, and I don’t blame him. I’m just grateful that he’s still in my life. I want him to be happy, and he wants the same for me. Somehow we got out of this alive.
My children are nine now, and they know about my heroin addiction. They know I might need surgery. They’ve been to counselling, and I’m constantly scanning their emotional horizons, looking for damage. The depth of their forgiveness has humbled me. The other day, we were singing and dancing around my apartment. When we collapsed on the couch, my son turned to me. “Mom, you don’t have a great voice,” he said. “But you’ve got a great heart!”
This story originally appeared in Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.