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How a man from Moncton broke free from drug addiction and chose to help others

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On the night of March 1, 2017, Sean Pauley got off a plane at Halifax Stanfield International Airport, drove his Ford pickup to the parking lot of a nearby Tim Horton's, and broke down crying in despair.

He couldn't stop shaking and sniffling. Every bone hurt, as though his skeleton was trying to climb out of his skin. His last slivers of strength were gone.

"I was a mess," he says. "I thought I was going to drive to the MacKay Bridge and just jump off it. I didn't know what else to do."

The 48-year-old travelling furniture salesman from Riverview, N.B., was addicted to Percocet, an opioid painkiller containing acetaminophen and oxycodone. When he ran out of pills before his flight from St. John's that day, he braced himself for the torture of withdrawal.

"It's like watching a storm roll in," he says. "There's nothing you can do about it."

In the darkness of the truck, Sean called his wife, Shawnda, to say goodbye.

"She didn't get mad," he says. "She just told me she loved me, and she begged me to come home."

Shawnda convinced Sean to drive to New Brunswick. After he got home around 1 a.m., he spent most of the night awake, hating himself.



When he was young, Sean had little interest in drugs - apart from a bit of experimentation as a teenager - and he stayed away from alcohol. He married Shawnda when he was 19, and they had two sons. He worked hard building a career in the furniture business. Life was good.

But in April 2003, everything changed. Sean walked into his parents' home and found his mother's body. She had died tragically.  

"I was really close to my Mom," he says. "You don't expect things to end that way, you know. And the last thing you see is just a little note saying, 'Tell Sean I love him.' It was really a lot of questions, and a lot of guilt, and a lot of stuff that goes along with it."

Not long after that traumatic day, Sean saw a trusted friend taking a pill. 

"I asked him what it was and he had some stupid name for it," he says. "I took one, and I didn't think much about it, and it didn't do a whole lot. It just made me feel a little better."

For a few years, Sean took one or two pills every weekend. To him, it didn't seem like a big deal.  

Then, things went out of control.

"All of a sudden, I had way more than I should have had in my drawer, so I started taking them more often," he says. "And then, it led to taking more and more and more and more. I'd say the last four years of my addiction, things went really bad."

For Sean, 'really bad' meant 50 to 60 little white pills every day. 

"It didn't make me feel good - ever," he says. "It was just to survive. I was completely, 100 per cent addicted to them. I couldn't function without them."

Sean wanted to stop using drugs. Sometimes, he tried.

"One time, I went 15 days without any, and I didn't sleep once for 15 days, not even for a second," he says. "I was just about dead. I almost died, I think. It was awful."

In the grip of addiction, Sean watched his life start to fall apart. Of the four furniture companies he was representing, three dropped him. He used to love sports and movies, but those things meant nothing anymore. His beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycle sat in the garage for three years. And as he poured thousands of dollars into drugs, his debt grew.

"Everyone thought I was going crazy," he says. "I had friends and business people constantly calling me, talking to me, asking me what was wrong. They thought I was losing my mind. Some people suspected drugs, but I wouldn't admit to it."

Shawnda was the only person who knew the truth. Sometimes, she hid her husband's pills - and he tore the house apart trying to find them. Addiction, he says, turned him into a different creature.

"It just about ruined our marriage," he says. "I said stuff to my wife that I've never forgiven myself for. She wouldn't give me my drugs, and I would say anything to get them. It was a mistake."


Finally, in 2017, Sean was in that pickup truck near the airport in Halifax, telling his wife he was never coming home again.

But those anguished, rock-bottom moments turned out to be the beginning of a dramatic transformation.

Two days later, he checked into a rehabilitation facility in Nova Scotia. He stayed for a week, going for counselling and taking methadone to calm the withdrawal symptoms.

In rehab, he saw that addiction hides behind many faces.  

"I was in there with a young prostitute who broke my heart seeing her," he says. "I was in there with a lifelong drug user who was really in bad shape. Also, a fireman, an airplane pilot and a farmer."

After finishing rehab and returning home to New Brunswick, Sean decided to visit Horizon Health Network's Community Addiction and Mental Health Services at 81 Albert Street in Moncton. Fifteen social workers, psychologists, nurses, occupational therapists and human services counsellors help hundreds of clients who have addictions to drugs, alcohol and gambling.

"We're creating an environment that is compassionate and respectful," says Serge Bourque, Acting Program Manager of Addiction Services. "That's all clients want. They want someone to care."

Sean started by meeting with an intake worker. Then, he signed up for ten sessions of 'A New Chapter', an addictions recovery group.

"Sean was really open with the group," says Julie Belliveau, the Horizon social worker who led the sessions. "He shared some of his obstacles or struggles - but he also really shared his desire to move towards a life that he wanted, the person he wanted to be, a life worth living."

When Sean graduated from group therapy, Julie became his one-on-one counsellor. He credits her with keeping him sober.

"She saved me," Sean says. "She was so good at what she did. You can tell that she really cares about you, and she doesn't tell you what to do - never points fingers. She just kind of gets you there yourself. It's amazing."



With support from his family and Horizon, along with a tonne of determination, Sean has been clean and sober for almost two years.

Already, he's helping people who are struggling with addiction. In September, he started Atlantic Canada's first chapter of LifeRing, a secular alternative to support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

In the weekly LifeRing meetings, there is no 12-step program, no reference to a higher power, and no obligation to label oneself an 'addict'.

"Everyone talks about how their week went," Sean says. "I try to keep it current - no real war stories or romanticizing drugs. We try to talk about how we're doing right now. Like how your last week went, what you're planning on doing."

Shad Sinclair, a 44-year-old recovering from a dependency on alcohol, has attended several LifeRing meetings. He says Sean is a great man who makes people feel welcome and at ease.

"We share laughs and tears," Shad says. "There is a lot of emotion running through, but a lot of jovial moments as well. We are all there to encourage each other, and Sean makes a superb leader and frontman to the group."


Canada's opioid addiction crisis is taking a devastating toll.  According to a report by the Public Health Agency of Canada, there were 3,987 apparent opioid-related deaths in the country in 2017. Thirty-three were in New Brunswick.

"There's no addict that wants to be an addict," Sean says. "I don't care if it's the person on the street or the person like me. Everybody wants to be clean. But it's very tough. There's a reason it's an epidemic. It's very, very tough."

In the face of the staggering statistics on opioid deaths, Sean and his family are treasuring their happy ending.  

"I have my husband back," says Shawnda. "The boys feel like they have their father back. They can actually talk to him, and he is listening. He is present again. He seems more like his old self, slowly getting back into enjoying all the things he used to before the addiction consumed his life."

Now that the pills that tormented Sean for so many years have finally lost their power, his darkness continues to lift.

"I feel like I'm back on the planet," he says. "I feel like I'm moving forward again, and there's some hope. It's awful stuff, addiction. I don't understand it completely. I'm trying, and I'm trying to help some other people, but I feel good."

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