On a night cold enough to make your lungs bleed, a handsome young couple take the edge off in the subway, passing a beer can between them.

Their numbness will no doubt increase in the bars that beckon downtown, where thousands are converging for another Saturday night of partying.

As they leave the Bloor-Yonge station, they can't see the man a few blocks away in the Gay Village, sober as a judge, sharpening his senses on coffee and cigarettes in a quiet café.

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The man is Mark Elliot -- veteran radio host, recovering addict, twice-divorced father of four and former "dead man." As the rest of the city heads out to play, Mr. Elliot is gearing up to go to work at 1010-CFRB, where he counsels addicts on the air.

It's a hell of a way to spend a Saturday night, but then Mr. Elliot has spent most of his 50 years running the other way. It's only in the past 15 years that he has learned to do so without "killing" himself.

"I look at it and really wonder how the hell I lived," he says, and his appearance corroborates him: dark rings under the eyes, sallow skin, wispy hair.

The youngest of four, Mr. Elliot was born Nils Johanson on Christmas Eve, 1953, and grew up in a hardscrabble area of Weston. By age 5, he kept a radio under his pillow and dreamed of a career on the airwaves, a dream he never let go despite the nightmare he endured a year later: sexual abuse at the hands of "somebody close," though not a relative.

Horrific as it was, Mr. Elliot says he came out tougher for it, which served him well in the "miserable, merciless" world of radio.

By age 21, he had worked several disc jockey jobs under the names Nils Johanson, Rick Shannon and finally Mark Elliot, which stuck as he left Winnipeg for a wildly successful 12-year run in Ottawa.

"For a long time, I would answer to any one of three names," he says, "but Mark Elliot took on a life of his own." And what a life it was.

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Mr. Elliot arrived in Ottawa during the last heyday of AM radio, and enjoyed all the benefits of big-time celebrity. He kept up appearances through his marriages and revelled in his public profile. But underneath, he was still Nils Johanson, the sexual-abuse survivor, the closet homosexual, the alcoholic who took his first drink at age 11, the pot-smoker who could now afford cocaine.

The inevitable collision came one night in May, 1983, when Mr. Elliot swallowed a handful of pills and "died" twice on the treatment table.

After floating away to meet "a really nice guy" named God, he awoke to two kicks to the chest, which were actually electric shocks from a defibrillator. But while they restored Mr. Elliot's heartbeat, they weren't enough to jolt him from his addictions. They persisted until 1987, when a boss fired him -- but also found him a residential treatment program in Windsor, Ont.

He made his way back into radio and began counselling other addicts, eventually combining the two into a call-in show called People Helping People. Four years ago, Mr. Elliot brought the show to Toronto's AM 640, then jumped to CFRB, the city's premier talk station, in December, 2001.

Since then, he has dispensed non-preachy advice to listeners in Toronto and Montreal each Saturday night from midnight to 3 a.m., from a dimly lit room in an office tower at Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue. A computer screen shows him the names of callers waiting and their reasons for calling.

Ven, from North York, fears he's hooked on painkillers after a series of operations. "After a couple uses, I'm already addicted," he says. "I'm just waiting for the next surgery."

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This morphs into a discussion of drug use among medical professionals, in which Mr. Elliot decries the stigmatization of those who admit they have a problem. The stigma discourages people from seeking treatment, rewards silence and keeps users on the job, undetected, he says.

In Mississauga, Nancy is worried about her 22-year-old son's pot habit. "What do I do?" she asks. "Don't talk to him when he's stoned," Mr. Elliot replies. "It's your house, your rules. Tell him, 'If you want to smoke pot, don't come home.' "

During a lull in calls, he muses about the paradox of the addicted life -- the willingness to give up "the wife, the house, the car, the job" while fighting fiercely to hang on to booze and drugs.

"That's what an addiction is," he says into the mike. "It's a way of thinking that's destructive to us. The booze and drugs are just a symptom."

After his shift, in a downtown diner filled with well-lubed bar-hoppers, Mr. Elliot describes his life as "about as crazy as a hydrogen atom in the midst of nuclear fusion." While sobriety has allowed him to settle into a more stable life with a loving partner, he still considers himself a misfit. The difference now, after all his struggles, is that he accepts himself.

Talking others through their own troubles helps him keep that perspective.

"Being a recovering addict is nothing to be proud of," he says. "I'd be grateful if I never had to talk about it again as long as I lived.

"But although I feel some discomfort sometimes, that's my life."

areinhart@globeandmail.ca