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Trey Helten, administration manager at the Overdose Prevention Society, in an underground parkade where he slept for two winters while homeless in Vancouver on March 5, 2021.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Trey Helten sits slouched on a black folding chair as one speaker after another takes to the floor to share a story about him. He’s clad in all black – from the cap and hoodie that conceal his lime green hair, down to his torn jeans and skate shoes – and his gaze is on the checkered linoleum floor of the recovery centre playing host to the night’s meeting.

A man stands to tell the physically distanced group of two dozen people about Mr. Helten’s good heart. A woman fights back tears while thanking him for always seeing as human those “on the bottom rung of addiction.” A young man credits him with saving his life, having driven him to recovery meetings, bought him food when he couldn’t afford it and even helping him with his homework.

There are many tears, a few laughs and a smattering of applause.

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The group has gathered on this chilly winter’s evening in Vancouver to commemorate Mr. Helten’s fifth year of being drug-free. One might expect him to be feeling celebratory, but he’s not. He fidgets with a blue rubber band looped around his right hand. Off his hip dangles a key chain with a well-worn white tag that reads “Just for today” – a token typically given to people attending their first recovery meeting, or who are back after a relapse.

Mr. Helten spent most of his 20s, and some of his 30s, in a blur of homelessness, addiction and incarceration, and he had accepted that he would “die a junkie” on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. But a moment of clarity one winter’s day five years ago set him on a different path, just as fentanyl began sweeping the illicit drug supply, fuelling what would become Canada’s deadliest drug crisis on record.

Today, at 38, he’s housed, healthy and gainfully employed – a success by every measure – and people grappling with their own addictions have called him a hero and an inspiration. At a moment when news about the neighbourhood has been dominated by tragedy and despair, Mr. Helten has quietly shown by example the possibility of change while never moralizing, never preaching and doing what he can to help those looking to come along.

Mr. Helten is uncomfortable with the praise he receives, but freely shares his story of recovery with anyone wanting to listen.

“If my suffering can help even one person, it was worth it,” he said in an interview after the meeting.

Mr. Helten traces his addiction back to his childhood, when his parents, who worked long hours to provide for the family, would often leave him in the care of babysitters and other caretakers. He remembers feeling alone, having interpreted the circumstance as rejection and abandonment.

Mr. Helten overdosed several times, coming to at various moments over the years to see his terrified mother, a doctor telling him how serious his situation had been and a crowd of 10 people looking down at him with mouths agape.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

He gravitated toward peers who felt similarly, and started acting out in school. He regularly landed in the principal’s office, mostly for fighting. He smoked cigarettes at 12. Beer, magic mushrooms and LSD followed.

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“Somewhere along the line – I don’t know how it happened – but all of a sudden I smoked crack,” Mr. Helten said. Friends had been milling around one day when one pulled out a pipe and passed it around. He was 14.

By senior year of high school, Mr. Helten had dropped out and begun working in a Downtown Eastside dive bar, drawn to the allure of the punk rock scene. He swept floors, collected bottles and wiped off tables, taking home $20 a night while sleeping on friends’ couches.

He started playing in a band. A few beers after jam sessions suddenly became a few flats, with cocaine; excitement to play music gave way to getting messed up afterward.

One day, Mr. Helten was at a friend’s single-room hotel when the friend started smoking heroin off tin foil. Mr. Helten tried it, telling his friend it tasted like garbage. From the next room, the friend’s cousin began laughing at the two. The only way to do it was to inject, the cousin said.

Mr. Helten asked the man to show him how. The man shook his head.

“There are rules when you’re a junkie, and one is that you don’t show other people how to shoot drugs,” the man told him. “Every time you show someone how to use a needle, they won’t use those drugs any other way again, and you are dooming them into a life of shooting drugs. So, if you want to shoot drugs, you figure out how to do it yourself. I ain’t showing you.”

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Mr. Helten considered that to be a challenge, and he accepted. He got a needle, found a spoon, cooked up an amount, located a vein and injected it the way he had seen so many times in movies.

“It was this warm sensation up my back, and it felt like I was floating on clouds,” he said. “He was right. I figured putting the drugs into my veins was the only way to do it from now on.” He was 23.

He started injecting speedballs, a mix of heroin and cocaine. He discovered crystal methamphetamine. He slept at friends’ houses, in abandoned buildings, and in other hiding spots around the city.

He overdosed several times, coming to at various moments over the years to see his terrified mother, a doctor telling him how serious his situation had been, and a crowd of 10 people looking down at him with mouths agape.

He stole to pay for his habit, racking up 16 convictions, mostly for theft and mischief. Mug shots show his descent from a fresh-faced kid with an attitude to a pock-marked and glassy-eyed shell of a man.

Trey Helten's mug shots from 2001 to 2018 (earliest is top left, most recent is bottom right).

Courtesy of Trey Helten

From jail, Mr. Helten would call his mother, who would tell him she was happy he was behind bars: “Knowing that you’re in there is the only time I can sleep because I know I’m not going to get a phone call because you’re dead.”

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His moment of clarity came at the age of 32. By then, Mr. Helten recognized that he was tightly in the grip of addiction, and none of the ill-conceived ideas he had tried to kick his habit worked – not moving to different cities, not getting into a relationship, not having a child.

His infant son had been taken away, scooped up by police officers who attended one of his overdoses, and put into guardianship. His wife left him, determined to get her life together, and their son back. He had followed her to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting once, but wasn’t willing to put in the work, he said.

Mr. Helten’s mother, now diagnosed with cancer, invited him home again, and he accepted, promising that this time he would really stop using. He resumed almost immediately, with foolish, self-imposed rules – “only robbing houses 12 blocks away” – giving way to stealing from the neighbours to pay the drug dealer he’d sneak into his mother’s home.

“Eventually, she snapped,” Mr. Helten said. “She said, ‘I knew you weren’t going to stop using. I just wanted you here one night while I was going through chemo so I knew you were under my roof.’”

She told him to beat it. He threw his few belongings into a shopping cart he had taken from a nearby grocery store and left.

Mr. Helten said he still thinks about using 'all the time,' but that recovery has taught him tools to navigate temptation.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

“I was coming up on my 33rd birthday, I was homeless and pushing a shopping cart,” he said. “A little voice in my head said, ‘It’s time to grow up.’”

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The date was Jan. 29, 2016. Mr. Helten pushed his cart straight to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. This time, he was ready.

On the first steps down the road to recovery, he took the medication buprenorphine-naloxone and smoked cannabis, finding that the latter helped to mitigate withdrawal symptoms more than the former. He eventually weaned off both.

He continued stealing for about a year before recognizing the extent of his behavioural issues, and stopped that, too. He would learn later through counselling it was part of his compulsion toward thrill-seeking behaviour.

Today, Mr. Helten works at Vancouver’s Overdose Prevention Society, where he climbed the ranks from volunteer co-ordinator to supervisor to management over three years, and was recently given a certificate of outstanding service. Executive director Sarah Blyth said Mr. Helten does just about everything, from helping clients schedule medical appointments and driving them to detox on his own time to fundraising and reversing more overdoses than anyone can count.

“There aren’t a lot of people like that, who give and give and give,” Ms. Blyth said. “I ask him how he does it sometimes, and he says he enjoys it. He likes to help people that he empathizes with, because he’s been there himself.”

Mr. Helten said he still thinks about using “all the time,” but that recovery has taught him tools to navigate temptation.

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“One effective tool for me is to play the tape forward,” he said. “Don’t just watch the highlight reel – the immediate gratification, the feelings of euphoria – but watch the whole tape. All the people who helped me get here, I let them all down. The feelings of shame and guilt later. Why would I throw everything I worked for away?”

Mr. Helten’s mother watched his recovery at arm’s-length, occasionally taking him out for lunch but not allowing him back into her home until she saw him putting in an honest effort, he said. When she did, she told him she was proud.

“Whether you admit it or not, Trey, you are very determined when you make up your mind that you want something,” she told him. Mr. Helten’s mother died of cancer in April, 2020.

Back at the Vancouver recovery centre, Mr. Helten stands to address the group after an hour’s worth of speeches. He has tears in his eyes.

“It’s hard to listen to people say nice things about me, even today,” he said. “It shows you I still have a lot of issues with my self-esteem.”

He tells the group that he is no poster child, having made countless mistakes along his road to recovery. But the most important thing he can tell anyone, he said, is to just keep trying.

He points at the white key tag hanging from his hip: “Just for today,” it reads.

“The most important thing is to just keep coming back. This black fob is great and everything,” he said, gesturing to the coloured key tag that represents multiple years of abstinence, “but the most important one is this one right here.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify details of family history.

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