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Methadone is a synthetic opioid that prevents withdrawal and reduces and hopefully eliminates cravings.

BAZUKI MUHAMMAD/Reuters

This is part of a series about extraordinary experiences in personal health. Share yours at health@globeandmail.com.

I first heard about methadone 18 years ago in a support group for parents with addicted children. Their stories made it sound like a treatment of last resort – not a consideration for our son. He was an award-winning student when he graduated from high school, his drug use a misstep. After a year of devastating revelations, doctor appointments and failed solutions, he agreed to a three-month residential treatment program. I attended a week-long course for family members and was certain everything would be back to normal soon. Never did I anticipate the relapses, detoxes and suicide attempts to come.

Our son disappeared into Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. My husband and I put up posters, combed foul-smelling lanes, engaged police officers, the homeless – anyone who may have seen him. After a month of searching, I got the call: "Mom, I'm so scared. I want to come home. My street friends recommend methadone."

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Liquid handcuffs, deathadone, the devil's deal. I ignored the folklore. If my son was ready for another treatment option, so was I. He invited me to sit in on the initial session at a public clinic. The doctor explained that methadone is a synthetic opioid that prevents heroin withdrawal and will reduce and hopefully eliminate cravings. She made it clear: "Methadone is not a substitute for heroin; you will not get high." My addicted son was detoxing in front of us – sweating, shaking, losing his concentration. She held his gaze. "You will take one supervised dose daily and be disqualified from the program if urine tests reveal illegal opiate use."

For 10 years, he was at our local drugstore to drink his "juice" when the doors opened. If he came an hour late, pain would creep in. His legs became cement blocks, his body no longer his own. He was now physically dependent on a medication, but not addicted to an illegal drug. The hated needles were gone. The lying stopped. The pharmacist and assistants became his friends and supporters. Although his methadone doctor was willing to prescribe "carries," our son always chose to visit the pharmacy. He was treated with respect – a person fighting a disease.

Most importantly, the methadone enabled my son to stabilize and start building a new life. He had access to psychiatric help and counselling. He was diagnosed bipolar with schizoaffective disorder. He needed anti-psychotic medications – Seroquel, risperidone, Zeldox. But questions remained: Which one would bring the most relief with the fewest side effects? How would they interact with the methadone? And the most difficult one: When and why did the heroin addiction begin?

Addictions always originate in pain, and heroin had silenced the voices and filled the insatiable black hole. His father and I remember an anxious child who saw auras, hid in closets and loved animals. He remembers bullies in his head. Methadone gave him the strength to face his innermost fears.

It was the Japanese earthquake in 2011 that panicked our son into getting off methadone. He watched news clips recording 30-foot waves sweeping away vehicles, collapsing buildings, severing highways. My son fixated on the Japanese seniors suffering, physically and mentally, as the tsunami washed their medications out to sea. He knew a Cascadia megathrust quake was long overdue.

He and his methadone doctor decided on a gradual withdrawal. He was taking 160 millilitres (the measuring system used in B.C. prior to 2014) and would come down 5 ml every two weeks. Once he reached 35 ml, he came down 1 ml a week. It was three years of body aches, anxiety attacks and depression. The need for methadone continually diminished and the heroin cravings disappeared.

Our son is designated a PWD (person with a disability). A counsellor helped him find a safe apartment where he lives with his cat. The building is close to a mental-health centre with a team of specialists. He attends a social group there and has a circle of friends who look out for each other. They recognize the signs when someone goes off their meds. They encourage each other to stop isolating. Challenges persist. On occasion the voices haunt; conspiracy theories threaten; fears paralyze. Our son does volunteer work in the community and is developing a résumé with his therapist. It's difficult to account for 16 years without postsecondary education or employment.

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Many still hold the belief that addicts are junkies who chose to take illegal drugs and can quit any time they want. My son overcame his addiction and is developing new strategies to deal with his pain. His is a community victory – medical personnel, a loving family, understanding friends, support groups; he was never alone.

Dell Catherall lives in Vancouver.

Read more stories in this series here.

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