Today, Arnold Deo is a composed, well-dressed and articulate man.
But 114 days ago, he was a fentanyl addict on Surrey’s 135A Street living with others in the throes of addiction.
Nearly 1,000 people in B.C. died from an overdose last year – almost double the number of 510 in 2015. Surrey alone saw 108 overdose deaths in 2016, second only to Vancouver with 215.
Deo says he’s amazed he isn’t one of those statistics.
“I should be dead right now,” he said, sitting in the office of his Newton recovery home on a sunny Monday morning.
Deo says his addiction began last year after his brother died in his arms following health problems. Before he was able to grieve that death, his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers.
While he admits to being a heavy drinker prior to his drug addiction, Deo says he had a great life. He had a career maintaining helicopters. He was a homeowner. And he had supportive friends and family.
But things quickly spiralled out of control.
“It went from the drinking to doing coke all the time and then it progressed right into doing heroin,” Deo told the Now. “The potency of the heroin started getting to be a lot more with the fentanyl.”
He became an addict at the same time the potent painkiller fentanyl began to hit the streets, causing a sharp spike in overdose deaths and the province’s declaration of a public health emergency in April.
“It got to a point where I was getting heroin, then it was getting cut with (fentanyl) and as the potency started growing I went straight for the fentanyl.
“The difference between heroin and fentanyl is, you get (more) physically dependent on it,” he added. “You start really getting sick. The anxiety, the shakes, the cold sweats, it basically paralyzes you. I got to a point where I was so paralyzed I couldn’t get up to get my next fix. That’s how bad it really got… I had to be high all the time.”
Heroin alone would “do absolutely nothing” for him, he said.
Without fentanyl, he would experience withdrawal symptoms.
And if he thought the withdrawal symptoms were bad, detox was excruciating.
“It was horrible,” Deo recalled. “Cold sweats… For the first week I was sweating, always cold, shivering, puking all the time, anything I drank or ate, I puked it out. The anxiety was there out the roof. I couldn’t stand straight or sit still. The second week was more anxiety. By the third week I started to feel a bit better.”
After 30 days sober, his body felt the withdrawal symptoms again. And once more at 60 days.
“There’s a devil within that drug once it gets a hold on you.”
Asked what stands out most to him of his time as an addict living on the street, he said it was how drastically his lifestyle changed within a year.
“Just the progression of my addiction,” Deo said. “I was the type of guy that held my head on his shoulders. I was known as a good guy, very helpful, hard worker, but everything got thrown out the window in a short period of time.
“Once this gets a hold on you, it’s hard to get out.”
Turning to Devin McGuire, executive director of Revolution Recovery, he said, “You saved my life.”
“Devin opened his arms to me when I was broken,” Deo added. “I can look in the mirror now and be happy with the person looking back at me.”
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(Arnold Deo, left, says Revolution Recovery executive director Devin McGuire saved his life.)
Fentanyl is ‘drug of choice’ for many Surrey addicts
Deo isn’t the only person to come to his facility addicted to fentanyl, McGuire said.
“Fentanyl is their drug of choice,” he said. “They look for it. That’s what they want. It’s crazy. The high is so strong.”
Asked why an addict would choose a drug that could so easily end their life, McGuire replied, “It just doesn’t cut it anymore. Same idea with snorting coke or smoking crack. They’re the same drug, ultimately, but one hits you 10 times stronger.
“It blows my mind,” he added. “Especially being a heroin addict, I didn’t think there would be anything stronger. But then came fentanyl, then W-18 and now Carfentanil as well.”
McGuire said he lost 10 clients to overdose in 2016.
“Not in my care, but guys that I’ve worked with over the last year.”
He described the drug overdose spikes as “an absolute emergency” and said he hopes “Surrey takes a look at opening up a safe injection site,” adding many of his clients are referred through InSite, Vancouver’s safe injection facility.
Fraser Health has proposed two sites for such a facility in Surrey: One at the 94A Street Quibble Creek Sobering Centre, and another on 135A Street in partnership with Lookout Emergency Aid Society.
“People are closed-minded thinking it’s just going to promote drug use, but junkies are going to be junkies regardless,” said McGuire. “I know because I was one. Give them a safe place to go and know they’re not going to die.”
Health Minister Terry Lake announced last month that overdose prevention sites would be set up in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Surrey and Victoria. Since these sites opened, first responders and volunteers there have reversed almost 100 overdoses, Lake said last week, with the help of naloxone kits.
Not a single overdose death of the 142 in December occurred at a supervised consumption site or overdose prevention site, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe has revealed.
Lapointe applauded the efforts of social agency workers, volunteers and first responders. These numbers would be much higher if not for them, she added, calling the year-end statistics “the tip of the iceberg.”
Meanwhile, Lapointe said the exact percentage of overdoses that stem from fentanyl will be confirmed in March, as detection tests continue.
“In my opinion, the government will not be able to stop fentanyl from being on the streets,” McGuire told the Now. “The same way they’ve never been able to stop heroin from being on the streets, or any other drug for that matter… The solution is recovery.”
With files from Ashley Wadhwani