Calgary millionaire lost it all after first puff of crack
Calgary Herald 18 Feb 2007 VALERIE FORTNEY CALGARY HERALD
In the fall of 2001, Michael (not his real name) had a personal net worth of more than $160 million, his own private jet and homes around the world.
Today, the 38-year-old is broke and addicted to crack cocaine.
But it’s only recently that he made the connection between the horrors he witnessed on Sept. 11, 2001, and the gradual but, definitively downward spiral his life took from that day on.
“I saw people falling out of buildings, landing on the pavement right beside me,” he says quietly as he sits in a conference room at the Orchard, a substance abuse treatment centre on B.C.’s Bowen Island. “I saw people on fire, running as they were burning to death.”
After that experience, the man once known as one of Canada’s richest people under 40, “went on with my life. . . . I didn’t realize at the time it was a turning point.”
Within a year, the self-described teetotaler was drinking heavily, and doing something he’d never done before in his phenomenally successful career: “making bad business decisions, bad judgments.”
But the worst decision was yet to come. In the fall of 2004, at a closing party in Toronto for one of his many business deals, someone offered Michael a line of powdered cocaine.
“I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what a (marijuana) joint looked like before that moment,” he says. “But I was drunk, and thought I’d try the coke.”
He liked it. Afew hours later, someone pulled out a crack pipe.
Michael tells the story of his reactions to that first puff:
“My first thought: ‘I never have to feel anything again.’ ”
“My second thought: ‘I want more — this very second.’ ”
“My third thought: ‘I’m addicted.’ ”
“My fourth thought: ‘I don’t care.’ ”
From that day forward, Michael was never without his crack cocaine. “I spent $10,000 a week on my habit. Nothing else mattered.”
It was a life trajectory no one, least of all Michael, could have ever predicted.
The scion of an Alberta ranching family, he remembers a happy, almost squeaky-clean childhood filled with love and devoid of drugs or alcohol abuse. “I was the designated driver for my friends,” he says.
The muscular, 6-foot-3 natural athlete — who once did 101 consecutive bungee jumps over 24 hours for a charity event — excelled in sports and showed preternatural business acumen.
At the age of 15, he invented an irrigation system device for ranchers and farmers. “I made $40,000 in one summer installing them,” he says. “I didn’t even drive yet, so I had to hire an older kid to chauffeur me to my jobs.”
In his early 20s, he owned several Calgary retail businesses before getting his securities licence and becoming a stockbroker. By the mid-1990s, he says, he was putting together his own million-dollar deals.
Over the next decade, Michael would start up several companies, many of which exceeded $100 million in annual sales. “It was a fun ride,” he says of that period of his life.
By the time his crack addiction had a stranglehold, he was letting business deals fall apart all around him while he “hid out in my bedroom closet” smoking his crack pipe.
“I thought, ‘I don’t care if I lose $25 million — all I care about is the next 10 minutes, the next high.’ ”
Insanely enough, Michael convinced himself he wasn’t an addict.
“Most crack addicts have a sexual addiction as well . . . I can’t tell you how strong the sexual pull was,” he says. Separated from his wife since 2004, he says he remained celibate throughout the two-year period when his addiction was most intense. “I thought that because I wasn’t sleeping with hookers, I wasn’t a crack addict.
“But I couldn’t control the crack.”
Indeed, the crack should have killed him. Towards the end of his sick love affair with the drug, he says he was regularly overdosing.
“I didn’t know that lying on the floor doing the funky chicken wasn’t part of the high,” he says of his long binges where sleep psychosis would settle in after several days of being wide awake. He knocked out most of his front teeth and even broke his neck. His 230pound frame dropped to 175.
“My clothes were falling off, my hair was falling out, my eyesight was going,” he says. “And I didn’t know there was a problem. I swear to God.”
Now on his third attempt at kicking the drug, Michael says he’s finally learned some valuable life lessons from his dance with the devil.
“I had it all, but I wasn’t happy — but I didn’t know it at the time,” he says. “I’ve always been an addict, but society rewarded me for my earlier addiction — workaholism.
“If someone said I could have my old life back, at the peak of my success, but without this knowledge, or I could have some crack — I’d take the crack.”
He likens the pursuit of material success to a crack pipe. “That’s why crack is so attractive, it offers that high you’ve been searching for all your life.”
He came to the Orchard in November, drawn to the anonymity he would enjoy at a facility outside of Alberta and also the fact the private centre’s clientele are “my peers — I’ve met people here who are more accomplished than me. It’s a credible experience for me.”
He also has high praise for the quality of care he’s received, saying his counsellors at the Orchard truly understand how to help someone with an addiction.
Through his hellish experience, Michael also discovered something even better than what he’d been chasing all those years.
His friends and family, he says, have stood by him and are footing the bill for his treatment.
“I’ve learned that people can do things unconditionally. I thought that kind of love was something you could only feel for a child,” he says.
“That is a better feeling than crack can ever offer.”
He knows there are even more challenging days ahead. “I have to take it one day at a time,” he says, “the thought of never doing drugs again is just too overwhelming.”
His decision to speak publicly about his addiction, he says, is part of his healing process.
“I hope I can stop someone else from smoking crack,” says Michael, who, at a healthy weight and with false teeth, gives no visual hints to his past struggle. “It’s disgusting and horrible, and I don’t know why I didn’t die from it.
“You think a crack addict is some dishevelled guy you see on the street, in dirty clothes and he’s pissed himself. You don’t think of someone like me.”