“I guess a lot of my childhood years were scary,” Matthew McCoy said of his experiences in the hope he might help other people dealing with mental health and addiction issues.
“It was traumatic,” he said. “The guilt and shame that comes along with something like that is overwhelming. I carried around this self-hatred for many years and would use humour to deflect, which was basically how I spent my childhood, making everyone else laugh.”
McCoy was born in Brampton, Ont. but emigrated to Englewood, Fla. when he was three. He endured both physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by his maternal grandfather from the age of five to about 13.
When he told his mother about the abuse nothing came of it.
“We went to the counsellor I was seeing at the time,” McCoy said. “We told him about it, but my mom said I tended to make things up to get out of trouble. He said he would have to report it if she didn’t.”
McCoy recalled his mom telling the counsellor she had filed a police report and they had found no evidence of abuse. He does not believe his mom ever filed a report.
“My grandfather – my abuser – he was very well off,” he said. “My mom didn’t want to lose that cash stream.”
At one point his mother told him to shut up about it and take the money when he died.
“He’s been dead about three years,” McCoy said. “I’m still waiting on a cheque, but yeah – that’s how my family dealt with it.”
He said this as a figure of speech.
“I am not getting anything from anyone in that family,” he said.
McCoy’s substance abuse started off as typical teenage drinking with friends. Soon he’d start drinking on Friday and end on Sunday night.
“I didn’t know I was doing this, but I was trying to feel, or trying not to feel something,” McCoy said. “I felt better when I wasn’t feeling everything.”
Then when he was 14 he hurt his knee and was prescribed Vicodin, known as Hydromorphone here in Canada, a low-grade opiate.
“I realized if I took more of those then I was supposed to basically became comfortably numb,” he said. “I would feel emotionally unattached to everything. It was a relieving way to feel at the time – it was a coping mechanism … I just didn’t give a shit anymore and I was looking for someone to take notice. The abuse was no longer going on, but I was just beginning to wrap my mind around what had happened, and I wasn’t dealing with it. I was just existing damaged.”
He started using Oxycontin in Grade 11 and by his senior year he was using it daily.
“I was still that funny guy to be around and I guess maybe that’s why people didn’t look so closely,” he said. “My grades … weren’t extremely good by any means, but I was passing … I was voted most outgoing in my senior class … I guess I was that kid – nobody saw it coming.”
After high school, he started working for his dad’s concrete company.
“Long story short, this is where it all goes to shit,” he said.
His dad took him on a cruise and they made a bet – could Matt get laid on the cruise?
“That was the big bet between me and my dad,” he said. “So, it’s a big running joke that just went too far and my dad still kicks himself in the ass over it because the girl I met on this cruise is the girl who I got caught up with in the robbery to come.”
On the first day of the cruise an older woman approached him in the hot tub.
“We get up to leave and my dad stops us … She was much older than me,” McCoy said. “I was 17 and she was 36.”
McCoy’s dad asked her if she knew his age. She said 24.
“My dad said ’24 – it’s young isn’t it? You two have fun.’ We went on with our business and that’s how I got caught up with the robbery and my dad still blames himself for it,” said McCoy.
Two months later he was living with this woman in Texas. She told him it was his responsibility to get some money.
“So, me being all bravado I got a BB gun from Walmart and robbed a convenience store,” he said. “To me it was like the most Canadian moment of my life. I literally apologized to this guy at the convenience store while it’s all going on because I am petrified. This is so out of character. I’m in tears and I’m apologizing the whole time. I’m like – I’m so sorry.”
He was caught and thrown in county jail for six months.
Then he was sentenced to 10 years adjudicated probation, which meant if he completed it, it would be wiped from his record which is why he wasn’t deported then. It included a substance abuse felony treatment program which is essentially prison with rehab classes.
“It was supposed to take me six months,” he said. “But it ended up taking me 18 months. I was very hard-headed.”
His mom was selling her house in Florida and moving to South Carolina, which was going to cause problems transferring the probation, so it was arranged he would serve his probation at his grandparents, in Young Harris, Ga., staying with the same grandfather who had abused him.
“I was giving all my paycheques over to my abuser … and they were supposed to be paying my fees … my fees in Texas were over $600 a month … They make you pay probation fees, restoration fees, state fees, a crime stoppers fee – there’s a million fees in Texas. It’s an industry out there – it’s disgusting. They are actually traded on the stock market as TCI – it’s the only prison industry that’s traded, it’s insane.”
On top of that because he was transferred, his probation was held in Texas, but he was reporting in Georgia, so he had to pay the Georgia fees too.
“My grandfather came down one night,” he said. “He tried his crap he used to do when I was a kid and I told him ‘the next time you ever see my car in your driveway I’m here to put a bullet in your head.’ At that point in my life it was scary – people could have seen me acting that way because I had just come out of jail.”
He left his grandparents that night and moved in with his girlfriend in Murphy, N.C. A warrant went out for his arrest because his fees weren’t being paid.
“I was screwed,” he said. “He never made one payment.”
In North Carolina, his life seemed to change for the better.
“We owned a store called Gifts in a Basket,” he said. “We were on the chamber of commerce and we were model, productive little citizens in our tiny mountain town. We were the type that you would have never know we were addicts.”
His girlfriend was a heroin addict when they met but not using because she wasn’t able to find it at the time, so she was looking for pain pills and that’s how they connected.
They were daily heroin users, but they were also making gift baskets for lawyers and doctors for Christmas parties. They were attending chamber of commerce meetings and dipping into the float at the end of everyday to cover their habit
Then they start running a line of credit because they couldn’t make the rent and it’s not because they weren’t making enough money.
“It’s because we were putting it into our arms,” he said. “But again, up to this point, no one knows what’s going on.”
They started to lose friends to overdoses, another one in a bad car accident due to being intoxicated and then a close friend was murdered over a drug debt.
“We made an agreement to get clean,” he said. “I got clean and I thought my girlfriend was clean as well.”
She wasn’t. She died of an overdose in August 2008.
“When she died I stayed angry,” he said.
Shortly after that he was pulled over and when they ran his licence he was arrested for failure to pay his fees. That warrant finally caught up with him.
This was the third and final time he was sent to Texas. His family came out and had a day where the judge heard from them.
“I had never committed another crime and it was all technical violations,” he said. “So we were under the assumption I was going home. What is typically done in those situations is you are given 90 days then you are put back onto your probation with subsequent fees.”
When he appeared before the judge he was made aware Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) had put a hold on him. He could not go back to Canada without the state of Texas getting their money.
“You had 10 years probation, so I am giving you 10 years in prison,” the judge said.
At the sound of the gavel McCoy’s stomach dropped.
They allowed 18 months for his time in rehab, but he served just over six years four months.
“I got denied my first parole at year five,” he said. “but I made my second parole.”
“In the state of Texas their prisons are huge and there are hundreds of them,” he said. “I did most of my time in south Texas.”
McCoy described prison like a chicken coup, tin buildings with no air-conditioning, no working heat and very few windows.
“So, if it’s 110 degrees Fahrenheit outside, it’s 120 degrees inside,” he said. “It’s segregated in every form of the word, not just racially. I mean economic status, whether you are a guard or con, whether you are a con or an inmate or a crash dummy. It’s such a weird hierarchy.”
A crash dummy is someone who is taken advantage of but not for monetary purposes. It’s someone who is manipulated into thinking they belong when really, they are just a fall guy. If someone is climbing up the side of an I-beam to put hooch in the ceiling – that’s a crash dummy move.
“I was a sergeant at arms in a prison family,” he said. “I had rank. I was the speaker for my dorm for my race.”
“I never used while incarcerated – never,” he said. “It’s a huge misconception how free range the drug trade is inside. I mean it’s there, don’t think it’s not but it’s few and far between because the time associated with it now, it’s not worth the reward and I was on max farms and medium farms. I was also a member of a prison gang, so I think I’d know if stuff was going around.”
McCoy said prison gangs are not the only way to survive inside.
“I don’t want to make it seem it’s that way,” he said. “It’s how you carry yourself and how you present yourself. If you present yourself as someone who isn’t afraid to fight or someone who has a chip on their shoulder, then people test you. If you just go in and don’t bother anybody, you just tell them ‘hey, I don’t want to bother with that’ 90 per cent of the time they’ll leave you alone especially now. Prison has changed.”
McCoy did not choose the easy way.
“I went in with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “My plan was – I had just got 10 years and I had lost the love of my life – it was pretty much suicide by inmate at this point. I was ready to get killed. I didn’t give a shit, so I went in with that attitude.”
When McCoy got to prison he was approached by three people of his own race. So, three white guys walk up and asked if he’d fight for himself.
“Hell yeah, I’ll fight for myself,” he replied.
These guys took him behind the shower boxes and beat the shit out of him for 45 seconds.
“It’s just to see if you’ll fight or if you’ll run,” he said. “They want to know who they are dealing with and after they are done fighting you they make you a meal. If you have a black eye they are going to feed you everyday until that black eye heals so you can go to the chow hall without getting in trouble.”
It was how they made family.
McCoy said his family got rid of that for a couple of reasons.
“We found there is no use in beating the shit out of your own people,” he said. “Especially if you are going to need those people because we are already outnumbered inside institutions, we just are, that’s a fact … at one point I was one of six white guys in a 75-bed dormitory – it’s just fact.”
The other reason they stopped it was they found most people who get the initial beating had no problem fighting three of them but would not go back there with one person of colour.
After he was denied his first parole McCoy said he took a little step back and really started working on himself. He said prison taught him respect and manners.
“You have real repercussions if you do not respect the next individual – thank you, you’re welcome – that comes really natural in there for everybody,’” he said. “No matter how it is said, it is said.”
In Texas a parole hearing is with one person. They ask a standardized group of questions – where are you going to live when you get out? Who are you going to be around? Who are your supports going to be? Where might you be working?
“That report is then given to a board,” McCoy said. “You never meet the people who vote on it … have all these FI’s and I couldn’t tell you what they all mean, they are just different classes of parole … FI1 is immediate release which in Texas means about 90 days.”
In July during a semi-annual lockdown his nurse told McCoy to stay out of trouble because he was going home.
It was terrible because he was on lockdown and couldn’t tell his friends what was going on.
He was sent to an immigration holding centre in Houston while they prepared his paperwork, which took two months.
His family tried to convince him to say in America which he was dead-set against.
“I was done checking that little box on my record forever – for making a dumb choice with a BB gun when I was 17,” he said.
He was now 28. He had only been to Canada twice since he was three.
“They come get you at 1 a.m,” he said. “They give you godawful clothes. I was at the immigration holding facility at 1:30 a.m. wearing lime green pants and an orange and blue striped shirt.”
Juan, the officer that travelled with him to Canada, walked in and said, “You are not getting on a plane with me looking like that.”
He asked McCoy what size he was. It was the first time McCoy noticed he spoke like someone who was institutionalized.
“I’m a large pants and an extra-large shirt,” McCoy said.
Juan did not know what that meant and asked for McCoy’s waist size.
“I don’t know – I’ve been gone a long time,” McCoy replied.
Juan showed McCoy the first piece of humanity he’d seen in a long time.
Juan left and came back with an outfit from his son’s closet and gave it to McCoy.
The whole flight Juan never stopped saying “You’re just Matthew McCoy now – no more number, you’re human, you’re a person, you did your time.”
“He was an amazing person,” McCoy’s shaky voice drips with emotion. “He really was.”
When the plane landed in Toronto, Juan left McCoy. McCoy described it as losing his bud.
“As soon as you get off that plane their job is done, “he said. “You’re Canada’s problem now.”
They took his one-page printed travel document which was the only thing stating his identity aside from his prison ID.
“The state of Texas had stopped calling prisoners inmates because they decided it was unfair to everybody,” McCoy said. “They started calling them offender. That drove me and a lot of other people insane because the first thing I think when I hear offender is sex offender. This is what they have put on all these IDs now and it was exactly because of that.”
“Those people are the most protected people in prison now – most protected,” he said. “And it sucks, especially being a product of that – it sucks. That used to be something we were always told as kids. They were treated like crap inside prison – that was something I took solace in until I got there and found out if you touch one you get in big trouble.”
“They introduced the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) so if you are to fight someone with one of those charges and they say you fought them only because they have one of those charges it is equal to me fighting a black man for being a black man. It’s treated as a hate crime because they are sick.
“Under PREA they put a bunch of subclauses to include extortion, hate crimes – all these things which make prison safer which is great. I mean it’s great to have a safer prison. I am not trying to argue that at all.”
McCoy’s mom and stepfather came to Toronto for two days to help get him set up. In those two days he was linked up with the John Howard Society which specializes in helping inmates reintegrate with society.
“They helped me with everything,” McCoy said. “They helped me get on Ontario Works for two months, then I got a job and got off Ontario Works because that’s what you use Ontario Works for.”
The John Howard Society helped him set up a bank account, get an OHIP card and a driver’s licence.
“I could have done it myself,” he said. “But, it would have taken longer without the John Howard Society for sure.”
McCoy lived in North York for his first six months in Canada but found work and eventually, a new family in Mount Forest, Ont.
When in prison he worked for the maintenance department learning skills such as electrical and plumbing work. He also spent two years prior to release as a purchasing inventory clerk.
“I had all these skills, so I started applying for jobs,” he said. “One of the jobs I applied for was general office management at a slaughterhouse in Mount Forest and when my wife Tara McCoy tells the story, when my resume came across her desk she said, ‘This is the guy who is going to steal my job.’”
It did end up being true but when McCoy was first hired he had to spend “a grueling” month and a half cleaning “inedible drains,” “ugly dumpsters,” the icky leftovers of a slaughterhouse.
A few weeks before Tara was fired they started dating. She convinced him to go to a job fair at Vin Tech, another Mount Forest employer.
“I got hired and was able to leave the slaughterhouse job,” McCoy said. “We never looked back, that’s for sure.”
In August 2016, McCoy got sick. No one could figure out what was wrong. He ballooned up to 320 lbs and could not hold food down.
“I was going through bouts where everything would be OK and then I’d go through three or four days of just – like flu and we couldn’t figure it out,” he said.
He went to the hospital where they attempted to get an IV going. When the nurse finally hit the vein, blood spurted out onto her.
“I hope you don’t have hepatitis,” the nurse said.
“Shit yeah, so do I,” McCoy replied.
When the nurse returned she looked at the ground instead of at McCoy.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“Why?” he asked.
“You’ve got hepatitis C and we need to get you in to see a specialist,” the nurse replied.
McCoy thinks he had been living with hepatitis for over a decade because he’s been sober 11 years.
He was too sick to work and needed a 12-week treatment program. By the time he was approved for the medication he was already six months into a short-term disability stay.
The treatment was not an easy 12 weeks. He had to see an infectious disease specialist in Guelph.
The doctor said McCoy was a special case because he had every side effect he had seen, plus a few he hadn’t but the medicine was working, so they toughed out the treatment.
“I broke out in rashes from the waist down,” McCoy said. “I was throwing up blood and blacking out.”
He was still over 300 lbs so when he passed out his wife was told to wait for him to get back up himself.
“It became a real rough reality for a while,” McCoy said. “Tara doesn’t get enough credit for dealing with that.”
The medicine worked, and he was cured. He started a return-to-work program and was sent to a physiotherapist who told him he was broken. He was suffering from torn rotator cuff muscles in both shoulders plus four herniated discs in his spine.
“I didn’t realize I was broken,” he said. “But apparently you don’t live the life of a prison gang member and not get tore up.”
He is undergoing a series of operations to fix his broken body before he can return to work. A series of operations he is undergoing without pain medication.
“They were very understanding about it,” McCoy said. “Dr. Robin Richards, he was awesome – they even used a very light anesthetic to put me asleep.”
A local boy who used to attend their youngest daughter’s high school in Owen Sound died of an overdose.
The school sent out emails to parents saying they were bringing in grief counsellors. McCoy started talking with his wife and they were wondering why drug counsellors were not being brought in as well.
McCoy knew from experience that if this 16-year-old was abusing opiates, some of his buddies were too.
“We wanted to know why,” he said. “We quickly found it wasn’t something widely talked about. We don’t want to talk about addiction or mental health regarding our youth because it makes people uncomfortable.”
McCoy and his wife started a Facebook page to start their own conversation. They called the page the Addict’s Attic.
“I basically outed myself because ever since moving to Canada I haven’t had to check that box that I was a convicted felon,” he said. “I haven’t had to be a drug addict … I’ve just been Matt again and it was awesome.”
It was hard for him to give that up for his wife and kids as well.
“People talk,” he said. “I never wanted them to be picked on because their stepdad is a junkie … but we were always honest with the kids. Tara knows everything. She’s my soft spot.”
“He told me his past as soon as we met and started dating,” Tara said. “He didn’t hide anything at all from me.”
Tara never had an issue with McCoy’s past.
“What he’s gone through has only made him more the person he is today,” she said. “He’s experienced so much and it’s not all good but it’s not all bad either. You learn from mistakes and you learn from choices … it brought him to me.”
She sees her role in the Addict’s Attic to support McCoy as he tells his story.
“If it’s hard and it’s terrible on Matt and we come home and have a bad night after he tells his story,” Tara said, “we’ll be there for him. That’s my job. I’m his wife. I’m his landing spot.”
The whole family discussed it and decided it was worth it.
“It’s bigger than us,” he said. “If someone hears what I have to say, and it makes them feel OK to talk about it … part of that was I have to be very transparent about my story and I didn’t want to leave parts out.”
They put it out there and people started responding. People asked for services and a spotlight on services, so they started sharing all the mental health and addiction services in the area on their page. They rented out the legion and started hosting information nights for these agencies.
“I don’t like labels,” said Spencer Wright, co-founder of Make It Wright, an LGBTQ+ outreach organization in Grey-Bruce. “With Matt I definitely don’t feel a label – never will and never have. He’s always made me feel safe. He is the greatest person I have ever met. He is happy. He will go way out of his way to do anything for anyone … he is the most outgoing fun amazing person and like I said all those labels that people will give him to me they all fall away because of how amazing he is.”
Their effort has now become an all-volunteer community funded non-profit service with a 24/7 hotline (519-492-0986) and a website www.addictsattic.ca.
“If people call from this area we will meet them,” he said. “So, if somebody calls at 3 a.m. – a small team of us goes out. The hotline – we started it to have a sponsorship program without the program.”
They found many of the people they have supported do not respond to a typical 12-step group setting.
“We’ve supported people as young as 15 and as old as 84,” McCoy said. “So, we’ve been told to f–k off by almost every age you can imagine.”