Jack Knox: Some saw only the addict, others the man inside

What was shocking about Wayne Samson’s fall is that it came from such a height.

One day he was a successful, middle-aged Victoria businessman — wife, kids, house, the whole Norman Rockwell painting — and the next thing you know he was on the streets, hopelessly addicted to heroin.

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But here’s what those who cared for him want you to know: There was more to him than that. He wasn’t of a distant species, which is the way many of us pigeon-hole addicts. Inside that broken shell lived the same brilliant, funny, profoundly troubled man as before.

Samson died Feb. 15 of a fentanyl overdose. It appears the 64-year-old, in pain, had gone back to street drugs recently after a few years on methadone. His daughter Bailey, 25, was told he might have been caught off guard by the potency of what’s being sold these days.

At least she got to reconnect with her father in recent years, to rebuild their relationship after spending much of her life grappling with the way everything imploded 20 years ago.

Back then, all looked good on the surface. Wayne and Tricia Samson had a couple of kids, owned a house and had founded Watermark Lithography, a Blanshard Street commercial printing business with a reputation for high-end work.

“He was a solid, upstanding business guy,” says Paul Keene, who had Watermark do his greeting card company’s printing.

Unseen, though, were what Bailey says were the depression, anxiety and extreme self-esteem issues roiling inside Samson, exacerbated by overwork and business-related stress. “Mentally he was struggling so much,” she says.

Tricia saw other problems, too. She talks of Samson’s extreme highs and lows, wonders about the impact of earlier traumas: an almost-fatal bout of cancer, a father who shot himself. “I know we were living in a house of cards,” she says.

POSSIBLE BREAK FOR TURN

Those cards came tumbling down in 2001 when Samson, previously a casual user of softer drugs, turned to heroin as an escape. Someone had told him that if he took it for a week, and never did so again, he wouldn’t get addicted. So, with his wife and children off visiting relatives in Toronto, he tried it out.

When the family returned from Ontario, Samson was sick. “I thought he had the flu,” Tricia says. When he got better, it was because he had given in and started using again, though Tricia didn’t know that. She was blind to his drug habit until six months later when she found his methadone sitting on a radiator.

“I was sucker-punched,” she says. It would have been better to find evidence of another woman.

The descent began. Counselling didn’t work. Nor, later, did a couple of attempts at rehab. Bad people emerged around Samson and he did some messed-up things. The house eventually disappeared, as did Watermark Lithography. “The business went up his arm,” says Keene, who was stunned as his friend transitioned from pillar of the community to homeless heroin addict. “He became this unrecognizable street person.”

The marriage ended, though sometimes Tricia, who needed help from her brother to keep a roof over the children’s heads, would still bring Samson food or a bit of money. She once ran into him — this man who had owned a house, a business, a car, van, a big white Harley — pushing a trolley not far from where Watermark had stood. “We were a block away from our building, and all he had was a shopping cart.”

For Bailey, it was devastating. Her super-charming, super-capable dad, the brilliant man who could think his way through any problem, a live-on-the-edge daredevil who once climbed down a cliff to save a drowning Tofino surfer from being dashed against the rocks, was gone. Growing up, she had no relationship with her father. She resented what he had done. “Everybody else’s parents were so nice and functional.”

Samson didn’t do himself any favours. He would rather sabotage himself than risk failing in an attempt at recovery, Bailey says. And a mental block stopped him from allowing others to help; he didn’t think himself worthy of their efforts. “Any time life deals me a hand better than I have coming, I feel anxious,” the Globe and Mail quoted him as saying in 2007 when, after a long stretch of homelessness, he moved into Our Place housing.

By then, almost everyone from his old life was gone.

His friend Keene remained, though.

“I never gave up on him,” Keene says. “I saw the human where others just saw the drug addict. People judged the cover, not the inside of the book.”

When Samson was homeless, Keene would take him for lunch, earning them strange looks in restaurants. For awhile, Keene housed Samson in his warehouse, even relied on him for his pre-press work. Samson, he maintains, was a near-genius who could work out any problem.

“And he never lost his sense of humour,” Keene says. He remembers Samson showing up on his doorstep sporting a black eye and a ridiculous ensemble of ill-fitting cast-off clothes: silver hightops, plaid pants that were too short, a pirate shirt and a faux-fur coat.He looked like Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places. “Wait till the ladies see me now,” Samson said. Keene grieved when Samson died.

Tricia is grateful for Keene’s ability to see beyond Samson’s addiction. That’s not common. Most of us distance ourselves from what frightens us, she says. An understandable reaction, perhaps, but it doesn’t help get to the root of things. “Mental health is part of the fabric of our society,” Tricia says.

Things were certainly dark for Samson for a long time. “He kind of went where gravity took him, and stayed there, near rock bottom, for a good 10 years,” says his son, Oliver, 26.

It was only as Samson emerged a bit from the haze that Oliver reconnected with his father a few years ago. “He regained a semblance of clarity, almost.” Samson would quiz Oliver about his life, as though trying to make up for lost time.

That’s around when Bailey reconnected with Samson, too. She was wary of finding a dysfunctional stranger, then relieved to find that wasn’t the case. “He was still really himself.” Smart. Witty. Encouraging.

Yet he was also the one whose plunge left such a hole in her life. “We were only able talk about it over the past couple of years,” Bailey says. She sounds philosophical now; people don’t realize how easy it is to fall into addiction, and how hard it is to escape. “Nobody wants that life.”

She’s just happy that she got to spend the past few years getting to hang out with her dad, knowing he was relatively stable and safe, living in subsidized housing on Wark Street. Oliver is grateful, too.

Their father’s death hurt. “When you’re close to an addict, you spend a lot of time waiting for him to recover,” Bailey says. “You hold out hope forever.” Hope that the addiction can be separated from the man.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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