Chris Cull isn’t your typical keynote speaker. Not that long ago, the filmmaker and international public speaker was hooked on opioids and stealing food to survive. The only thing keeping him going, frankly, was his dog, he says.
It’s that kind of honesty that makes him a popular speaker, especially now that he has two bike tours across Canada under his belt and a documentary titled “Inspire” being released that explores the Canadian prescription drug abuse epidemic.
His story captured the attention of researcher Sudie Back from the Medical University of South Carolina who attended an addiction symposium at The University of Calgary, where Cull was the keynote speaker.
“I was impressed with his insight and how well he was able to describe and relate his experiences of early life trauma, prescription opiate addiction and recovery,” Back says. “I was also very impressed with his resilience, optimism and desire to share the knowledge that he has gained with others, both health care providers and people struggling with addiction, to help address the opiate crisis.”
She invited Cull to speak at MUSC to an audience that will include the public, medical students and health professionals. His talk will take place July 28 at noon at the Institute of Psychiatry at 67 President Street as part of this year’s annual Drug Abuse Research Training Summer Research Day.
“We hardly ever have a ‘testimony’ speaker at our conferences,” Back says. “It’s generally presentations of data, tables and graphs, which are all very important and valuable, of course, but adding a human perspective to the discussion will go a long way to helping our students understand why addiction research is so important.”
Cull is all for that. “I wanted to share what all that was like and how I turned all that negative into a positive. There’s nothing out of bounds with me in answering questions. I want to help people.”
Everybody has a different story about how they got addicted to opioids. For Cull, the loss of his father, whom he adored, was a trigger. His father was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a neuro-degenerative illness, when Cull was a teenager. Cull’s parents were divorced, and his mother lived in Phoenix, Arizona, so Cull became his father’s caretaker. His father had been a paramedic for 27 years, but as his disease progressed, he lost his job. Cull watched his father succumb to alcohol and pain medications to battle his disease, and then witnessed his father try several times to take his life.
When Cull was 21, his father did commit suicide. “I was devastated,” he recalls about losing his father in 2007. “That just broke me as human being.”
Cull began using Percocet, which seemed to help him cope with the crushing depression and anxiety he felt. His father left him his house, but Cull struggled to maintain it. Depression gained the upper hand, and he escalated into taking five 80 milligram doses of OxyContin a day. He dropped 50 pounds he could ill afford to lose and broke up with his girlfriend of three years. “I lost everything that meant anything to me.”
Stealing food just to survive, Cull got to the point that he had no gas in his home. He’d heat water on the stove in a pan. He had a low-paying job at a store, which he quit one day after dealing with an irate customer. “I hit a low point where I realized I was tired of living like this and working a job I hated.”
His one asset was the house his father had left him — his last chance to find a route out. Cull sat down and listed his passions and goals in life, what used to excite him before he got lost in a fog of drug use. He started weaning himself off of opioids, using a methadone program that took him five years to complete. He went to a library for free access to the internet and began researching his escape plan. “I decided I wanted to be like what the quote says — to be the change I wanted to see in the world.”
He decided to bike across Canada, and along the way, interview others caught up in the Canadian prescription drug abuse epidemic to see how bad the problem was. It meant he had to start training intensely. “It was an interesting way to get my feet wet.”
The training helped to clear his head. He was able to dredge up his old dreams and started a new bucket list. He felt himself growing stronger and feeling something he hadn’t for a long time: excitement. Finding partners who would help him make a documentary, Cull started off on his journey across Canada. He worked with Shyah Yan Zarrabi, a young filmmaker, and they plotted out a nearly 5,000 mile trip from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast.
It wasn’t just the ride Cull plotted, either.
Cull stopped to fulfill his dreams. He braved whitewater rapids in Northern Ontario, went sky diving and hit a bucket of balls off a tall mountain peak he never imagined he’d be able to climb. He felt alive again. Cull wanted to show himself and others that there could be life after an opioid addiction, and it could be a good life, he says. Along the way, he learned he had skills he never realized, such as public speaking — something that terrified him before he began his journey.
That was the other part of the bargain he had made with himself. “I had eight years of experience knowing what it was like being addicted. I didn’t just want to throw that away or hide it. I wanted to give people the reality of what it’s like. I know how destructive and disruptive it can be — how much it can take away from you. How tragic it can be.”
He also knows it doesn’t have to have a negative ending.
When Cull started out on his cross-country bike ride in 2014, he didn’t have everything figured out. It was a work in progress. He collaborated with the Partnership for a Drug-Free Canada and found people were interested in his journey, many of whom were willing to share their stories, including a mother who had lost her son.
“I have a deep understanding of what this is like, and they knew I did. I wasn’t going to be judgmental.”
It helped people to open up. Cull estimates he did almost 30 interviews, with six of those stories making the film. Hearing the stories affected him deeply, showing him different perspectives of how the epidemic affects people, including parents and health professionals who want to help. “For every addict, there is a family affected, a friend affected."
Finishing the ride changed him, helping him regain his self-respect. “I was riding rain, wind or shine,” he says, recalling a particularly bad stretch of six days of pouring rain. He’d get off his bike and have to get his core temperature up so he could stop shaking. But he knew he couldn’t quit. “It was no picnic. When I finished it was a big deal.”
Cull would go on to do another cycling trip from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and now the 32-year-old has a clothing line, is doing another documentary and writing a book about his experiences. He wants to share some of the tools he used to turn his life around. “It’s difficult to explain how I got to where I believed in myself. It was a quick turnaround for me.”
The healing process was slower. Cull says he learned from a neuroscientist how important it is to start the morning with positive versus negative influences, as people tend to be more impressionable when they first wake up. He makes sure he listens to positive videos or podcasts to start his day. “I’ve been doing it for four years. It keeps me upbeat and confident.”
Another secret to his success: training. Physical activity was critical in helping him reset his mind. “It helped me realize how much opioid use had fogged my brain and my development.” Cull is working toward becoming certified as a skydiving instructor, a hobby that allows him to keep living his dream, he says.
He looks forward to sharing his story at MUSC to give medical students and health professionals a better feel for what it’s like for people who have opioid addictions. “I want to educate them as much as possible what this is like, so they can better help.”
Whether it’s through his website or his public talks, Cull says he would love to help others avoid a tragic ending. “It is possible to beat an addiction and not just to survive but to go on and live your dreams,” he says. “You can get past it. This doesn’t have to be your life. It’s not a fun existence. It’s miserable. You can get past it and do whatever you want with your life.”
Cull, who engages in a variety of athletic pursuits including hockey, still cycles about 12 to 18 miles a day. Enjoying the meditative aspects of a recreational bike ride helps him manage his mental health. “Listening to music and going out for a casual ride with beautiful scenery is one of the most relaxing things in the world to me."
Having made peace with his father’s death, Cull says there’s joy in doing what he knows would have given his father great pride. It’s his way of honoring his father and helping others who have fallen into the abyss of opioid addiction.
“I want the world to be a little bit better place because I was in it, and this is how I can do it.”