Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Jordan Peterson's Recovery from Addiction

For those of you who, like me, have not paid very much attention to the medical struggles of Jordan Peterson, this comes as something of a shock.

Apparently, Peterson was addicted to a prescribed benzodiazepine and has undergone several stints in rehab. He ended up in Russia where he was placed in a medically induced coma, as part of a treatment that American and Canadian medicine apparently refused to do.

Lindsay Beyerstein reports on the saga for The New Republic. While I have no professional expertise on these matters, but Beyerstein’s article has the ring of truth. We await further analysis by those more competent than either of us.

Apparently, the story of Peterson’s heroic journey-- terms that fit his own mythology-- is suitably grueling. Apparently, reports of it have been circulating, but not in news or opinion sources that I normally frequent.

So, take this with a tad of skepticism.

Beyerstein opens thusly: 

So it was something of a surprise to learn, in early February, that Peterson had spent eight days in a medically induced coma at an unnamed clinic in Russia. Peterson’s daughter Mikhaila, a 28-year-old food blogger, posted a brief but dramatic video claiming that she and her father had traveled to Russia in early January seeking an unorthodox treatment for his physical dependence on the drug clonazepam. 

Dependency goes against the core tenets of Peterson’s philosophical brand: stoicism, self-reliance, the power of the will over circumstance and environment. “No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life,” he admonished in his bestselling self-help book 12 Rules for Life.

Beyerstein follows Mikhaila’s reporting:

According to Mikhaila, he nearly died several times during his medical ordeal. After weeks in intensive care, he was unable to speak or write and was taking anti-seizure medicine.

She continues: is clear that Peterson ended up in Russia after an extended battle to wean himself off clonazepam. And it seems likely that Peterson, a self-proclaimed man of science, succumbed to the lure of a quack treatment—with devastating consequences.

But, was Peterson addicted to the drugs or was he merely physically dependent? Is it a significant difference or is it a distinction without a difference?

So far, there is no evidence that Peterson displayed any of the so-called “aberrant behaviors” that define addiction. But again, all we have to go on is reports from his daughter, whose family has a strong financial incentive to spin away any suggestion that the man who made his name engaging in a kind of intellectual Spartan cosplay is hopelessly addicted to a sedative. In fact, Mikhaila has jokingly alluded to how bad an addiction diagnosis would be for her father’s lucrative self-help brand, which purports to rid adherents of weakness through grit and self-sacrifice. “We figured we should let people know [the facts] before some tabloid finds out and publishes [that] Jordan Peterson, ‘self help guru,’ is on meth or something,” Mikhaila said in a video update after Peterson checked himself into rehab in the U.S.

Beyerstein attempts to make sense of it:

The picture that emerges is of a man who was trapped: He couldn’t tolerate the medication, and he couldn’t tolerate the withdrawal. Mikhaila told RT that her father was looking for a place that had the guts to detox him “cold turkey,” a place where doctors “aren’t influenced by the pharmaceutical companies.”

Apparently that’s how a man who didn’t want to use drugs traveled thousands of miles to be placed in a drug-induced coma. Mikhaila said that her father was diagnosed with pneumonia “upon arrival” in Russia. If that’s accurate, then his medically induced coma may have had nothing to do with benzodiazepine withdrawal. If pneumonia is so severe that it causes respiratory failure, the patient needs to go on a ventilator simply to breathe. Because it’s so unpleasant to be on a breathing machine in an intensive care unit, patients are usually heavily sedated.

But then, there are other possible interpretations:

The more alarming possibility is that Peterson was placed in a coma as part of his detox regimen. Mikhaila described her father’s treatment as “an emergency medical benzodiazepine detox, which we were only able to find in Russia.” The term “medical detox” suggests that drugs were an integral part of the program, and the fact that this treatment is only available in Russia implies that it wasn’t one of the more conservative forms of drug-assisted detox available in North America.

Or perhaps:

Another possibility is that Peterson’s doctors didn’t set out to put him in a coma, but that he developed such severe withdrawal symptoms from quitting “cold turkey” that they were forced to do so for his own protection. Sometimes, in cases of severe benzodiazepine withdrawal, the patient becomes so agitated that they have to be sedated; their heart rate and blood pressure can skyrocket, and their extreme agitation can make them a danger to themselves and the medical team.

Seizures are by far the most feared side effect of sudden abstinence from benzos. If someone vomits during a seizure and inhales the vomit, they can stop breathing or develop pneumonia, either of which could have landed Peterson in a coma.

She concludes:

When it comes to recovery, there are no quick fixes. But that doesn’t mean the most arduous option is necessarily the most effective. If Peterson’s sad story has a moral, it’s that a drug problem is neither a dragon to be slain nor a sin to be ashamed of. It’s a mundane health problem that should be treated scientifically, without heroics.

For my part, I tend to agree. Addiction is a health problem that should be treated medically. One should not attempt to write it into a pagan narrative.

Anyway, we would prefer to hear from the medical profession on this matter. As best I can tell Beyerstein has done her homework, has consulted with professionals and offers a fair and balanced appraisal of the current health of Jordan Peterson.

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