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Opioid Awareness

One Primary Care Doctor’s Battle With Addiction and Recovery

Peter Grinspoon, M.D.

Massachusetts General Hospital 

I am thirteen years free of opiates and twelve years back as a practicing primary care doctor. Addiction among healthcare professionals is more common than it is in the general population. The only unusual thing about my story is that I went public with it in order to try to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction in the healthcare industry. 

A perfect storm

Healthcare professionals are under tremendous stress. More than half are reporting symptoms of burnout. We have access to controlled substances. This combination of stress and access is the perfect storm for addiction. 

As addictions invariably do, mine worsened over time. It culminated in writing myself bad prescriptions to fend off my crippling withdrawal symptoms. This inevitably ended with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the State Police visiting my office. 

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As my addiction worsened, I felt increasingly trapped and isolated. The expectations of society and the demands of our job are so high that it was difficult to admit to myself that I had a problem, and even harder to find the time to get help. The way in which the medical boards regulate us strongly discourages doctors from getting the care they need for mental health issues. We get punished instead of treated if we show signs of not functioning in a flawless way. This is cruel and inhumane and needs to change. A doctor who is getting help is safe. A doctor who is afraid to get help is not. 

The journey back

There were many factors involved in my journey from addicted and hopeless back to a state of being employed and healthy. I can list off the drug tests, the threat of a permanent loss of my medical license, the threat of criminal charges, the physician support groups, the hours of therapy, and the healthier lifestyle habits – all of this helped. However, the most important component in my recovery was the people. 

Addiction is a disease of isolation and the opposite of addiction is connection. No one gave up on me. My family, my friends, and my colleagues all realized that no matter how bad my behavior was, my true self was still in there. They were all willing to give me a second chance. Now that I am healthy, I am able to help others.

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