Like many people I watched Jordan Peterson’s rise to Youtube superstardom over the last 5 years with a mixed sense of admiration and nerves. I was nervous, because you never knew what fate was going to befall him. Would he triumph over political correctness, or would he prove to be the free speech movement’s John the Baptist? Somebody, somewhere, was after his head. So when he eventually retreated from the public eye last year I was not surprised. Even less so when I heard the word benzodiazepines being bandied around. Apparently, this is a subject that most people know little about. Including, by his own admission, Dr. Peterson himself.
For those who don’t know Jordan Peterson, perhaps some brief background details are in order before we explain his travails with this horrendous class of drugs.
Dr. Peterson rose to fame in 2016, after refusing to abide by a directive set by the University of Toronto where he was a professor. The directive sought to mandate the use of people’s preferred pro-nouns, and in particular, trendy politically correct pro-nouns that were previously non-existent in the English language such as; ze, zer, zey etc. Dr. Peterson saw this as compelled speech (being forced to speak in a way that someone else commands you to). He refused, and was immediately attacked by the mob (both students and faculty alike). He came very close to being fired. Rather amusingly, he then swiftly became the biggest Youtube phenomenon of 2017, sold out a world tour, and wrote a bestselling book.
Over the course of the next two years, Dr. Peterson educated many of us curious, ordinary folk, on the beauty of our own much-maligned culture. He invited us to look at Christianity and other mythologies from a psychological angle. Most of all, he explained to us … what the f*@k Sigmund Freud was actually talking about! It wasn’t psychobabble after all, he told us. It was meaningful and profound. We were grateful. In fact, we were transfixed.
Then came the crash and let’s be honest, it was bound to happen. Obviously a very highly strung, introverted, and at times, significantly depressed man (it’s part of what makes him relatable after all) there was no way that such intense pressure would fail to take its toll. As we watched him undertake grueling tours that would kill an entire rock band half his age, surely many must have thought “He’s going to have a nervous breakdown”. I know I did.
I know a thing or two about long-hauling – and public speaking. I spent my late thirties and early forties flying around the Asia-Pacific region lecturing on addiction and promoting the Thai rehab industry. Initially a very small sector of the Thai health tourism space, Thai rehabs grew to be a multi-million-dollar industry throughout the twenty-teens. I was at the sharp end of that pioneering work and I can tell you the workload was no joke. It looks fun – getting to see different cultures and being at the top of your field – but it takes its toll. It is deeply draining. In fact, I am convinced that incessant air travel is incredibly damaging in and of itself.
And so if it happened to me, a robust former heroin addict in his thirties, with the youthful drive of having something to prove, then it could certainly happen to a cerebral middle-aged intellectual. And that’s before we even mention the fact that the weight on his shoulders was many thousands of times heavier than the weight on mine. I might even say – without exaggeration – that in some sense he had the weight of western civilization on his back.
Eventually, we got news that Dr. Peterson had succumbed to a benzodiazepine dependency. The result of an attempt to medicate anxiety brought about by one final and crushing blow – the discovery that his wife Tammy had an inoperable form of cancer. Tammy later had a miraculous remission of her symptoms. But by then it was too late. Dr. Peterson was already in the grip of a dangerous drug dependency.
On Wednesday night, Peterson’s daughter Mikhaila released the first full interview that Jordan has done in over a year. She interviewed him herself. (See above for the full interview). What they described was shocking – for most people. But it wasn’t shocking to me, and surely not for anyone who has worked on the frontlines of addiction treatment. What Dr. Peterson has revealed in this interview – is something that we have known for years. That there is a silent benzodiazepine epidemic in progress. An epidemic that has been secretly creeping over the world for decades. An epidemic that dwarfs the opioid epidemic, but which lacks the sensational tabloid angle. An epidemic that started in Europe and North America, but which has now spread across Asia. An epidemic which, like the opioid crisis, is largely iatrogenic in its origins. In plain English – an epidemic of drug addiction that is caused by moronically ignorant medical practice!
Benzodiazepines are a Global Problem
I got my first insight into the shady world of benzodiazepines when I was a 30-year old drugs outreach worker pounding the streets of Tottenham, North London. As an addict in recovery I had moved into this line of work because nobody else wanted to do it and because addiction was something I understood. Other people’s disinterest became my opportunity as they say. One of my first jobs was to accompany a nurse into local (and rather dangerous) dwellings around the notoriously impoverished borough of Haringey. Here she would conduct ‘community detoxes’ for drug users and dependent drinkers who could not make it to the local outpatient clinic where we were based. Usually we would be detoxing alcohol dependent individuals with either chlordiazepoxide or diazepam, both of which are benzodiazepines.
Being an Aussie, my would-be mentor told me one thing I will never forget, and she didn’t mince her words. “Most psychiatrists” she said – “know absolutely f*@k all about what these drugs are really like!”. She was a nurse prescriber, which meant she could prescribe benzodiazepines herself without recourse to a medical doctor. Her knowledge of this drug class was gleaned from actually working with the clients consistently throughout their detox, from beginning to end. It was based on observation not theory. Sometimes, she said, people are so strung out on these drugs that they can never be safely brought off them. “A lifetime would be too short to do it safely”.
In addition to the many alcohol detoxes we conducted, we also tapered an endless procession of damaged people off of the benzodiazepines themselves. This always required a long and drawn out effort to get them off the street and into a residential detox unit. These were people who had been prescribed benzodiazepines for anxiety, and left on them for far too long. Or people who’d had their prescription discontinued by their doctor, only to seek them out on the street where they were a favourite accompaniment to the super strength lager that was the drug of choice for the borough’s homeless people.
When I left England for Thailand in 2010 and founded my own private treatment centre, I encountered a whole new breed of benzodiazepine addicts. Upper class Singaporean housewives and stressed out Hong Kong executives. Not to mention young American Xanax addicts. We began to get more enquiries from South Asian countries like India, the Maldives and Pakistan, and occasionally central Asian countries like Kazakhstan. Frequently, benzodiazepines were the primary drug of choice, and if they weren’t, they were almost always in the mix. I often wondered if it was the benzodiazepines that were really doing the damage. The fact that they were an abused prescription drug, rather than an illicit drug seemed to take everyone’s eye off the ball, especially amongst Asian populations where respect for doctors is very high. Many parents of my clients were totally non-plussed when I suggested that it might be the benzodiazepines that were the biggest problem. “But those” … they would say … “were prescribed by THE DOCTOR!”.
Over years of practice as an addictions specialist I have seen several suicides which I would attribute largely to the drug and its horrendous (and frequently unending) symptoms. Symptoms that accompany both the use of, and the withdrawal from, the drug. I have often reflected on the fact that my nurse mentor was right.
What Are Benzos, Actually?
Benzodiazepines (or benzos) are in a class of drugs known as minor tranquilizers. Don’t be fooled by the mild sounding name however, because these drugs are Satan’s own brew. They are the most debilitating drugs to withdraw from that you could possibly imagine.
They were first discovered in the 1950’s by an Austrian psychiatrist working for Roche pharmaceuticals, called Leo Sternbach. It is Sternbach who is credited with the dubious honour of having discovered most of the benzos used today. Drugs such as Librium, Valium, Mogadon, Rohypnol and Klonopin. They took off, and between 1969 and 1982 Valium became the most widely used drug in America. This was the original prescription drug epidemic, arguably more damaging than the current opioid epidemic, and one that has been largely ignored by the media, and which continues to be ignored by the media. I suspect that due to Dr. Peterson’s platform and personal experiences, this may now change.
Benzos work predominantly on the brains GABA receptors. They produce a sedating effect and a hypnotic state which is anxiolytic (literally – anti-anxiety), as well as being anticonvulsant and having muscle relaxant properties. It is these last two effects which brought them increasingly into use as detox medications for alcohol. To help readers understand this I should really explain a few basic facts that appear to be largely unknown by the general public.
Benzos as a Detox Medication
Of all the drugs that are most commonly abused, it is really only alcohol, opioids (like heroin) and indeed, benzos themselves – that are significantly physically addicting or dependence forming. These are all, broadly speaking, drugs that exert a depressant effect on the bodies central nervous system. It is this fact which makes them both physically addicting, and dangerous. When drugs which depress the bodies nervous system are rapidly discontinued, the nervous system speeds up drastically, and seizures become a distinct possibility. Seizures can cause death. Of the three, opiate withdrawal is (somewhat counter-intuitively) by far the least dangerous. It is withdrawal from alcohol and benzos which carries the greater risk of seizure and death, and most dangerous of all, are the benzos.
In contrast, stimulant drugs like meth and cocaine do not cause the same kind of physical dependency and risk during withdrawal. They may feel like they are physically addictive, but the withdrawal is mostly psychological and psychosomatic. The drug user ‘crashes’ and may experience extremely intense mood states and even some serious psychiatric symptoms (like psychosis). But they don’t die.
Thus, when somebody is detoxifying from alcohol, benzos are the only drug class that can be used to help to prevent seizures. Once free from the risk of seizure, the patient is gradually (but quickly) weaned off the benzo that was being used as a substitute. This is done quickly to avoid dependence on the benzodiazepines themselves.
Used as detox regimen then, benzos can be very helpful. In fact, I would argue that this is their main legitimate use. It may seem crazy to use one drug to wean somebody of another drug. But that’s just how it is with alcohol, opiates, and benzos. We use opioids to wean people off opioids, and we use benzos to wean people off benzos – and alcohol!
Benzos as Anti-Anxiety Medications
Due to their anxiolytic effects however, benzos are also prescribed for the treatment of anxiety. This has been going on for decades and in many cases it is totally inappropriate and disastrous for patients’ health. Many healthcare professionals and pharmaceutical companies ignore or downplay the fact that benzodiazepine use can create dependence in just a few months and that it considerably increases the risk of suicide, and early dementia in long term users. They may well be fantastic for alleviating the symptoms of anxiety in the short term (two to three weeks) but they are a nightmare to discontinue, and rather quickly begin causing the very symptoms they were designed to treat. These are known as ‘rebound symptoms’.
One of the things we have learned from the opiate epidemic is that long term use of strong opioids (like Oxycontin) creates rebound symptoms. Beginning in the 1990’s, healthcare providers (pushed on by big pharma) began a massive upsurge in the prescribing of opiates for pain. However, we now know that long term use of opiates actually creates the exact opposite phenomenon – a medical condition known as hyperalgesia (increased sensitivity to pain). Prolonged use of analgesics (painkillers) like opiates intensifies pain rather than relieves it. This is a rebound symptom, and it appears benzos may well do the same thing.
The most disturbing symptoms described by Dr. Peterson in his interview are these rebound symptoms. They centre around very physical feelings of hyper-anxiety. The very problems benzo users are trying to alleviate in the first place. Peterson talked at length about some of these symptoms, such as Akathisia – a movement disorder which can produce extremely painful and disturbing feelings in the brain and body; Agitation – a clinical word for anxiety which can border on terror; Derealisation – a feeling of unreality, which can also affect time and space, whereby minutes seem like hours, and hours seem like days, and where you can forget how to execute simple physical procedures like getting back into bed. Dr. Peterson described these symptoms perfectly. They are symptoms I have seen over and over again.
Akathisia is perhaps the most debilitating of these symptoms. It is much more than just restless leg syndrome (RSL) as many sources will lead you to believe. RSL is a condition produced by numerous other conditions, including opioid withdrawal. Akathisia is much more than that. For example, Peterson talks about feeling like he was constantly being ‘whipped’ across his entire body for months on end. Other clients of mine have described debilitating ‘head zaps’ – feelings of being electrocuted in the head which can go on for months or years after withdrawal.
If you were going to design a pill which maximized human suffering to the greatest extent possible, then benzos would be the strongest contender in my view. All of this is compounded by a near universal inability on the part of the medical profession to deal with the fall-out from irresponsible benzo prescribing. The scientific literature on benzo withdrawal management tells us what we already know. That people withdrawing from benzos get very little real info on what to do or what to expect when they need to withdraw, or indeed, on the dangers of taking them in the first place.
The Strange Case of Dr. Peterson
I must admit, when I first heard about Dr. Peterson’s benzo dependency, one thing rankled me. He seemed to be very insistent that this was not a case of ‘psychological addiction’, but only a case of ‘physical addiction’. This suggests, tacitly, that there is a greater amount of moral failing in those who are psychological addicts, as opposed to those who are victims of medically caused (iatrogenic) addiction. I thought to myself, “Come on man! You’re in denial … come and join the fold … we’re not a bad bunch.” But as this recent interview unfolded, I came to see that he may well be right.
But why was Dr. Peterson’s withdrawal so severe? He says he’s been using them in low doses since 2016, when he was, as I have already mentioned, under a horrendous amount of pressure. The dose increased last year according to him, after receiving the dreadful news about his wife. And this time span is certainly long enough to create tolerance and the fairly long term neuroadaptations that cause protracted withdrawal symptoms in many people. Some 15% of benzo users are particularly prone to severe withdrawals. Perhaps he is one of them.
Another complicating factor however, may be his long term use of SSRI’s (serotonin re-uptake inhibitors). Dr. Peterson has always been an avid and unapologetic defender of SSRI class anti-depressants (and I happen to agree with him). But it is a known fact that SSRI’s (along with certain anti-psychotic medications) can be a major cause of akathisia. Akathisia of course, is one of the main symptoms he suffered in withdrawal. And this is another fact so many psychiatrists neglect to mention when initially prescribing benzos for anxiety management.
All in all, the public reaction appears to have been overwhelmingly supportive, another point noted by Peterson. There are the usual predictable jibes about ‘unhealed healers’, coming mostly from the less forgiving wing of the radical left. But to them I would say this … at which point did you decide to start stigmatizing addicted people? Is this something you reserve for people you particularly dislike? I thought that the de-stigmatization of addiction was supposed to be a cause célèbre of the radical left. At least try to be consistent.
Added to this is what appears to be Dr. Peterson’s own fears about being judged in such a manner. I would suggest this is really something he doesn’t need to worry about. There are precious few healers who are wholesome and whole. At least, not ones we would bother listening too. It’s the brokenness that makes you believable.
If this terrible ordeal does nothing else, I hope it does this. I hope it directs Jordan Peterson’s energies into new endeavors. I hope it makes him a vocal advocate of the abuses and ineptitudes of the psychiatric profession (where it exists) and an influential voice who is able to criticize big pharma when it is necessary – and it is. But most of all, I just hope he recovers.
Alastair Mordey is a pioneer of addiction treatment in Asia. In 2010 he co-founded The Cabin Chiang Mai, the largest private treatment centre outside of the United States. He also founded and ran The Edge, the first treatment centre in the world to utilise Muay Thai and other martial arts as treatment modalities for young men. He is a proponent of physical culture and a globally recognized expert in men’s recovery issues.