Peter Grinspoon: The doctor who overcame his opioid addiction

Dr. Peter Grinspoon sees the randomness of opioid addiction every day in his job as a doctor at a Boston-area health clinic. He also saw it in his own life, when, in an unhappy marriage, stressed out by his medical training, and with easy access to hospital medications, Grinspoon became an addict himself.

Although he still resents the way the Massachusetts Medical Society treated him when he was struggling, he now credits their licensing requirements with forcing him to do what few addicts can: get clean. Grinspoon talked with STAT about his struggles, his famous father, and his new memoir, “Free Refills.”

Do you see a lot of patients with addiction problems?

A ton. I just lost a patient a couple of months ago to a heroin overdose. There was nothing I could do.

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You say it can be worse for a doctor to be addicted than people in other professions. Why?

There’s a lot of guilt and shame and denial. Doctors are supposed to be these healthy, competent people. And you can get in a lot of trouble for asking for help.

How did it change you to survive addiction to painkillers?

It’s so humbling to go though addiction and recovery. I think it makes me a better doctor, because I’m not judgmental, I have a compassion for people, and I understand what it’s like for everything not to be going your way.

You forged prescriptions to feed your habit, and saw patients while you were high. How much should people like you be held accountable for what they do while addicted?

I did do these things, which is awful. I didn’t mean to. You could say that you’re not responsible because you have a disease that co-opts decision-making. On the other hand, you are responsible for your actions.

Who should society hold responsible for the epidemic of opioid addictions?

A lot of responsibility is with the pharmaceutical companies for marketing it, though doctors have responsibility, too. It’s amazing how many prescriptions we write for opiates.

Your father, Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a longtime Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, was famously one of the first academics to support the use of medical marijuana. Do you think his attitudes toward drugs may have played a role in your addiction?

I had a really stimulating upbringing, with an emphasis on reading and books and helping the world and getting involved. [The astronomer] Carl Sagan would be over for dinner. [The poet] Alan Ginsberg would be in our living room under a huge cloud of marijuana smoke. I never quite got the message that drugs were bad.

You smoked marijuana without getting hooked, but opioids were different?

These drugs cause such intense euphoria that I think anybody can get addicted.

Do you worry that you’ll regress — once an addict, always an addict?

I’m not supposed to say this, but I truly feel like I’ve conquered this and moved on. I haven’t had cravings in years and years and years. My life is in such a happier place.

You said you love books, and you published your own memoir just this week. Are you a literary snob?

Right now, my kids have forced me to read “Harry Potter.” I was dreading reading it and mourning all the other books I couldn’t read because I had to read all the “Harry Potter” books. [But] I stayed up until 2 o’clock last night reading. I literally couldn’t put down the second book. I couldn’t believe how good it was. I woke up early this morning to start the third book. I think [reading] is my way of being escapist now that I can’t do drugs anymore.

Dr. Peter Grinspoon is a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Chelsea clinic and the author of “Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction.” This interview has been edited and condensed.

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