“The book was to show that opioid addiction is not necessarily a death sentence. People love and support you and there are many resources. People can be healed but it’s definitely a process and a struggle.” — Dr. Peter GrinspoonThe memoir “Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction” is the harrowing tale of Harvard-trained Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a primary care medical doctor whose life ran horribly amok through his addiction to prescription opioids. The book is also about his recovery and despite the somber topic, Grinspoon offers a lot of hilarity. Dorri Olds landed an exclusive interview with the candid doctor.
Dorri Olds: During your opiate addiction how many pills were you taking?
Peter Grinspoon: It would always depend on what I could get my hands on. I was taking somewhere in the range of 10 to 20 a day. Depending on if I had any major obligations, which would prevent me from taking a lot and if I had a reasonable supply.
Vicodin, OxyContin or Percocet?
All of the above. It started with Vicodin, but the opiates are all similar to each other in how they affect you. It was whatever I could get my hands on.
Did you experience side effects?
Yeah, I was constipated and sort of drowsy. I mostly had side effects when it wore off. I would be jittery and shaky and jumping out of my skin.
Some men on opiates experience impotence and lack of libido. Did you?
Yes, but my marriage was so messed up at that point anyway.
Was the marriage happy before your pill addiction?
No, we were already unhappy but my addiction made it a lot worse. That was the nail in the coffin. She knew the extent of my problem. She gets angry, so I tuned her out.
Do you think anybody could’ve done or said anything that would have helped you?
Coercing people into treatment is a controversial topic. I was forced into treatment because I wanted to get my medical license back. I think the coercion is part of what helped me. I don’t think I was able. I didn’t have it under control at all. I cannot think of anything that anybody could have said or done, that they didn’t already say or do, that would have helped me.
Can you tell me about your father? He was one of the earliest people in favor of medical marijuana, correct?
Yeah, he wrote a book in 1972 called ‘Marijuana Reconsidered.” He kept intending to write a book about how dangerous it was but when he looked into the research he found out that it wasn’t dangerous at all. That coincided with the time that my brother Danny, who has passed away, had leukemia. He found it helpful back then for the nausea and the vomiting that came along with chemotherapy. My parents had a firsthand proof of how helpful medical marijuana could be. That converted my dad who at age 87 is still chugging away trying to get marijuana legalized. He’s retired as a psychiatrist and no longer sees patients but still works at advocacy of medical and recreational cannabis. My parents were too old to have been part of the hippie movement, but their hearts were definitely with the hippies.
And the beats! It’s interesting that Carl Sagan and Allen Ginsburg were houseguests.
Yes, there were many people like that who were fixtures of my childhood. Carl Sagan was there all the time, he was good friends with my dad. And I remember Allen Ginsberg croaking at me—they’d been smoking and smoking. “Boy,” he said, “get me some water.” I wasn’t thrilled with being called boy, but in all fairness, I was only nine.
Let’s talk about your patients now. How did you talk them into giving you drugs?
Oh great [said sarcastically], the part of the story I’m most proud of. [Laughs] It was my patients who were prescribed a lot of opiates and I suspected they weren’t using them entirely above board.
You mean you sensed they were addicted?
Addicted, or selling. I was a friendly doctor so I was like, “Hey, you know I get bad migraines. What if I prescribed 215 instead of 200 and you gave me back 15?” Not one of them seemed surprised or said no.
It takes an addict to spot another, eh?
Yeah, it was like we were on a subliminal addict communication channel.
How many relapses did you have after you were arrested and forced to do your rehab stint?
I had three brief ones. I was caught through drug testing and got reported to the medical board. But I quickly got my act together because I didn’t want to lose every chance of getting my medical license back.
What does being a doctor mean to you? Was it because you had a family to support? Was it because you’d done all that education towards being a doctor? Was it you wanted to please your parents?
All of the above. But mostly, being a primary care doctor is my identity. That’s what I chose. I killed myself to become a primary care doctor. We do okay but we’re among the lowest paid doctors in the country. It isn’t lucrative or glamorous. Surgeons, dermatologists, ophthalmologists make the big money. We’re like the second-class citizens of medical care. But I have connections with patients and feel like I’m helping people. I couldn’t imagine giving that up.“Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction” by Dr. Peter Grinspoon is available for purchase here.