A doctor confronts his addiction

An excerpt from Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction.

It was a frigid winter day in February 2005, when two officers — one from the state police, one from the Drug Enforcement Agency — arrived at my office and sat waiting amid the spellbinding view of the neighboring arboretum and the friendly clutter of charts, papers, stethoscopes, medical books, discarded coffee cups, and pharmaceutical samples.

At the time, I was scurrying back from a noon lecture on cholesterol management, in order to resume office hours. My attention was focused on the first patients I was soon to examine, an elderly Jewish couple plagued with anxiety and hemorrhoids, when, stethoscope in pocket and monogrammed white coat fluttering, I stopped dead still in the center of my office. My momentum was arrested by the concentrated accusatory gaze of the law enforcement authorities.

Unlike the patients in the packed waiting room, these officers didn’t have the uncomfortable and deferential “I’m waiting for my prostate exam” look. Rather, their demeanor more resembled that of famished carnivores.

Far from famished, Rufus, the police officer, was morbidly obese, pasty, and spoke with a thick Boston accent. Bruno, the DEA agent, was thin, sarcastic, and fake friendly. He seemed as if he wanted to put his feet on my desk. (Why, certainly, your Federalness. Go right ahead.)

Reflexively, I started hedging, stalling for time, trying to create some understandable context for their presence in my office. “My wife, H., gave me your business card yesterday, and I’ve been meaning to call you. I’m really glad that you are here, and that — ” Bruno waved his hands dismissively and interrupted me with, “Doc, cut the crap already. We know you’ve been writing bad scripts.”

Bruno and Rufus weren’t here to arrest me and drag me outside in front of my staff or, worse, my patients, bumping my head against the top of their cruiser as they stuffed me into the backseat. They didn’t read me my Miranda rights or pull out guns. They didn’t yell, “Freeze, and put your hands up!” They didn’t handcuff me, shock me with Tasers, club me with riot sticks, or detonate any canisters of tear gas in my office. They didn’t hunker down behind my desk and radio in for reinforcements, bawling  into their handsets, “All units, we’ve got a doctor here who is taking drugs!”

Instead, seemingly with relish, they informed me that I was to be charged with three felony counts of fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance. They had evidence that I had written prescriptions for the powerful narcotic Vicodin in the name of a former nanny, who had long since returned home to New Zealand, and that I had been picking them up from the pharmacy for my own use. They were tipped off by an astute pharmacist at CVS.

They say the universe is still gradually expanding, but at that moment, my universe started collapsing, even imploding, like a balloon stuck with a pin. Just minutes earlier, I was blithely sipping on gourmet coffee and chomping down donuts that some drug rep had dropped off (trying to push, no doubt, a cholesterol-lowering drug) while daydreaming through some lunchtime lecture. I had the expectation of a moderately hectic but lucrative afternoon examining grateful patients, and then returning home to see my kids.

Suddenly I was facing serious legal and career uncertainty, and was feeling awash in guilt and confusion. I had dealt with handcuffs during the tumultuous years I worked for Greenpeace, and knew that they were child’s play compared to what my wife, H., was going to do to me when she learned of these charges. I’d take a Taser any day. And what about my kids? Were they going to be allowed to visit me in the penitentiary, waving at me through dirty plastic and speaking to me through a buzzing telephone connection?

At that point, I decided that I had had enough drama for one day, so I tried to politely signal to Bruno and Rufus that office hours were over. Doctors are excellent at dismissing people. We stand up, indicate toward the door with body language, ruffle some papers, and say something pithy about how we hope their fungus, or whatever is ailing them, feels better soon.

Unfortunately, Bruno and Rufus were just warming up. They pressured me with not-so-veiled threats. “Doc, we’re here just trying to get you the help you need. If you tell us what we need to know, we don’t have to blab to the other docs here and to your patients.” They were threatening to expose me if I didn’t sing, and to leave no stone unturned.

“Who else has been writing scrips for you? What other docs? Give us names. How else do you get pills? Buy them on the streets? Do you shoot up? Snort? Sell pills on the side? What other drugs do you use? Weed? Coke? Heroin? Angel dust?”

Under duress, my mind started wandering. I couldn’t help thinking, “Since when do doctors do angel dust? Get with the times.”

Once this line of questioning dried up, they tried a different tactic. “Doc, if your wife is popping these pills, you will never get out of this.” They had the pleasure of meeting her the day before. According to the police report,

On 2/16/2005 at approximately 3:30 p.m. S/A XXXXX and TFO XXXXX went to —— Street, ——, MA and were met by H. who later identified herself as the wife of Peter Grinspoon, M.D. H. appeared nervous and agitated and refused to speak to S/A XXXXX and TFO XXXXX and further asked that they return with a uniformed officer if they wanted to speak to her. At approximately 5:00 p.m. S/A XXXXX and TFO XXXXX returned to the previously stated address accompanied by Boston Police Patrolman Andrew XXXXX. At this time, H. had a normal demeanor and agreed to speak with the officers. H. was asked if she knew R—— S—— and she responded that she has employed Ms. S—— as an au pair through International Au Pair. H. further said Ms. S—— left the U.S. in January 2004 and returned to New Zealand. At this time the interview was terminated.

Oh yeah. H. mentioned that the police came by. Really bizarre pillow talk. “Honey, the police stopped by today to ask about our former nanny.” I should have made a run for it. Possibly, just possibly, I could have made it over the Canadian border and spared myself the misery of the next few years. Good-bye, wife. Good-bye, children. Good-bye, career as primary care doctor.

I answered that no, thanks for your concern, but unfortunately, my wife doesn’t take prescription painkillers, and I was the one who had a problem.

Peter Grinspoon is a physician and author of Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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