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A cautionary tale: Smart people and addiction

May 20, 2010 |  2:31 pm

Rationalization and denial are key concepts in addiction treatment. To recover, addicts admit they have rationalized their habit ("I use so much less than my friends.") and denied they have a problem ("I can handle it. It's not affecting my job.") Here's another barrier to recovery from addiction: "I'm too smart for this to become a problem."

Syringe2 This week's Journal of the American Medical Assn., contains a sad essay from a medical researcher who made headlines last year when his fiancee, also a medical researcher, died after the two injected themselves with what they thought was the narcotic buprenorphine for kicks. The author of the essay, Clinton B. McCracken, a former pharmacologist at the University of Maryland, describes how he became a user of marijuana and intravenous opioids (morphine and oxycodone) over a decade while building his career as a successful neuroscientist who studied the effects of drugs on the brain.

He notes that people who work in medicine have addiction rates that are equal to, if not higher than, rates among the public. Drugs are easier to get, McCracken said. But he said an attitude of arrogance led him, as a medical professional, to believe that he could enjoy dangerous drugs and avoid serious consequences. For example, he was careful to schedule his opioid use to prove to himself that he did not need it to get through the day, made sure he was tending to his responsibilities at work and reviewed the criteria for drug dependence to assure himself that he was not an addict.

"By intellectually addressing the official criteria for abuse and dependence, I provided myself with the illusion of total control over the situation and was able to confidently tell myself that no problems existed," he wrote in the essay.

His world came crashing down last fall when his fiancee died while injecting drugs with him. When the police arrived, they discovered McCracken's marijuana plants. He was arrested and jailed, and he later agreed to a plea bargain to avoid more serious charges. Besides losing his girlfriend, he has since lost his career, his reputation and, as a citizen of Canada and convicted felon, he expects to be deported.

Addiction may look different in different people, but it seems that, in the end, everyone, no matter the level of intelligence, looks the same -- ruined.

"The transition from my drug use having no apparent negative consequences, to both my personal and professional life being damaged possibly beyond repair, was so fast as to be instantaneous, highlighting the fact that when it comes to drug use, the perception of control is really nothing more than an illusion," he wrote.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Adam Gault / Getty Images / OJO Images

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