I first met Dr. Drew in the late '90s, when I was a freelance reporter at People magazine. I'd been doing a lot of drugs and was far more interested in writing about them than I was in penning the read-'em-on-a-toilet-seat type of celebrity pieces I was doing for People. I'd also recently tried GHB -- a drug that came in a bottle, tasted like saline solution and got me more fucked up than I'd ever been before. When a micro-sip of something makes your brain and body spin with a sort of euphoria you've never experienced before, you get a little curious -- and no one, but no one, could tell me anything about this drug. So I called up Dr. Drew, who was many years into co-hosting Loveline with Adam Carolla at that point. I told him that I was curious about GHB. I didn't tell him I'd been doing it because I considered doctors back then pretty much like cops -- people who took your fun away the second they heard about it. I just said I wanted to write about it. I told him I was thinking of pitching a magazine called Buzz (which was around at the time and where a few of my friends worked). He said he loved the idea -- that he got a lot of calls about GHB and would love to see more journalists writing about it -- and invited me to come into the KROQ studio that night. I went in and he and Adam brought up GHB on the show, asking people who'd done the drug to call in; after those people spoke to Drew and Adam on the radio, he allowed me to get their contact information so I could interview them for my story.
I'd only been a writer for a short time then so I was shocked by his generosity; no one had ever offered to help me out for no reason other than that he could. Over a decade and a half later, I've never encountered it again, except from him.
Years later, after that story on GHB never came to fruition (I was an active addict -- lots of great ideas never came to fruition) and after I got sober, I started to become increasingly focused on the topic of addiction and recovery -- specifically on trying to change how those things are perceived. In that time, I've come to believe that Dr. Drew has done more to help the cause than anyone else. When he's taken hits for the work he's done, it's been incredibly frustrating to me. Addiction angers people -- and it should. It's a horrific disease that kills beautiful, brilliant people seemingly out of nowhere. It is also a very misunderstood disease. And when people are enraged by something they don't understand, they're looking for someone to blame. The fact that they've at times blamed the person least deserving has, in turn, enraged me.
All of this is to say that it was my great pleasure to finally be able to sit down with Dr. Drew Pinsky and have an open, honest conversation about it all. Here are the results.
AD: What would you say is the best way to handle addicts?
DP: As you know, the only thing going on in an active addict's brain is, "I've got to use." And as a non-addict, I have to get re-directed on that all the time. I work with a group of physician addicts and I come in and I can form these great attachments -- I feel like that's my skill; I can form an attachment with a bullshitting, obfuscating patient. So I'll come in and I'll say to these physician addicts, "Oh I talked to Jim today and he started crying about his dad and he'd never been able to talk about it before -- he's now seeing that his dad was abusive." And my peers will look at me and go, "Yeah, well, he wants to get high. He's got you buying in." And I have to say, "Oh yeah, he got me."
At what point did you realize that?
Oh, it took years. Years and years and years and years. And years. Years of working alongside recovering people. It's a skill set that has to be developed. And if you're a normie, you ain't got it. Because your brain has normal priorities, you always assume you're interacting with a normal priority set. So if you talk about loving your wife, you're actually talking about how you love your wife -- it's not that you're talking about how you love your wife because you're building a case so you can talk about how you lost her so you can make sure you get benzodiazepines from the doctor because you supposedly need them to sleep at night, which is where an addict's brain is going. While my brain thinks we're sharing feelings! [Laughs] My job is to know the difference. I have no idea how I learned to know the difference; it just comes to me. And I've learned over the years to just trust that like nothing else.
A bullshit meter?
Yes. I remember when I first realized my bullshit meter was really good. I had a heroin addict I'd worked with a few times, this kid I really liked. So I was already in trouble because I liked him. And he was in front of me, going through his fourth time in treatment. He'd had a kind of near-death experience and he was sobbing, saying, "Oh my God, I'm going to die. This disease has me. I've got to do it [get sober] this time. I'm clear I'm going to die." And I felt his pain. And then suddenly something came out of my mouth -- I don't know where it came from, I just trusted it. And I said, "You're so full of shit, I can't even fucking believe it." And he looked at me, surprised, and I was as stunned as he was, thinking, "What did I just say? And oh God, now he's going to jump into righteous indignation and where did that even come from?" And he looked at me and said, "I know! How'd you know?" And he instantly stopped crying. Then he said, "I can't even tell when I'm bullshitting anymore." The fact that I could make him feel understood, safe and contained in that moment meant everything. He and I started working together after that and he actually, finally, started going toward sobriety. My sense was that this moment actually got this kid on the road -- that being held for who he actually was in that moment and what he was actually going through changed things for him.
A common criticism about the medical community and addiction is that there isn't enough emphasis on it in medical school.
Well that's true, too.
But you're saying that even if it were emphasized in medical school, that still wouldn't be enough.
Which is why, over the years, people have begun to understand that you've got to have recovering people around -- you've got to have them there to kind of re-direct the normies and the process. Because normies just don't think the way addicts think.
Is it therefore considered an advantage when an addiction doctor is also in recovery?
Well, there used to be only that. Back in the day, I was the first non-recovering doctor working in recovery. People would say, "You can't do that! We need recovering guys in this." But usually recovering doctors have a lot of baggage and so there's a certain amount of liability with a recovering doctor. But of course it can be ideal. I worked for a recovering doctor early on and he had a medical problem at one point and he left for six weeks so it was just me tending to the patients. And he was so pissed when he got back because he thought I was gratifying them with too much medication and wasn't calling them out on their bullshit enough. This was 10 or 12 years into my working with addicts. I thought I was doing a good job. But addicts just have a different way of thinking and you've got to have that. I can barely approximate it.
So when do you get to the point where you trust an addict? When they're five years clean?
Well, I don't work with them that far out. If they're calling me, there's an issue. My expertise is in getting addicts enrolled in this process, which is of course when they're at their most distorted and most troubled. Later on, I trust them 100 percent. I trust my recovering peers completely. I'll occasionally look sideways at them because they're addicts but it would break my heart and surprise me to find out that any of these people were lying. Still, addiction is cunning and baffling and you never know.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
This is the first in a three-part series of interviews with Dr. Drew Pinsky. It originally appeared on AfterPartyChat.
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