Professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Jordan Peterson has been called “The most influential public intellectual in the Western world” for his advocacy of the hero’s journey, a Jungian concept in which a seemingly average person responds to a call to adventure by venturing forth into the world, where they encounter trials and tribulations before returning home with greater insight into themselves.
(Without irony, he has described himself as having been “Raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta.”) His stern ethos of self-help and bootstrapping has made him a darling of the so-called intellectual dark web, and his lectures on YouTube have served as a gateway drug for countless burgeoning right-wingers.
Consequently, the news that Peterson had been placed in a medically induced coma for eight days at an unknown clinic in Russia came as something of a shock to his friends and family in early February. Mikhaila Peterson, a 28-year-old food blogger, claimed in a short but dramatic video that she and her father had gone to Russia in early January to try to find an alternative treatment for his clonazepam addiction.
Peterson’s philosophic brand is based on stoicism, self-reliance, and the will’s power to overcome situations and environments, all of which are at odds with dependence. He advised readers to “Take responsibility for your own life” and noted that “No one gets away with anything, ever” in his best-selling self-help book 12 Rules for Life.
During his medical journey, he came dangerously close to death multiple times, according to Mikhaila. After spending weeks in the ICU, he was medicated and unable to communicate.
Both medical professionals and regular citizens were baffled by the news. Where was Peterson, and why was he in a drug-induced coma in Russia? After a long struggle to wean himself off clonazepam, Peterson ultimately found himself in Russia, as evidenced by interviews with medical specialists and a close reading of numerous statements Mikhaila and Peterson have made on podcasts and social media. Peterson, who presents himself as a man of science, may have been duped by the promise of a bogus cure, with tragic results.
Conservative media have largely covered the Peterson tale, and in doing so have relied almost entirely on a piecemeal narrative put forth by Mikhaila, a nutrition “Influencer” with no medical credentials who claims to have treated her idiopathic juvenile arthritis, clinical depression, and C. infected with C. diff by subsisting solely on meat, salt, and water. Peterson supported and even followed his daughter’s snake oil diet.
After almost an entire year of only eating steak and salad, at his daughter’s urging, he revealed in July 2018 on the popular podcast Joe Rogan that he had been subsisting on meat, salt, and water for two months. Peterson’s continued adherence to the restrictive diet is unknown.
Peterson’s family revealed that he had checked into a rehabilitation center in upstate New York in September of 2019. According to Mikhaila’s latest report from Russia, Peterson was prescribed the benzodiazepine clonazepam by his family doctor in 2017 for anxiety caused by a “Severe autoimmune reaction to food.” His doctor allegedly increased his dose after Peterson’s wife was diagnosed with kidney cancer in April 2019. According to the story, Peterson didn’t understand he was addicted to clonazepam until the summer of 2019 when he tried to stop taking it cold turkey and experienced excruciating withdrawal symptoms.
Mikhaila Peterson has repeatedly and strongly stated that her father’s dependency is purely physical and not due to addiction. Additionally, note that there is a difference between the two. When a person is dependent on a substance, they experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly cease using that substance. To be reliant on a drug without being addicted to it is feasible, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s definition of addiction as “compulsive usage despite adverse effects.”
The media has reported that Peterson has an addiction problem, but they haven’t provided any evidence to back up their claims. Drug-related troubles at work, home, or with the law are all red flags that point to Peterson’s potential addiction. Other warning signals include him buying pills illegally, “Doctor shopping,” or increasing his dosage without consulting a medical professional.
Peterson has not been shown to have exhibited any of the “aberrant behaviors” characteristic of addicts. Yet again, all we have are the word of his daughter, whose family has a strong financial motive to spin away any idea that the man who built his career indulging in a type of intellectual Spartan cosplay is hopelessly addicted to a tranquilizer.
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In fact, Mikhaila has joked about how devastating a diagnosis of addiction would be for her father’s successful self-help business, which encourages its followers to overcome their own weaknesses via hard work and self-denial. “We decided we should let people know [the facts] before some tabloid finds out and writes [that] Jordan Peterson,’ self-help expert,’ is on meth or whatever,” Mikhaila said in a video update after Peterson checked himself into treatment in the United States.
However, as soon as the news of Peterson’s first rehab stay broke in 2019, discussions began on Peterson-centric forums regarding whether or not his fans should view him differently because of his benzodiazepine addiction. The only possible explanation is that he was abusing drugs to dull the sting of reality. You can label it whatever you want, but the facts remain the same,” remarked Reddit user KingLudwigII.
In reality, Peterson would likely agree that addiction and dependency are medical conditions, not moral failings if you pressed him on the matter. A lot of Peterson’s supporters, though, are attracted to him because of his masculine image and his story of overcoming adversity.
In an interview with RT, the Russian propaganda network that targeted an international audience, Mikhaila revealed that Peterson’s health had deteriorated to the point where his family was more concerned about him than his cancer-stricken wife.
Klonopin (clonazepam), Valium (diazepam), and Xanax (alprazolam) are benzodiazepines, a class of sedatives used for anxiety, insomnia, and epilepsy, and there are documented methods of treating a reliance on these drugs. Benzodiazepines, which first appeared on the U.S. market in 1960 as an alternative to barbiturates, are effective in treating anxiety and muscle spasms, among other ailments.
They work best when used intermittently or for shorter periods of time rather than daily. Addiction to them can manifest physically in as little as four weeks. Severe anxiety, agitation, and potentially fatal convulsions are all withdrawal symptoms that can occur if someone who is physically reliant on benzodiazepines suddenly stops taking the medicines.
Almost a decade ago, Dr. Olivera Bogunovic, medical director of ambulatory services at Boston’s McLean Hospital and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, created an outpatient program to help patients gradually taper off benzodiazepines. She recalled that prior to it, people had to spend four days in the hospital going through detox since that was all that insurance would cover. Having patients go through detox in under four days has been linked to some cases of seizures.
Benzodiazepine addiction therapy as it is practiced now is not a harrowing affair. Instead of spending months in a hospital bed, the patient is gradually weaned off the medicines under the supervision of family and friends. Every two weeks, doctors strive to reduce a patient’s dosage by 25%. “Up to 80 to 90 percent of patients have successfully completed detox in our clinic,” Bogunovic told me, describing the method’s impressive success rate.
At least once, Jordan apparently tried to quit smoking on his own and failed, which could have led to further issues. Kindling impact, Bogunovic said. A poorly executed initial detox increases the difficulty of subsequent detoxes.
As if Jordan’s clonazepam addiction weren’t bad enough, Mikhaila alleges he also experienced a paradoxical reaction to the medicine that caused him to become exceedingly agitated. (A sedative, of course, is supposed to have the exact opposite effect.) According to Bogunovic, between 2% and 4% of patients experience similar paradoxical reactions to benzodiazepines. A clinical word for this is “Akathisia.” The patient might move around, cross and uncross their legs, rock back and forth, or wriggle uncontrollably. In its most extreme form, akathisia can render a person totally incapacitated.
What emerges is a portrait of a man who was trapped: he was unable to bear either the drug or the withdrawal from it. Daughter Mikhaila told RT that her dad was searching for a facility where doctors “aren’t swayed by the pharmaceutical industry” and would have the guts to make him go through with a “cold turkey” detox.
That’s how a guy who didn’t want medications had himself flown hundreds of miles away to be put into a drug-induced coma, it seems. According to Mikhaila, her dad was diagnosed with pneumonia “upon arrival” in Russia. If so, his medically induced coma may not have been related to benzodiazepine withdrawal at all. A ventilator is required for the patient to breathe if the pneumonia is so severe that it causes respiratory failure. Patients in the intensive care unit are typically sedated since being connected to a breathing machine is so unpleasant.
The more concerning theory is that Peterson underwent a coma detox procedure. The name “medical detox” suggests that drugs were a vital component of the program, and the fact that this treatment is only available in Russia shows that it was not one of the more conservative versions of drug-assisted detox available in North America, as Mikhaila characterized her father’s treatment.
Bogunovic states that although she has heard of medically induced comas being used to treat benzodiazepine withdrawal, this practice is highly unusual and not based on science. Sedation detox is a little more prevalent for opiate withdrawal, but there is little proof of its usefulness or safety, she says. According to Bogunovic, the patient still faces withdrawal symptoms upon regaining consciousness. Sedation and continuous use of a ventilator carry serious hazards of their own, including the development of pneumonia from the device itself and the formation of blood clots that can lead to strokes if left untreated.
Peterson may have experienced so severe withdrawal symptoms from stopping “cold turkey” that his physicians were forced to put him in a coma for his own safety, even if they hadn’t planned to. Benzodiazepine withdrawal can cause considerable agitation, which can lead to the patient and medical staff being in danger if the patient is not sedated.
The most terrifying potential adverse effect of abruptly stopping benzo use is the onset of seizures. If Peterson had stopped breathing or developed pneumonia from inhaling his own vomit during the seizure, he would have been in a coma.
Mikhaila believes that her father’s plight is the fault of Western medicine, and not just because Western doctors prescribed the drugs. As with Peterson’s illness, it is claimed that a hospital in North America was to blame for his pneumonia, albeit she does not elaborate on her source for this claim.
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By bringing her father to a remote facility with “the guts” to accomplish what Western doctors wouldn’t, Mikhaila is effectively weaving her own “Hero’s journey” into his agony. It’s a story that helps boost her reputation as a wellness expert while also deflecting any uncomfortable inquiries into whether or not Peterson was injured by the treatment.
There are no easy solutions to problems that require healing. However, this does not imply that the most challenging choice is the best one. The lesson to be learned from Peterson’s tragedy is that drug addiction is neither an evil to be vanquished nor a fault to be hidden. Because it is a common medical issue, it requires no special measures in terms of treatment.