In late 2019, Jordan Peterson went on an extended absence from public life. In a series of videos on his and his daughter Mikhaila Peterson’s YouTube channels (1, 2, 3, 4), it eventually became clear that he was suffering side effects from taking benzodiazepine medications (commonly known as “benzos”).
Despite the extreme detail the videos went into, the press reported these events in an incorrect and misleading manner. The most common headline and talking point became that Jordan Peterson was “addicted to benzos.” The reports later embellish this claim by declaring that Peterson was taking benzodiazepines to treat his anxiety.
Peterson was never “addicted” to benzos. He developed a physical dependency to them. There is a difference between these terms.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine gives the following description:
“Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
In other words, addiction is a psychological problem, where a person compulsively uses a substance—”even,” as the American Psychiatric Association says, “when they know it is causing or will cause problems.”
Physical dependency is completely different. Dependency is an entirely physiological problem, whose main symptom is the experience of withdrawal. The absence of the drug causes biological processes to work differently. Withdrawal symptoms can be mild or life-threatening.
What Jordan Peterson had was a dependency problem with his medication. He was never addicted to them.
Here’s the proof:
Peterson was initially began to take benzos after Christmas in 2016, to deal with side effects after having a seafood dinner with his family. While the exact cause of his poisoning remains unclear (his daughter believes it was due to a negative reaction to sulfites), he began to suffer from extreme insomnia and chills for three weeks.
First, let’s understand what these drugs are. Here is how RxList.com describes them:
“Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs primarily used for treating anxiety, but they also are effective in treating several other conditions.”
The article lists the other “conditions” as seizures, insomnia, nausea, and more. As a treatment for his insomnia, Peterson was given a prescription by his doctor. He saw rapid improvement in these conditions: “I took the benzodiazepines the way that it was prescribed: twice a day, 0.25 milligrams. And that seemed to bring the symptoms to a pretty rapid halt.”
The question then becomes, why did Peterson continue using benzos after his symptoms subsided? His answer is again completely innocent of suggesting addiction: “there were so many other things going on around me at the time, that I never really thought about it again.” The “other things” at time (beginning in October 2016) included his incredible rise in international notoriety in academia and the popular press. This included several threats against his life and livelihood. These contributed to generally elevated level of anxiety.
In early 2019, however, his wife was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer, and later had to deal with serious complications from (an ultimately successful) treatment. This is when he felt his anxiety levels were increasing, and so “I asked my doctor to increase my benzodiazepine dose.”
Peterson says this increased dosage only made things worse. “What seemed to happen as a consequence was that I just got more anxious.” This is known as a “paradoxical reaction”, where the drug causes an increase in the problem it’s prescribed to solve. Benzos are known to cause such reactions.
At this point in the process, careful listening is becomes crucial. Peterson admits, “I stopped taking them completely and tried ketamine, which is treatment for depression. Well neither of those were very good ideas, as it turns out.”
A superficial listener would assume that he tried to do this himself, without medical supervision. But this theory doesn’t make sense—as he is not a medical doctor, how did he come to the conclusion to use ketamine instead? Where did he even get the ketamine from? Why did he cut off his benzo use immediately instead of trying to taper?
It’s only thirty minutes later in the interview where we learn that it was under under the advice of his psychiatrist, he tried to replace his benzo medications with ketamine. Here is the exchange between him and Mikhaila:
JP: I was so appalled by what the benzodiazepines had done, that I went from four milligrams a day down to zero last May, and that wasn’t so tolerable. So I went back up—
MP: And part of the reason you did that—cuz people will be like, “why did you do that? You’re supposed to taper.” First off, if you don’t know about benzodiazepines, it’s not obvious you have to taper.
But you also went to a psychiatrist to deal with your worsening anxiety, that you thought was mainly attributing to mum’s worsening cancer, and his suggestion was: try ketamine, and stop the benzodiazepines.
At the end of the interview, Peterson concludes with this admission:
JP: Once I started to decrease my use of benzodiazepines, I was never tempted to go back up—except right at the beginning, when I had to—
MP: You were about to have a seizure.
JP: Yeah I wasn’t good.
MP: I couldn’t even communicate with you.
JP: But I thought, after I got out of the Russian hospital, even if someone put a gun to my head and said, “take this.” I wouldn’t.
So to recap: first, he had extreme insomnia and chills for weeks following a bad meal, for which he was prescribed a low dosage of benzos by his doctor. Then, although these symptoms quickly subsided, because he was also dealing with general anxiety due to his increased fame, his doctor continued to prescribe the same dosage. When his anxiety increased again after his wife fell ill, he asked for an increase in his dosage, which his doctor prescribed. However, he soon realized he was having negative “paradoxical” side effects, and his doctor immediately recommended replacing the benzos with ketamine. This sudden cessation caused him to suffer serious withdrawal symptoms, which began a painful public journey to recovery.
This is a story entirely consistent with a drug dependency problem, and not one of “addiction.”