2020-02-10

Cleaning Your Room

For many years, I was the sort of man who believed that the path to success and the solution to every problem was to simply work harder and become the best at whatever it is he happened to be doing. While a strategy like that bears sweet fruit in the teenage years, the so-called real world has a way of making mincemeat of it.

So it was one morning, when I found myself sinking into the earth-toned cushions of an old, uncomfortably squishy sofa at the far end of a psychiatrist's office. He was an incomprehensibly thin man with a patch of white hair bursting from the top of his head like water from a lawn sprinkler; his shirts were always plaid, and always of the same earth tones as his sofa; he spoke with earnestness, but I could always tell that he left too much unsaid, usually in response to something I had said -- a terrible quality in a psychiatrist. He also kept two small dogs on the premises with them; they, at least, were a soothing presence in the office.

I found my way into his office by route of my career: No matter how hard I worked, and no matter how good I became at my work, the assignments got worse, the company struggled, and the attitude in the office got darker and darker. A level-headed man could take such things in stride, but this was my first venture into the world of not being able to turn the beat around when the song started to drag, as it were. And this song, to be sure, had become a funeral dirge.

I hadn't much experience in therapy, so like most folks, I went into it with preconceived notions. We would talk about my feelings, I thought. The good doctor would identify some problems with my way of thinking, and help me correct course. Before long, my attitude would be adjusted, and I could go back to doing my work with the kind of pep and ambition I longed for.

In the long run, it didn't quite happen that way. After making weeks of appointments, I eventually figured out the solution to my own ennui. I told the doctor at my final visit that I wouldn't be making another appointment, since it didn't seem necessary. He asked me then, "Would you mind telling me what worked for you?" I told him was something he said -- focus on the things you can control -- that made all the difference. I did that, and life got better. He seemed puzzled.

What brought the old doctor to mind this morning was the sad story of Jordan Peterson, and the memory I had of my first visit to a clinical psychologist.

Sitting in that earth-toned tar pit of a sofa with a small dog rubbing its wet nose against my dangling fingertip, my doctor asked me whether I'd considered antidepressant medication. I told him no, and that I would like to avoid doing so. He accepted my wishes, but first went on a brief soliloquy about the virtues of psychoactive medication. He told me that when he first started his practice, he, too, was skeptical of medication, but eventually came to see it much the same as taking an aspirin. We take an aspirin when we have a headache, and we think nothing of it; the doctor's position was that we ought to think similarly of antidepressants. He delivered his monologue in a pleasant and reasonable way, with calm and academic vocality. I did not come away with the impression that he was either arguing with me or trying to push medication on me. Instead, it seemed as though he wanted his office to be a safe place to discuss the therapeutic benefits of short-term psychoactive medication. But I did not pursue the matter any further, and so neither did he.

Yet, I can't help but wonder what a less thoughtful -- or more deeply troubled -- patient would have done in the face of such a calmly put suggestion by a qualified mental health practitioner in a time of need. It's not difficult for me to imagine that the marginal patient could be persuaded to fill a new prescription for psychoactive medication. In some cases, this might be entirely justified; in others, it might indeed be the wrong course of action. We trust our doctors to make that determination for us, but maybe we shouldn't.

The psychiatrist I saw that day was both an academic working at a university and a practicing clinical psychologist. Jordan Peterson can also make that claim. I point this out to venture a guess that perhaps these two men, similarly aged and of similar pedigree and professional background, held similar views on medication.

The National Post reports that Peterson began taking his medication "to treat anxiety after what [his daughter] described as an autoimmune reaction to food." This is a familiar issue to me: I once suffered anaphylaxis in response to eating a Brazil nut, and for years dealt with the fear of accidentally eating a nut and dying. Such fear is a very real and very palpable thing, and I would never minimize it. Still, it would never occur to me to address a problem like that with anti-anxiety medication, much less with hefty compounds like benzodiazepine tranquilizers.

But perhaps a man like Jordan Peterson, educated in accordance with modern of psychiatric medicine, would think almost nothing of it, just as we don't think twice about taking aspirin for a headache. If so, it would be a terrible lesson to have to learn the hard way.

I'm fond of Jordan Peterson's philosophy of life. I think it's a difficult road to follow, but a very worthwhile one for those capable of doing so. It saddens me to see such a strong advocate of living a deliberately moral life come face-to-face with his own moral failings in such a painful way, a way that risks such terrible long-term neurological damage, and in so public a fashion. The weaker thinkers among us, and those with a taste for schadenfreude, will (and have) pounce on this opportunity to denigrate a man who simply advocated that we live life according to our own moral compasses.

As hard as it will be for the critics to understand, Jordan Peterson's moral compass didn't actually fail him. He most likely took tranquilizers because he genuinely believed that they were the correct way to treat his anxiety. He most likely arrived at that belief through his own scientific expertise in psychology. When his addiction became obvious, he submitted himself to treatment. These are, simply stated, correct moral decisions. Unfortunately for Peterson -- and for all of us -- the world of psychology has not yet caught up with what the rest of the world already knows about tranquilizers.

Jordan Peterson nearly got himself killed. On the wrong day, for the wrong person, at the wrong doctor's office, it could have plausibly happened to me, or to you. Let us remember this episode, then, and learn another important thing from Dr. Peterson. Psychoactive medications are no mere aspirin, to be taken as for when we have headaches. They are powerful, dangerous substances that can leave a lasting and negative impact on your life, even on your legacy.

Be careful out there.

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