Well, thank you for being patient. I know we’ve put you off for a long time. That couldn’t be helped. But I’m actually very happy to be doing this. And I was, weirdly enough, I didn’t expect it, but I was looking forward to it.
Really? I wasn’t sure how do you feel about it. Is there an element of trepidation? Or?
Well, definitely, there’s an element of trepidation because I would say the most stressful experiences I’ve had in the last five years, apart from being in the epicenter of various demonstrations, were definitely interviews with people who were well, they ranged from mildly hostile to very hostile. And those are tight ropes, you know, because if you make a mistake, well, it can be devastating; devastating to your career devastating to your family, devastating to your general reputation. So, tightrope.
I think most people watching you thought that you are completely fearless, kind of cool as a cucumber, unfazed by any amount of attacks.
Yeah, that’s wrong.
Oh, yeah, that’s definitely wrong. No, I definitely found the interviews, of all the things I did, as I said, apart from the demonstrations. You know, having your name- being cursed at and being chanted at by several hundred angry people is not anyone’s idea of fun, especially if the attack continues afterward, which happened on multiple occasions. But I don’t think that was worse than the more hostile interviews. I really don’t like upsetting people.
That’s interesting. Again, I think that’s not something that people would imagine.
Well, I am a clinical psychologist, it’s not really- it’s in my nature to help people, I would say. You know, I have a hierarchy of belief, in some sense. I’m not going to say things I don’t believe to be true, to spare anyone’s feelings, although I would pick a truth that spared feelings the maximal allowable amount if I could do that. But I’m not interested in generating controversy. See, it’s a funny thing because I’ve learned over the years, and this is, again, in large part, because I’m a clinical psychologist, is that a little conflict in the present can save an awful lot of catastrophe later. And people are very much likely to sidestep a problem, in the hopes that it will go away. And I know that problems don’t go away. They never go away. What they do is they multiply. They fester and multiply. And so I will have the fight now, knowing that it’s inevitable later. I mean, I always conducted myself that way within our family, as Mikhaila can attest to. Both Tammy and I never allowed anything to sit unspoken under the rug, and so we’d have our uncomfortable conversations, but you know, I’d sweat my way through them. I don’t enjoy them by any stretch of the imagination. But I can see the inevitable coming and I’m not going to allow that to happen without trying to make a difference.
Do you think it’s the case that most people have the wrong impression of who you are or what you’re like as a person? You know, I actually … every week, and some people have a sense that how big their image is, is absolutely accurate, and others who feel that there are huge misconceptions about who they are. Where do you sit on that?
Okay, well, first, we have a bad audio situation. So you’re echoing, you’re echoing a lot. So we should fix that, because- well, I’ll go ahead and answer the last question while we’re waiting. I feel- I believe that I’m misunderstood by the people who want to misunderstand me. I think that by and large, that people have a good idea of who I am, and by and large, that image is positive. In fact, it’s positive to the point where I find it very difficult to believe. I mean, for example, I just finished a podcast with Matthew McConaughey on Sunday. And the YouTube comments, there’s about a million people have watched it already, and so that’s something in and of itself, but the comments are unbelievably positive. Like they’re heartbreakingly positive, and the like to dislike ratio is running about 99 to one. And that’s a little better than typical, but usually, it’s between 50 and 100, or 50 and 99 to one. And usually, the YouTube comments are overwhelmingly positive, and that’s certainly been the case while I’ve been ill, and while my wife was ill. And so, you know, you might quibble and say that people have an impression of me, that’s too positive, but if I had to have a problem, that would be a good problem.
I think that my reputation suffers among those for whom it’s convenient to assume things about me that aren’t the least bit true, like that I’m alt-right, for example, in my proclivities either overtly, or covertly, or that my followers can be easily categorized in that manner; first, that I have followers, second, that they can be categorized in that manner. And none of that’s true. Those aren’t my political leanings, I’m not temperamentally inclined to any extreme viewpoint, and in fact, find them abhorrent. I’ve spent my whole life studying extreme political views, since I was 18, essentially. And my listeners, and viewers, and readers are on YouTube, they’re primarily male, but my book “12 Rules for Life” sold between 4.5 and 5 million copies now, and it’s not young, angry men who are buying that. All you have to do is scroll through the YouTube comments on a popular video, and you can see that, and almost none of the discussion is political. When I did my tour for the book, it wasn’t a political tour, I’m a psychologist, and I’m happy about that. I’m comfortable with that. And when I’ve had to make a choice in my life between being political overtly and staying working as a psychologist, I’ve always chosen the latter.
Can I ask you a question? Do you carry this enormous sense of pressure of their expectations on you to be able to encourage them or guide them? Does that feel like a big pressure?
Well, it feels like a big responsibility. But I can’t- It’s an overwhelming responsibility and it’s very surprising. It’s hard to believe, it’s surreal. It’s always surreal. And it’s so universal. I mean, I was in Serbia for months, not so long ago, and it’s the same there, it’s the same everywhere I’ve gone. If it’s an airport or a cafe, or it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, it’s everywhere in the world. I mean, I think I’ve looked at my YouTube views, and I think my YouTube videos, including the interviews, have been viewed at least 600 million times. And so it’s a scale of exposure that’s, well, I mean, it’s not unparalleled because there are no shortage of famous people, but it’s unparalleled- it’s certainly unparalleled for me. But there’s also this international element to it that’s also new, you know. YouTube is a universal media platform and it’s so powerful that it’s unbelievable. And if you put yourself in its clutches, then well, most of the time, nothing will happen, but sometimes there’s a tremendous explosion. I mean, it’s not surprising to me in some ways, you know. I knew, when I was working on my first book “Maps of Meaning”, that I was dealing with things that were fundamental. I knew, I mean, I knew insofar as my sense of knowing is reliable, but generally, it’s been reliable, I can tell when I’m onto something. And I knew I was dealing with things that were fundamental. And I watched the effect of my lectures when I was a university professor on my students, and most of the students who I taught said the most common response to my classes was that it changed their life. It changed the way they looked at everything. And that was my experience, having learned and thought through the- what I learned and thought through when I wrote “Maps of Meaning”, it changed the way I looked at everything. So, I could see this coming because as my reach expanded electronically, that sort of response continued to occur. But YouTube magnified that in a way that’s well, it’s a lot to adapt to. You know, I mean, when all this hit me, I was already 55 or there or something, you know, and I’d labored under relative obscurity. That’s been made more of than is really the case because my classes were always popular, and so I had a certain renown at the university as a teacher, and I had done some TV work for about 10 years, really, before I made the first couple of videos that went viral. But I’d also set up the YouTube channel a couple of years before that, and it was accruing views not at an exponentially growing rate, but, you know, there were still tens of thousands of people watching, and that’s not trivial. But the response- you asked me about responsibility.
I certainly felt that when I have been ill over the last year. I mean, I thought it was one of the things that really kept me alive. And I suppose it shaped my next book because I tried only to- the illness and the responsibility, I tried only to keep words that I found sustaining during that period of time, but part of the reason that I stayed alive was because I felt overwhelming responsibility to all the people who had been, you know, affected by my work. I thought, well, it wouldn’t go very well if I just expired somewhat melodramatically, in the middle of Russia and middle of Serbia. And so it was responsibility, but also tremendous support. You know, it’s quite something to be in despair and to have thousands of people wishing you well. And that’s been my experience, overall, is that the proportion of people who have been supportive to me and my family, compared to the proportion of people who’ve been antagonistic, there’s no comparison. It’s not like the antagonism is trivial, and I don’t- it hits me. I think it hits everyone in the family. I mean, Mikhaila has taken a lot of flack for squirreling me away in Russia, and in Serbia, and, you know, profiting from my corpse, so to speak. And that’s been hard on her because, like, the rest of my family, she put a lot on the line to help me and that is the case for many members of my family.
But, you know, she was certainly the primary mover of all this from the public perspective and took a lot of flack for it, and that’s been hard on her. So the negative is salient, but the positive is overwhelming. And that was certainly the case on the tour, which was a delight in many ways because it was so unbelievably positive. Where there’s thousands of people who are gathering together on a regular basis, different people in all these different cities, who were there fundamentally because they wanted to get their lives together. You know, the way that was treated by the people that were antagonistic to me was exactly what you’d predict if you gave some credence to their cynicism. You know, that it was a political ploy, or that I was exploiting people or they have no- and that would be mostly the radical identity politics types who, you know, who have no love lost for me and vice versa. It wasn’t in their worldview that people could gather together like that because they wanted to improve. But that was the case.
… of 2018. By that point, most of your life has kind of become unrecognizably huge, and you’re going on the book tour. To what extent was your mental health an issue for you during that year? I think you said to Joe Rogan that one of the worst days of your life was days like Sam Harris…
Oh, yeah. Jesus. God, that first discussion I had with Sam Harris. Oh, man, it was just- well, I don’t think it’s a mental health issue.
I think it’s a physical health issue. I have an autoimmune disorder of some sort, and it has multiple symptoms. One of the symptoms is depression. And, you know, it’s not really a classic depression because I don’t have the classic cognitive symptoms. I’ve never felt that my life wasn’t worth living. I felt that I was in so much pain that I didn’t know if I could continue to exist. Or that I-
With the pain, can you elaborate on that word pain? Because that can mean so many different things.
Well, it would depend on the particulars of the circumstances, I suppose, but depression is a pain-like phenomenon. If you’re depressed, much of the cortical circuitry that mediates pain response, like a physical pain response, is activated. Many people with depression have pain syndromes like lower back pain is very common among people who are depressed. So it is a pain symptom- it is a pain syndrome. I guess the depression I experienced, which is characteristic of many people in my family, was grief-like, I would say. It felt like overwhelming grief. And it was worse in the morning and would recede during the day, but it seemed to be part of a cluster of symptoms that were autoimmune in nature. And much depression is autoimmune in nature. So I think of it as- I think it’s a physical illness as far as I can tell.
When I talked to Sam Harris- it’s very complicated, and I’m still trying to piece all of this together, but I had gone to see my family, my extended family on my wife’s side, and Mikhaila and her husband, and me, both- all of us came down with the same symptom set that lasted about three weeks, and it was absolutely terrible. I couldn’t get up without fainting. I’d faint, fall to the floor, gray out, not blackout completely, but gray out every time I got up. I couldn’t get warm. I was wearing multiple layers of clothes and multiple layers of blankets, and I couldn’t get warm. I had an overwhelming sense of doom and anxiety, and I didn’t want to move, and plus I couldn’t sleep for days and days. I don’t- I was without sleep for many weeks. And you know-
And this was from inadvertently ingesting apple cider?
Look, that’s- that’s-
It wasn’t. No. Hold on.
There were, no doubt, multiple-
Hold up. It wasn’t apple cider. It was sodium metabisulfite in apple cider. Like the alcoholic apple cider was added to a stew.
So it was sodium metabisulfite in that apple cider, but it wasn’t apple cider.
Right, I understand.
Anyways, in the midst of that, which was- in the midst of that, I talked to Sam Harris and I was operating at about 5% of my normal capacity if that. It was terrible. But you know, I wasn’t going to forego the opportunity because it was a necessary discussion. Now, I was nowhere near- I wasn’t- I wasn’t at my sharpest, and you can certainly tell that in the interview. You know, I couldn’t respond rapidly. My normal quickness of wit, to what degree I possess that, was certainly absent in that first discussion with Sam. But it turned out that that was- it worked out all right because we had another discussion and overall, and you know, then I had these public debates with Sam too that really- I think we had 10,000 people at the Orpheum in London. It turned into something that neither of us would have possibly imagined. I don’t know if there’s ever- I don’t know if there’s ever been a larger public debate, certainly not on that kind of issue. You know, and who would have known that would become something that was so popular that it was somewhat of a cultural event. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to claim that.
So you were prescribed benzodiazepines as a result of that incident.
Yes, and a sleeping pill.
Were you prescribed that by your family doctor? Were you at all worried? Did some alarm buzz worrying about women in the 50s and 60s who got hooked on valium and couldn’t get off it?
Well, look, when benzodiazepines were first introduced, they were touted as an almost completely safe replacement for barbiturates. I really didn’t give it a second thought what happened was well, partly I was- you know, my life was an absolute whirlwind at that time. So if it had been an item of concern, it fell, you know, to number 20 on a list of 20, and only one through 10 ever got attended to. You know, at the time that I had this terrible reaction, other things were happening. The Canadian equivalent of the IRS was after me and making my life miserable for something they admitted was a mistake three months later, but they were just torturing me to death. The College of psychologists that I belong to was after me because one of my clients had put forth a whole sequence of specious allegations because the person was upset that I had sort of disappeared over the Christmas vacation, so that was extraordinarily stressful. It wasn’t clear to me whether my job was going to continue. So you know, there were other issues. Plus, I was at the epicenter of this incredible controversy, and there were journalists around me constantly and students demonstrating and it was a very hectic time. In any case, I took the benzodiazepines. I didn’t take the sleeping pills, I think I took them two or three times and just stopped. But the benzodiazepines allowed me to sleep again and it was a very stressful time, and I just- they were prescribed for two a day, and I just took them. It wasn’t like I was- I couldn’t feel them. They weren’t- I wasn’t taking a high enough dose so that I could actually detect the effects of the sedation. They weren’t sedating me at all. They just stopped whatever had happened to me, which I still don’t really understand. You know, we have a hypothesis that it was a reaction to- allergic reaction to the chemical that Mikhaila described, but it was strange that the three of us were affected by it, and no one else as well. Anyhow. Well, in any case,
That’s what Dave- that’s what the psychiatrist said, is that when you go off of SSRIs, you can be neurologically sensitive to chemicals.
Yeah, well, that’s reasonable-
And I was probably-
It’s not our theory, like…
Yeah, that doesn’t give it enough credit. Like, there are doctors involved here.
No, it’s not like- Yes, and many of them. It’s not like we’ve been sitting around armchair hypothesizing about what happened. We’ve consulted many people to try to figure this out.
And you had, by that point, come off SSRIs because of the diet, is that right? Because the efficacy of the diet.
Yes. And the diet did a lot of different things, had a lot of different effects on me. One of the most market effects immediately was that I stopped snoring, and that happened within a week. It was very, very surprising to me. And then I had psoriasis and that cleared up, and I had gum disease, and that cleared up which is- that’s not curable, gum disease, so it’s treatable, but not curable, but it’s completely cleared up. And I lost 70 pounds over about a seven month period. So the transformation was remarkable. And I’ve had other autoimmune symptoms in my life. I had alopecia areata at one point and thought I was going to lose all my hair, but luckily that stopped. And I had this condition called peripheral uveitis, which is an inflammation in the tissue of the eye, and markers on my fingernails for autoimmune- like an autoimmune condition, your body attacks its own cells, and I had markers for that as well. And I have had a lengthy history of mouth ulcers…
There’s never been a formal diagnosis of the nature of your autoimmune disorder?
There was, twice within the last year.
In Russia and in Serbia because they did blood tests. Dad?
Yep, I’m back.
In Russia- They never pinpointed what it was. In Russia, it was fibromyalgia, and in Serbia, they thought fibromyalgia but it was from blood markers, and so they were going based on blood markers and symptoms and put fibromyalgia on it.
Yeah, and I mean, these autoimmune conditions aren’t very well understood, and fibromyalgia is a good example of that. It’s terra incognita.
Um, so the benzodiazepines seemed to help sort of resolve that issue, but you talked about how- I’ve read you talking about how you felt that it kind of muted somewhat, your relationships with people.
It was a very confusing, it was a very confusing time, you know because a lot of what was happening to me was also, in some sense, alienating me from myself and my family because it was so different from what had happened before. So trying to discriminate between the strange and surreal conditions of my life and the effect of this drug, I never thought about the drug having any effect on me with regards to this muting, and for quite a long time. And well, I also started to get kind of weak on my left side, and I kind of thought at that point that the benzodiazepine might have had something to do with it, but wasn’t sure. And that thought would just come up now and then and I complained about it, that I had a weakness in my musculature on the left side. But I never thought much of it. And I wasn’t that worried. I wasn’t thinking about the benzodiazepines like 10 hours a day or anything like that. I never thought about it at all. I was extraordinarily busy 16 hours a day flat out, seven days a week for- right until Tammy went into the hospital- right until Mikhaila went into the hospital in January of 2019. It was flat out running. And so I wasn’t sitting around thinking about what was happening with me. You know, if I was a bit off, well, so was my life. It wasn’t exactly surprising that all of this might have had some effect on my relationships. That was subtle anyways, I mean, we talked about it, you know, the kids would tell me that I was distant. But that’s not a five-alarm fire bell, being somewhat distant, especially under strange circumstances, including visiting 160 cities in 200 days.
And I was functioning, obviously, I mean, I gave a different lecture every night.
Were you enjoying yourself?
Yeah, it was amazing.
It was amazing. I don’t think enjoying myself doesn’t really cover it. It was…
the best year of your life?
dream-like. Um, I wouldn’t necessarily say that, I’ve had some pretty good years. It was surreal, but it was surreal in a way that was also- see, one of the markers for post-traumatic stress disorder is derealization, right? When the things around you don’t seem real. And I was in a constant state of derealization, from October 2016, October 2016, till January 12, of 2021.
Go on, explain.
Well, I didn’t- I still don’t really have the- I
I’ll give you an example. So one day, this would have been in 2017, probably, and so things haven’t got as busy as they were going to get. 200 of my colleagues signed a petition at the University of Toronto to have me removed from my tenured position and my faculty association. So an association to which I belong forwarded that to the administration without even notifying me. My son came over to talk to me and I said, “Julian, um, you know, 200 of my colleagues just signed a petition asking for my removal from the University of Toronto faculty.” And he said, “Oh, Dad, don’t worry about that. It’s only 200 people.” And we had got to the point, by that time, where that sort of event was, well, produced exactly the kind of response he had. Like, under normal circumstances, I believe, for anyone who’s employed by an organization, the news that 200 of their colleagues have conspired inappropriately to bring about their demise would be enough to rattle them for, to rattle them into silence permanently, instantly. And for us, that was barely noticeable as a blip on the horizon, given everything else that was going on. And as it turned out, it had absolutely no effect. Maybe a somewhat negative effect in terms of the reputation of the university, but no effect on me.
No practical effect. But do you think it had a kind of residual effect, you’re talking about derealization and PTSD, that these kinds…
Oh, all of this has a
I still really don’t have a proper conceptual framework in which to slot all this.
It’s not an easy thing to understand. I don’t know what to make of it. What should I make of the fact that I have 600 million views on YouTube? What do you make of that?
I mean, on the one hand, like I said, I knew that I was dealing with things that were fundamental when I was writing “Maps of Meaning”. And I watched the effect of what I had learned on my students. And that grew across time, it continued to grow in a linear fashion. And so in some sense, that’s not that surprising because all the ideas in “Maps of Meaning”, which is really where I’ve derived most of the ideas, or many of the ideas for my book 12 Rules, and for the new one, you know, I studied people whose work I thought was profound and was able to integrate that and to disseminate it. And so the fact that profound thoughts had effects on people isn’t that surprising. And I’m not saying that they were my thoughts because “Maps of Meaning” has a very lengthy bibliography, and I use ideas that towering intellects had generated. Many of them psychologists, and so the fact that they had a powerful psychological effect, makes sense. It’s still something to be the messenger, even if you’re not necessarily the originator. So that part wasn’t a surprise in some ways, but the magnitude of the response has been, and the nature of the response, the emotional nature of the response, has been continually amazing.
You know, when I was visiting Tammy in the hospital, well, and then, you know, not only did all of these things occur on the social front, you got to think about it this way. You know, I’ve watched people respond to being attacked on Twitter. So they’ll post something or write a paper and 20 people will go after them on Twitter, and that’ll produce a bit of a storm, and they usually apologize profusely, and back the hell off, and disappear. It’s really, really emotionally hard on people to be attacked publicly like that. And that happened to me continually for like three years and on a way larger scale than 20 people. You know, I mean, just the events at Wilfrid Laurier University with Lindsay Shepard, that was the biggest scandal that hit a Canadian university, certainly in my lifetime. And that was just- that was a sideshow. And I’m not making light of it. It wasn’t a trivial occurrence. But it was just one of dozens of things that were happening on a regular basis. The demonstration at Queen’s University when I went there to talk with Bruce Party, a lawyer there, I mean, you know, we were in a building with 200-250 students, 300 students, I don’t know, and the protesters were outside at the windows banging on the windows, breaking them in one case, it was completely surreal. It was like a zombie attack.
Were you be frightened by any of this? Was any bit frightening?
I guess I’d have- Yes, I would say, definitely. I was never concerned for my- I wasn’t concerned for my life. I wasn’t concerned for my physical safety. I was concerned for my family. I was concerned for my reputation. I was concerned for my occupation, both as a clinical psychologist because I was under attack at the College of psychologists as well as at the university. So and then there were times where I was physically threatened. Certainly, that happened at Queen’s University, they arrested a woman who was carrying a garrote, for God’s sake. You know, and I was harassed directly after the demonstration there by a, you know, a small coterie of insane protesters. Let’s say committed protesters, who were in my face for two blocks, three blocks yelling and screaming. My son was with me and you know, the University security guards, they didn’t know what to do. They weren’t trained for that sort of thing. And I was very- I was, I wouldn’t say I was so much afraid, I was very angry. Like, it took everything I could not to knock the man, who was in my face, flat. But I wasn’t going to do that. I was enraged by what he was doing. And
How did you- What was your demeanor while that was going on?
Calm and watchful. I mean, one of the advantages I have had is that I am a clinical psychologist, you know, and I can detach myself from what’s happening and watch it. And that’s partly when I’m being interviewed by someone who’s hostile, I’m able to keep my cool. It’s partly because I can watch and also partly because I know that what’s happening right now isn’t the whole story. It’s especially true in the modern world with an interview, it’s like, the interview can be very hostile, and that, by no means, means that I’m under attack. It just feels like that in the moment, like with the interview with Cathy Newman, for example, on Channel Four, or there was another interview done by a woman who works for GQ, which, I think-
Yeah, it’s been viewed 22 million times, I believe at the moment. So it’s just under the Cathy Newman video in terms of number of viewers. That was a very, very animus-possessed interview, she was on my case right from the moment I walked into the room, essentially. And-
Presumably you knew that would be the case? Helen Lewis is very established feminist, professional feminist.
Well, I didn’t know that it would be the case. At that time I was being interviewed so often that I never had any time to prepare for the interview. I just walked into them, and I assumed, at least that there would be, you know, common professional courtesy. And most of the time, that was the case. It was certainly the case with Cathy Newman, who was very professionally polite when we first met in the green room, and then well, and then isn’t- and then went on the attack, I suppose when she was interviewing me. But both of those interviews, the tide turned, you know, it was very, very strange with the Cathy Newman interview because first of all, people were rather sympathetic to me, and then she reported being harassed, especially online. And then so the sympathy sort of moved over to her side of the equation, let’s say, and then, for one reason or another, it shifted back to me.
Did you enjoy them in real-time during those two hours with Helen, nearly, and half an hour with Cathy?
Not in the least.
Did you enjoy a second of it?
No. Oh, yes, with Cathy, I enjoyed a second of it.
Well, when she stopped- when I- See, there was one point where she was reduced to silence. And I’d asked her a very serious question, which was why she thought it was okay to go after me for making people uncomfortable with my opinions when it was okay for her to go after me and make me as uncomfortable as possible in this particular scenario. And she had no answer to that. And she had no answer to that because she knew perfectly well that she was being hypocritical. And she stumbled and stopped speaking, and I said, “Gotcha.” And I enjoyed that. And I thought, like, in that half a second, I thought long and hard about whether or not I was going to say that. I knew it would be funny, and I do have a sense of humor, although it’s rather suppressed, it’s been rather suppressed over the last couple of years.
And I took a calculated risk and I would say that I enjoyed that because the timing was right. And-
It paid off. But it..
But it was a risk, man, it could have easily gone badly.
Right. Your son said you’ve withstood all kinds of pressures and stresses, and navigated an extraordinary roller coaster, and kind of kept it all together and handled it up until 2019 when your wife is in hospital and being given this devastating news.
Well, 2019 was, you know, it was just- it started out rough.
I went to Switzerland, and I was in Switzerland with Mikhaila for well, for a number of weeks when she was having her ankle rebuilt by carpenters. I mean, it was very dramatic surgery. And the outcome wasn’t obvious, she could have easily lost her leg and lots of people that she talked to suggested that that would be the case. And so it was strange to set up camp in Zurich, and to bring her food, and to take care of her. And then we went to Australia for a whirlwind tour in February, and that went quite nicely. And then things just fell apart insanely with Tammy, you know, it was just every bloody day was a life and death crisis for like five months. And initially, we were informed that her illness was highly treatable and minor. And, you know, just in a typical cliched movie scene, we went to see the doctor after she had had her surgery, but wasn’t recovering quite properly, and they said, “Well, she’s contracted this cancer that’s so rare, there’s virtually no literature on it, and the one-year fatality rate was 100%.” And that was just the beginning of, you know, endless nights sleeping on the floor in emergency, and continual surgical complications, and then, you know, my mood was wavering at that point. I was taking a bit more of a benzodiazepine under still being supervised by my GP, but I started to react to it in a paradoxical manner. It seemed to be making me more anxious rather than less and I tried various- and my depression seemed to be making a comeback, so I tried various means of dealing with that. But it just got worse and worse, and at one point, I stopped taking the benzodiazepine altogether. And that-
What happened when you did that?
I developed this condition called akathisia, which I didn’t know about at that point. Yes, and let me tell you, you wouldn’t wish that on- it’s unbearable, to say the least. And, you know, they say with akathisia, people are driven to suicidality within an hour of the onset of the symptoms. I had akathisia for 800 hours, 900 hours, thousand hours, sometimes seven hours a day.
What did it feel like?
Well, imagine that- so imagine- I just figured this out, a way to communicate it, to some degree, properly in the last couple of days. So imagine that someone jabbed you really hard in the ribs with their fingers, and stiff fingers, you know, you’d kind of pull away and then there’d be a spasm from that, and you’d move. Well, then imagine that’s happening 50 times, and every time you breathe. That’s sort of what it’s like.
…physical pain and discomfort.
Yeah, yeah, and it doesn’t go away. It’s just there, and it’s there, and it’s there, and it’s there, and every time you breathe, it’s there. You can’t sit. And you know, I couldn’t sit down. I’ve been able to start sitting down again, in the last month.
You and I could not have had a conversation like this, where we’re just talking to each other and…
I might have been able to do it. It would recede to some degree as the day went on. It was way worse in the morning and would get better in the evening. So it would have depended on the time of day, but certainly, even now, I really don’t get going until two o’clock or so in the afternoon.
My morning schedule is still very, very rigid. But it’s-
Yes, it’s unbearable, the sensation. And it’s also humiliating because it’s a voluntary movement disorder. And so what that means is that it feels like you’re doing it, and I could also control it. So if it was happening, and I was twisting, and moving, and walking around in my bedroom, uncontrollably, thousands and thousands of times, if one of the people who were caring for me, a nurse or a doctor said, “Well, can you stop it?” I could, I could stop it. Although I had a hard time stopping the effect in the breathing.
It’s not voluntary. One of the symptoms of akathisia is that it feels voluntary. This is in akathisia. So one of the torturous things about it is it feels voluntary. There are other like psych side effects as well where it can feel voluntary.
And you can stop, at least, briefly. Well, yeah, there’s a disorder called dyskinesia where you move but you don’t even know you’re moving. So it’s an uncontrollable movement disorder, but it’s involuntary. It doesn’t affect the voluntary motor system. But akathisia does and so there’s always the sense that you could stop it if you just exercised enough willpower. So it’s humiliating as well.
And does that also generate a kind of self-punishing dynamic in your head that you’re angry with yourself?
Disgusted, I would say more than angry,
Disgusted? Where you feel as if you’re being kind of grotesque, and ridiculous, and weak? Is it, or?
Yes, definitely. It’s not only that you feel like you’re being that it’s that is the situation, or that’s certainly how it appears. Grotesque for sure.
And did you feel incredibly self-conscious about it and being seen?
After a while, I just, like, being self-conscious, it was so awful, that being self- the problem of being self-conscious fell way down the- if you’re in enough pain, you’re no longer self-conscious. It’s there but it’s- I shouldn’t say that you’re still self-conscious, but that problem is so- it’s trivial compared to the pain. It was horrible. I mean, that’s the other thing that’s so strange about this, and that’s also made this surreal, is that I’m actually a very private person. Prior to all this, I never discussed my own personal affairs with anyone, I never talking about my illness. I don’t talk about how I’m doing. I have done that with depression to some degree because I thought there was a public service element in it, you know because my family has battled it for a very long time. And I felt that some public disclosure of that would perform a reasonable public health function. But other than that, I’m not inclined towards personal self-disclosure, and certainly not on a mass scale. So that’s also been very strange to have all of this be so public over the last two years. Saying that, you know, brings up a wave of disbelief that that can be the case, that’s actually…
Is it a panicky wave or is it just incredulity?
Now, I think it’s mostly just incredulity.
Say, you tried to get treated twice in North America, first, in the eastern seaboard and then in Toronto.
Yeah, that just didn’t work at all.
Do you even remember much about those two?
I don’t remember anything about Toronto.
Nothing about Toronto.
From December 16th to February 5th, I don’t- of 2020, the end of 2019, the beginning of 2020, I don’t remember anything at all.
Do you think you even- Did you know that you were being- that you were flying to Moscow to be put into a coma
In real-time you were fully aware of it, but you’ve got no memory of it now?
That’s right. Yep.
I mean, obviously, what lots of people would say is, well, this is- obviously, I’ve talked to various people about this, and everyone says, “Why on earth would a high-profile North American…”
I went to the best treatment clinic in North America and Connecticut and all they did was make it worse. We were out of options. We were out of options. The judgment of my family was that I was likely going to die in Toronto. And so there was no-
You were going to die in Toronto. Again, lots of people would say, “Why would you sort of trust the judgment, although your family members love you, they’re not trained, qualified medics? Why would you? Why would you put yourself in their hands and not the medical profession’s hands?”
I had put myself in the hands of the medical profession and the consequence of that was that I was going to die. And we put ourself in the hands of medical professionals in Russia, too. So it wasn’t like we were fleeing, completely fleeing from the medical profession. I tried a slow taper on the benzodiazepines, and I couldn’t do it.
You know, and I went to the treatment clinic on the eastern seaboard, and they had promised, essentially, a 12-week treatment program. And my impression of that was that at the end of that 12-week period, I would be free of benzodiazepines, but that isn’t how it worked out at all. And I was on more medication when I left that treatment center than I was when I went in.
Were you angry with them? Were you arguing with them?
There was no point in being angry, otherwise, it wouldn’t be helpful. I was disappointed. I mean, when I went there, to begin with, right at admission, they basically told me that the 12-week program was unlikely to be successful. And I thought, “Oh, this is a hell of a time to be informing me of that since I’ve just come down from Toronto.” But by that time, I was well, there wasn’t any alternatives at that point. So, you know, I was in sufficiently dire state, so that wasn’t tenable for me to maintain my residence.
The clinic you went to in Moscow, they’re more familiar with doing a kind of induced coma to have sort of a speedy withdrawal from opiates rather than benzodiazepines. Is that right?
Mikhaila would probably be better able to answer that than me.
I suppose, again one of the things that people absolutely associate you with is that you are meticulous about following the data. You know, it’s almost a kind of Peterson catchphrase, “There’s no evidence for that”, you know, you’re very much an evidence-based person. What was the evidence that you saw that was so compelling and overwhelming to take you to Moscow?
I couldn’t do the- I couldn’t tolerate the gradual taper, so it was the only other alternative. That’s all. It wasn’t that it was compelling. It was that we were out of options.
Yeah, the treatment I received on the eastern coast and in Toronto didn’t help, made it worse.
So we didn’t have any other options
What were you most frightened at that point? I know Mikhaila talked about your anxiety levels.
I was most afraid of akathisia. Like, there isn’t anything else that- like, every day I had akathisia was the worst day of my life by a huge margin, not by some trivial amount, but by a huge margin. It was absolutely unbearable. I mean, I tried to describe it. It’s very difficult to describe, it’s like pain, but it’s a pain that you can’t- that only movement will satisfy. I mean, even now, I’m walking 10 miles a day.
Yes, yes, I heard.
The obvious thing the critics, your enemies, would say, I’m sure you- this is hard to get, even news to you will be, “Hold on a minute, you know, your entire intellectual framework, your philosophy of life is that life is about suffering, pain, and that the manly, strong, dignified thing to do is to accept that pain and suffering, and battle through it, and learn from it. And that the coward’s way out, is to try and take drugs to….”
No, I’ve never said that. I’ve never said that. And as a clinician, I mean, I’ve had many people in my practice. Look, if you’re a viable clinician, you encourage people to take psychiatric medication when it’s appropriate. And many people in my practice were helped, to a tremendous degree, by antidepressants. I was. They were unbelievably helpful to me, and to other members of my family. Not universally and not without a cost, but very, very helpful. And you know, that’s a caricatured viewpoint too. What I really encourage people to- what I encourage in people is the- it isn’t useful to allow your suffering to make you resentful even though you have reason for that. And so part of the battle, it’s a ridiculous caricature, that perspective. You know, life- people are hurt badly by their lives in all sorts of ways, and becoming bitter and resentful about that means that you start to cause extra suffering, in yourself, and in your family members, and in your community. That’s not helpful. It’s not helpful. And believe me, I mean, I’ve had plenty of temptation to become resentful about what’s happened to me in the last two years with my wife’s terrible illness, and well, with my daughter’s illness, first of all, and then with my wife’s illness, and then with mine, you know. And I’ve certainly had my moments where I thought- it was torturous because it was unbelievably torturous because I was in agony with an indeterminant prognosis, but certainly one that indicated that this would last for months and months, and only slowly recedes. Months and months, and perhaps years. I was shut off from my family, except for much of this time, and among strangers who didn’t speak my language. And at the same time, I was- I had this plethora of opportunities sitting in front of me, none of which I was able to access, like, I love my wife, and my kids, and my grandkids. It was like a nightmarish, surrealist novel. I had all this waiting for me, all this life I put together so carefully, and it was constantly dangled out of my reach. I was completely consciously aware of that. The condition I developed made it impossible for me to live at home. So I was divorced from my profession, from all the things that I was working on, and from everybody that I love. I had plenty of reason to become, like many people do, to become bitter. It’s not helpful.
When I watched the podcast that you did with Mikhaila, I thought you looked angry at moments, and I was wondering who or what you were angry with?
Well, pain will make you angry.
You know, so fate, I suppose. It was- I would say- well, we’ve had our health troubles in our family for the last few years, many years. And the last two years were surreal in that regard again, it was just too much. And so I was never, or very rarely, angry when I was in the hospitals. Never angry at the nurses or doctors, or very rarely.
Is there any bit of you that’s angry with yourself for taking benzodiazepines when now that you know how dangerous they are?
Angry. I wouldn’t say angry. It’s not like I failed to see the irony. That was another thing about this that made it quite- still continues to make it difficult to stomach. You know, should I have known better? Possibly.
I mean, I did do my thesis on alcoholism, although, you know-
This is- Hold up, hold up.
You had a side effect from a medication. Should you have known better, that benzodiazepines can cause akathisia in people who take SSRIs?
You didn’t have it like this- this wasn’t benzodiazepine dependency problem. This was akathisia side effect from psych meds.
Right. Yes, and no, I couldn’t have known that. Yes, that’s right.
I have to say, we have 10 minutes before we have to wrap up.
Yeah, I’m doing okay by the way.
Yeah, yeah, I know. But still- or mom will kill me.
So Decca, what else do you want to talk about?
I was curious about whether your resistive … Soviet critic where the irony was also not lost on you about ending up in Russia to have your life saved? How did you make sense of that? Does that just seem like one of the bizarre coincidences of life?
Yes, it’s, it’s- no, I don’t know how to make sense of that. I don’t know how to make sense of the fact that Tammy recovered the day of our 30th wedding anniversary, which is literally the case. The surgical complications that were threatening her life ended on that day, and she had told me a few months earlier that she would recover on our 30th wedding anniversary. Like, I don’t know how to make sense out of that. It was, it was- Yeah, I don’t know what to th