Peter Grinspoon’s “Free Refills” is a funny, painful, page-turning account of a physician mired in denial about his addiction to opiates. Grinspoon’s life begins to unravel when two detectives arrive at his practice to charge him with three felonies for obtaining controlled substances by fraud. Aside from the potential fines and jail time, Grinspoon realizes that his lucrative career, and personal identity as a physician, also are in jeopardy.
Grinspoon admits that he had been writing his own opiate prescriptions. Even worse, he enlisted patients as co-conspirators to obtain opiates to feed his worsening addiction. His friends, family and therapists see that he is losing control, without knowing the details of what he has done. Grinspoon spins a fascinating story about how he slowly and begrudgingly admitted that he had a problem and found himself at the mercy of the legal system, the addiction recovery system, and the medical oversight system.
“Free Refills” is painful - and compelling. Grinspoon’s road to recovery is bumpy, filled with withdrawal sickness, relapses, drug tests and coming to terms with what he has done. The outside system is harsh, threatening him with jail time and a new career in fast food. Meanwhile, the addiction counselors are tough but encouraging, saying that as long as he gives up doing drugs, he’ll be okay. The addiction specialists expect relapses. It’s part of the process. But the system itself punishes and stigmatizes relapses.
The book works because of Grinspoon’s honesty in telling his story. He denies his addiction, lives in a fantasyland, and lies to cover up his problems. As a Harvard graduate and son of a famous physician, he acts pompous and superior to his fellow addicts. He presents himself as a sarcastic, damaged man who trusts no one. This honesty is especially important when he draws a completely unsympathetic picture of his wife, who he refers to by a single letter, H. His marriage spirals painfully out of control as he realizes his drug addiction is not the sole problem between the couple.
Grinspoon is judgmental about everything and everyone, none-stop smart, flippant and funny. He points out the absurdities of the system as he is swept through it. Along the way, though, as he beings to open up to the loneliness and painful emotions inside, the judgment begins to soften as he finds compassion and empathy - a better Grinspoon.
Grinspoon alternates his story with flashbacks to his past, where he traces the potential roots of his addiction - the early death of his older brother, his days following the Grateful Dead, the drug culture of Greenpeace, and the pressures of medical school. Despite his father’s knowledge about drugs, Grinspoon never understood that certain drugs were bad.
In the end, “Free Refills” puts a human face on the addiction and recovery system, a system where help “is often more punitive than rehabilitative” and media coverage is “lurid and derisive.” Grinspoon can only imagine how difficult it could be to recover for someone who doesn’t have money, a support system, and a career as a doctor worth fighting for.