Darryl Jordan Gebien
Resiliency, Addiction and the Opioid Crisis
Dr. Darryl Jordan Gebien is in long-term recovery from opioid use disorder and lucky to be alive. His remarkable story has been the subject of national media attention. He is an ER physician as well as former federal inmate. He was incarcerated in 2017 due to abusing his prescription-writing privileges to feed an out-of-control addiction. It all started innocently years earlier with pain killers prescribed by his doctor to treat back pain. It ended after his arrest in 2014 but not before graduating to fentanyl and surviving an unintentional, near-fatal overdose.
His tumultuous journey involved a harrowing drug detox followed by the psychological chaos of early recovery and post-acute withdrawal syndrome. Despite losing everything including his freedom (residing six months at various drug rehabs, one month in jail, and eight months of prison), Dr. Gebien pressed on by frequently attending and ‘sharing’ at 12-step meetings. It was here where he found his voice and renewed confidence, learning that although others could criticize his opinions, his emotions and feelings were off-limits. Sharing emotions in a safe environment had unexpected rewards. The deeper he dug in, exploring personality flaws and the painful past for example, the greater the benefit was on his well-being.
“Hope is everything when you have nothing” — DJG (2015)
Recovery taught Dr. Gebien the importance of unwavering honesty, to avoid social isolation, and to confide in his supports his thoughts, feelings, and problems. This contrasted with his natural inclination to internalize negative emotions. Along with expressing gratitude, balancing work with play, journaling, meditation, and mindfulness, all became key stress-coping mechanisms lessening his frustration and self-loathing. Eventually, he discovered such tools of recovery were akin to the keys to enduring happiness. As his resiliency improved, he started to put back the broken pieces including his medical license (reinstated July 2021).
Dr. Gebien is now stronger, wiser, and more determined to do his part in combating the opioid crisis. Armed with his medical knowledge and personal story, he is well-positioned to apply lived experiences in becoming a fierce advocate for the development and promotion of evidence-based solutions. But the biggest hurdle is the stigma and negative attitudes held by many front-line health care professionals caring for those with mental health and addiction issues. The same negative bias, adopted by legislators and policymakers, provides further challenges. To mitigate unintentional overdoses and improve outcomes for those suffering in silence, the conversation must begin in earnest and be based on facts regardless of opinion and optics. Dr. Gebien has taken on this personal and professional challenge with a palatable sense of hope, vitality, and enthusiasm.
This interactive and captivating presentation begins with Dr. Gebien taking the audience along his epic fall and arduous rise from opioid use disorder. Candidly, he speaks of his overdose, arrest, detox, rehabs, incarceration, ongoing rehabilitation and unwavering personal commitment to achieving and maintaining healthy, productive living. The details, however, aren’t as important as his message of how SUD is but a maladaptive coping mechanism, or crutch, to handling stress. Poor stress management, in general, is rampant and cause for much unnecessary suffering. Pain, stress, anxiety and depression affect us all, but it is how we choose to deal with it that makes the difference on our well-being. Major stressors include trauma, broken relationships, bereavement, life transitions, finances and work performance. Boredom, isolation, loneliness and sleep deprivation also contribute. Developing strategies to recognizing and overcoming such vulnerabilities are key to minimizing the harmful effects of stress. They also build self-esteem and pride (resiliency), thus providing a foundation for happier, healthy living. The principle that, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety but rather human connection*,” along with Dr. Gebien’s epiphanic discovery that the tools of recovery are also keys to happiness, provide coping strategies that can help us all.
John Hari, Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs. 2015
“Problematic substance use is an illness, not a moral deficiency”
Dr. Gebien’s solutions to the opioid crisis are covered next. The underlying principle is to treat substance users with compassion and appreciate they are suffering in one form or another. Many become slaves to their drug of choice because sudden cessation, whether planned or not (particularly opioids), undoubtedly heralds a withdrawal syndrome so severe it compels them to relapse without care for consequences. Many wish to cease using but are fearful of the withdrawal syndrome (“dope sickness”). We need to stop judging users and appreciate they are ill — and to allow them to help themselves. The only way we are going to overcome the opioid mortality tsunami is to institute a seamless and compassionate, mental health-based approach that includes harm reduction, decriminalization, and multi-modal, comprehensive care.