Dr. Robert Simpson is the medical director for Utah Addiction Medicine and is known for his work in harm reduction surrounding addiction — only after he beat his own heroin and cocaine addiction.
Growing up with big ambitions
“I began shooting heroin and cocaine at about 19-years-old … I went through college. I was addicted through university and then somehow or another I was admitted to a medical school,” Simpson says.
His life didn’t start like this though. He grew up in London where his attraction was towards traveling carnivals and oil fields. All the while, beginning to experiment with heroin and cocaine.
As his addiction began to permeate his every thought, he realized he needed to find a career that would allow his addiction to flourish.
Queue medical school.
Robert was always smart when it came to his schooling. He attended a university and was even accepted into medical school, completely addicted to heroin and cocaine.
From addict to doctor
“About the end of medical school, the heroin and cocaine just kind of stopped working; they quit me,” he said. “I thought I was doing pretty well. I still was not drinking like a gentleman and I didn’t mind taking some pills but I thought, ‘I don’t have needles hanging out of my arm, I’m doing pretty bloody well really.'”
Do very well he did. Robert finished medical school within the top 10% of students in his class. He even moved out to Salt Lake City, Utah in 2000 to complete a fellowship at the University of Utah.
Unfortunately, during that fellowship, he herniated a disc in his back which led to excruciating pain. So much so, that he saw a doctor, who immediately gave him opioids for the pain. Given Robert’s previous stints with addiction, this newfound slipstream of opioids only pushed his addictive hunger even further. “Pretty soon, I was just too important and busy to have him go and write the prescriptions for me so I just thought I’d take care of it myself,” he said.
Even doctors are susceptible to addiction
The doses only escalated from there until he did the unthinkable — Robert, who was a successful doctor, began engaging in prescription fraud.
“I fraudulently wrote prescriptions in my name and two other people. I borrowed other people’s numbers; none of which I would think of doing today but I was in the midst of my addiction,” he described.
Robert began to write so many prescriptions for himself that he would get his pharmacies mixed up. He would write a prescription for one pharmacy and arrive at the completely wrong location. The entire process quickly became too overwhelming to handle. So, he went back to what he knew. The streets were calling to him and he needed his heroin fix.
“It was this odd paradox where I’m copping dope on the block and heading back up to the medical school and lecturing to medical students,” Robert recounted.
Thriving on the outside, dying on the inside
His career was skyrocketing in terms of research, teaching, clinical duties, and just performing well as a doctor. On the inside — he was crumbling at his core. “I was so hopeless. I was buying life insurance and annuities so that my family wouldn’t be destitute once I overdosed and died,” he said.
Until he had a “spiritual” experience that ultimately caused him to believe that he could get out of his addiction. But he knew he was going to need help. He realized he was going to have to own up to all of his struggles and all of his addictions. “One day it came to me very strongly. I was walking back from the pharmacy, bags full of stuff, and I went into my office, put the bags on my desk, and I just picked up the phone and I just called my boss and said, ‘Simpson here, drug problem, out.'”
He self-reported himself to the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing and his medical license was suspended. Dr. Simpson then booked himself into the Betty Ford Rehabilitation Center in southern California and he was set on getting healthy.
Once he had finished his rehabilitation, Dr. Simpson started helping out at the 4th Street Clinic. “We would go out on our bikes and find guys who didn’t want to go to the clinic and we’d just give them dry socks and chat with them. It helped me get off of my pity party about how mistreated I was by everybody.”
Moving forward and what’s next
For the next decade, Dr. Simpson began to work his way back into the medical field, even getting his medical license back. Now, he works as the medical director for Utah Addiction Medicine and promotes harm reduction to addicts throughout the state.
With his newfound appreciation for overcoming addiction, he understands the benefits of harm reduction and what it could do for an addict. “Harm reduction is about treating people, with substance abuse disorders, with respect [and] dignity, because they’re human beings. When we treat people that way, without judgment, we build relationships and once we’ve done that, we can start to work with people on just little things.”
He concluded, “Most people don’t know where to turn. If you’ve spent time and built this relationship in an unconditional sort of way, they know where to go.”
Listen to the entire episode below
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