Entrepreneurship as Precursor to Addiction: The Business Crisis of Opiates, By Tim Askew

The first paragraph of Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled says simply, “Life is difficult.”

That’s certainly true. For the Buddha suffering was the first rule of life and Friedrich Nietzsche famously said that to live was to suffer.

And for no-one is this more true than for the entrepreneur.

Last March, journalist Nadia Stewart of Global News reported on the case of entrepreneur Rachel Degraw of Vancouver, British Columbia. For nine years Degraw was the very model of the successful entrepreneur, but she was, in fact, a closet junkie. Says Degraw, “My addictions came from the pad of a doctor. I became dependent on opioids for back pain, but also for emotional pain.

Addicts are no longer just those distant poor people who live in ghettos. The new opiate addicts are increasingly successful white collar business women and men. They are doctors. They are dentists and architects. They are lawyers. They are often the upper middle class and the rich. They are famous actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman. And they are entrepreneurs.

In fact, the opioid crisis is finally being recognized as a national emergency. As of August, there is a new President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, and last week Florida put in place seven day limits on opioid prescriptions that is tightly controlled by a new statewide prescription database.

In July, Crains’ reported that the “use and misuse” of opioid prescriptions is rising dramatically. Over 11 million opioid prescriptions were written in Michigan last year. Michigan is a state with only 9.9 total citizens! According to a 2016 Centers For Disease and Prevention study, opioid abuse cost employers $16.3 billion directly in reduced productivity and disability, and another $14 billion billed to private health insurers. And the problem is growing.

Opioid abusers, though only representing 4.5% of opioid users in the United States, account for almost 50% of opioid spending, according to Castlight Health of San Francisco. Over a third of employers reported that prescription drug addiction was prevalent among their employees and over two thirds of employers saw substance abuse as a rapidly growing challenge.

Crains’ documents a typical case:

“Hussein Nasser spent hours every day working on his knees [at his] carpet installation firm Empire Flooring. He went home every day in pain. His knees ached every day….For relief, Nasser turned to prescription opioids–first Percocet, then OxyContin. Addiction took hold. Nasser’s habit peaked to 300 milligrams of Oxycontin per day, far higher than the average prescription of 20 mg a day.”

Eventually Nasser lost everything.

I have a friend who had built a thriving dental practice, owning two buildings in Brooklyn and employing many dentists and support staff. He developed back pain woking on patients and, to control the pain, he started writing himself prescriptions in higher and higher dosages–codeine, dihydrocodeine, percocet, tramadol, methadone, fentanyl, morphine, and oxycodone. To avoid police detection he bought his opioids at pharmacies all over NYC. But, inevitably, he did get caught, resulting in prosecution and bankruptcy.

Or take Jeff Grant, a former lawyer, who is now a non-profit entrepreneur in Connecticut. He founded an organization called Prisonist and is Executive Director of Family ReEtry. He is also a former opioid addict and can speak with authority on entrepreneurial suffering, shame, and addiction. He spent 14 months in a federal prison for a financially motivated crime stemming from bad decisions made under the dual influence of prescription drugs and financial pressure. Grant headed a highly successful legal practice in Westchester County, New York. The Greenwich Sentinel reports Grant as saying, “In the course of rehabilitating an [achilles heel] injury, I got hooked on prescription narcotics. Doctors were more than happy to continue to prescribe them to me, and I took them for about ten years.” He gradually lost control of his firm and eventually couldn’t meet payroll–at which point he made up the shortfall by dipping into client escrow funds. He lost his company, his marriage, his money, his respected position in the community, his freedom.

In prison Grant came to understand the nature of his suffering. I think for most entrepreneurs a lonely suffering is part of the process. (Constant fear of failure is perhaps our greatest suffering.) It becomes so easy to become addicted to any number of things in an effort to suffer less the existential pain of our fears. And that is why the current epidemic of opioid addiction offers especial danger to the entrepreneur who is tempted to escape her physical or spiritual distress through opioids or any other addiction.

True entrepreneurial success is surely a matter of enrichment of the soul as well as the plumping of the pocketbook. As Helen Keller put it, “Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Thank you, Helen.