When an alcoholic doctor began experimenting with Baclofen, he made what could be the medical breakthrough of the century
The Observer, Sunday 9 May 2010
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Olivier Ameisen. Photograph: Roberto Frankenberg for the Observer
The Hotel Lutetia is a beautiful belle époque building in Paris's sixth arrondissement. It's aplace steeped in history: Josephine Baker was a resident, and it was here that General de Gaulle spent his wedding night. It was also here, on 26 January 2000, that Dr Olivier Ameisen, first official physician to the prime minister of France under Raymond Barre, noted cardiologist at Cornell University, talented pianist and friend of both Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel and record producer ArifMardin, received the Légion d'Honneur for his "contribution to the image of France abroad and to cardiology".
A proud moment in a life of excellence and achievement, you would imagine, but you'd be wrong. Sitting in the bar of the Lutetia 10 years later, Ameisen, now 56, recalls how he felt: "When Barre and all those guys were kissing my cheeks, I thought: 'Where are their brains?' I mean, whenI was accepted at Cornell I looked at those guys and I thought that they were mediocre – that if those guys want me, they are idiots."
The truth was that Ameisen, for all his successes in life, was consumed with self-loathing and shame. He was a hopeless alcoholic – hopeless in the sense that, though he seemed able to achieve anything else he put his mind to, he could not stop drinking.Despite running a thriving private practice in New York, in his late thirties he had become a binge drinker and by 1997 was regularly being admitted to hospital. He tried any treatment available: tranquillisers including Valium and Xanax, antidepressants and specific alcohol medications including Antabuse and Acamprosate. He underwent acupuncture and hypnosis, took regular exercise and practised yoga.He attended cognitive behavioural therapy and up to three meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous a day. But his drinking only got worse: "The more I drank to ease my anxiety, stave off panic and counter draining insomnia, the more I had to drink for the same effect." No longer trusting himself to treat his patients responsibly, he stopped working altogether. Finally his doctors told him he had "at best"five years of life left.
It's a dramatic but not unusual story. According to the World Health Organisation, approximately two million people around the world die from the effects of alcohol each year, more than from any single form of cancer. In the UK, government figures estimate that one in 13 people is dependent on alcohol. For all the efforts of doctors, therapists, social workers andsupport groups, only a fraction of those addicted to alcohol manage to stop drinking and remain abstinent for a significant period.
It's not extraordinary that, despite all his efforts and his obvious intelligence and commitment, Dr Ameisen failed to overcome his addiction. What is extraordinary is that he eventually discovered a drug he claims has cured him of alcoholism and that he claims can cureall addictions, including cocaine, heroin, smoking, bulimia and anorexia, compulsive shopping and gambling. Because that is, according to all other schools of thought, simply impossible.
The Ameisen sitting beside me in the bar of the Hotel Lutetia is as far from the popular conception of the alcoholic as it's possible to get. Dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, tanned, relaxed anddistinguished, he is very much the successful doctor, rather than the ruined drunk who was in and out of rehabilitation units and even a psychiatric ward. As a recovering alcoholic myself, I no longer expect all addicts to be tramps, but he is certainly a good advert for his method.
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