Interview: Olivier Ameisen
This Paris-born doctor says his Jewish roots contributed to his drink problem. But he’s convinced he’s discovered a way to beat the booze
Olivier Ameisen believes he has made a major medical breakthrough. Although he trained and practised as a cardiologist, the advance he is so excited about did not come in the field of heart medicine. Rather, he claims that he has found a cure for alcoholism. And the proof that it works? It is the fact he is alive today.
For years, Dr Ameisen was an alcoholic. He drank so much that his doctors told him he would die. “I tried everything to cure myself of the addiction,” he says. “I had hypnotherapy, acupuncture, I went through every kind of talking therapy and I went into rehab on numerous occasions. Nothing worked. My mother could not understand it. She said: ‘Jews aren’t shikkurs.’ She felt that if I died of alcoholism then Hitler would have had the last word.”
But paradoxically, the French-born Ameisen thinks that being Jewish may have been a major contributing factor to his addiction. Sitting in the offices of his publisher, looking remarkably healthy for a 55-year-old man who has been so close to death through drink, he recalls his childhood in Paris. “I was a very anxious boy. My parents were Holocaust survivors and I think I was subjected to their anxieties as a child as I often had a feeling of imminent danger and death. I was scared of another Holocaust in Europe. I was worried that the Russians would invade. My fear of antisemitism was one of the reasons that I chose to pursue my career in America. The issue of survival was prominent in my mind, which is probably not the case with children whose parents are not Holocaust survivors.” However, these anxieties did not stop him from achieving. He was a prodigiously gifted pianist, but opted ultimately for a career in medicine which he thought would give him the security he craved. However he was unable to quell the anxiety he constantly felt until, in his 30s, he began to drink. He recalls: “I hated the taste. I would drink whisky and hold my nose as I drank.”
At the peak of his drinking, he was consuming a bottle of vodka a day. His binges would last several days until the damage he inflicted on his body would compel him to admit himself to hospital, several times on the verge of death.
“Through my drinking I broke my shoulder, my wrist and three ribs. I often considered taking my own life. I had a feeling that I could easily have a bad accident that would result in me breaking my back and living the rest of my life as a paraplegic. But something held me back. It was this feeling that if I died, I was sure that someone would discover the cure for this disease the day after. For me, alcoholism was a biological prison. There was no way to break down the walls.”
To illustrate the extent of the misery he was going through, Dr Ameisen describes waking up at five o’clock in the winter in New York, unaware whether it was early evening or early morning. He would look out of the window to ascertain if people were walking in the street below. If so it was evening and he would be euphoric because he could go down to the liquor store to buy vodka. If no one was about, then it was early morning, and he would despair because he faced an agonising five-hour wait before he was able to buy alcohol.
In his lucid moments, the doctor, who stopped practising medicine when he realised the extent of his addiction, was determined to do whatever he could to find a treatment. In 2000, he read an article in the New York Times about paraplegic patient Edward Coleman who had been prescribed a muscle relaxant called baclofen to relieve spasms. Coleman, who was a cocaine addict, noted that the only downside of the treatment was that it killed his cocaine high.”
Dr Ameisen was fascinated and started his own research into the drug. He wanted to know whether it would work on alcohol and whether it could help him with his uncontrollable feelings of anxiety. He searched the internet for evidence and spoke to neurologists who had prescribed the drug.
In March 2002, he decided to take it himself despite the fact he had no idea if it was safe to use. “I started taking it at a low dose which did not suppress the addiction. In 2004 I made the decision to start raising the dose until I found the level that suppressed alcohol addiction in humans. No one knew whether it would be safe. But for me it was more acceptable to die in the search of a solution than as a victim of the disease. Eventually I reached a daily dose of 270mg.”
Thirty five days later, he was sitting in a cafe with a friend when he underwent a life-changing experience. “I saw somebody with a glass of something in their hand — it looked like cognac. Alcoholics are always told to look away in case they are tempted to drink. But I looked at the guy drinking and I felt complete indifference. From that point on I could look at bottles of alcohol and it would have no more effect on me than looking at books on a bookshelf.”
In the cause of scientific research, he continued to experiment on himself. In a 24-hour period he drank a 75cl bottle of whisky to see if the baclofen would protect him from becoming re-addicted.” I woke up with a bad headache but no craving for alcohol,” he says. He is convinced that baclofen is the cure for alcoholism the world has been waiting for. However, despite his own experience as a human guinea pig, it is still not being widely prescribed. “We need clinical trials; they are the gold standard,” he acknowledges. “But because baclofen is a generic drug there is no money to be made. It is a terrible shame because hundreds of thousands of people die from this disease every year and they can be helped. Doctors are still saying it is unproven but the fact is, if you have a disease which will kill you, you will try an untested drug because you have nothing to lose.”
His book, The End of My Addiction, has been a huge best-seller in France and is already making a big impact in the US. In Paris, there are now around 100 alcohol-addicted patients being treated with baclofen, with “100 per cent” success, he says. And then there is the sight of a healthy Dr Ameisen, free of addiction for five years. He says he plans to devote the rest of his career to his new calling. “Someone said to me that maybe God gave me a job to do. Maybe he gave me the disease to find the cure. He said: ‘You drink as many bottles as you need and in the last bottle you’ll find the solution.’ It makes me feel good to think that. I had a good career as a cardiologist but I made no great impact. This is my greatest achievement.”
Baclofen was designed as a treatment for epilepsy in the 1920s but is now used primarily to treat spasticity, often in cases of spinal chord injury and multiple slerosis.
Dr Olivier Ameisen reported in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism that he successfully used baclofen to completely suppress his own alcohol addiction.
In his paper, he urged for randomised trials of high-dose baclofen to be conducted to test the therapeutic model he had proposed.
Some doctors have decided to ignore the fact that the drug is not yet licensed to treat alcoholism, but others remain sceptical.
Dr Michel Reynaud of Paul-Brousse hospital in Paris says: “Encouraging people to think that there is a miracle molecule is to completely misunderstand the nature of alcoholism, and is extremely irresponsible.”
The End of my Addiction, by Dr Olivier Ameisen, is published by Piatkus at £11.99