Rockstar Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson is back after going AWOL for the better part of a year. It took a while for the world to realize he’d even gone missing. A dizzying world tour to promote his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life in 2019 was followed by a period of silence on his otherwise-frenetic YouTube channel.
Then, at the beginning of this year, Peterson’s daughter Mikhaila logged on to provide the world with an update: her father was in terribly ill health, suffering from physical dependence on benzodiazepines, an anti-anxiety medication.
Peterson had begun taking the medication in 2017 on medical advice, to treat severe food allergies that had long plagued him. His problems began when he upped the dosage — again on medical direction — following his wife’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. The higher dosage triggered a paradoxical reaction, intensifying his anxiety rather than reducing it — even to the point of causing him to experience suicidal thoughts.
Unable to free himself from the dependence and suffering from pneumonia and other complications, Peterson was checked in to clinics in the US, Serbia and Russia by his family before his health began improving.
Last week, Jordan Peterson uploaded a short, eight-minute video to his channel entitled Return Home, from his home base in Toronto. It is an emotionally honest — if a little stilted — testimonial recounting the events of the last year and the progress of his recovery.
In it, Peterson describes what was the worst period of his life, a time characterised by “anguish and lack of hope for the future”. He expresses deep gratitude to family and friends who went beyond the call of duty to lift him up during his dark night of the soul.
An understandable and perhaps widespread reaction to Jordan Peterson’s last year is one of disillusionment: how could a man who has helped so many others himself have slipped so low? Is the wisdom he shared with the world truly of use if it doesn’t appear to have helped him all that much?
But I believe there are a number of reasons that this analysis is shallow and short-sighted.
First, Peterson and his family are at pains to stress that his experience was not one of psychological addiction but physical dependence, which he never signed up for. And though things took a turn for the worse after his wife’s cancer diagnosis, the reason he was on the medication to begin with was for chronic dietary issues — not psychological ones.
Second, it is difficult to quantify the level of stress Peterson has faced in recent years. A spouse’s cancer diagnosis is tough on anyone. Add to this the grueling schedule Peterson kept as thousands came to hear him speak night after night in cities across the world. It’s more than most could bear.
But there is another layer to the Peterson saga. Both in public and behind the scenes, Jordan Peterson had crosshairs on his back. Though he never went looking for enemies, there was an aggressive, global campaign to discredit the man as some kind of fringe, “alt-right” figure who harboured nefarious motives and was seeking to radicalize “incels” and other unsavoury types.
But this narrative couldn’t have been further from the truth. In a sea of postmodern chaos, Jordan Peterson was providing a sense of order and meaning to life for the countless young people listening to him. For those who lacked one growing up, Peterson even represented a father-like figure — and he was told this on numerous occasions.
In many of his past videos, Peterson would describe encounters with young men who approached him in public to tearfully thank him, and describe moments of family reconciliation and personal reformation inspired by his lectures. Whatever regress Jordan Peterson has suffered in the last year, there is lasting transformation in the lives of others that won’t be undone.
Finally, Peterson’s trials needn’t be read as discrediting. It is a simple fact, observed by all of us, that those who have survived the valley of the shadow of death are often best placed to guide others through the same.
Peterson is still on the mend. He describes himself as “still severely impaired, especially in the morning”. But he is optimistic about the future.
Following his wildly popular 2017 lecture series on the book of Genesis, he now has plans underway to teach through the next biblical book of Exodus — and also the wisdom of Proverbs. Speaking of these intentions, he expresses confidence that “people will find it of equal or greater utility” than his previous work.
Curiously, Peterson has hinted at something of a spiritual renaissance. Though in the past he has been guarded about any personal belief in God — preferring instead to mainly speak of theism’s psychological benefits — comments in his most recent video suggest a shift.
“With God’s grace and mercy,” he says, “I’ll be able to start generating original material once again and pick up where I left off.”
It’s far from messianic, nor should it be. But Jordan B. Peterson is back — and given the upheaval of this year, the timing couldn’t be better.