Are We Helping Others While Ignoring Ourselves?

addicted nurse

She was a registered nurse. She was the mother of four children. She was also an alcoholic and a benzo addict, with Valium being her drug of choice. That person was my mother, and her alcoholism and prescription pill addiction may have had much to do with her desire to be of service to everyone else, and in all that helping, she lost herself.

My mother was a dedicated nurse, until she wasn’t anymore. Her addiction started when a doctor prescribed Valium to calm her frazzled nerves to help her cope with four small children and a crazy Italian husband. Addictions often start this way: an innocent motive sets the ball rolling, and for my mother it was all downhill from there. Her addiction went on for more than 25 years. She saw numerous doctors and therapists, but none diagnosed her with alcoholism. The devastation heaped on our family, not to mention that the demoralization that she experienced due to her addiction, was epic. The catalyst for recovery came only when she fell down a flight of stairs while drunk and broke her neck. Rehab finally entered the picture.

What’s most disturbing about my mother’s story is that when it comes to healthcare, from what I’ve seen, not much has changed. The medical community still seems reluctant to talk about addiction within its own ranks. Too often people with underlying substance abuse problems are almost always given some other mental health diagnoses: Anxiety and depression. Everyone talks about helping those poor souls out there – those people who pour through hospital doors with addiction problems – but there’s a disconnect, an “us against them” mentally that doesn’t address those who need help too–doctors, nurses and ancillary staff.

Healthcare has a way of ignoring that all of us who work in the industry are as susceptible, if not more so, as the general population when it comes to acquiring or having a substance abuse problem. The question that begs to be answered: why don’t healthcare workers talk about substance abuse within their own ranks? Addiction is the sort of disease that can grab a hold of anyone.

As a registered nurse, I’ve spent the last 24 years working in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards. When I reflect on these years, it’s clear to me that plenty of people working in healthcare still don’t understand addiction. I have yet to work on any nursing unit where someone didn’t already have a restricted license or they exhibited signs of addiction: poor attendance; inability to get along with others; chaotic home life; low energy. My coworkers’ problems were never addressed because of the fear of what would happen to them and their jobs. Most of the affected employees were eventually fired for other reasons, or they moved on to other jobs before the axe came down.

In the interim space, how many people did they potentially harm due to their impaired status? Can we be mindful of the fact that addiction impacts at least 10% of the general population, and many of those people end up working in healthcare?  Several years back, USA Today published an article about impaired healthcare workers, and the author noted the poor job healthcare does in discussing the ever-growing addiction problem, and the harm to innocent lives that occurs when it’s not addressed. I have to ask, what’s changed? Not much.

I have sat through numerous Power Point presentations where a healthcare worker points and clicks their way through a host of charts and graphs–dismal data that reflects the growing drug and alcohol problem in this country. I’m troubled that they never bring up the fact that they should include those of us who work in the industry into the discussion. As I said, the “us against them” mentality has to change, along with the pejorative nature of what happens when a doctor or nurse has substance abuse issues. Fear of losing their livelihood keeps too many doctors and nurses from taking the necessary action to address their own substance abuse, and that must change.

After short stints where she trained polo horses, worked as a flight attendant, hairdresser, and bartender, Lisa Boucher revamped her life and settled in as a registered nurse. For past 28 years, she has worked with hundreds of women to overcome alcoholism, live better lives and become better parents.  She was prompted to write “Raising the Bottom: Making Mindful Choices in a Drinking Culture,” published in June 2017, when she realized after 24 years of working in hospitals, that doctors and traditional health care offer few solutions to women with addiction issues. She lives in Ohio. Learn more at RaisingtheBottom.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram, @LBoucherAuthor.

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