Health Care Professionals in Recovery
What are the main issues facing health care professionals in recovery?
If you’re a health care professional recovering from addiction, you’re not alone. Like many others in this role, you may encounter some particular challenges to your recovery—issues such as shame, fear, workaholism, intellectualization, denial, controlling tendencies, difficulty asking for personal help, and handling access to dangerous substances. But if you stay alert to these potential obstacles, you can better head them off.
Shame is a very real challenge on your journey through recovery. As a health care professional, your community holds you to a very high ethical standard. You may feel deeply ashamed of your addiction and feel that you have let down your patients, friends, family, and colleagues.
If you relapse or return to consistent use, you may fear losing your ability to practice your profession. But trying to hide your use will only keep you from getting the help and support you need. In most cases such addiction issues are dealt with anonymously through monitoring programs. It is possible, however, for a professional’s addiction history to be made public through the acts of various regulatory boards and other professional organizations. This could lead to an inability to secure employment, hospital privileges, malpractice insurance, and specialty certification.
This is a leading cause of relapse in health care professionals. You may work long hours, including nights and weekends, in order to care for your patients appropriately. Unfortunately this hard work can take its toll. Even so, some professionals find themselves more emotionally comfortable in a clinical work setting than they are in other areas of life: relationships, children, money management, and so on. They may begin to “hide” at work to avoid participating at home.
As a health care professional you are part of a group of people with high intellectual capabilities, people who tend to work toward a sense of mastery. Caution: over-intellectualization can pose a recovery challenge. You might enter treatment planning to study hard, get an “A” in treatment, and live happily ever after. But remember that in recovery you never stop learning: “If you’re not doing, you’re dying.”
Many health care professionals in recovery don’t see themselves as being addicted, since they go to work every day, have a good income, and don’t fit the “skid row” addict image. If this describes you, your unwillingness to fully acknowledge your own disease may hinder your recovery. Indeed, denial can lead to a relapse. The best antidote is, of course, rigorous honesty. Each of the Twelve Steps offers an opportunity to keep denial front and center in your recovery.
Many health care professionals are by their very nature controllers who are taught that to lack control of a clinical situation is to invite death and disaster. As this type of professional, you may feel that you should be able to master anything that comes your way. This can truly challenge your recovery: you will need to accept that you are powerless against addiction, and that you need help from your Higher Power to succeed.
Difficulty asking for personal help
Health care professionals frequently have trouble seeking help in their own recovery. This is a critical issue since recovery cannot take place without other addicts. One basic tenet of good medical practice is that professionals should ask for help in clinical situations where they have reached the limit of their expertise. Curiously, some of the same professionals who adhere to this tenet may see asking for personal help as a sign of weakness or even incompetence. Seek help when you need it. Talk to your sponsor or recovery group—they can offer guidance and support.
Access to mood-altering chemicals in the workplace
You may be exposed to these substances as part of your daily work routine. Physicians are no more likely to become addicted than the general population, but when they do they are three times as likely to use opiates because of the easy access. As a health care professional you could become addicted to the very chemicals you give to your patients. Your recovery could be at serious risk if you return to work and are again exposed to your drug of choice. Return to work is a problem for some, and care must be taken to minimize or avoid access.
What are the recovery rates for health care professionals?
Good news: the lifelong success rate for these professionals is approximately 90 percent—almost double the rate for the average patient in treatment. When health care professionals receive adequate care and monitoring for their addictions, lives and careers are saved, and everybody wins.
How can health care professionals protect their own recovery?
If you learned early in life that others valued you because of how much you achieved, or how smart, successful, or popular you were, you may have learned to judge yourself critically, based on external standards. You may even see yourself as worthless if you don’t achieve your goals.
If you believe you should be perfect, you’ll have a very strong desire to try to control your addiction with sheer willpower—and decades of experience tell us this won’t work. Your will is not enough; you must look outside yourself for the help you need to preserve your ongoing recovery.
Try thinking about success in a different way. If you are handling yourself with integrity and honesty, and applying your energy positively, then take pride in the journey. Don’t let anxiety and worry about the “what-ifs” stress you out. You might want to join a new Twelve Step group or a book or movie club, but what if you stutter or look foolish? What if you’re not smart enough to meet others’ expectations? Realize that it’s all right if you make a few mistakes. You don’t have to be better than everyone else all the time. We are all works in progress, and we’re all in different stages of our lives.
These strategies may help.
1. Set realistic and reachable goals.
Base your goals on your own wants and needs. Make them reasonable by measuring them against your past achievements and performance when you were at your best. As you reach one goal, you can set the next one at a higher level. Setting realistic goals will lead to a greater sense of achievement and self-esteem.
2. Rethink your idea of success.
Think about any goal you would love to achieve. Now imagine that you don’t quite meet it. Instead of being dissatisfied, think about how significant it is to achieve even 50 percent of your goal. Give yourself some credit for the smaller successes— as long as you are achieving steps along the way to your goal, you’re succeeding.
3. Enjoy the journey.
Think about success not only as achieving grand goals, but respect the energy, integrity, and time that you dedicate to your journey along the way.
4. Recognize the power of mistakes.
Mistakes offer a great opportunity to learn. Think of a recent mistake you have made and list what you learned from it.
5. Confront your fears.
Many of us in health care are afraid that we don’t stack up against expectations—our own or others’. Give yourself a reality check by asking, “Have I set up impossible expectations for myself? What am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen if I don’t achieve my ultimate goal?”