Editor’s note: This blog is a supplement to the continuing nurse education program “Suicide among nurses: What we don’t know might hurt us.” It illustrates how our unrealistic self-expectations as nurses can lead us down unfortunate paths. The author’s identity is not shared per request; unfortunately, there is still stigma associated with substance misuse. We thank the author for the courage to share this personal story and urge nurses to seek the help they need.
As one life ends another begins—a spiritual lesson and coping mechanism that I taught myself early on to ensure survival. Making sense of the tragic loss of life had always been challenging for me. I always thought it was quite ironic hearing “Brahms Lullaby” echoing from labor and delivery as my patient would take his or her last breath. Fresh life combined with one ending seemed logical to me. It is neutral, loss mixed with gain.
All nurses deal with life and the loss of life in different ways. My approach was effective. I witnessed and held the hands of many dying patients. I would cry, and I rationalized the loss. I would go home and hug my wife and kids a little tighter knowing how precious life is. I was doing exactly what I intended on doing from the second I decided to be a nurse. I simply wanted to help people, and I had been given the opportunity of a lifetime to do so. Four years as a master’s prepared CCRN practicing medical, surgical, neurological, and cardiac intensive care taught me that I could do almost anything. Almost anything, but not everything.
It was another day in the unit, caring for a patient whom I had become too familiar with. Chronic alcoholism mixed with poor life choices makes for a medical, nursing, and social services nightmare. A decision to drink oneself into oblivion made zero sense to me. At 24 years old, she had lived a hard and fast life, and it was coming to a screeching halt. Maximum medical treatment and nursing care was being given to this unfortunate girl, and we could not do any more. As I saw her QRS complex widen, I knew we were getting close to the end. Sodium bicarbonate was just prolonging the inevitable—she went into asystole. The team‘s efforts that day were textbook. Despite our best efforts, I had lost another patient. Another one for the memory banks, another day to try and forget. Unfortunately, that was not the only one that I would lose on that fateful day.
As I completed all the necessary tasks and paperwork required after a patient death, my phone rang. Why was my brother’s girlfriend calling me? As I answered the phone, and as I heard her voice tremble with emotion, I knew it wasn’t good. Over the next several hours, the final minutes of my brother’s life would come to a close as a result of a massive myocardial infarction. The autopsy showed complete occlusion of the left anterior descending coronary artery, the “widow maker” as they taught us in school. He was young, he was my mentor, he was my friend, and he was my brother.
The level of grief I felt was immeasurable. I could only feel loss. My coping strategy was failing, and I knew it. The pain of my loss dwarfed any potential upside. It was all negative, not positive, and far from neutral. My first day back to work after several weeks off lasted all of 20 minutes. As I walked into the unit to get my assignment, I saw the tragedy in my work. I looked into the rooms, 19 in all, and I saw a mom, a dad, a sister, or a brother. A brother like my brother. I couldn’t contain the emotion, and I sobbed uncontrollably as a colleague asked me if I was ok. I grabbed her, hugged her as tightly as I possibly could, and cried. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by all my colleagues, my friends.
I was incapacitated, and the thought of working in that environment terrified me. Patients were no longer just random strangers lying in a bed. They were loved by somebody. Multiple tragedies at once, all in the same place, and under my care. I felt that experiencing these deep emotions daily was an impossibility. I had to find a way to free my mind and broken heart from these incessant feelings of pain and gloom. I came to the conclusion that to cope and deal with my loss, I would have to hide my emotions. I didn’t want to break down in front of my colleagues again. I did not want to appear weak or incompetent to other clinicians and practitioners. I was the nurse that you could count on, and a resource to my unit and my hospital.
As time went on I would go to work, experience loss, and hide all negative emotions to what I was experiencing. My wife noticed a change in me. I could not just mask the specific emotions that I wanted to hide. All of my emotions had been profoundly attenuated. I was no longer the nurturing and loving husband I was just several months prior. I was no longer the father my kids looked forward to see as I walked through the door, after a day on the nursing floor. Making it through the day was a daunting, seemingly impossible task. As I progressively worsened, insomnia and night terrors plagued my life. Flashbacks from patient care experiences were now a real threat to my existence, similar to what you would see in an old war movie with shell-shocked military personnel. I can only describe it as the fear you would feel if you were being buried alive—a viable threat to your very existence, without the existence of any tangible dangers. I had gone from a young “up and coming” star within the healthcare community to a marginal, emotionless, and sleep-deprived clinician.
Sleep is a necessity, and I reached a point where I would do anything to obtain it. Alcohol was never really an option, I didn’t want to end up like the 24 year old I took care of the day my brother died. I also knew that even though alcohol would help get me to sleep, it wouldn’t keep me to sleep. I needed something legitimate, a medicine to help me get some shut eye. I searched my medicine cabinet, and found some Benadryl. I took the little pink pill, and soon found myself drifting away to sleep.
I awoke the next morning, and felt rested. About 6 hours of sleep was almost 3 times the sleep I was used to getting. My problems were solved, and I just needed Benadryl to help me sleep. The night terrors and flashbacks seemed better as well. Finally, I found relief from an existence that I felt was fleeting.
After several months of the cumbersome process of work, Benadryl, and sleep, I found that the antihistamine was no longer working. Despite taking 150 mg of the drug, six times the recommended dose, I could hardly get a few hours of sleep. Naturally, a mentally healthy person would more than likely seek help for their issues. But not me. The isolating and hiding mentality that I had developed was ingrained into my very being. I believed that hiding and dealing with my own problems was the answer.
The ineffectiveness of my sleep aid not only led to a reemergence of my insomnia, but also my ability to cope. I found myself in a worsened state mentally. Death followed me. Either I was grieving my brother, or dealing with a loss at work. I perceived my life as inescapable and endless. To everyone else I was still the strong clinician, educator, husband, and father. I hid everything, and I had an aversion to sharing my emotions and psychological state.
I was at an ending point, and I was coming to terms with my life. I would just keep living this way. I could tolerate this life for another 30 or 40 years. That’s what I told myself, and I kept on pushing through the best I could. Until that night, the night of complete desperation. I just wanted to sleep, a rested mind. My obsession with sleep was my motivation. I went to my medicine cabinet, looking for any kind of sedating medication and found Vicodin leftover from an injury I had months before. I knew it would help me sleep. I knew it was addictive. All I would do is take the pills until I ran out. However, that was the beginning of a roller coaster ride that would end tragically, with me clinging on to life by mere threads.
As the hydrocodone and acetaminophen entered my blood stream, I began to feel its euphoric effects. I felt normal, I felt happy. Nostalgia and memories of the past when I was on fire for my life and profession flooded my brain. The alterations in brain chemistry that I was experiencing made me feel as if I could actually carry on. I could continue to function as a nurse, a husband, and a father. I was set free.
I awoke the next day completely unchained from what had been ailing me for months. I didn’t have any nightmares, I slept for 10 hours, and I was not using every possible molecule of ATP in my body to get going. The grief, along with any feelings of negativity, were gone. Just like a weightlifter who takes breaks in between sets to allow the body to recuperate. This was my break, my second wind, and a wind that I planned on riding for as long as possible. Just that one time was all I need to regain my strength and continue pushing through the adversity that plagued my life.
That night I was back to where I was just 24 hours before. However, things seemed different. Not only was my insomnia and negative psyche back, but it seemed worse. As difficult that night was for me, my evening was plagued with something much more sinister. I knew how to make these feelings and sleeplessness go away. I was dealing with a dilemma I thought I would never find myself in. I was struggling with whether or not to take opiates to numb my pain. Metaphorically, I felt as if I had a gun to my head, and my life was in the balance. Flashbacks were striking me with force, more frequently than they ever had in the past. Simply watching TV by myself was a terrifying experience. I had no idea when these short psychological burst of adrenaline and fear would incapacitate me beyond comprehension. As they would come on, the aura surrounding my environment would change. I would instantly think of random events and experiences in the hospital. A heart rate and respiratory rate comparable to running wind sprints would pierce the very being of my soul. And, there I would sit, asking God to show me another way, another option. As I grew weaker by the second, I found myself taking not only Vicodin, but also my now standard 150 mg Benadryl dose.
The cycle began, and all I could see was the relief. I couldn’t see the harm I was causing my body. I couldn’t see the betrayal of my family and colleagues. I couldn’t see the addiction. I couldn’t see the consequences. All I saw was a life free of misery, a life free of pain.I had become a full-blown drug addict: The same guy who excelled in his personal and professional life. The same guy who never felt the bondage with any mind-altering substance for the first 36 years of his life. The same guy who never felt the need to destroy his life and relationships. But I was different, I had changed. Something on a very fundamental level had been transformed within me.
As my several week supply of leftover Vicodin was gone, I found more from a friend from high school, a groomsman in my wedding. Unbeknownst to me, he had an addiction problem with pain medications as well, the perfect connection to feed my habit. An upper class, clean friend isn’t a drug dealer. He is a friend, helping a friend in need.
The Norcos I obtained from him kept my addiction alive for months. The desperate cycle of ensuring I had enough pills, coupled with hiding my addiction from everyone close to me, was much easier than I thought. It was easy, and I was happy. I became the ultimate consumer of everything gratifying. Once I was a very conservative man, planning and spending money only on necessities. I was now a person who purely consumed. Food, cars, trips, anything that would give me an additional dopamine spike. My life was driven by substance, not sustenance. My only goal was numbing those terrifying dreams, sleep, and experiences.
One day, my “friend” told me that he received a promotion and was being relocated. Instantly I knew what this meant—my addiction was over. Despite all the suffering and pain I had experienced, I was confident I could just quit. I told myself that I had months of healing and rest under my belt. I could do it; I didn’t need the drugs to maintain my function. Little did I know that my drug addiction made matters much worse. The addiction alone stole away the very best parts of me. The honesty, integrity, professional respect, and personal accountability had all been reduced to a fraction of what they were. What I thought was helping me was plunging me deeper into more problems than I could ever had imagined.
After 24 hours off opiates, I was sitting in my office. I was now the charge nurse in interventional radiology. I got out of the ICU several weeks before, thinking that if I wasn’t exposed to death I would get better. Despite all my best intentions, there wasn’t a unit in the hospital that would assist me in my struggles.One day off my crutch, and I was in full-blown withdrawal. The best way I could explain it, is that it felt like being infected with the H1N1 influenza virus multiplied by ten. The misery that brought me to my addiction was back with a vengeance. I was literally in a perpetual state of panic and despair. But I held out, I stayed strong. I couldn’t do the unthinkable. I couldn’t take narcotics from my hospital. That was a line I was not willing to cross.
As I sat in my office, writhing in discomfort, I heard over the loudspeaker, “Code blue cath lab room 1! Code blue cath lab room 1!” I was frequently assigned to be a first responder in the hospital due to my ICU experience and role as a charge nurse. As I ran into the room I saw the patient. A relatively young man, suffering from a myocardial infarction, who went into cardiopulmonary arrest during an angiogram. We followed the ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) algorithm, I performed CPR, and was up to my neck in trying to save this young guy. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. I cried tears that I didn’t think were possible.
As I walked out of the unit, I witnessed one of the hardest moments of my life: The patient’s family, hearing the news that their loved one had passed. The shock and grief that I witnessed reduced me to complete emptiness.The first thoughts that crossed my mind, for whatever reason, was suicide. I couldn’t go on living this misery. I was incapable of asking for help. I had thought about it before. Something that I never really considered, but I knew how I would do it if I was ever pushed to the extremes I had found myself in. An arterial line insertion kit and my bathtub. That was my plan. I would simply insert the needle, leave it uncapped, and slowly exsanguinate to death in the comfort of a warm bathtub. I grabbed the insertion kit, and left the tape and gauze. Hemostasis was not my goal. My goal was to end my nightmare, to drain my body of life.
It was not the pain of the insertion, or slowly drifting into the abyss that stopped me. It was my son—the one thing that stopped me, my reason to live. I thought that I had lost them, all the purposes that make us human. Some people find it in their work, relationships, or in their hobbies. The last one I had left, my purpose that was now driving my survival. My 6-year-old boy. I still had an endearing love for him, but that isn’t what stopped me. It was his love for me, I couldn’t bear to think of the pain he would go through knowing his dad would no longer be by his side.
The next day, and after several days of withdrawal, I found myself back at work. It was early, no sense staying at home in misery. I thought I might as well do something productive, even though my mind was racing faster than an electron in the Large Hadron Collider. I just wanted the thoughts, anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, and now, withdrawal illness, to stop. Over the course of several minutes, my mind made the decision. I went from fighting through withdrawal and a resurgence of my poor mental health, to getting high. I told myself it was just once, just to feel better.
However, the way I would get the drugs differed from how many other nurses divert. I would just go to the hospital’s automated drug delivery system and take it; just pick a random patient in the system, and take whatever I wanted.I wasn’t stealing it from a patient in need, what was the harm?This decision to divert was seemingly easy in this state. The psychological pain, coupled with being sick, was the supreme motivator in that moment. In hindsight, it was without a doubt, the stupidest thing I have ever done. But, in that moment, the morality of right and wrong were nonexistent to me. Not for one nanosecond did I think I was doing something wrong. What I did realize, however, is that this decision was forcing me to go much deeper into my addiction. And, this decision would ultimately result in a catastrophic sequence of events that would forever change me and countless others.
Of course, diverting medications can lead to severe consequences for someone like me, a respected, up-and-coming clinician who was supporting his family. An instructor at a local university. A man with everything to lose. But this wasn’t my biggest mistake. Working in a procedural area, the only narcotics available were injectable. Not only that, the only drug I had access to was Fentanyl, one of the most potent forms of opiate-based analgesics available. I told myself I wouldn’t inject in a vein. I’m just doing it once, an intramuscular injection would work just fine.
As I injected the Fentanyl, my mind began to be at ease. I knew relief was coming. No more bad thoughts, flashbacks, nausea, diarrhea, muscle cramps, runny nose, or headaches. It all went away, instantly. I knew I was going to get caught for doing this. I boldly took narcotics from my hospital. The pharmacy would know immediately, at least that’s what I thought.I sat in my office waiting. Waiting for my manager, director, or human resources representative to walk through the door. As the day went on, nothing happened. I drove home that night, spent time with my family, and went to bed. I thought for sure they would be waiting for me in my office in the morning, or at least an email. I eventually feel asleep with a little help of Benadryl.
I woke up suffering. I didn’t sleep well, and my mind was in turmoil. Anxiety consumed me. Not because of the trauma I was dealing with, but because of what I did the day before. I drove to work, fearing who would be there. Would it be the cops? I’m not a criminal, I thought, I’m just trying to make it through life. Trying to survive in a world and profession that was destroying me.
As I swiped into work and opened my office, I realized no one had caught on; there were no emails or nasty voicemails. I went to my director’s office to discuss some issues we were dealing with. I did this simply to feel her out, to try and figure out if she knew something, but I left convinced that she knew nothing. I went back to my office and began to suffer yet another day. My resilience was gone, I couldn’t fight anymore. I took more Fentanyl, just like I did the day before. I felt the relief again. This time I did something different. I took out extra for an extra dose before I went home. That way I could sleep. The primary motivator in my addiction that created my problem. I swiped out, went to my office, drew up my drug, and injected.
This went on for several weeks. Every day I expected a phone call or email. Maybe a face to face with someone from human resources. Nothing. My tolerance was growing quickly, and my muscles were sore. Injecting such a large volume of fluid into a muscle is painful. But, it dwarfed in comparison to the alternative. I was just happy that I wasn’t suffering, the pain in my mind was gone.
I was good at hiding my addiction. I smiled, I conversed with others, I didn’t fall asleep at meetings. Not a single person had a clue that I was a drug addict, not even my wife. That would explain the devastating look on her face when I told her. Not her husband, the husband who was respected by everyone and excelled in his profession. I had to tell her; my mind was reaching a breaking point. The most important reason I told her, however, is that I couldn’t stop. The decision and deductive reasoning skills that I used to have were gone. The drugs were in control, and I was just merely doing what they told me to.
After much grief and heartache between my wife and me, we decided that I needed help from a local addiction specialist. I can remember my wife telling me that I was an “addict”. I was in denial, and the anger-filled response towards her comment spoke volumes to the level of denial I had. I was not an addict, at least that is what I thought. I was just trying to make it through life. As I entered into recovery, I continued to be in denial. I hid my emotions and struggles with addiction, just as I had learned to do when dealing with my psychological distress.I was technically in recovery for my addiction, but refusing the help that was offered to me. I was strong enough to just stop. I didn’t need experts in the field of addiction to help me.
I found myself back at work after a month of receiving treatment. That was when I experienced my first relapse. A month of therapy wasn’t enough to address the severity of my problem. I was still attending my outpatient recovery program and was being drug tested at random. I knew I would get caught, but the consequences were not severe enough to stop my addiction. Metaphorically speaking, it was as if I had been starved for weeks and I had a Big Mac sitting in front of me on the dinner table. I had an insatiable desire to self medicate, I was eating the cheeseburger. But, unbeknownst to me, Fentanyl does not screen positive on a drug screen. I micturated in the cup multiple times, and they all came back negative.
When it happened I was furious. I was caught by one of my staff members in the middle of the night. I was now going into the hospital on my days off, at night, to feed my habit. Staff had been called in to place a central line on a crashing patient. One of the nurses saw me in automated medication dispensing system and put two and two together. Despite my anger of getting caught, I took solace that this was what I needed to get my life back.
After a lengthy investigation, I was terminated. My behavior warranted a complete disownment by everyone who loved and cared for me. I did not deserve their love and compassion. My wife found an inpatient program for me to attend. I went knowing that I needed help, and I was willing to do whatever it took to get healthy. As I was in my program, I discovered from my wife that I was under investigation by the authorities. I was now considered a criminal. The local police, detectives from consumer affairs, and the SWAT team raided my house. They were looking for a stash of drugs or money. They were convinced that I was stealing narcotics for personal monetary gain. They thought they had stumbled upon a drug dealer due to the enormous amounts of Fentanyl I had taken.
As I returned home from rehab, I was on the road to recovery. Unfortunately, my psychological troubles were not identified. This was partially secondary to my inability to effectively communicate what I was going through, and partially because I did not have the therapy I needed. Twelve step meetings and weekly hour long counseling sessions were inadequate for my healing. I was still sick. My relationships were in shambles. Every degree, accolade, and my work with patients was nullified by my actions. I was no longer the respected clinician that I had worked so hard to become. I had become a low-life drug addict, who was trying desperately to survive the personal, professional, and social consequences of my actions.
Over the course of 9 months I was on disability for my addiction. Not working and collecting checks for my addiction recovery from the government was not my idea of being a productive citizen. I wanted to practice nursing again, and start to rebuild my life as a clinician. I was still suffering from insomnia, nightmares, and flashbacks. I hid my struggles, and I pushed onward.
The investigation by the authorities was complete, and I began to experience what I thought would be the lowest point in my life. I was charged with 12 felonies stemming from my addiction. A local news reporter heard about my story, and did a story on my situation. The local ABC news crew was at my front door with a microphone and camera in tow. They wanted to speak to me, my wife, or anyone that was connected to me. I was the featured “breaking news” story on the local news. The shock in the local healthcare community was palpable. Anyone that knew me was now fully informed of my scenario. Past students, colleagues, family, and even friends from high school were aware of how much trouble I was in. My first intuition was to try and save face. I thought I was back to my old self despite my ongoing psychological problems, and I wanted to try and rebuild myself and reputation. I had not been stripped of my RN license yet; it was still fully current and active. Putting myself back in harm’s way seemed like a logical decision to me at the time. However, in hindsight it was another mistake in a string of mistakes that had plagued my life for several years.
I applied for a job at a dialysis access clinic as an RN, and my career was back on track. The physician who owned the clinic was also in recovery, and he believed in me. My job functions were primarily assisting a physician in troubleshooting dialysis access in a procedural area—a procedural area where conscious sedation is administered. Versed was used, but my drug of choice fentanyl. I was strong, and I knew that 9 months of recovery was enough to ensure that I wouldn’t relapse.
Another day at my new job seemed nothing out of the ordinary. I had been working for weeks, and I was doing well. A full load of patients in the procedural area were scheduled. Fistulagrams and dialysis access device placements were nothing out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, that day we had a patient who would suffer from an adverse reaction to the procedure. Anoxia coupled with multiple comorbidities in this patient led to a crisis situation, a life-threatening one. It had been months since I had been exposed to the cycle of life and the end of one. I found myself dealing with a person who was a father, a brother, a son. Vivid memories of my past unresolved grief flooded my brain. Although the patient did not die, it was my trigger. I found myself back to the incapacitated state I was all too familiar with. The maximum doses of antidepressants and mood stabilizer that I was taking was no match for the exposure to real life consequences of getting sick and dying. I had not relapsed yet, but my fate was sealed.
The next few days at work were filled with the PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) that I was dealing with at the height of my psychological demise. I was what they called in addiction “white knuckling” my recovery—just trying to stop without receiving the healing that is offered in recovery. Holding onto the steering wheel with all my might, trying not to cause a catastrophic accident.
Despite my best efforts and intentions, I relapsed. Taking Fentanyl again was one of the most defeating moments in my life. I had come to the conclusion that I would live, and eventually die, as a drug addict. Fortunately for me, again I was caught by my supervisor taking Fentanyl from the narcotics cabinet. She probably doesn’t realize it, but she saved my life that day. Although, anger and frustration filled my very being when I was caught, toady I am so blessed she found me when she did. I was going to die from an overdose unless something drastic happened. She knew of my past addiction when I was hired, but saw something in me and gave me a chance to make my wrongs right. I will never forget the look on her face when she came to the realization that I had taken advantage of her. Her profound disappointment and anger in me was evident. The trust she had entrusted in me was all for not. Another relationship destroyed by my actions. I had destroyed every ounce of faith she had in me, and I had thrown away every chance I had in attaining a meaningful recovery and career.
The consequences of my addiction resulted in not only the loss of my career, but the loss of my liberty. The criminal charges that were levied against me initially became exponentially more severe. Drug diversion from a healthcare organization, while in a position of integrity, was not viewed lightly by the criminal justice system, especially considering that I had done it twice. A court hearing resulted in me being arrested and placed in county jail. I was a person who got into to nursing to help others, but now I found myself losing my liberty because I was a threat to the public. My addiction was destroying my life. My marriage, my career, and my relationships were being decimated by my inability to stop.
The next 10 months of my life were spent rubbing elbows with convicts from all walks of life. I’ll never forget laying in my bunk at the county jail trying to fall asleep, listening to my “bunkie” sharping pencils with a small razor blade used for shaving—an inmate being charged with killing a man in broad daylight in front of multiple witnesses. And there I was, praying to God that he wouldn’t slit my throat in my sleep. My life and career had gone from being a respected clinician, loving husband and father, to a low-life incarcerated drug addict. I was one of them; a man who was decimating his very existence by his inability to deal with life.
The 10 months I spent in jail as a convicted drug addict and thief was one of the most productive I have ever experienced. It is hard to conceive that this would be a beneficial experience for me. However, the exposure to the ultimate destruction that drug addicts face was the most educational experience I have ever had. I was referred to as “nurse” by my cellmates, and I quickly gained notoriety as an inmate who could be a resource to anyone who had questions about their health.
I began to feel comfortable in this environment, as I felt that I was viewed as someone who could offer health advice to other inmates. I started talking to everyone I could to try and understand why they were there. I found one common theme amongst all the inmates. They were all dealing with trauma, negative events and experiences that greatly changed the trajectory of their lives. Childhood molestation, physical abuse, and other emotional and physical trauma were a common theme. I soon realized that my life and addiction were not out of the ordinary from what they were dealing with. I had been subjected to personal trauma that was addressed with maladaptive coping skills. I was just like them.
It was in this environment that I came to a conclusion that would forever change the path of my life. Addiction is a complicating phenomenon. Whether you think it is a moral issue or disease, it is hard to truly grasp the root cause. For me, I found that addiction is merely a symptom of complete spiritual brokenness—spiritual brokenness that leads to a life devoid of purpose and place in this world; a life empty of love, joy, kindness, and connection with others. Receiving or giving these essential human emotions is literally impossible in this state. How could I have become so broken on such an immeasurable level? I began to heal. I began to have faith in God and the purpose that He has for me. I started to understand that despite my mistakes, that there was a way back. I could mend the unmendable, and I could reclaim what I had lost. Ten months confined in the presence of complete dysfunction taught me more than any mentor, professor, or friend ever could.
As I began to feed myself spiritually, I began to understand that the essence of the human spirit is redemptive. The personal and spiritual growth that I experienced during this time dwarfed the progress I had made with addiction medicine and 12-step meetings. Within days I was off the mood stabilizer and antidepressants I had been taking to just simply get out of bed every morning. It was truly a miraculous experience.
After I was released, I continued to work on myself and my relationships. Over the course of weeks, those closest to me witnessed the evolution back to my old self. It still amazes me the amount of love and support that my loved ones still had for me. They had not given up on me, and I am thankful they didn’t. I quickly found a job working in masonry. My employer and fellow colleagues saw something in me, and gave me a chance to prove myself. The patience and guidance they have provided me has been the greatest gift. They gave me a chance to work and prove to myself and them that I still had what it takes to be responsible and trustworthy.
I had been working in masonry for about a year, and I had done well. I was transformed from an overweight and out-of-shape couch potato into a fit construction worker. I had been healing for months, and any evidence of my past struggles was gone. I was sleeping, I had good dreams, and I was happy. One day my wife and I were discussing possible career options, and she recommended that I attempt to get reinstated as an RN. She had witnessed one of the most profound negative devolutions and positive personal transformations in me. I immediately discounted what she said. How could it be possible to get my RN license back after all that I had done? But I began to think about it. My mind and psyche was better than it had ever been, and I began having aspirations to get back into healthcare.
It was a long shot, and one of the most unlikely endeavors that I had ever embarked upon. Reinstating my license was unlikely based upon my prior transgressions. I kept thinking about redemption, and how we as humans can accomplish anything if you believe in yourself. I applied for reinstatement and began tracking my recovery as evidence of my rehabilitation. All the meetings that I went to and meetings with my recovery sponsor were documented. After about a year and a half wait, I received a notice that I would have a reinstatement hearing. My time had come, and I was cautiously optimistic. I was content with my new career, but had rekindled the passion that brought me into nursing so many years prior.
The reinstatement hearing was the most intimidating and ominous situation I had ever participated in. I was under the microscope by some of the most accomplished and respected registered nurses in the state. As I read my statement, my voice trembled and tears ran down my face. I gave a very clear and descriptive account of my life over the past several years. I was not emotional over the mistakes I had made, or even the guilt that I felt. What tugged at my heartstrings was the incredible journey and success that I had in recovery, very similar to the tears and emotion you see in an Olympian when receiving a gold medal. All the hard work, the mistakes, the setbacks, and above all, the victory had me crying tears of joy. Even some in the audience and a board member could not hold back their tears. It was truly one of the most significant events in my life. As I walked out of the hearing I was content with whatever outcome the board was going to choose.
I went home that day and continued on with my life, knowing that the fate of my license was in the hands of the board of nursing. About a month later, I was informed of their decision. My license was reinstated, and I would be fully reinstated once I completed a board-ordered probation. I was officially and legally allowed to again put an “RN” after my name.
Today, I live with a mended heart and soul. The scars do not show from the outside, but those closest to me know that they are there. I have learned who my true friends are. My story is less about me, but more about the forgiving and beautiful people that stood by my side throughout this entire ordeal. I reached out to past colleagues for their support with my license reinstatement. Almost all, without hesitation, volunteered their time in providing their support for me and my character. Some did not—another painful reminder that the stigma of addiction and judgment are a pervasive occurrence with those who struggle with any substance abuse disorder.
The purpose of this article is to bring awareness and to give a different perspective to substance abuse and diversion amongst health professionals. The reality of my situation is that it is not unique. As I am writing this there are many registered nurses diverting and feeding a relentless addiction. There is a culture within the nursing profession that promotes personal strength and competency, but ignores that many of us are susceptible to the adverse effects of working in the nursing profession. Addictions, alcoholism, broken relationships, and anger management issues can be attributed to the constant exposure to on the job stressors and personal turmoil.
We become nurses because we want to help others. We want to be the ones caring for your loved one, as our loved one’s lay asleep in bed or celebrate holidays without us. There is a great personal and professional risk that we take when assuming care of sick patients. Change can only happen once the stigma of addiction, and any other behavioral issues, are accepted not as a personal flaw, but as reaction to the immense weight placed on our shoulders as clinicians.