The unlikely face of addiction

The unlikely face of addiction

May 01, 2007

Death. Prison. Recovery. These are the choices an addict faces. They were the choices I faced in March 1987.

I'd graduated from veterinary school nine months before. I was sixth in my class with a 3.89 GPA. I looked good on the outside, with a prestigious academic internship at Auburn University as my first job. My accomplishments propped up the fantasy that my life was normal despite daily amphetamine and alcohol use and struggles with bulimia and depression. Having grown up with addicted adults in my childhood as well as physical violence and sexual abuse, my concept of "normal" was somewhat warped in the first place.

And my reality in early 1987 was anything but normal. I was almost completely isolated, unable to care for myself and increasingly unable to care for my patients. I was profoundly depressed and contemplating suicide. I had begun using controlled substances from the school's hospital—something to bring me down, then something to wake me up enough so that I could work. The interns working with me noticed that I reeked of anesthetic and was sliding downward fast. All that was left was the job. It was how I got money to feed my addictions, and it was the last thing I could hold up to show that everything was OK, even though it wasn't.

Everything came to a head one night when I was on call. A receptionist called me to come in, but I was noticeably drunk on the phone. After that, a group of students and faculty reached out to me and forced me to confront my addiction. They saved my life.

I was given the opportunity to participate in a program for chemically dependent physicians rather than being prosecuted for drug theft. Perhaps with divine inspiration, I made the right choice. I accepted help.

One day at a time

I am here today, 20 years sober, both inwardly healthy and outwardly successful and joyously participating in a profession that I love. Staying sober has required ongoing participation in 12-step programs and changes in my lifestyle. It requires plenty of effort and persistence on my part. But compared to the time and energy it took to lead a duplicitous, tortured existence as a using addict, it's minimal. Recovery has been more than a human salvage operation for me. I have been returned to life, empowered as an individual to live with enthusiasm and passion.

I've learned many things on this journey. First, addiction is a brain-biochemistry issue, not one of failed self-control or moral depravity. If I could have stopped, I would have. Quitting was not possible without help—even in the face of severe external consequences. And I've seen other veterinarians die as a result of their addictions rather than admit they're not in control of their drug abuse.

Our profession attracts self-motivated, highly critical, overachieving perfectionists. As observed by Dr. Joe Gloyd from the AVMA Wellness Committee, these are also characteristics common to addicts as well as people raised in addicted households. These tendencies, combined with ready access to controlled substances and sometimes lax drug accountability, means addiction is overrepresented in the veterinary community compared to the general population. This is neither good nor bad; it simply is. Being aware of addiction allows us to recognize colleagues in trouble and to help each other if the need arises.