This is a guest post by Jack Stem.
My name is Jack, and I'm a recovering addict who is grateful to be clean and serene today.
20 years ago, when I began my journey in an attempt to be “normal” again, I wouldn't have been able to say those words out loud, let alone write them down and then publish them on one of the most read nursing law blogs available. As a health care professional, I believed that my training would keep me safe. Guess what...that's one of the biggest myths associated with this disease (and yes, it IS a disease).
I was an emergency room nurse and then went on to become a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA). I had found my dream job. I was good at what I did. Every day was a new challenge that would test my skills and knowledge. Shoot, there were times when I thought to myself, this all has to be a dream come true. Beautiful wife, wonderful, healthy daughters, a great job, nice home. My colleagues respected my abilities and I had one of the highest request rates of anyone in the department. That all changed in 1990.
I had spondylolisthesis and dealt with chronic back pain since my late teens. Nothing I couldn't handle with a day off and a couple of doses of percocet. In 1990, my pain flared up and I did my usual prescription and a little time off. This time was different. This time the pain didn't improve. In fact, it became worse.
Our case load was high and I couldn't take any more time off. If I did they would have to close one of the OR's. Being the good, co-dependent nurse, I sucked it up and returned to work. When I'd get home, I would lie on the floor with an ice pack and take my percocet. One pill became 2, then 3, then 4. After several prescriptions my doctor wouldn't write anymore (“Jack, your pain can't possibly be as bad as you say.” Thanks doc!)
When I couldn't get any of the residents to write me a prescription, my addicted brain (yeah, there's no doubt in my mind my disease had developed by then) said, “Jack, you are squirting perfectly acceptable fentanyl down the drain everyday. How dumb is that? Take the waste home and get a good night sleep!”
So that's what I did. Well, once the beast is released, the speed at which the disease progresses is determined by the potency of your “drug of choice”. I always find that phrase to be ironic. As an addict in active disease, THERE IS NO CHOICE!
I almost ended up dead...twice. The first time was because I didn't want to be alive. I didn't want to hurt and embarrass my family (which is exactly what would happen if I was ever found out). I had prepared a mixture of drugs that would have killed me and 5 other people. Fortunately, I never was able to put that plan into motion. Someone walked into the locker room before I could complete the deed. It gave me plenty of time to reconsider what I was about to do. I had 2 daughters who loved me. My wife and other family members did too. So I changed my mind (thank GOD!)
A couple of days later I had a semi-emergent spinal fusion (foot drop and numbness that wouldn't go away). I was off work for almost 5 months. When I returned to work, I wasn't prepared for what happened. When I opened the first vial of fentanyl for my first case, I broke out in a total body sweat, my hands and legs began to shake, and I thought I was going to puke! I had just experienced my first “trigger”. Since the brain of an addict is transformed as a result of their genetics (yes...addiction is a genetically based disease) and the chronic misuse of large quantities of mood altering chemicals, repeating some of the actions associated with “using” can trigger huge activity in the limbic areas of the brain. This activates a craving (the uncontrollable desire to obtain and use your drog of choice). I didn't return to use that day. But when I did later in the week, I accidentally overdosed. Fortunately, my then 4 year old daughter forgot her swim suit for lessons and had to return to pick it up. She came into the bedroom where daddy was taking a nap to give me a kiss. She told my wife, “Daddy is a funny color.”
The next thing I know I'm in the back of an ambulance heading to the ER. That's when I finally admitted I was addicted to opioids and entered treatment. I struggled for quite awhile before I finally was able to get clean and remain clean. My addiction cost me almost everything...my career, my marriage, my home, and almost my life.
Today, I am able to say I have 16 years and ten days clean. I'm a peer advisor for Ohio's CRNAs. I consult with LaTonia to assist her clients dealing with substance abuse and chemical dependence. I provide educational presentations to schools of nurse anesthesia and nursing programs to fill the huge gap that all nursing schools, medical schools and other health care programs leave out...education about the disease of addiction. I'm grateful to those recovering individuals who have helped me achieve and remain clean. I'm grateful to LaTonia for having the foresight to allow me to use my experience, strength, and hope as well as my anesthesia and nursing background to assist my colleagues in achieving recovery and return to the practice of nursing. I'm grateful to be able to help one person at a time realize that they aren't stupid, evil, people.
The person unlucky enough to develop the disease of addiction isn't a bad person trying to become good. They have a chronic, progressive potentially fatal disease affecting the brain, and they want to become well. Sadly, our profession rarely helps their colleagues when they suspect someone may be struggling with substance abuse or addiction. No, too many nurses ignore their colleague until they can no longer ignore them anymore, or until they find them dead in the locker room or call room. I'm doing my best to change things.
Look for more posts in the future. Until then, keep taking it one day at a time!
Look for some of my posts on AllNurses.com in the “Nurses in Recovery” section.
Peer Advocacy for Impaired Nurses, LLC