Nurses, Alcoholism and Addiction

The barriers for those of us in the healing and healing professions to enter recovery from addiction are many. My most recent guest blogger remains anonymous but is sharing her experience and insights as a nurse (RN) in active addiction:

It’s a precarious thing being a nurse and an alcoholic. It’s also very common. The American Nurses Association claims that 1 in 10 nurses have an addiction. I bet it’s more. Fortunately for me, I don’t care all that much for drugs. I just love to drink.

While you’re not likely to find a lot of alcohol in the hospital it does flow freely in schools, churches, retirement homes, and other not-so-clinical places that employ nurses. If I had a real affinity for drugs, I probably wouldn’t be working in the hospital that long.

It’s precarious because it’s very hard to take care of someone while hungover or buzzed. Every morning before I get here, I say to myself, “do you remember how to resuscitate someone? ‘Cause this could be the day.” Scary.

It’s also very frowned upon. Hated in fact. How could you? You’re a NURSE! How could you be responsible for someone else’s life and be under the influence? You bitch.

Here’s the thing: If you’re active in your addiction, you are out of control. Taking care of someone else feels good. Having difficulty taking care of someone else feels awful. Having difficulty taking care of ourselves feels shameful. Some of us that need the most help fight the biggest stigma, and that makes it hard to ask for what we need.

I was in nursing school when was arrested for OUI. I didn’t think that much about it, except that it made it a little difficult to get to school. No more commuting, so I moved to an apartment in Orono and walked.

I got pregnant and it made it easy to give the booze up, for a little while. I was shocked to find out that as soon as I finished school, the Nursing Board wanted to talk to me before they licensed me. I had to defend my actions of two years prior. I was NOT expecting that. That’s when I found out how serious addiction and nursing is. Right from the start.

IN THE HOSPITAL:

Nurses hate other nurses who use. They’re unreliable and therefore unpopular because she/he doesn’t show up sometimes. No one leaves when there aren’t enough nurses. You might not go home on time. If there are meds missing, NO ONE LEAVES. You do a lot of overtime hours. You never know when you are getting home.

Accidentally take the Narcotic keys home? You will be very, very unpopular. NO ONE LEAVES, and now the locks have to be changed. No one giggles when you have to drive back to the ER at 1 am and say, “I’m really sorry.”

Nursing can be lonely, especially in the beginning before you trust one another. There are drugs all around and there are employee addicts all around. You’re always watching your stash. There are lots of safeguards in the hospital but there are ways to manipulate if you are very crafty or if you are a new nurse and haven’t figured it all out. If someone tries to manipulate you will never smile at them again. You will never HELP them again. They might as well go to work someplace else.

NEVER put your meds down. Never let anyone else medicate your patient. Never dispose of drugs alone. Never have any meds on you….that aren’t labeled. Ever. Someone will take advantage of you or you will just make your own big mistake with heavy consequences.

WORKING OUT OF THE HOSPITAL

….is a lot easier for alcoholics and addicts. The percentage of addicted nurses is much greater in places like Home Health, Hospice, Assisted Living or Independent Living Communities and private duty care. There is just so much opportunity. Some addicts cover for each other…you sign/I’ll sign (wasting drugs for instance) and we’ll just take them. Sure, Mr. dementia patient, I’ll go to the pharmacy for you. Sure, I’ll pick up your whiskey.

MY MISTAKES:

I made a few early on but fortunately I smartened up before very long and I never got into any trouble from my employer. YET. I did embarrass myself quite a few times though. One time a good nurse guy friend said, “Let me give you a hint. You need to be sober for 12 hours before it can’t be picked up on you.”

Another time, a night nurse met me at the ER door at 6 am and told me that he could smell alcohol. Of course he could, I drank 5 vodka tonics watching a movie the night before and finished them at 1 am. Couldn’t sleep.

Within the last two years I went out to a celebratory evening. We went to my boss’s favorite tavern where he introduced me to his favorite barmaid (who cares….can she make drinks?) and also introduced me to his favorite drink which was something like a Ginger raspberry Manhattan. Yummy, I’ll have two. Then he told me he was driving me home.

The women in the office quickly said, “Wanna come with us?” Yes. I work in a healthcare organization in a small town. The single nurse does not leave a bar with the single Executive Director. I took the women to the wrong house. Reflexes a little slow. That took a little while to live down. I no longer do work socials and drink.

DANGER:

Something happened this year that I would never have predicted. I started drinking ANYTIME. It’s very risky. I will drink at 3 am, I will drink at 6 am or 12 noon or 2 in the afternoon. I understand how very serious this is. Anytime I can’t sleep, I think about drinking. If I am smart I’ll just stay right the hell in bed. But sometimes if I’m agitated I’ll go find some booze and go outside and look at the stars and smoke. Then I have to force myself to go back to bed before I get up in another hour for work.

This makes one very, very tired, irritable and a bitch to be around. It also means that sometimes I am drinking at work. Extremely dangerous. Extremely dangerous for all kinds of reasons. “Yes, one of these days you’re going to lose something big,” says my doctor.

EXHAUSTION:

This is a killer for trying to be sober. Nursing is very hard. When I started I worked 12 hour shifts in a very busy hospital 3 x a week with two toddlers and aging parents in my home. Recipe for disaster. Everyone is needy. I never got enough rest and I had no idea how to take care of myself. When I came home at 8 pm, after taking care of my babies, I HAD to go to sleep.

But I also wanted a “treat,” a wind-down, a reward. So I would drink a beer. That was after being sober for 4 years. It was the beginning of the very, very slow descent that brought me to who I am today.

Now the job is easier but the kids are not, the household is not, the grief over all that I have lost, is not, and I am older which is not. When I am tired, I have to stop, not keep going. We’re nurses….we clean up everything, we pay the bills, we make the food, we shop, we go to school functions and we take substances to keep on track, and we just k-e-e-p going. Until we can’t. Here I am.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.