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When the Doctor Is In… Treatment: When Helpers Need Help

heal thyself

What happens when those who treat, support, heal, or educate need treatment, support, healing, and education of their own? This is a question that many professionals are negotiating when they enter treatment for their own experience of addiction disease. As we know, addiction disease does not discriminate. It is an equal opportunity illness which means that anyone— regardless of his or her professional successes— is susceptible to its emotional, physical and spiritual destruction. In working with lawyers, physicians, pharmacists, physicians assistants, counselors, executives, and educators there are some issues that arise for professionals that are (but don’t have to be) unique.

Look at what I have accomplished, how could I possibly be addicted?

For many professionals, the dissonance created from a lifetime of academic and professional successes in the face of addiction disease can be difficult to negotiate. At times, the unmanageability of addiction is glaringly obvious and has spread to a professional’s work life. This can include legal problems, complaints filed with the professional’s board, or job loss or demotion. In other circumstances, the professional has been able to keep his or her work life largely intact.  As professionals begin to expand their awareness of the breadth of their lives to include relationships, emotional and spiritual worlds, the impact of their addictive process becomes clear. Often professionals find that as they tend to the disruption addiction has created in these areas of their lives, their professional successes could not ease the emotional and spiritual wounds they have been carrying since long before they were addicted. By addressing this relational and emotional unmanageability, professionals find more meaningful and fulfilling relationships with patients, clients, colleagues, and family members that are mutually supportive of one another in both recovery and beyond.

How am I supposed to be the patient or client?

The old adage that “doctors (or nurses and healthcare professionals) make the worst patients,” holds a kernel of truth. As professionals make the transition from offering direction, care and/or advice, to being the recipient of such direction and care, it can naturally be a jarring and uncomfortable transition. Learning how to give oneself permission to not know and to be helped and cared for can offer professionals much needed relief from the pressure of high stress expectations. Allowing oneself to be vulnerable to support gives professionals permission to be human when often their professions demand perfection.  Many times professionals find that they have looked to alcohol and/or drugs to provide them with the exact relief that is found through the acceptance of the support available in a treatment and recovery environment.

What if I see a patient or client in a meeting?

The more accurate question is not “if” but “when.” An entire essay could be written about all of the “what if” scenarios that can occur at Twelve Step recovery meetings. Shame says that patients and clients will “think less of me, avoid me, or stop seeing me if they see me at a meeting.” The reality is that the opposite is more often the experience. Patients and clients feel understood, seen, and heard by professionals with whom they can relate and see as equals. Many recovering people seek out professionals who understand addiction and the importance of recovery, as they feel safe to share openly about their history. 


How can I fit meetings into my work schedule – especially when I have been gone for so long?

This issue often involves a significant paradigm shift for professionals whose priority has been work and career— often at the cost of self-care and personal relationships. Many times, organizational and professional expectations compound this belief to the detriment of its employees. This reprioritizing can begin through external support (monitoring entities or restricted practice) and eventually become internalized to support long-term recovery efforts. Professionals, like others in recovery, can start with the acceptance that because of active involvement in recovery, aftercare and individual counseling, meetings, connections to others in recovery, a full life is available. It is because of the hard work that occurs during treatment that continuing to be in one’s chosen field is possible. By tending to recovery first, professionals are able to teach colleagues, patients, and mentors about the need to take care of self, first… and then others.

How do I talk with my colleagues about where I have been?

It depends. Working professionals returning to work after a lengthy and/or unexpected absence can feel internal pressure to either over-disclose or simply avoid the topic all together. It seems that the closeness and safety of the relationship really dictates the nature of the disclosure. Professionals who are involved with monitoring boards have access to a wealth of guidance and support that can be helpful in negotiating these conversations. At times, mentors who are also in recovery, are available to help professionals as they transition back to home and work, from treatment. This kind of peer support is invaluable. Many professionals find enormous and unconditional support from close co-workers and colleagues who have been gravely concerned unbeknownst to the professional in treatment. In other circumstances, keeping any discussion at all short and vague is best. For colleagues, asking “How are things going for you since I last saw you?” is always a good option as most people are happy to talk about themselves.

The path of recovery.

While some of the issues that professionals address in treatment are unique to their high pressure, success-driven careers, the solution is the same as for those who may be unemployed, under-employed or have low-stress, easy-going jobs: connection and vulnerability. These two experiences offer all recovering people a safe harbor to find self-acceptance, community and humanness. A place to create a full and fulfilling life that offers joy and hope to all of those who seek it.

Mahala Motzny



Contributed by Mahala Motzny, Primary Counselor