Are You a Healthcare Professional Trying to “Hold Your Liquor” (or Other Substances) During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
It’s clear on so many levels the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an especially hard toll on healthcare professionals, severely taxing them emotionally, mentally and physically. The stress and strain comes in the context of them simply “doing their job” day in and day out, which now includes, much more often than in the past, people dying right before their eyes, having to address even more grieving families, plus the need to do everything possible to safeguard themselves from catching or spreading this deadly virus.
Additionally, healthcare professionals frequently experience financial strain due to the pandemic, given the sheer volume of hospital and medical center layoffs, pay cuts and patient postponements of elective procedures and doctor appointments not related to COVID-19. To make matters worse, no one knows how long this pandemic and its wide-ranging effects will last, making the “unknown” another stressor to add to healthcare professionals’ daily lives.
No wonder many have turned to alcohol and/or drugs, initially to “take the edge off,” only to find themselves out of control with their drinking or using. Dr. Michael McCormick, Staff Physician at a Treatment Center in Pennsylvania, recounts a recent case he encountered. “One nurse explained her experience to me. She was working long shifts in the hospital, dealing with COVID-19 patients. Then she would go home. She had isolated herself from her husband for fear of passing the virus on to him, so her time at home was spent alone, watching the news about the pandemic. Her anxiety skyrocketed, and her drinking was quickly out of control. She described how she would go to work at the hospital, but didn’t talk about her anxiety or fears. She would return home and watch the news, drinking more and more over time. Eventually, she reached a crisis point and reached out to a treatment center for help.”
There are a variety of “signs” (or symptoms) to watch out for, regarding a healthcare professional’s moving from moderate to problem drinking (or substance use), some of which may be easier to detect than others. The list below (taken from articles cited below,) may help you determine whether or not you (or a loved one, friend or co-worker) are (is) developing or has developed an addiction to alcohol or mood-changing substances.
One further note from Dr. McCormick: “Substance use disorder is a progressive disease, one that may start small and seemingly innocuous, but if continued can become progressively worse. This transformation happens at different speeds for different people, but sometimes it can be amazingly quick to develop.”
- Difficulty managing stress without drinking or using drugs
- The tendency to focus on drinking or substance use
- An increase in drinking or use of drugs
- A tendency to isolate
- Trouble sleeping
- Increasing depression
- Lying or avoidance to continue drinking or drug use
- Minimizing one’s problems or health issues to continue drinking or drug use
- Fear of or anxiety about getting caught drinking or using drugs
- Impulsive drinking or using, regardless of the consequences
- Volunteering often to administer narcotics to patients
- Anxiousness about working overtime or extra shifts
- Taking frequent bathroom breaks or unexplained absences
- Smelling of alcohol or excessively using breath mints or mouthwash
- Extreme financial, relationship or family stress
- Glassy eyes or small pupils
- Unusually friendly relationship with doctors who prescribe medications
- Incomplete charting or repeated errors in paperwork
This list is admittedly incomplete, but it serves as a checklist for increasing one’s awareness of “what to look for” in your own or someone else’s behaviors relating to alcohol and/or substance use. You (or your loved one, friend or co-worker) may not have lost your (or their) job, landed in jail, crashed a car, or hurt someone, due to your (or their) drinking or drug use—at least not yet—but the longer you (or they) believe these behaviors (i.e., see the list above) are acceptable or “normal” behavior, the longer you (or they) will remain in the grip of this progressive—as well as “cunning, baffling and powerful”—illness, known by the medical establishment as ‘substance use disorder’ or addiction.
Given the entire country is currently facing historic stress levels, the vast majority of people appreciate how challenging life must be for healthcare workers. If you recognize you’ve been experiencing any or a number of the bullet-pointed items in the list above, the time to ask for help is now. Taking the steps and the time to address a substance use disorder requires courage and a willingness to reach out and seek assistance. But doing so may very well save your life or the life of someone you care about.
In Part Two of this 2-part blog-post, we’ll take a look at substance use disorder treatment for healthcare professionals and what other tips and resources are available, and how they can help one find freedom from the problems associated with drinking or drug use.
 Alcoholics Anonymous. 1st Edition, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (“How It Works,” Page 58)