So often in recovery circles we hear someone say, “I’ve had to preserve my self-image at all costs. Because if anyone found out about my problem (with drinking and/or drugs), it would ruin me.”
And more often than not, it’s a professional in some field—typically a doctor or nurse or lawyer or business executive—with a substance use disorder (a dependency on alcohol or drugs; addiction) they’ve had a hard time facing and an even harder time asking for help with.
In the lives of those who are career professionals, the temptation is strong to maintain an outward appearance of success – it seems incumbent upon such people with high-profile jobs to exemplify they can hold a position of trust and responsibility at work, in the community, and within their more personal circle of family and friends.
In reality, though, if they’re struggling with the disease of addiction, they’re facing the same powerlessness as anyone else who suffers with a substance use disorder. In both words and actions, being dishonest with or stealing from whoever they need to get over on in order to continue getting and using their substance(s) of choice. Acting in ways they never imagined they would, abandoning their previously held values and beliefs, cheapening their own lives, hurting those closest to them, etc., etc. However, just because they—like any other—watch their lives becoming progressively more unmanageable and the consequences of their substance abuse more severe, doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t different “problems” addicted professionals encounter.
Indeed, preserving their image of success, accomplished expertise and responsibility—including hiding at all costs the severity of their drinking and/or drug problem—becomes hugely important to addicted professionals. Denial becomes particularly strong amongst many substance-abusing professionals, in part due to their self-image being skewed: “I’m not an alcoholic (or addict)! They’re dirty, homeless and live under a bridge!
Given professionals are most often highly educated, they can easily fall into holding a false, if not exaggerated, perception of how they’re “handling” their addiction. Frequently, they’ll justify their aberrant, consequence-generating, even harmful behaviors by telling themselves and others, “I’ve got things under control. I can handle this.”
Certainly, professionals in jobs that present higher risk to the public—pilots, bus drivers, etc.—are required to have safeguards in place, such as random drug tests, to identify those with substance abuse problems. But those in the fields of healthcare, law and business typically rely on workers to self-refer, which ultimately is rather unrealistic.
Again, due to their public image, professional standing and both personal and work relationships being at risk if their substance use problem is found out, many professionals with addictions become quite skillful at creating and sustaining a mask of normalcy. Even for years, such secrecy and cover-up can “keep in the dark” even those closest to them, which only delays their openness or readiness to seek help and recovery.
Below is a list of some of the more common ways an addicted professional “strategizes” or manages their substance use:
- “Working late,” spending time alone getting and using alcohol and/or drugs under the guise of “putting in extra hours.”
- Spending time with other addicted work associates; seeking and finding those fellow professionals whose substance use problem is just as bad or worse than their own.
- Putting in additional effort to hide the true extent of their drinking or drug use, including driving to different towns where they might not be recognized in order to drink or use.
- Taking covert measures to hide income or scheming to get more money. In order to successfully disguise their alcohol and/or drug addiction, oftentimes professionals will attempt to conceal extra money from overtime, bonuses or raises, or tap into retirement or college funds set up for their children, justifying it by stating “It’s my money.”
- Putting the blame on others, In pointing out other people’s support, flaws, mistakes or lack of support, the addicted professional steers attention away from their alcohol or drug abuse.
William Pendergast, president of the National Federation of State Physician Health Programs, says, “Because addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, the best solution is to remove the stigma associated with substance abuse treatment, so high-level professionals won’t be afraid to seek help.”
And John Shapiro, the medical director of the Physician’s Health Program in Pennsylvania says, “The message we need out there is we can treat professionals and get them healthy.”
Certainly, the PHPs and similar “recovery for professionals” addiction treatment centers throughout the country offer professionals with substance use disorders options to not only recover from their dependency on alcohol and/or drugs, but also to do so in confidentiality, in order to preserve their ability to keep their credentials and continue practicing in their field, wherever possible.