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FIRST PERSON //

Occupational Hazard

When a doctor becomes addicted, colleagues may not be equipped to spot or treat it.

By Kathy Nickerson // Winter 2011
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addicted doctor

John Hersey

The neurologist listened to my husband’s symptoms, then started writing a prescription. “I’m going to give you something to help with the daytime sleepiness,” he said.

“What are you prescribing?”

When the neurologist named the medicine, my husband said, “I’m sorry. I can’t take a medication like that.”

The neurologist frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I have an addiction problem.”

The neurologist shook his head. “An addiction? You have a personality disorder or something?”

We’d never heard addiction described as a personality disorder, and neither of us knew how to reply.

My husband, a physician himself, kept calm. “I have an addiction, and I can’t take a controlled substance.”

“So, you don’t want the medicine?”

My husband sighed. “I don’t want the medicine.”

The doctor frowned again. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

In the moment, I thought the neurologist was just being dense. But I took a deep breath and reminded myself that addiction medicine is not part of a physician’s routine training.

My husband had recently returned from an addiction rehabilitation program. Before that he had suffered for three years from a mysterious illness. After a dozen doctors, countless tests and two weeks at a highly respected research hospital, we hadn’t found a name for my husband’s disease.

Even after two trips to the ER where he had once worked, no one could tell us why he fell into walls and forgot whether it was spring or fall. My husband had grown accustomed to lying to doctors and had convinced himself that an underlying physical problem, not his own behavior, was to blame.

Finally, one Valentine’s Day, I discovered the dark truth. An empty vial. A used syringe. I remembered other events I’d managed to ignore. A prescription cough syrup that disappeared too fast. An empty bottle of pain pills he said he’d discarded because they’d expired. This time, when I called someone for help, I finally knew what to say.

While my husband was in treatment, I struggled with anger at all the doctors he’d seen. Highly skilled, compassionate people had missed the signs that seemed so obvious in retrospect. When he slurred his words and forgot the month, why hadn’t someone run a drug screen? When he spent the night in the ICU and became so agitated he unhooked his monitors, why didn’t someone recognize the symptoms of withdrawal?

Our family physician knew that my husband took too much over-the-counter sinus medication. He challenged the issue a few times, and my husband agreed to be careful. But as a friend, a colleague and a member of the same church, he could scarcely imagine that my husband was an addict.

I talked to others in recovery. I read books about addiction. I prayed. I relived every conversation through those agonizing years. And I finally realized that the doctors were not negligent. Most simply were not trained to spot addiction. And few could face it in one of their own.

My husband and I have come a long way in the past six years. Today he is a devoted husband and a trusted physician. I am his office manager, his grateful wife, his strongest advocate. Yet addiction remains a cunning enemy. We remain constantly on guard because opportunities for relapse assault him at every turn—even at work.


First Person originates at the other end of the stethoscope, presenting essays and commentary from patients, consumers and other medical outsiders. Proto invites your contributions; please send ideas to the editor.

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