Today’s blog entry is from Paulette Vantrease, who has been a member of Café RE since July 2023. Paulette has been alcohol free since March 22, 2023 and is active within her Café RE OG community.
“I blamed covid for leaving nursing, but alcohol addiction forced me when I lost my license.”
I stood on a stage about to give a speech to a few hundred festival attendees, I hated speaking in front of a crowd; I still do. But the topic was about something I knew personally, and I had lived it for many months. I felt a sense of comfort and pride in what I was going to say. Writing the speech and practicing it out loud was cathartic. I hoped I could sincerely convey all the emotions I felt up to and on that day. My head was clear, my heart full, and I was sober for several weeks that day.
On September 11, 2021 I was asked by an acquaintance to speak at a festival. Asked to speak about my experience as a nurse in the emergency department during the pandemic. The worst of covid had passed by then though fear and caution remained throughout our community and much of the country. My focus was on what I saw and lived through in the ER, dealing with non-believers (including a few of my own siblings back home), and the raw emotions felt during and still to that day whenever I thought of those difficult shifts in the hospital.
What I omitted in that speech was my struggle with alcohol throughout the entire span of the pandemic.
As ER nurses…
As ER nurses we deal with people every shift who are at their very worst: mildly or critically ill or injured, in psychiatric crisis, actively dying, and just about everything else you can imagine. We are hardcore adrenaline junkies who thrive on the chaos the department gives us. We willingly work in an environment no one wants to be, most certainly the patients.
The article “Alcoholism and Medical Professionals” states that 10-12% of healthcare professionals will develop a substance abuse disorder during their careers, including 1 in 5 nurses. It also states that the numbers are likely even higher due to vast underreporting. Drinking is the norm after a shift, most certainly after a particularly difficult one. Us night shift workers would often leave the hospital in the morning to go have “breakfast” at a local restaurant that served alcohol after 8:00 am. Food was often only an option.
To say alcoholism is rampant among healthcare workers, especially those in critical care areas, is an understatement. Alcohol is an easy outlet to numb the mind and body after desperately trying to save a young car crash victim only to watch him ultimately slip through your fingers. For me personally, drinking became my daily therapy session.
My first successful attempt at sobriety began in late May 2018.
I had been drinking daily and much to my shame and guilt even before work to feel somewhat normal. As William Porter describes in his book “Alcohol Explained,” our brains are essentially hijacked by alcohol and eventually we need to drink in order to simply function normally. It had got to the point where unless I drank my anxiety was unmanageable. I would begin to withdraw from the effects of alcohol. And eventually withdraw I did. Hard.
As a nurse I took care of detoxing patients and knew all too well how dangerous it could be. So, on a trip out of town with a dear friend that May afternoon the symptoms began on the car ride and though I was completely in denial, I could not get to a hospital fast enough. It scared me shitless. In the ER as my blood pressure read 200s over 100s and my heart rate 180+, I admitted to the doctor that I had been on a very long bender and stopped cold turkey a few days prior. When he ordered 2 mg of Ativan, I believe the relief on my face was visible to everyone in the room, and as it entered my veins the calming effect was almost immediate.
I could not deny any longer what was happening.
The phrase “scared straight” entered my mind and stayed there for a very long time. Looking back on and remembering the physical symptoms of withdrawal kept me sober for over 20 months. In the hospital I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, had a cardiac catheterization, and put on a regimen of medications for my heart, blood pressure, and lingering withdrawal symptoms. I entered an outpatient program and went to my very first AA meeting. One would think that all of this would have kept me sober for the rest of my life. But sheer determination without any plan in place only lasts so long.
Complacency in sobriety is like a bomb waiting to go off, and mine was ticking away the hours. For months I had been planning a dream vacation to Hawaii. I was set to go in early 2020. By then I had stopped going to AA blaming it on work constraints and subconsciously knew that I would drink there. The memory of detoxing had faded and the trip of a lifetime by myself was meant to be epic. The relapse there was epic as well. Queue explosion.
When I returned from Hawaii covid had begun to make waves as an up-and-coming new deadly virus. I had reached out to an old AA friend and somehow got back on track into sobriety. It didn’t last long. Covid hit with full force along with my drinking. I had countless attempts at sobriety throughout the pandemic however I simply could not sustain any stretches for long. It was a very dark time period for so many people including those of us trying to get and stay sober. Looking back, it is a blur of dying patients, daily chaos, uncertainty, and alcohol to numb it all.
In the summer of 2021 I was introduced to an online community called, “The Luckiest Club”. By then I had given up on AA but knew I needed something, anything to help me get sober. The spiral down to daily drinking had its grasp on me and I was completely powerless. TLC was like a breath of fresh air for me. I had heard of different types of recovery programs such as SMART recovery, Sober Sis, Recovery Dharma, and the like. But this was unique, and I immediately fell in love with the forum. I attended the online zoom meetings, joined subgroups that interested me and began to raise my hand and speak in meetings, which I never did in AA. I was sober again and felt incredible.
During the speech I gave that September day in 2021 all the emotions and memories of covid came crashing back. A state politician was there listening to me and stopped me as I was leaving to thank me for my service. He said you could hear a pin drop while I was on the stage which at a music festival was quite the feat. Several other attendees thanked me, shook my hand, and even hugged me. In hindsight I knew I should have reached out to someone, anyone from TLC or AA or my friend who drove me to the hospital back in 2018. Instead, I ended up at the liquor store. I got obliterated at home. The old wounds were ripped open, raw, and I wanted to eliminate the pain. STAT.
The rest of 2021 and 2022 was a continuous cycle of drinking. I was depressed. My drinking made my depression worse. I tried numerous times to quit and even had a few stretches of sobriety interspersed. By then I had lost my nursing job and my license due to alcohol and was floundering with what to do with my life. In spite of admitted to a psychiatric hospital a couple of times for suicidal ideation the drink had me in its grasp. If there was a rock bottom, I think I hit it more than once.
I took my last drink on March 22, 2023. The same day, I was admitted to the psychiatric hospital. I didn’t have a job. I was living with my son drinking away the days, foolishly thinking I was cleverly hiding it from the world. Upon my release I rejoined TLC, attended as many meetings there as I could, and immersed myself in reading and re-reading books such as “Quit Like a Woman” by Holly Whitaker, “Alcohol Explained” by William Porter, “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace and several others. I recently began listening to podcasts and joined Recovery Elevator as well. I now listen to several a day. Paul Churchill’s interviews on the Recovery Elevator Podcast are my new daily therapy. I place more tools in my sobriety toolbox as I discover them.
Today, October 15, 2023, I am 207 days sober, and it is the longest stretch since 2020. I have found community and fellowship in TLC and Café RE. I have reached out to other members and met them in person. We text or talk on the phone, or message each other on the forum. I have a therapist who specializes in addiction who helps to guide me along in this journey. What the future holds or if I will remain sober, I do not know. I am unsure if I will, or even can, return to nursing. As cliché as it sounds, I take one day at a time. Everything feels right though, as if the universe finally put everything in place, and it feels amazing. It IS amazing.
Peace, Love, & Joy