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Addiction — getting help for the secret condition that affects so many people

To mark Alcohol Awareness Week, Kate Westbrook, of Pharmacist Support, describes how pharmacists can get help for their addictions, and highlights the real-life case of “Alex”

By Kate Westbrook

To mark Alcohol Awareness Week, Kate Westbrook, of Pharmacist Support, describes how pharmacists can get help for their addictions, and highlights the real-life case of “Alex”

Alcohol Awareness Week starts on 18 November 2013. The week aims to get people thinking about alcohol — how it affects us as individuals, families, communities and society. One organisation that sees the effects heavy alcohol and drug use can have on a person’s life is Pharmacist Support.

This year the charity celebrates the 20th anniversary of its health support programme, established to support those who experience a whole range of dependency issues, from alcohol and drug misuse to gambling and shopping addictions and eating disorders. Since establishing a new partnership in 2009 with Action on Addiction, one of Britain’s leading addiction support providers, our service has supported over 90 pharmacists and preregistration trainees, and their families.

To provide an insight into this often secret or hidden condition, we approached both Action on Addiction and a service user (who has benefited from this support) to shed some light on and share their experiences of addiction.

Kirby Gregory, director of client services at Action on Addiction, says that anyone who has had any contact with addiction and its effects will know that it is a complex and often baffling condition. One important characteristic of addiction is that it can be contradictory:

  • It takes a powerful grip on the addicted person and everyone close to him or her, and yet it can be disarmed simply by people deciding to change their behaviour.
  • Because addicted people can and do establish and maintain recovery, with its associated gains and benefits, this often results in people seriously underestimating the power of addiction and the recovering person’s vulnerability to relapse.
  • Addiction is indiscriminate. It affects people from all walks of life, of differing ages and social and cultural backgrounds. But when it comes to the ability to recover, there are differences which can significantly improve the chances of long-term success. The personal and social resources an addicted person has available can have a huge impact on his or her ability to develop a new and healthier lifestyle, free from addiction. 
  • Although addiction can affect everyone there are some groups who may be more vulnerable due to their social environment.

What of addicted pharmacists?

At the risk of generalising, Mr Gregory says, an addicted pharmacist will have strengths and vulnerabilities that may be difficult to separate. Being intelligent can, of course, be a great asset but in the context of addiction it can be used as a defence against the reality of loss of control. It is not unusual for professionals to attempt to “think their way out of the problem” without acknowledging the need to address their emotions and behaviours.

A professional training can reinforce the idea that professionals need to set themselves apart from the vulnerabilities of “ordinary” people and maintain a self-sufficient position of strength and dependability. After all, these are people to whom others look for help and guidance.

The professional persona can be a trap because of the stigma that dogs addiction. For the addicted professional this can lead to isolation, secretiveness and a reliance on one primary addictive relationship with drugs or alcohol to fulfil all of their needs. It is, of course, a fantasy that cannot be sustained and ultimately lets them down.

It will therefore not be surprising to learn that if you are in a relationship with an addict; whether as a family member, work colleague or employer, your relationship will always take second place to the “primary relationship” with the substance, says Mr Gregory.

Being second on the list will result in feelings of loss of control, anger, fear and shame that are in reality the same as the addicted person’s feelings. It is rare (possibly unheard of) that addiction only affects the addicted person.

People do not set out to become addicts, Mr Gregory says. Their reasons for taking drugs or drinking may have at some point served a purpose such as relieving stress or boosting confidence. What happens when someone becomes addicted is that they cross a line into psychological dependence and (depending
on the substance) possibly physical dependence. When this stage is reached,
the original reasons for drinking or using drugs become irrelevant, because addiction becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. This is a powerful process that is not to be underestimated.

Recovery

Recovery from addiction is possible. Mr Gregory says that there are many people from all walks of life who have faced up to their addiction and committed themselves to change. Many of them are healthcare professionals who maintain their careers in long-term recovery. As mentioned earlier, the internal and external resources available to the recovering person will enhance their chances of success.

Generally, healthcare professionals have good resources (known as recovery capital) on which to draw. These may include such factors as a family, a career, income, a stable place to live, education and good social skills.
Mr Gregory concludes by mentioning some important things that need to be understood about recovery:

  • Recovery has a much better chance of succeeding with the support of other recovering people. The probability of successfully maintaining recovery is directly related to the quality of the network of support a person has. This is the basis of the self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. For most people, recovering in isolation is not a realistic option because a characteristic of addiction is isolation.
  • Recovery takes practice. Just like addiction it is a process rather than an event, which needs to be reinforced on a daily basis. As with other illnesses, if you follow the prescription things will improve.
  • Families and others in a close relationship need to understand how they have been affected by addiction. Often people in this position will lose sight of their own well-being, believing only that all things will be solved just by the addict’s recovery. They, too, will need support to recover and to recognise how to avoid getting caught up with addiction. This can be hugely challenging because it requires changing their attitudes and behaviours but can result in greatly improved health and well-being.

Help from Pharmacist Support

The years since Pharmacist Support’s relaunch in 2008, when the organisation transformed from the Benevolent Fund of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain into an independent charity, have seen us grow and modify our approach — which is now more holistic. What this means for those reaching out for help with addiction is that they can access a package of both emotional and practical support.

We have a range of ways to support both the addict and the partners or spouses of people with addiction issues, whether that is providing a safe space for people to take time away from the home to think about themselves and their needs, or access to specialist support and advice as well as financial assistance.

Our health support programme has helped many pharmacists and their families through extremely difficult times, into recovery and, we are pleased to report, in most of cases back into the workplace. In the Panel below, “Alex” — a pharmacist, qualified for 14 years — whose family has benefited from our health support programme shares his story.

Pharmacist support

For further information on Pharmacist Support visit www.pharmacistsupport.org, telephone 0808 168 2233 or email info@pharmacistsupport.org. To access the health support programme, call the confidential helpline on 0808 168 5132.

Further details can also be found on the charity’s website, where visitors can download the new brochure “Here to help you turn that corner”.

Alex's story

Wooden man (Diavata/Dreamstime.com)“For many years I had battled an addiction to prescription medicines with no idea how to overcome it. I had visited the GP, tried researching detoxification programmes online, but got nowhere. My life on the surface, seemed good. Wife, two young children, nice house and a good income. But my health was getting worse with each month and it was only a matter of time before it all came crashing down around me.

“I was confronted by my employer, who was understandably concerned by my behaviour at work, and I was quickly sacked and reported to the regulator. After years of denying that there was a problem not only to my family and friends, but myself, I had to admit that I had a serious illness which I had no idea how to treat. I was sent a letter by the regulator informing me that I should agree to a lengthy suspension and that this could be a stressful time for me. Further down the page there was a contact number given for Pharmacist Support.

“I had barely enough money in the bank to cover a month of mortgage and childcare costs, and had no idea how to help my wife cope with that problem, let alone how I was going to deal with my addiction and going through withdrawal.

“At this point we rang Pharmacist Support and it was the best thing we ever did. An addiction psychologist (Paul) was soon in touch and helped me to confront the nature of my illness. He persuaded me to go into residential care, which I reluctantly agreed to. At the same time, other staff were helping my wife with advice and support, as well as emergency financial assistance to cover costs in the meantime.

“A couple of weeks later I found myself at Clouds House in Wiltshire receiving intensive therapy and medical care. It was something I could never have afforded on my own, and the experience made me realise why all my attempts at coming off the painkillers had been futile.

“It was a great comfort knowing the bills were covered during this time, and a month later I came home. What a crazy time — I had been off all mood-altering substances for two weeks and felt awake and healthy for the first time in years. My wife was relieved that my illness was at last being dealt with. Paul also made sure she was being educated about what was wrong with me, so we could both tackle any issues together.

“However, after a few days back at home in recovery it was clear that going to rehab was only the start of this journey. I was in a financial mess — I remember opening all the mail that had piled up while I was away and seeing bills and demands for loan repayments, as well as letters from the regulator which brought home just what trouble I was in. The house had been sold, and non-essential costs cut down on, but beyond that I wasn’t sure what to do.

“Pharmacist Support helped in this situation in three ways. It offered help with debt management, dealing with banks and credit card companies on my behalf and arranging for affordable payment plans. The letters became a lot less intimidating knowing this support was there.

“Secondly, it continued to provide financial assistance to help cover essential costs. Our family income had dropped by 80 per cent so every penny counted and this help meant that our heads stayed above water.

“And, lastly, weekly telephone calls from Paul provided invaluable advice which helped me keep abstinent and on track with my recovery.

“By the start of 2013, things were slowly getting better. We had found a new, less costly house, my debts were under control, and I felt strong enough to look around for work.

“Little more than a year later I am back with my health intact, working as a pharmacist living in my own home with my family, and I will always be grateful to Pharmacist Support for its role in making that possible.

“But the truth is I would never have got to where I am right now without Pharmacist Support. It invested in me, provided a buffer to keep me going during some pretty dark times and has given me the chance to help myself to rebuild my life.”

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2013.11130192

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  • Addiction (Paradoxfx/Dreamstime.com)

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