AS a government study reveals one in six doctors have been addicted to alcohol or drugs at some point during their career, one London A&E doctor speaks about her experiences of injecting herself in the surgery, writing false prescriptions and not knowing where to turn for help.
I don't take drugs to get high. It’s not for thrills that I lock myself in a grubby toilet halfway through the day, or close the curtains in my flat and sit with a needle in my hand. I take drugs for one reason: to keep me out of the darkness, misery and pounding madness that envelops me if I don’t take them. I’m a drug addict.
I’m admitting it here for the first time because I can remain completely anonymous, which is vital because I’m a doctor. If anyone found out about my secret, or that I take drugs at work, I’d lose my job straight away.
I’ve injected myself before seeing patients, I’ve stumbled around and avoided eye contact lest they see that I’ve been taking drugs and I always wear long-sleeves in case the pin pricks or bruises around my veins are spotted. I live life in a state of panic because I’m terrified that fellow doctors, who are very well aware of what signs to look for in a drug addict, will find me out and report me.
There are times when I hate myself, loathe myself and despise everything about myself for the sordid, dark and dirty secret at the centre of my life but, ironically, these are the days on which I need drugs more than ever.
I’m in my mid-30s and started taking drugs socially about 15 years ago but I wouldn’t say that I became an addict, needing drugs to survive, until 10 years ago. It started, predictably enough, because I was a student and everyone else was doing them but I was in my final year of medical school before I dabbled. I look back and curse that I ever started. How different my life would be if I hadn’t gone to a party and smoked that joint or tried cocaine. Had I not done those things at university, then maybe I wouldn’t have been so swayed by the sight of rows of drugs in the hospital where I started working straight after graduating.
I found it hard when I first started work in a hospital. For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a doctor but it always felt like an impossible dream. No one in my family has been in higher education, let alone studied medicine at a leading university.
On my first day in the hospital I was thrown straight in at the deep end: long days and nights on a hospital ward that was badly understaffed, barked at by nurses with tons of experience who resented female doctors and patronised by older doctors who believed that newly-qualified doctors knew nothing. It wasn’t long before I started to see the drugs store like a sweet shop. It was about escapism.
The access to drugs was a perk of the job. It started gently with me helping myself to sleeping tablets when I couldn’t drop off at night. The long shifts and endless cups of coffee always left me unable to sleep. Then I turned to morphine. That’s when there was a seismic shift and I entered a world that had no easy way out. I’d help myself to drugs during the day (mainly morphine but I admit that I have dabbled in heroin). They used to give heroin to patients who were hooked on morphine until they realised how dangerous it was in its own right. Many doctors self-medicate, so I decided to try it and the heroin just gave me a bigger thrill. Despite this, now it’s mainly morphine that I use.
When I inject myself, I get that slightly woozy feeling you get if you have a glass or two of wine at lunchtime; lightheaded and as if my problems have all disappeared. I can still go about my business, talk to people, diagnose and treat patients. The only obvious symptom is that my pupils are dilated. Since doctors are trained to look for this in patients, I worry about making eye contact. My colleagues must think me a desperately shy loner. My greatest fear, after being found out, is of running out of drugs. I don’t fear for my health and wellbeing, I fear for my inability to get the drug without being detected and that someone will catch me in the act.
I’ve tried to stop taking morphine but it was awful, really terrible. I did it over a weekend off when I wouldn’t be around drugs or confronted by opportunities to take them but it was terrifying. I started to feel cold and sweaty, alone in my flat in London.
My skin felt as if it was shedding itself. I scratched until I was raw. I wanted to go to the hospital to get more drugs but knew I couldn’t. I wanted to track down a drug dealer but had no idea how. I felt my muscles aching and my stomach in knots. There was nausea and diaorrhea and worst of all this anxiety tearing at me. I wanted to pull my hair out. I sat there hitting my arms and screaming in frustration. I rushed back to work on the Tuesday, manic and hysterical. I took the drugs I needed with a claim about a false patient and some mumbling about a dropped vial and locked myself in the toilet. I injected the drug and relaxed as the fears disappeared, my head lightened and the world became a happier, warmer, nicer place. It was 5am and I had a whole day of work and a load of life and death decisions to make before I could leave, with a spare vial secreted in my handbag.
I left the cubicle, smacking into the door, and looked at my reflection in the mirror: my face was a slightly odd shape, a bit blurred and unreal. Then I walked back out into one of the busiest casualty wards in the country, full of patients desperately in need of help.
I don’t know how to stop taking drugs and that’s a terrifying thing for a doctor to say.
By A London A&E doctor
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