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The Doctor Who Drank Too Much

The Doctor Who Drank Too Much

I am a physician, licensed in California.  I am also an alcoholic.  Anyone with a drinking problem can offer a rationale for their behavior.  “I’m under a lot of stress.”  “If you had my problems / life / spouse / issues, you’d drink, too.”  “I work hard and I’m entitled to a little relaxation.”  My personal favorite was, “It’s the only thing that helps me cope.”  I was no different.  I had a justification for everything.  I was OK.  It was the circumstances of my life that were the problem.  Alcohol was my solution.

My drinking was predictable.  I only drank on days that ended in “y.”  My particular pattern was to start drinking in the mid to late evening, sit alone in my bedroom, and drink until I was at the point of passing out.  I had to be at work early, so it should have come as no great surprise that my co-workers noticed that I reeked of alcohol metabolites.  Rather than appreciate their comments for what they truly were, expressions of concern for my health, I because angry, defensive, sullen and withdrawn.  After all, what possible business was it of theirs whether I drank at home?  I wasn’t driving and I certainly wasn’t hurting anyone else.  I just wanted them to leave me alone.  Fortunately, that was not to be.

My boss called me and let me know that he had received complaints.  I gave him my excuse of the day (see paragraph two) and admitted that I had been drinking “a little.”  I promised him that I would get some help.  He took me at my word.

I went to Alcoholics Anonymous for the express and intended purpose of getting people off my back.  I didn’t try to practice the principles of their program.  I didn’t listen to what they had to say, and I didn’t want to become one of them.  In effect, I was the Alcoholic Alone-among-us.  I managed to stay dry for about six months, and then I was back at it.  I thought I could handle “just one.”  What I failed to realize was that for me, there is no such thing as “just one.”

The complaints started again and this time I was called in by the Chief of Staff.  He offered me a simple ultimatum:  “Diversion or you’re fired.”  Although the prospect of five years of participation in the Medical Board Diversion Program was terrifying, knowing that I would be fired and probably lose my medical license was more so.  I became a “voluntary participant” in the program.

I fought it for the first two years.  This was my Alcoholic Autonomous period.  The program staff were the jailers and the other participants were my fellow in-mates.  I trusted no one and did my best to stay under the radar.  I made no progress, even after spending more than 90 days in an unnamed (think former first lady) treatment center.  I remained bitter and resentful and secretly harbored the delusion that I could successfully drink; although I hadn’t yet found just how to do so.

Finally, God provided me with a moment of clarity.  I realized that these people were trying to help me; that I was the one who was making it an adversarial relationship.  Diversion provided me with things I needed desperately.  They had a big hammer and a short leash.  They could pull me out of work on a moment’s notice.  I was subject to random alcohol and drug testing.  If I failed to respond to their phone call within an hour, it would be listed as a compliance issue.  If I failed to present for testing within six hours of the initial call, it would be considered a positive test.  I needed permission from Diversion if I was going to leave town, written permission requested at least two weeks in advance.  I had to attend two Health Professional Support Group meetings per week.  I had to pay for all of that out of my pocket.  And, I had to go to at least four AA meetings every week.  At those meetings, I had to have a little yellow card signed and then I had to hand in the cards as proof of my attendance.  Most importantly, Diversion held me accountable for my actions.  I learned that I was the major cause of most of the havoc in my life.

After my “Doh” moment, Diversion improved remarkably.  I was able to use the group for support and feedback.  Their advice helped me deal effectively with the situations that I used to think drove me to drink.  I learned to trust, to listen and by the end, how to help others just like me.

I am an active participant in Alcoholics Anonymous, and have seven years of sobriety.  I have a great job, and my employer knows I am an alcoholic (in recovery).  I have reconciled with my children.  I have friends who I enjoy and who enjoy being around me.  My life is not perfect, but I am able to handle its vagaries without picking up a drink.  None of this would have been possible without Diversion and the process of Recovery to which I was introduced.

A lot has been said and written about the perceived failings of the program.  And it is true that any program has room for improvement.  But, if you ask any malpractice carrier in California about the number of claims made agains physicians in Diversion versus the number made against the general population of physicians, you will see that proportionately the claims rate against Diversion participants was significantly lower.  Quite simply, Diversion worked.

So, I am happy and grateful to be able to say “Diversion” saved my practice, my family, my sanity and my life.

A Grateful Recovering Alcoholic Doctor

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