Whoops, I’m in WHPS! (Myths debunked) Happy National Recovery Month!

One reason I kept my addiction a secret was the absolute terror of WHPS. If I had turned myself in years earlier though, I could potentially have 5 years of sobriety by now.

September is “National Recovery Month”

It’s also:

  1. National Blueberry Popsicle Month
  2. International Square Dancing Month
  3. Better Breakfast Month
  4. Intergeneration Month (???)
  5. National Preparedness Month (irony much? F you Irma, fires and floods.)

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There’s more…and I’m sure I could blog away on the importance of each (although I’d need to google “Intergeneration”). Recovery is the theme that remains in the forefront of my mind – both because it’s important to me, and because its mandatory. I couldn’t get it out of my mind if I tried.

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In addition to national press on addiction, September marks the beginning of my second year in “The Program”. For the last 12 months my daily life has been directed by a program called WHPS – Washington Health Professional Services. Sounds nice right? We all need health services. But what WHPS does is serve as a monitoring service/case management liaison between employers, treatment centers and healthcare professionals with substance abuse disorders. Nobody wants to require this service. IMG_6807

Within the nursing field there is a morbid curiosity about WHPS. What’s most well known about it is the joke…”Whoops! They’re In WHPS”. Hahaha. Not funny.

The first 10 years of my nursing career, before I was personally acquainted, I had rumor inspired curiosity as well. I once went to lunch with a good friend of mine who was a WHPS member. I drank at least 2 glasses of wine at lunch…never considering his feelings or how his life had been affected. Never thought to ask what he was going through while I happily sipped my drink.

Ah, blissful ignorance….to still be so naive…but, I have no regrets.

Recently I wrote an article for the nursing newsletter at work. The theme was “prevention” and I shared about the epidemic of substance abuse in healthcare, offering ideas to improve prevention and decrease shame and stigma.

Shockingly, the original article I handed in was pages too long (not unlike my blog posts!), and they edited down to less than 250 words…meaning only the most bare and relevant information was included. Since this is my blog and I get to do what I want, I’ve decided to utilize the space to say what I REALLY wanted to in that professional article for employees.

First:

The WHPS program is really F@$*@ing difficult, and any health professional is a potential member. So be nice, for F@#$@’s sake.

One reason I kept my addiction a secret was the absolute terror of WHPS. If I had turned myself in years earlier though, I could potentially have 5 years of sobriety by now. I’d be done with probation and saved myself significant trauma at work and home. But I believed that if I told anyone my struggle with drugs/alcohol that I would lose my job, my family, my boyfriend, my license, my identity, my dignity, etc. Turns out I only lost 1 out of 6, so really, I’m not doing too bad. (hint, it wasn’t my job. Jerk.)

My strong belief is that secrets keep you sick and addiction grows in the dark. The misunderstandings about addiction and this particular program can increase rumors and cause tension for the members and their coworkers.

Let’s work out some myths and truths. This will be fun:

Myth #1

Everyone in the WHPS program diverted narcotics

“Diversion” is a pretty little word for “steal”. Not everyone stole a controlled substance. Many people abused their own prescriptions or alcohol and never crossed the line of diverting from the pharmacy or a substance that should have been wasted. Some members have accrued a DUI, (or five). Some were inappropriately using benadryl, or legally smoking marijuana in their own home. It’s not the substance itself that buys you a membership to the club; it’s when, where, and how it was used.

Myth #2

Everyone in the WHPS program was caught impaired at work

Some people definitely were. They may have been seen diverting or showing up to work impaired (on alcohol, rx, weed) and a well intentioned co-worker talked to a manager after which an investigation was initiated. In many cases though, the employee called WHPS themselves and requested help. This is called self reporting and it is 100% the way to go. A truckload of grief, trauma, heartache, time and money can be saved if you think you have an issue and make the call. This is initially anonymous and confidential. They don’t talk to your employer, and it can prevent potential future legal problems and help protect your license.

Myth #3

The program causes you to lose your license and/or have a “red mark” of enforcement action 

In the majority of cases, after your probation period in WHPS, no one EVER has to know about your past history. Unless you’re like me and plaster it all over the internet, news articles and podcasts, you can go forth in your life pretending that the “incident” never occurred. The best case scenario is that future employers will never know. Of course there are exceptions to this and it’s not always black and white. Relapsing and re-offending can be the cause of a “red mark” or enforcement action (it also adds time to the typical 5 year plan). Your HR file at work may be a concern with future employers. But there is protection in place  if the member is compliant, and people have long, productive, healthy careers after graduation.

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Myth #4

Your employer has to keep you/ Your employer has to fire you

Every state and every organization has their own laws. In WA state this is on a case by case basis. Administration completes an investigation and eventually, over torturous, excruciating, heart wrenching time that could take months, they decide whether or not you are allowed to work within that organization. Or they might fire you on the spot. It all depends on the circumstances. Getting fired might make it difficult but does not prevent you from getting hired elsewhere while in WHPS. Some places are more “WHPS friendly” than others.

Myth #5

You can’t work night shift. You can’t work ED. You can’t work CCU….etc

Each member has a personalized contract in which the case manager, work site monitor, treatment center and employer will agree on restrictions and conditions for each individual. I work nights and have two employers and I’m probably the most grateful humbled nurse on the planet.

Myth #6

You have to go to AA once you’re in WHPS

Nope. Illegal. They can’t mandate AA. But you do have to go to “support meetings” and get signatures showing you were there (usually 3-4 a week. Yuck.) However, those yucky meetings are life savers. If you need to be in WHPS, you need a freaking meeting. I go to Refuge Recovery and LOVE it. In addition, I’ve tried out SMART recovery, Agnostic AA, regular AA. It’s popular opinion that even non-addicts could use some meetings in their life. I know you picture a dark room, stale coffee and battle hardened alkies in a circle repeating the serenity prayer. (That one’s Tuesday nights – I can tell you where it is so you can avoid it!) The truth is, meetings are communities working on personal development, sharing experience strength and hope.

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Myth #7

WHPS nurses work is easier because they don’t have to give their own meds or float.

O. M. G. Friends, coworkers, readers. Being a nurse “in the program” is the ultimate shame and burden of our lives. Not only are we fighting an addiction, scrambling our way to sobriety, suffering at home and work, hanging by a thread to our relationships and fighting to keep our families intact, we have restrictions at work that make us “different”. Like a freaking stamp on our forehead: “Liar, thief, addict”.

Multiple times a shift (I’ve counted up to 16 times in 12 hours) we have to look another nurse in the eye and say “Can you give a med for me?” ….the underlying context here is our version of self hatred…”I’m a failure. I’m a thief. I’m an addict. I’m a junkie. I don’t deserve to be here. I can’t complete my own tasks at work. I’m an embarrassment. I sh*% on the profession of nursing.”

While other nurses are told to work in another unit…”Tiffany can’t float. Why can’t she float? I have to float again. I hate floating.”

A painful, heartbreaking reminder that we are less-than. We can’t pull our weight.

The restrictions I work under are a gift. I am grateful for my probation and my contract. But I AM NOT getting a break by asking for help and being restricted from floating. I would trade you in a hot second; I would work ten times as hard, float every day, and give everyone’s meds if I could reverse the burden that my addiction and poor choices have caused.

In general, for the first year, we cannot administer controlled substances. After 1 year the contract is reviewed and changes are made. I have requested (to my case mgr) to be allowed to float again, but so far no dice. One of the rules is that we have a “Work site monitor” and the concern is that if we float that department might not know all the rules, and the nurse may take advantage of that.

I promise you – we wish we didn’t have to ask you to give our meds. We wish we could float to other departments so you don’t have to.

If I need to ask you to give meds PLEASE give me a task that I can do to help you.

Myth #8

If you have an addiction to opiates, you should be able to still drink alcohol, right?

Nope. Nope, nope, not even a little, not even cough syrup. Nope. While in WHPS members cannot take ANY mind altering substances. I’m talking no sleep aid, no robaxin, no diet pills, no over the counter anything. Tylenol and ibuprofen is ok; anything else, beware.

There are very few exceptions to this, and only if you have a prescription. Every morning, Monday through Friday, we login to a website and “check in” to find out if it’s our “turn to test”. At least twice a month, we are subject to urinalysis and it better be squeaky clean or you better have a valid script, constant communication with your case manager and a perfect paper trail. (they also have the right to check hair, fingernails, and whatever else they want…and YES alcohol can show up there too).

After receiving a vicodin prescription for migraines, I became addicted to opiates. (Ludicrous, I know. Another blog post to come about that sh^# show.) Sometimes it was easier to just drink alcohol, or maybe that’s all that was available. Addiction is a disease of not being able to comfort yourself; of the need to escape, avoid, or change a situation. Whether it’s pills, alcohol, or mj, doesn’t matter. In WHPS the goal is a clean, sober mind, to learn new coping skills, to become the best version of yourself. Even if you never had a problem with alcohol….even if you’ve always hated the smell and the taste but you have to drink wine during communion….the answer is NO. If you do, you better hope to god that you’re not tested Monday morning after Sunday mass. Did you drink 25 Kombuchas in one week and etg showed up in your pee? Kombucha can have 0.5% ABV and that’s not an excuse. I wish I was kidding, but this is my life.

Vice Versa, if your problem was alcohol, you don’t get to start smoking weed. Cross addiction is a real issue. The point of treatment is not to eliminate one certain substance, it’s to RECOVER from a life of pain.

Many years ago when I was a supervisor I had a few employees in WHPS, so I learned a little about it. It floored me that they couldn’t drink…I wasn’t yet drinking too much myself, but I still couldn’t picture life without my well deserved glass of wine to relax, or a craft brew with friends. I thought they were being deprived of one of life’s greatest pleasures and never imagined I would want to quit drinking…until I did. Now, I can’t see life any other way. Weird right? But not a joke. Sober is sexy.

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Myth #9 

All WHPS members are nurses

WHPS is for healthcare professionals. Nurses, pyschologist, psychiatrist, chemical dependency professionals, counselors, EMT, Paramedics….but not doctors. They have some secret special recovery program but it doesn’t work like ours. They seem to disappear, go through a conveyor belt type car-wash treatment center that cleans them up magically and then they reappear at work as though nothing ever happened. At least that’s what I imagine! I’m sure I’m over simplifying…I just don’t have the inside info.

Hopefully uncovering these myths and sharing truth the way I see it will help a person or two. I honestly believe that if I had more information years ago when I became afraid of my own habits, I would have shown up on the WHPS doorstep and asked for help. I would have seen it as the supportive resource it is instead of a punishing consequence.

Luck grace and forgiveness allowed me to remain at the hospital I’d worked at for 11 years. I had to move departments, but now have the coolest coworkers. Initially, I planned to duck my head in the sand, only tell those I was forced to and endure my 5 years as an undercover addict. I quickly saw that wouldn’t do anyone a bit of good.

Instead of being an ostrich, I’m a billboard. Not the advertisement I expected to be at this point (or any point) in my life, but here I am. Loud and proud, sober and out, WHPS nurse extraordinaire.

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Questions? I promise to answer what I can – just don’t ask who else is in it with me!

And hey… if you’re concerned about a coworker…talk to them. Try that route first. If unsuccessful, go to management. It sucks, but it sucks less than them dying from an OD or screwing up at work.

Reach out any time. Comment here, or find me: @tiffanytriesagain tiff.swede@gmail.com.

If you are a healthcare professional who is chemically impaired or concerned you may have a substance abuse disorder call WHPS at 1 800-525-0127 or go to http://www.doh.wa.gov

Or reach out to me. I promise confidentiality. I promise not to judge. I promise to help if I can.

One thought on “Whoops, I’m in WHPS! (Myths debunked) Happy National Recovery Month!

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