Shannon McDonald’s smile is contagious. She’s funny and kind and has a passion for refurbishing furniture and hitting the trails with her family on their ATVs.
But it wasn’t always this way.
In 2009, Shannon’s life was the stuff addiction is made of: a lack of coping skills “I was a negative person”, a troubled relationship “My husband and I were awful to each other” a legitimate cause for pain prescriptions “migraines and herniated discs” and high-stress job as an emergency room nurse in a Level 1 Trauma Center.
Similar to my experience, Shannon learned the hard way: marijuana’s not the gateway drug, opiate prescription pills are.
This post is longer than usual but worth it! In the following interview, Shannon opens up about procuring drug hookups in jail, suffering withdrawal from heroin, and finally, the joy of recovery.
Recover and Rise: Shannon, how long have you been sober, and what do you define yourself in recovery from?
Shannon: My sober date is Dec 2, 2015. I’ve been in recovery for 4 years and 3 months from drugs, alcohol, job burnout, and a generally crappy attitude – LOL!
Recover and Rise: Tell us how your substance use started. Were you working as a nurse?
Shannon: Yes, I was already a nurse, working in Pittsburgh, PA in 2009. My current husband and I were not particularly good to each other and it caused a lot of anxiety. My step-grandma tossed Xanax at me like it was a cure-all. Soon, I was going to the doctor to get my own Xanax. I also had migraines and a prescription for Vicodin. Twenty pills initially lasted months, but as I started to like the Xanax I found I really liked Vicodin too. I would blow through 20 pills in no time, then be screwed until the next month. After a year of this, I hurt my back at work; I herniated L1-S1, which gave me an excuse to take pain pills. No surgeon would touch me because I was only 25 years old. Instead, they threw oxycodone my way. In no time I was taking 120 oxycodone in the first 2 weeks of the month, and the next two weeks I was in withdrawal.
R&R: This is a common story from those who’ve suffered opiate addiction. Too often it progresses to intravenous use and heroin. Was that true for you?
Shannon: Yes, I remember the first time I felt withdrawals and thought, “Wow, I’m actually addicted to these!” But I kept working in the ER and taking pills like they were candy and no one seemed to notice. In 2014 I had surgery on my back. Once the post-op period was over they cut off my prescription. I went into serious withdrawal and couldn’t deal with it. I lived in a duplex at the time and my neighbor sold morphine pills. I would buy his whole month’s supply. After a couple months, I met his daughter- an IV heroin user. She told me I was crazy for spending all that money on pills and offered to let me try heroin. Back there (PA) white powder heroin is supplied in what’s called “stamp bags”. I snorted that first bag and it was off to the races. I got a high like I never had in my life and never went back to pills. It didn’t take long to see that she (the heroin supplier) was spending less money and getting higher than I was by shooting up. Soon, I too was using IV heroin. After four months my husband sent me to rehab. (I never went back to work in PA after my back surgery) Once out of rehab, I decided to move back home to Washington State. I told my husband I was going with or without him, and he chose to come too. (Also, by the way, he turned into the most amazing man in the world!)
R&R: Did going to rehab help you quit using?
Shannon: Not yet. I moved to WA in March of 2015, still using but I kept my addiction a secret. I was hired as a charge nurse in Brewster, WA. It was very stressful and did not take long before I was diverting Dilaudid (i.e. stealing narcotics from the workplace) and shooting up in the bathroom at work. Every shift I needed more and more. I never kept narcotics from a patient, but I stole the waste (waste: leftover from a vial which is usually disposed of and witnessed by a second nurse).
R&R: Were you afraid of getting caught?
Shannon: I remember the last night I worked there: October 7th, 2015. I thought I am getting way too bold, this is getting out of hand. Funny – I was supposed to work the night of the 8th, but they didn’t need me at work. About 9am on October 9th I got a knock on my door. It was the police. I was arrested for 21 counts of felony possession of a controlled substance and taken to jail. It was Friday and they were felony warrants so there was no bail. I had to spend the whole weekend there. I used the time to get names and numbers of people to get heroin from. I was released on Monday, and by Wednesday I was back to using. I used from that Wednesday until December 1st, 2015, when I made the decision to stop for good.
R&R: You’d already been to rehab and jail – What finally motivated you to stop using?
Shannon: My husband had finally had enough and told me if I didn’t stop he was leaving for good, and I knew he meant it. I’d lost my job and my nursing license was on the line. I spent the next 10 days as miserable as I had ever been in heroin withdrawal. I went in and out of our hot tub with restless legs. He rubbed them for me. I had diarrhea, vomiting, insomnia – it was AWFUL!! I did go to treatment again but by the time I could get an admission date I had almost 30 days clean. I didn’t want to go, but I did and am glad for it. It gave me a lot of the tools I still use today on a day to day basis.
R&R: What about your nursing license?
Shannon: The only way I saved my nursing license was through drug court. My felony charges were dropped and I joined the alternative to discipline program here in WA. Otherwise, my career would have been ruined.
R&R: How does your situation color your view of recovery for nurses?
Shannon: Unfortunately it really turns me off to even encouraging someone to ask for help. It was a friend of mine at my workplace that spent a lot of time building a legal case against me. This isn’t an environment that is open for people to ask for help. Instead, it harbors secrets. Rather than feeling empowered to self-report and get help early on, nurses end up in legal trouble or trouble at work for diverting.
R&R: Speaking of being open and asking for help, did you know any nurses in recovery? Was there anyone you felt comfortable talking to?
Shannon: I knew a lot of nurses that drank after work to cope with stress but didn’t realize how many nurses are addicted to drugs until after I was in recovery. I know now how common it is due to burnout, being short-staffed, large patient loads with high acuity, high stress, and minimal resources available.
R&R: You mentioned you’re in an alternative to discipline program in Washington State called WHPS (Washington Health Professional Services). What do you think of this type of program?
Shannon: Yes, I’ve got 13 months left in my contract! I’m very thankful for programs like drug courts and WHPS. I believe if I didn’t have a way of saving my career I wouldn’t felt a reason to get clean. Initially, I didn’t reach out because I was afraid of getting into serious trouble. It happened anyway – the police at my door, jail and drug court – but that’s exactly why I didn’t try. If there had been a safe space to share I think I could have avoided the worst parts.
R&R: What does recovery look like for you on a daily/weekly basis?
Shannon: I start my day with a daily recovery related reading. I attend 3 meetings a week, and also do an online support group for nurses. I go to NA meetings in a very small rural Washington and wish there were other options available to me.
R&R: Maybe you want to check out some other types of meetings – like Sunday morning She Recovers, see if one of their in-person Sharing Circles is near you, or try out Tuesday evening Recovery Dharma Women’s meeting! (Can’t ever pass up a great opportunity to advertise community recovery!!) Shannon – how have you turned this around to be positive in your life?
Shannon: I have changed exponentially! I’m a better person today than I was even before I started using drugs. I’ve always been kind of an asshole and negative-minded. Since I started working on myself from the inside out in recovery I’ve changed. I’ve become a person my family loves to be around. I feel happier, have more self-love, tolerance, acceptance of others, less judgmental, a better mother and wife…. just altogether a better person! And as for my career, I still work in an ER but know my limits when it comes to burnout and I don’t work myself to death. I use my story of addiction and recovery to help others.
R&R: I love all that so much! What advice do you have for nurses on a similar path?
Shannon: Take a break, take care of yourself, do some self-care, something you like to do, reach out for help. Look into a different avenue of nursing – change it up a little! Don’t stay in a job that is harming you.
R&R: What do you want to tell the higher up organizations, such as healthcare administration, about nurses and substance use disorder?
Shannon: Addiction is a crisis – and in the healthcare field where drugs are so readily available to us, it’s no wonder it’s a problem for us too. We need a safe space to ask for help. Addiction is a disease. Please believe this. Addicts need help not punishment; punishment can so often only make things worse. Employers should offer treatment and help to their nurses. Nurses in a program of recovery are some of the best nurses I know! Everyone deserves a second chance.
Are you a nurse with a recovery story to share and want to help end industry stigma? I want to interview you for the next “Year of the Nurse Spotlight”! (Anonymous stories accepted)
Are you struggling with drugs or alcohol and want to talk confidentially to someone who understands?
Check out my website for more info on co-creating a customized recovery plan together!
Are you a nurse who has questions about recovery and protecting your nursing license?
Find an alternative to discipline program in your area.