A self- admitted perfectionist, Khara graduated from nursing school Suma Cum Laude, married her high school sweetheart, and had two children together. But beneath the surface dark secrets were brewing.
From a young age, Khara experienced anxiety and depression. By college, she was perpetually bingeing on alcohol and chronically high on weed. Becoming licensed as a healthcare professional didn’t help Khara eliminate her toxic habits; in fact, the culture of nursing normalized them for her.
Like many of us who searched desperately for relief from emotional pain through substances, Khara tried for years to moderate before ultimately facing and overcoming her addiction to being numb.
She came to a realization: there is no escaping discomfort through drugs or alcohol. Trying to do so only kept her separate from herself and the beauty of life around her. Four years ago, Khara found her freedom in sobriety.
Khara’s story is so empowering, I felt bad having to edit it down to one brief interview! But Khara’s on a journey to becoming a recovery coach, and I have a feeling she’ll have many opportunities in the near future to share her story of hope and healing.
Recover & Rise: Khara thank you for participating in this series! Tell us, what are you in recovery from?
Khara: My drug of choice was marijuana, and I’m also in recovery from alcohol abuse, food addiction, job burnout, insomnia, and co-dependency.
R&R: What is your current program of recovery?
Khara: I’m not an active member of any one program, but attend meetings when I need them. I started out in al-anon, and credit that program with helping me look at my own behavior and “cleaning my side of the street.” When I first got sober, I utilized Alcoholics Anonymous pretty regularly. I’m also very involved with She Recovers.
R&R: As a working mom, do you find time for a daily/weekly recovery routine?
Khara: Being a nurse raising two young sons means I have a very chaotic and unpredictable schedule, but I do make time. Moving my body is essential; I love all outdoor activities. Nature takes me back to myself, keeps me grounded. Whenever I start feeling lost, I feel the earth under my feet, listen to birds and look at tall trees swaying in the breeze.
R&R: Does spirituality play a role in your recovery?
Khara: Spirituality is my number one recovery tool. I am a spiritual being having a human experience. I communicate with my higher power through meditation and a daily gratitude practice.
R&R: It sounds like recovery and your life’s purpose are quite integrated. How “public” are you with sobriety and recovery?
Khara: I’m very public, but that wasn’t an easy decision. Initially, I told my family, close friends, and a few people at work. I was really committed and wanted to be held accountable. I also wanted people to know I was embarking on something big and difficult so they would understand if I declined invitations, or seemed different.
R&R: Your decision to share sounds very intentional. Were you afraid of the stigma as a healthcare professional?
Khara: I was afraid of being fired, to be honest. My employer had never given that vibe, but I felt like they would think I was a liability. I was never impaired at work, but I was afraid they might assume and think differently of me.
R&R: You’re now working on becoming a She Recovers Coach – which can mean an even more public spotlight, particularly in social media. Are you public there?
Khara: Going public on Instagram took even longer to decide. I was worried that in our drinking culture, people would get annoyed with me and my sobriety. But I want to help people that may be hurting, confused, and scared. I want to show there is a way out of their personal hell. That life can be so beautiful if you free yourself from the things that are holding you down.
R&R: Give us a glimpse into your life before recovery. Was addiction an issue prior to being a nurse?
Khara: My problems started well before I became a nurse, but nursing is a huge part of my story. Like many good addicts, I was a people pleaser, and what better way to please people than to take care of them? Nurses tend to be great at numbing their pain, and I was a pro; I’d been training since childhood. I could deny feelings, push them away, and disassociate from the traumatic things I saw as a nurse. We joke in my unit about being “DI”. Dead Inside. We are invincible. We help a mother through the tragic loss of her baby, then turn our sadness around and help another mother welcome her vibrant child into the world. You’d never know we had just been to the morgue an hour before. I was great at being dead inside until I realized there is more…. so much more.
R&R: That is an intense insight into your work life. How old were you when you began numbing yourself, with substances or otherwise?
Khara: I was an anxious and sensitive kid. I battled mental health issues and addiction from a young age, including using food for comfort. By Freshman year, I coped with anxiety through disordered eating by restricting calories and obsessive exercise. I did see a therapist and started Zoloft, which helped.
As for substances, my first drink was at 15. I was dating an older guy who took me to a college party and I was doing keg stands and swigging Jack Daniels from the bottle my first night. My father actually helped me through the hangover (he has been in recovery too) and asked if I’d learned my lesson. I thought I had, but I was naive. I had more lessons to learn.
R&R: You mentioned marijuana was your drug of choice. Did you start smoking weed at that age too?
Khara: My senior year I started dating my now-husband. I fell hard for him, and for marijuana. It was complete magic! It took away my anxiety, my perfectionist tendencies, and let me relax. I was finally able to sleep. I figured weed never caused people to blackout, get violent, make destructive decisions, and destroy lives. It was my way to numb without waking the alcoholic gene that I was sure lived inside me.
In college, I smoked all day to cope with depression and was proud to be a straight-A pothead. I was surrounded by peers who smoked and drank like me so I rationalized it, but deep inside there was a knowing. I wondered, was this just like alcoholism? I never let that thought get too loud, though. I didn’t want to hear it.
R&R: At what point did you enter nursing school, and did your habits change?
Khara: In junior year I chose to be a nurse. I wanted to be like my mom, who was a nurse, and whom I saw as strong, confident, and capable. I thought nursing school would make me like her. Instead, school was extremely challenging, and I smoked my way through. Binge drinking became a new norm. After a hard exam, my crew and I would get wasted. It was normalized amongst my nursing school friends. Despite this, I was able to complete the program Suma Cum Laude, at the top of my class. But the knowing was still there, and it was getting louder.
R&R: Once you were out of school, and in the “real world” of nursing, how did things change?
Khara: I started my first nursing job in Boston and was immediately hit in the face with what real nurse life was all about. I worked on an understaffed thoracic surgery floor and cried every single day. It was awful. I rotated shifts and was constantly exhausted. I hated my job and wondered how I got myself into this mess. I would smoke weed and eat too much, then wake up completely miserable. After, I’d workout to combat all the food and lethargy, but every afternoon I’d start the cycle again. I couldn’t stop and hated myself for being weak.
R&R: Did you try anything at the time to quit or cut down?
Khara: I attempted to control my smoking starting in college when the knowing voice inside me would get too loud. But when I stopped, I became so depressed I figured I was better off just using. Trying to minimize consumption never worked.
R&R: It sounds like that department was a breeding ground for job burnout. At what point did you decide to go into labor and delivery?
Khara: I first tried a medical floor, worked nights, and weed helped me sleep during the day, taking the edge off of living against my circadian rhythm. From there I went to the ICU, with leukemia and bone marrow transplant patients who suffered multi-organ failure, with little hope of survival. I felt like I spent my days torturing them with medical interventions, keeping them alive with machines, wishing families would understand their awful quality of life was and what little chance they had. It was devastating. The stress of taking care of critically ill patients was beyond what I ever thought. So I just kept numbing. I finally went to my current unit, Labor and Delivery. I was so excited about this opportunity, but it was still intense, with a serious learning curve. My anxiety went through the roof, and I found myself back on Zoloft to cope with the stress. I continued to numb out and party hard, to make it through.
R&R: What was the eventual turning point for you? What brought you the courage to change?
Khara: Well, first I decided having a baby would fix my addiction. When I got pregnant with my first son I was thrilled for a reason to stay sober. I wanted to have a baby so badly, I didn’t even find it difficult. It was a magical time. During pregnancy, I didn’t want to smoke at all.
But soon after he was born, my mother in law was diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, I was caring for an infant and acting as the family nurse. The pressure was indescribably overwhelming. Soon, I was smoking addictively, and drinking often. But the knowing voice of reason was screaming inside me. While I wasn’t quite ready to face this, I had begun attending al-anon and found release and relief through these meetings. I met a nurse there who was in AA. Through talking to her and finding a higher power, I began to see how unmanageable my addictions were.
R&R: Was it this nurse’s help that turned you toward sobriety?
Khara: My ultimate turning point was in December 2015, when my son was just over a year old, and my previously vibrant, spunky, and beautiful mother in law succumbed to her disease. Shortly after, a good friend was tragically killed in a hit and run incident. Even though I was completely lost in grief, the knowing voice – the voice that said I had a problem and needed help – reached me. And this time, I knew I wasn’t alone. I had my higher power and the support of my new angels to guide me.
R&R: Thank you for sharing these painful experiences with such vulnerability. What was your first step to getting clean “for real”?
Khara: I began mentally planning my sobriety by journaling and praying for help. I picked a date, Monday, Jan 18, 2016. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I was inspired by his famous quote. “Free at last, free at last, Thank God almighty we’re free at last.” I was obviously taking the quote out of context, but I felt its truth deep in my bones. That day was the start of the rest of my life.
R&R: Had you ever considered seeking help through your employer?
Khara: I’ve never seen anything about addiction resources for employees, so I didn’t think about utilizing them. It really upsets me that my institution doesn’t have those resources. I think addiction is something they want to keep quiet, which makes medical providers even more ashamed and they suffer in silence.
R&R: You’ve shared a lot about the pressure put on nurses in acute care. In your opinion, what are the main factors in our industry that lead to such a high rate of substance use disorder?
Khara: Nurses are often asked to do the job of two people. You can’t ask a colleague for help when everyone is drowning simultaneously. We’re expected to keep our patients safe and alive, provide excellent customer service, and help our co-workers. We are placed in traumatizing events on a regular basis and expected to switch gears quickly and take on the next thing. We’re trained to ignore our own needs and emotions to do our job well.
R&R: How has recovery helped you to cope with your challenging career?
Khara: During the height of my addiction I hated work and had no coping mechanisms. It took away my ability to get high, so I resented it. When I wasn’t numb from being high, I felt guilty and ashamed.
Now that I’m sober, my passion for nursing has come back. I have a toolbox filled with coping mechanisms. I’ve realized my limits and only work two 12-hour shifts a week so I don’t burnout. I love my unit and the people I work with; I’m forever grateful for their support. Working in labor and delivery is a blessing. I’m invited to one of the most important days in a parent’s life and I see it as a privilege. This is a gift recovery has given me.
R&R: Tell us the best parts of being sober, in your experience.
Khara: Recovery helped me find who I am, what I like, what I don’t, and how to take care of myself. I still battle with anxiety and depression from time to time, but on a much smaller scale than before.
Getting sober helped save my marriage. I’m a better mother than I ever was. I’m present and focused. I can teach my kids the important lessons recovery has taught me, and hopefully help them see what a beautiful journey life is.
R&R: What do you want to tell the nurse who might be struggling like you were?
Khara: I’d like to use my favorite quote of all time, from Laura McKowen:
“It’s not your fault. It is your responsibility. It’s unfair this is your thing. This is your thing. This will never stop being your thing until you face it. You can not do it alone. Only you can do it. I love you. I will never stop reminding you of these things.”
I’d also tell that nurse my story, offer my support in, give my number, and say they don’t have to face this alone. I’m here.
R&R: What would you like employers/hospital administration/nursing commission to know about addiction recovery for nursing professionals?
Khara: In 2017, 19.7 million adults suffered from substance use disorder. 3.3 million people die yearly from alcohol alone. It’s a legal and highly celebrated substance and is the source of the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Healthcare workers are at an increased risk of addiction. Providing addiction awareness education and resources to staff would be a huge step in the right direction. Not only would it provide much-needed support without stigma, but it would educate healthcare providers to provide better care of their patients with substance use disorder.
R&R: Any final words you’d like to leave us with?
Khara: The knowing. We all have that little voice inside telling you something’s not right, you’re playing small, there could be so much more. I wish I had listened to my knowing sooner, but I believe everything happens when it’s supposed to.
You can find Khara on Instagram @owlsreverywhere. Stay tuned as she will be a She Recovers Coach in the not so distant future, using her story of recovery to help so many others!
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)
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