Year of the Nurse Spotlight #5: Brooke – “I had no idea I was an addict.”

Even though I worked in a treatment centre, I had no idea I was an addict. “It’s just weed, it helps with my anxiety and depression” was my mentality.

Not only is Brooke a badass sober nurse and an out-loud recovery advocate, she is Canadian! And I have to admit, I have a major girl crush on all my sober sisters up North.

Brooke has been a Licensed Practical Nurse for seven years, and in recovery for nearly as long. In addition to the usual suspects – drugs and alcohol – Brooke has overcome codependency, gambling and a binge-eating disorder. Her story illustrates how stubborn our blind spots can be, even if we’re educated and the source of our problem is right in front of us.

Brooke worked as a nurse in a treatment centre (Canadian spelling in her honor!) caring for patients with addiction and mental health issues. She recalls colleagues at the centre who were in recovery as well. Yet it took tragic consequences, including the overdose death of a friend, before Brooke woke to the fact that she too needed serious help.

This month’s spotlight nurse is proof that we do recover, from all the things! May her story bring you hope, and serve as potent ammunition against stigma and shame.

Recover and Rise: Brooke, I’m so excited to hear your story! This will be a first time for me, as we’re newly acquainted. Where do you live, and what do you currently do as a nurse?

Brooke: I work in Victoria, BC, Canada as an LPN in a hospital setting, going between medical and palliative care units and between day and night shift.

R&R: What do you consider yourself in recovery from?

Brooke: Codependency, burn out, trauma, anxiety, depression, marijuana, benzodiazepines, gambling, binge eating disorder.

R&R: That is an impressive list…you’ve overcome so many obstacles! Would you consider any of those your drugs of choice?

Brooke: Marijuana and Benzodiazepines were my preferred substances.

R&R: How many years have you been active in recovery, and do you have a specific program that you’re involved in?

Brooke: I’ve been in recovery for six years from codependency and job burn out, and I’m three years substance free! I utilize multiple pathways that make up my program, including women’s specific support, 12-step, and reclaiming my spiritual path.

R&R: I love that! It’s becoming more common to embrace a variety of recovery modalities. What does your daily/weekly recovery routine consist of?

Brooke: Daily meditations, prayer, manifestation, service work, and attending meetings.

R&R: How “public” are you with your story/recovery/sobriety and how did you come to this decision?

Brooke: I’m very public. I think it’s important to share my story in order to destigmatize and help people relate.

R&R: That’s wonderful! We’re grateful to have you sharing your story with us today. And that’s a perfect segue…tell us your journey in your own words.

Brooke: For as long as I can remember I felt there was something different about me. I was hypersensitive, hyper-emotional and overwhelmed with the need to caretake. I found relief at a very young age in food and around 12 years old I was introduced to alcohol. Drinking also offered relief, but I didn’t like to feel “out of control”. It didn’t take long before I realized I could get emotional relief from cannabis without feeling loss of control. As time went on, I smoked higher quantities and more frequently until it was a daily routine. I’d smoke as much as I possibly could in a day, even waking at night to get high and binge again.

R&R: Wow Brooke, that’s intense. Were you working as a nurse at this time?

Brooke: Yep, I was. Even though I worked in a treatment centre, I had no idea I was an addict. “It’s just weed, it helps with my anxiety and depression” was my mentality.

R&R: It’s not that uncommon to hear stories like that…denial can be a nearly insurmountable force.

Brooke: Exactly. When I decided to seek out counseling, the counselor suggested I go to treatment myself, and I replied “for what?” I never entertained the idea that I was an addict, maybe because the patients and nurses at the centre I worked at had stories much more extreme than mine. I was functioning, going to work daily, and had no real outer consequences. Not yet anyway.

R&R: So you hadn’t yet come to terms with addiction per se…but it sounds like you were self-medicating by smoking weed. Was job stress something you were trying to treat – or even escape?

Brooke: Definitely. I hated being in my skin. I hated existing. I saw my doctor who prescribed benzodiazepines and told me to take some time off work. I did, and I LOVED it. I knew I would – I’d liked Ativan in the past. This doctor just gave me permission to use, and I got worse. I was considering suicide as an option but was too afraid to die. I really just wanted a break from life. Some sort of relief from the extreme amount of pain I was in. That’s when I decided to see a counselor.

R&R: No wonder you were numbing yourself in so many ways. As your drug use and suffering increased, what ultimately turned you to recovery? When did you recognize enough is enough?

Brooke: It wasn’t until a dear friend of mine died of a drug overdose, I had credit card fraud, two friends using me for support around suicidal ideation, all while I was trying to keep it together to be a “good nurse”…and finally I just couldn’t cope. I was assessed by an addictions doctor who diagnosed me with cannabis use disorder, Binge Eating Disorder, complex PTSD, anxiety and depression. I finally agreed; my only real option was go to treatment and save my life that was falling apart around me. I did six weeks of inpatient treatment in Toronto, Canada.

R&R: I’m so glad you agreed to go! Did you have to tell your employer you were leaving to get treatment? Were there any consequences to your license, or public record of discipline?

Brooke: I reached out to my union who told me to not return to work the next day, and to wait for a phone call. That’s when the process began. The hoops to jump through to get help started. No restrictions were placed on my license thankfully, as I self disclosed and didn’t get caught stealing or anything. I voluntarily changed my license to non-practicing at the time, which was highly suggested by the union.

R&R: That’s great. I love hearing about employers and the Board of Nursing supporting their nurses! Did being in treatment give you the rest and temporary escape you needed?

Brooke: Treatment definitely gave me a break from the real world, but also made me face my “real” problems. Afterwards, I moved and changed jobs, teaching in the nursing program and managing a high end homecare company.

R&R: What are some lessons you learned in treatment? Can you speak to what nurses might need to hear?

Brooke: In treatment I learned coping mechanisms, boundaries, and how to deal with stress before it becomes burnout. Putting recovery first is sometimes challenging when you’re at work, but work-life balance is a must. Long hours, shift work, working short staffed and dealing with high stress situations puts nurses at high risk for substance use disorder.

R&R: I would add it increases risk for a whole host of addictive behaviors, including process addictions like eating disorders and gambling, as well as codependency complications. You’ve been working on recovery for six years now, and free from substances for three…how is life different for you?

Brooke: Life changing! I only experience situational anxiety, depression is fairly stable and I function much better on a day to day basis. The relationships I’ve created are amazing, real and lifelong!

R&R: Are there any words of hope you can offer nurses who might be stuck in a cycle of addiction, seeking help, or feeling shame around recovery?

Brooke: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. This is normal and it’s okay to get help. There is a better way of living and I promise the hard work is worth it.

R&R: That’s beautiful. One last question…what would you like employers/hospital administration/nursing commission to know about addiction recovery for nursing professionals?

Brooke: We are just people. We are just trying to cope. We are just as worthy; do not treat us any different.

R&R: Thank you so much Brooke! You’re absolutely right – we are just people trying to cope. We deserve treatment – we deserve love. And I believe that your vulnerability and courage – offering up your story for others – will move us forward to getting treated the way we deserve!

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