My first day returning to work after being treated for a severe opiate addiction was one of the most daunting moments of my life. Everyone in the office, from my manager to the administrative assistants, knew that forged prescriptions and criminal charges were the reason I had been let go from my previous job. My mind was spinning. What would my coworkers think of me? Who would want to work alongside an "addict"? Would they ever come to trust me? Did I even deserve to be here?
When my life was crashing and burning due to my addiction (detailed in my memoir Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction), a return to work seemed like a distant prospect, barely visible on a horizon clouded by relapses, withdrawal, and blackouts. My finances, my professional reputation, and my family life were in terrible shape due to my drug-seeking behavior. Working was not a tenable option until I received treatment and established a solid track record of recovery, which a potential employer could rely on.
The fact that I was now in recovery was a great development, and it was further ratification of my progress that I had landed a job and was returning to work. So, why wasn't I feeling overjoyed?
How stigma affects the return to work
As it turns out, the transition back to work after someone is treated for an addiction can be profoundly stressful. People recovering from addiction already tend to suffer disproportionately from guilt, shame, and embarrassment, and these feelings are often brought to the forefront during the unique challenges of returning to work.
Stigma is what differentiates addiction from other diseases, and is primarily what can make the return to work so difficult. If I had been out of work to receive chemotherapy or because of complications from diabetes, I certainly wouldn't have felt self-conscious or self-doubting upon resuming my employment. With addiction, due to the prejudices that many people in our society hold, the return is psychologically complex and anxiety-producing. As I entered my new office, I was walking right into the fears, preconceptions, and potential disdain that my new officemates might share toward people suffering from a substance use disorder. For all I knew, I was the "dirty addict" that they now, against their wishes, had to work with.
"Bring your body and your mind will follow"
What I was taught in recovery, to deal with situations like this, is to "just keep your head up" and to "put one foot in front of the other." Or, "bring your body, and your mind will follow." When I first heard these phrases, I thought that they were mere platitudes, phrases without content, provided to motivate us through dark times. Now, I think they hold a great deal of wisdom.
As I walked through the door on my first day back, I did feel everyone's eyes on me, and I did wonder if they were judging and criticizing me, but I made it to my desk without incident, and managed to power through my self-consciousness and get into the flow of my work. Every day, it became easier as I did a good job, deepened my connections with my colleagues, and accumulated good will, which would eventually replace any negative images that may have accompanied my arrival. Within weeks this was a non-issue, though at office get-togethers, my co-workers still somewhat awkwardly don't know whether to put a wine glass at my place setting.
With all I had learned in recovery about communication, about humility, about connecting with others, I feel that I was in a better position to thrive in my workplace than I was before my addiction started in the first place. As more of my brothers and sisters in recovery return to employment, and as we succeed, the more difficult will it be for people to hold on to their negative attitudes and prejudices about substance use disorders. We can defeat the stigma by confronting it, putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.