Working through workplace stigma: Coming back after an addiction

Peter Grinspoon, MD

Contributing Editor

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.

 

Comments:

  1. Edmon D. Pogi

    I am moved by your story, knowing how difficult it is to face even a hostile audience after a serious professional mistake, let alone the personal tragedy of addiction. Thank you for returning to the “field of battle” that is medicine and addressing with the empathy you have from personal experience the opiod crisis all around us. Thank you very much. Good wishes for your new year, and ours.

  2. Veronika A.

    Your comeback is so encouraging. It’s bringing back memories that might actually make me cry sitting here. My mom and sister both dealt with similar situations – perhaps not as high profile as this one, but the rules are the same. One foot in front of the other is definitely sage wisdom. My sister was fortunate as she worked for an amazingly supportive company here in Florida they really helped her through it, and not just with words – they had programs in place that helped with tangible resources. It always gives me hope in humanity (and for corporate America) when companies do right by people who genuinely want help. thank you for writing this and calling this out. More high-end health professionals (like yourself) and executives really need to.

  3. Patrick Doyle LICSW

    Peter this is so revealing, moving, and important especially for we who support employers, and employees returning to work after lengthy absence due to behavioral health illness. Your courageous self-disclosure of sickness and recovery is inspirational, and deserving of inclusion in all medical/professional training curricula. Your patients and colleagues are blessed that you are in their lives. Keep up your amazing (on so many levels) work; so happy for you.

  4. Judith upstate NY

    I am moved by your story, knowing how difficult it is to face even a hostile audience after a serious professional mistake, let alone the personal tragedy of addiction. Thank you for returning to the “field of battle” that is medicine and addressing with the empathy you have from personal experience the opiod crisis all around us. Thank you very much. Good wishes for your new year, and ours.

  5. NDE DIDIER achu

    Wow What a wonderful story am really encouraged by this story my own case I was drug innocently by my colleague’s at my work place and I become addicted to a substance I knew nothing about it. I have suffered with this for the past 8 months now Harvard stories really encouraged me within this period to get back myself now that am almost stable I don’t want to go back to work again I want to go back to school and Harvard has been in my mind throughout my recovery period please help me get admission in Harvard because I believe my own life story will also encourage someone some day

  6. Bostongal

    Hey there–Good for you on all fronts… it is good that you are back because you will help the medical profession understand how to prevent further addiction from happening and also help it to understand how to treat it better. The medical community needs your message for then ever, so do not give up. You will be a big key to ending the epidemic. 🙂