Can we truly heal another if we can’t heal ourselves?

“Liver Transplant Surgeon Addicted to Alcohol” — reads like a headline from a tabloid paper selling sensationalism.

How could it be?

How could a liver transplant surgeon, someone who sees up close and personal the devastating effects of alcohol on the body, be addicted to alcohol? Surely the diseased, fibrosed, hard, shrunken cirrhotic livers with dilated and engorged veins that can rupture and bleed catastrophically; the yellow eyes and skin of the patient with end-stage liver disease; the muscle wasting, the confused and addled brains in a body unable to clear the toxins; the smell of imminent death — would be enough to get someone to see the error of their ways and cease drinking alcohol excessively? Or so the thinking goes.

It seems the ultimate irony — that someone who is intelligent enough to study medicine and train as a surgeon to know about the body, health, illness and disease, who intimately knows the harm that alcohol wreaks on the body both personally and professionally, who helps others survive the life-threatening condition of alcohol-induced end stage liver disease through liver transplantation — finds they are unable to help or extract themselves from the grip of alcohol addiction.

It’s in the realm of the incredible, the “hard to believe” or perhaps even the ridiculous or crazy. Is such a person just weak? Stupid? Irresponsible? Foolhardy? Incompetent? Blind? Morally bankrupt? Ethically deficient? Devoid of sense and reason? Or is there more to it?

What is it that drives someone to continue to abuse herself with a substance that she clearly knows and can feel is harming and can see the full detrimental consequences in vivid technicolor detail? If working with patients with end-stage liver disease isn’t enough to ‘make someone see sense’, to correct their errant ways and stop drinking excessively, then what on earth would?

It takes a certain level of stamina and a bucket of stubbornness to go to work with a hangover day after day, to put on the face that says, “I’m fine” — when clearly everything else says otherwise. The professional face of the successful surgeon, who works hard, demands high standards of themselves and others, stays late at work, puts their utmost into the job of caring for patients, but paradoxically is unable to truly care for him or herself.

But can we truly care for another if we are not caring for ourselves?

Can we truly help another to heal if we too have the same ill and are not yet healed ourselves?

Is this a case of the wounded healer who is just as or maybe even more wounded than those they are in the process of healing perhaps?

Those long days of stress and tension, “have I made the right decision,” “should I do this … or that …?” the worry and fear of getting it wrong, making a mistake, harming a patient or even worse … all seemingly eased by the nocturnal consumption of liquor; blotting out the day, numbing the stress and tension, taking the edge off the worries and fears. Yet it never quite seems to do the trick … and another day dawns and we have to face it all again.

Each day of recurrent poisoning with alcohol adding to the cumulative weight of sorrow, shame and sadness that comes with all the previous days of broken promises — “tomorrow I’ll stop,” “today is the last day — I promise” … and not living true to ourselves.

For we know we are slowly but surely killing our self-respect, killing our self-worth and ultimately killing ourselves. It saps our energy, our will and motivation, ‘getting through the day’ is just enough — until the call of the thirsty beast reigns once more and any thought of stopping is cast aside along with another chunk of our self-respect.

We did not come into this job to help others heal, only to end up hurting ourselves — something, somewhere has gone wrong. The individual stories and experiences are all unique, the tales told of trauma and suffering vary, but what is true for every person addicted to alcohol — be they a doctor, nurse, liver transplant surgeon, banker, mother, priest, hairdresser, secretary or homeless person — is that they are already hurting inside.

No amount of intelligence, degrees, achievements or accolades can assuage emotional pain — a pain that medicine has largely ignored, denied and dismissed — just like the addict. It is a pain that is buried, sometimes deeply so, often with feelings of self-hatred, self-loathing or even disgust — feelings that we don’t want to feel and thus choose our numbing vice.

For the addict to heal, the denial must cease, the hurts and traumas admitted and exposed to air, to be felt and dealt with, understood, allowed and accepted, in the knowing that we are not our sadness, our pain, our anger; that any feelings of self-hatred and self-loathing are not who we are; that we are greater than we consider ourselves to be; that we are actually worth loving and caring for, first and foremost by ourselves.

There is an age old saying that “love heals” and in this case, it is the only true healer. Coming to know, understand and feel that we all have a loving essence that is unaffected by any trauma, hurt, abuse or wound provides a platform upon which we can feel, deal with and heal our hurts. No hurt, no trauma, no abuse is immune to the healing power of love.

And so like the addict, Medicine too must cease its denial if it is to heal the wounds that currently afflict the profession. Its arrogance has been somewhat humbled, its hubris tempered, for a medical degree does not render us “superior” or “better than” any other person. We have been put on pedestals, and we gladly jumped up there too, we enjoyed the “Godly” status, the power, the superiority of knowing more and flaunting our intelligence to feel better than — lest it should be exposed that we actually felt unsure, uncertain, insecure, incomplete, weak, vulnerable, imperfect or not good enough.

But we are just as fallible as every other human being on the planet, we get hurt, wounded and traumatized by the process of life and growing up in a world that has relegated love to the bedsheets, Valentine’s Day, romance, a partner, friends and family, chocolate, ice-cream, wine, dogs, or something that is pink and fluffy and definitely not for the serious business of science, medicine and healing. The price of our arrogance and ignorance has already been too high — let us not continue to tread the same well-worn path. The time is ripe for change, for openness, transparency and healing.

How many more suicides will it take? How many more addicted doctors do we need? What level of burnout is required … before we say enough! The fact that doctors have higher levels of suicide and addiction than the general population, that 50 percent are burned out, should already be more than enough to call for a radical overhaul and re-think of how we train and work. What will it take to humble the arrogant lens of the scientific mind further, to be open to other ways of understanding human beings, life and illness and disease, to expand our horizons and to reawaken to the truth of the fact that love is the greatest healer of all?

It was love that saved this liver transplant surgeon and healed my addiction to alcohol such that the desire to drink alcohol has been completely annihilated, for the level of regard, respect, love and care for myself and my body means such abuse is no longer entertained. This love, by the way, is an inside job — no partners, dogs, chocolate or pink fluffy clouds required.

Medicine is suppose to be the caring profession — but when it comes to its own, it is punishing and blaming not healing or caring. It likes to think it can keep addicted doctors hidden from view; the culture of fear prevents doctors from speaking up and so the façade that there is ‘no problem here’ is maintained while the profession is crumbling to its knees. It is time for medicine to cease punishing people for suffering, and to start being a truly caring profession by first of all caring for those it trains and employs.

It is common for such admissions of addiction by doctors to be accompanied by anonymity, amidst the fear of professional regulation and reputation damage. But we can never heal that which we keep secret within, and that goes for organizations too.

And so “Liver transplant surgeon heals addiction to alcohol” — you decide — a story to share to break down the myths of addiction, that others may know there is a way out of that prison, or one to keep to myself, hidden from the world, lest I should be punished for bringing the profession into disrepute by ills of the past? Which one is the caring, healing and loving act?

We cannot give what we do not have, so just as we as individuals need to love ourselves to love another, so too does the profession of medicine need to reintegrate love into medical education if we are to engender doctors that can work hard, play healthy and truly assist those seeking healing, by firstly healing ourselves.

Eunice J. Minford is a general surgeon in the United Kingdom who blogs at the Soulful Doctor.  She can be reached on Twitter  @thesoulfuldoc.

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