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Treating the Impaired Physician or 'How Doc Got Sober'

An innovative treatment program for physicians with SUDs might help everyone.

Our guest columnist this week is Dr. Linville M. Meadows. Meadows is an Honors graduate of the UNC School of Medicine and studied at Duke University. He later held faculty positions at both institutions. He was recognized internationally for his work in cancer research, receiving both grants and awards. He authored numerous scientific articles.

His recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol began on May 7, 1997. Since then, he has counseled a large number of addicts and alcoholics striving to get clean and sober. His observations and study over the last 20 years form the basis for his new book, A Spiritual Pathway to Recover from Addiction, A Physician’s Journey of Discovery.

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Addiction affects physicians at the same rate as is found in the general population, about 10%. Unlike the general population, however, an intensive rehab program improves their chances of long-term sobriety to over 70%. The question becomes, how is this achieved, and can anyone benefit? And, who were these doctors, what did they learn, and how did it change them?

“We’re all just bozos on this bus.” As a group, we were diverse: every specialty, every religion, every part of the country. We were frightened, for addiction had taken over our lives. But try as we might, we couldn’t quit.

“I don’t need anyone’s help.” As practicing physicians, we denied our problem to everyone, including ourselves. But if you had asked us, we could only say, “I’m fine.”

“Rules were made for people who can’t think for themselves.” In many ways, the practice of medicine enables addiction: black and white thinking, tunnel vision, overthinking, an ego the size of Cleveland. We were sure we knew the answer to every question and of course, we were always right. We wore the mask of invincibility and carried arrogance in our little black bag.

Source: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

“One day at a time.” The slide into full-blown addiction was slow; a drink with dinner became a dozen. Just as insidious was the decay of our mental function. We were trapped in the habits that carried us into addiction. We held onto these ideas with incredible fierceness. We found we could not think ourselves into sobriety. Only prolonged enforced sobriety worked, until with time, our thinking returned to normal. Which is why 28 days is not nearly enough.

“Who’s the doctor here.” We had to accept that we weren’t the doctor anymore. We were the patient.

“The bottle was but a symptom.” Our problem wasn’t just chemical dependency. Our thoughts, our reasoning, our habits, our very character, had become warped. To untangle the knots of our disease required a wholesale rearrangement of who we were.

“You don’t have to change much, just everything.” We began the process of self-discovery, making peace with the past, removing the resentments and character defects which hobbled us. We dumped the old ways for the new. The principles we needed turned out to be quite spiritual in nature. Sadly, they sounded much like the words of wisdom we heard at our mother’s knee.

“There is a God, and it ain’t you!” We had long ago abandoned the religion of our fathers. Now we worshipped at the altar of John Barleycorn and Lady Cocaine. We surrendered our lives to them and did their bidding willingly. Now, we had to find a Higher Power we could relate to. When we reached out, we found something. Prayer became a part of our world, and to our great intellectual surprise, it actually worked.

“I am not my thoughts.” We discovered we could control our thoughts. We were no longer at the mercy of our resentments or our emotions. Our new thinking led to new behavior patterns. We gave up self-seeking and began to care for our fellow man. The altruism that brought us to medicine, which had died so gloriously in our addiction, was revived.

“My job, my job, my job.” No longer was our career our number one priority. My Higher Power, my recovery from addiction, and my family, in that order. Helping others, too. When we listened to our deepest inner self, all manner of virtues came tumbling out, honesty chief among them. We liked the way it made us feel.

“We ceased fighting anything and everything.” Overcoming our addiction changed us. Life was good, and getting better by the day. We were at peace with ourselves, our world, and with life itself. But like any other chronic disease, constant vigilance was required if we were to maintain our sobriety and our new-found serenity.

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Source: Linville Meadows, author.

Dr. Meadows and his wife, Ann, live on a hobby farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In the barnyard you will find two sheep, three alpacas, one donkey, and numerous birds including turkeys, ducks, geese, and bunch of chickens. An organic garden sits nearby. He is an avid photographer and plays bluegrass guitar.

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