Pharmacists abuse drugs too!

was too smart to be a drug addict. I had, after all, graduated from the nation’s third-ranked pharmacy school with a degree that enabled me to practice in a highly trusted profession. I knew what receptors the drugs worked on and what responses they would elicit. I even knew the major side effects of each class of my favorite drugs. Me, a drug addict? No way. I was just taking part in a fringe benefit that all pharmacists enjoy: the benefit of self-medicating. It’s a stressful job. Is that so wrong? We all do that, right?
According to statistics, many of us do take part in self-medicating. A study by McAuliffe et al reported that 46 percent of pharmacists use prescription drugs without a prescription. Sixty-two percent of pharmacy students surveyed had used a prescription drug with no prescription. Also, 20 percent of pharmacists reported they had used a prescription drug without a prescription at least five times or more in their lives. Perhaps I had a point there.

Almost immediately after receiving my license to practice pharmacy in 1996, I began using controlled substances to enhance my mood. Within a very short time, I was their slave. After a tumultuous battle with drugs and alcohol, two arrests, and losing four precious years of my life, I got clean and sober in October of 2000. Once I had been clean and sober for awhile, my mother admitted, “I just never understood how somebody so smart could do something so … well … not smart. Didn’t you know that those things could get you addicted? Why would you take that chance?” Well, Mom, it just ain’t that simple.

I wish I could explain to her and to everyone else how this came to happen to me. I would love to be able to come up with a mathematical formula that could warn aspiring pharmacists who may be at risk. Then I could suggest they study computers, engineering, or law instead of pharmacy, which offers addicts a bit too much access to the substances they crave.

Perhaps I had a genetic predisposition. Otherwise, predicting my fate would have been a crapshoot. I made good grades in school. I had many friends and was popular. I had wonderful parents who neither drank nor drugged. So somebody tell my mother why she had to watch me circle the drain of addiction for several years.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 11 percent to 15 percent of pharmacists are confronted with alcohol/dependency problems at some time in their careers. Judging by the numbers of pharmacists I know in recovery, I’d say that number is a bit low. Perhaps the stressful work environment, coupled with the access to anxiolytics and other euphoria-producing substances, makes up for that small percentage of difference between us pharmacists and regular old Earth people.

Whatever the reasons and/or contributing factors, pharmacists are not immune to the disease of addiction, no matter how educated we are. I am thankful the governing bodies of our profession, such as the Kentucky Board of Pharmacy, have embraced the idea of rehabilitation of pharmacists who have fallen prey to this chronic and potentially fatal disease. I applaud those, like Brian Fingerson of the Kentucky Pharmacists Recovery Network (PRN), who took part in pioneering the way to this new mindset. For 14 years he volunteered (that’s right, serving for zero pay) as chairman of what was then called the Impaired Pharmacists Committee.

I am thankful to be able to practice my profession today. Although I still can’t explain to my mother why or how my addiction happened, I am thankful to be a part of the solution today for those pharmacists who find themselves up against this cunning and baffling disease.

JARED COMBS , PharmD, practices pharmacy at University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington. Last year, he published a memoir, Incomprehensible Demoralization: An Addict Pharmacist’s Journey to Recovery.

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