A pathway to a healthier you

Occasional drug use can become your norm

I was brought up in a hippie-type alternative environment as a young flower child influenced by people in an artistic community that I hung around. Smoking dope (marijuana) was almost socially acceptable. Alcohol and cannabis were a big part of my lifestyle during adolescence. 

I didn’t start to notice I had a problem until much later on. On my 17th birthday I was doing my nursing training and continued to use cannabis. I’d get home from my nursing shifts and smoke [marijuana]. I never smoked at work, but I’d come home and use it to unwind. 

My use slowly changed from having fun on the weekend and parties to something I’d come home and want to do after my nursing shifts to separate myself from the day. I loved my job; it wasn’t that I was unhappy. I came home and wanted to separate myself from the full-on ness of my day.  

Career progress, pressure increase

I was very quickly elevated to a senior role as deputy charge nurse. I was a 21-year-old in charge of 48 residents and doing 12-hour shifts. Two on two off and often called in to do extra shifts, so I was often doing 4-5 12-hr days. There was no limit to the amount of overtime you could do in those days and there was no focus on our own health. It was incredible pressure, with increased hours and responsibility, I continued to use cannabis and started to use more than I used to, to turn off from the day.  

I started to get concerned. I noticed they [my peers] weren’t doing it every day after work like I was. My girlfriends would wait until the weekend to have a smoke and drink. That went on for many years.  

Occasional becomes habitual

I started to get worried about the habitual way I was smoking to manage my life. I wasn’t sleeping, which must have been impacting my performance at work, and hard to motivate with my drinking more at night. I wasn’t impacted at work, but I knew I wasn’t on my game.  

Being ‘seen’ by a colleague

It was an old DON who was my advocate who came up to me. She called me out. “I see you using alcohol to manage the stress of your days. You’re run down, you look exhausted, and your mood fluctuates. The reason I see it in you is because ‘you are me’. I had the same struggle and I want to help you.” 

I had so much emotion that she had empathy for me. What I then knew was that it was visible, and I was at the point where I couldn’t go without it [marijuana]. Sadly, there was nothing for the nursing and midwifery professions 35 years ago.  

Share experiences and strategies

The old DON said to me: “I can tell you what I did and how my life changed.” So, I went to a private hospital to detox. I took three months off work. I was incredibly lucky to have support. I met an amazing group of nurses including from interstate. It was the first time I could unload my shame. I couldn’t understand why I needed to use cannabis at the end of the day, I loved my job. It was the first time I could talk about it after so many years of hiding it. 

I chose abstinence because I was never going to be the person who could just use alcohol or cannabis on the weekend. I went back to work and have never had a mind-altering substance since. I went to community based self-help group and I saw a therapist for 3-4 years.  

Peer support is powerful

I found nurse-to-nurse peer support helpful. There was a couple of us nurses in the community based self-help group and we came together and met weekly. Nurses supporting other nurses, there was so much value in that. Nurses get other nurses – it’s powerful. We understand the depth of our work; it was the grounding I needed to get my health back.  

I learned other ways to manage stress, and changed what I did. Instead of cannabis and alcohol I’d go to the gym or go for a walk, and I kept in communication with other nurses. As a result, my life changed dramatically.  

I was most fortunate that at the time in my life when I needed it, I received the support to get well; and it started from another nurse who tapped me on the shoulder in an empathetic way and who had direct experience with what I was going through and understood. I became physically and mentally clearer and was able to return to clinical practice.  

Sometimes taking that first step is the hardest. If you think you have a problem or are concerned that you’re in trouble, find someone that you’re comfortable with to talk to. We have to start normalising help-seeking behaviour.