So Many Questions: Dr. Steven Farber details struggle with addictions in 'As Sick as Our Secrets'
P icture in your mind a drug addict.
Now picture that person wearing a white coat, making a diagnosis, even operating — while high.
That was Dr. Steven Farber's reality for years. Struggling with an addiction to prescription pills that later led to illegal-drug abuse, it took a series of wake-up calls before he was finally able to admit the healer needed to be healed.
His recently released book, “As Sick as Our Secrets,” details the jaw-dropping scenarios that he was able to operate under — literally and figuratively. Seven years of sobriety later, he's on track to get back into patient care, but this time, he's got a new outlook on things. Focusing on a more holistic approach, he hopes to integrate western and eastern medicine to help patients and even fellow physicians maintain their health.
He also hopes the message gets out — not only about the problem, but about the solution. “It's not a death sentence,” he says. “Recovery is definitely possible.”
Question: Was there any point where a fellow doctor or nurse started to notice something might be amiss?
Answer: Oh, yeah. My personality shifted to where, normally, I'm very easy going, I'm very laid back and slow to anger, and I started to get irritable and started jumping down people's throats and was a little more curt with my patients. My office manager saw some telltale signs. They did an intervention in the summer of 2006. At that point, my denial mechanisms were so intense, I didn't want to admit that I used drugs or had a problem with them. But I tried to pacify them, so I said, “I'll quit and go to rehab.” And I went to rehab for a short period of time and didn't take it seriously. I only stayed for about two weeks and left. I got angry and upset and made all kinds of excuses up. … I lied to my closest friends and did everything to deceive people. Secrets and lies are the foundation of addiction. I actually started believing my own deceptions.
Q: We like to think of our doctors as being super-human. Is it hard for people to reconcile with the notion of their healer needing healed?
A: I think that most people don't want to believe that. Statistically, it's interesting. Somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of physicians have a problem with alcohol and drugs. They're actually five times more likely to have a problem with prescription drugs — and that's because of the access to them. But there are a number of reasons I think that physicians are very prone to it.
For me, it turned out to be a problem with self-medicating for depression. Addictions take a lot of forms. It's very common for physicians to go through depression and burnout and stress for a lot of pretty obvious reasons. And that starts back in training. There are quite a few physicians in training who are going through depression. You're going through sleep deprivation. You have a lot of emotional issues related to chronically ill patients, and you can't afford to make mistakes. Most physicians, although they're very well trained in taking care of patients, they aren't taught how to take care of themselves.
Q: Do people view prescription-drug abuse in the same light as heroin, cocaine or crack addiction?
A: I think the most common form of addiction is prescription-drug addiction, and that's responsible for most deaths. One person dies every 19 minutes from prescription drugs. In this society, it's probably not viewed in the same negative light because it's not illegal. Although it's illegal to deal them and to get them on street corners and sell them in schools. But the thought is that this is a legal prescription most of the time. It's just not quite viewed in the same negative light, although they're all just different forms of the same problems: People trying to fill an empty hole that they can't fill and trying to relieve their pain.
Q: Health-and-wellness initiatives are more popular than ever. Yet as a nation, we struggle with all kinds of addictions. Where's the disconnect?
A: There's a lot of legal addictions out there that are consuming people. Alcohol is legal, you know? I actually had problems with multiple addictions, and I think my first addiction was work. When I was 13, I was sexually abused and that was a secret I carried with me for most of my life. And I think I drowned myself in work and many things that were socially acceptable that would not allow me to think about things.
And, then, my addictions also were to shopping or buying things. It's kind of like a game of Whack-A-Mole — you knock one thing down, and another thing comes up. But as a society, I think when someone dies who's famous, we look at it, and we say how terrible it is, and, then ,we sweep it under the rug and don't think about it and feel it's someone else's problem.
Q: You've been sober for seven years now. What's been the key to your recovery?
A: I'm not going to say there's one key to it, but the 12-step program as a way of living life and taking it seriously has been big for me. It helps you to deal with the issues that create addiction and maintain sobriety. One thing that really is the biggest aspect to my recovery is the development of my spiritual side and spiritual nature. Most years, I didn't have a connection to God and felt that he had abandoned me and was responsible for a lot of the things that had gone wrong in my life.
Most of my life was basically spent in spiritual confusion. I didn't know where my home was, spiritually. I just really discovered I was on a spiritual journey the last few years. For me, it has really been a blessing. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and thinking you're never going to make it, you can recreate your life. But in order to do that, you have to get rid of the negativity and stop blaming others for your problems and just be accountable for you and your actions.
Kate Benz is the social columnist for Trib Total Media and can be reached at email@example.com, 412-380-8515, or via Twitter: @KateBenzTRIB.
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