Clean, Sober And Using Suboxone

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Clean, Sober And Using Suboxone

By Tiffany Swedeen 07/04/18

Suboxone users deserve a safe space, in and out of the rooms. And we deserve to proudly call ourselves clean and sober.   

Image: 
Tiffany Swedeen

It was pretty apparent when I began taking Vicodin for migraines that I was going to have a problem, but I was too ashamed and afraid to ask for help.

On the outside, I was a working professional, undergrad student and hands-on mom.

Beneath the surface I was deteriorating. 

It wasn’t until my career was in jeopardy and many relationships broken that I finally admitted I was out of control and needed treatment. I learned the hard way: Secrets keep you sick. Addiction grows in the dark. 

Today, as a nurse in long-term recovery from opiate and alcohol addiction, I’ve made an intentional choice to forgo anonymity and live “Sober Out Loud.” I advocate for everyone in recovery, especially healthcare professionals, using blogging, public speaking, and coaching to do my part to end the stigma.

My hope is that talking openly will give others the courage to speak up early. That they’ll notice their decline and get help long before their careers and lives are in danger. Choosing to be open about my addiction also supports my healing. I find accountability, connection, and purpose in sharing my experience.

It wasn’t easy in the beginning – I was terrified of being judged. The opposite has been true – even in the hospital I worked for. Even with colleagues who may have reason to look down on me. I’ve been met with abundant compassion and acceptance. 

Except I still have one secret. There’s one disquieting fact I haven’t told many people. I’m flooded with fear that I’ll be exiled from the recovery community and excluded from meetings. Petrified that my integrity as a coach and writer will be questioned. And if that’s the case, then what’s my value as a sober advocate?

There are others who have the same fears, and my silence validates the stigma. Recently, I heard on the radio about a young man who committed suicide. He was tortured by internal conflict; he questioned his sobriety. We share the same secret.

For that struggling human being, and for everyone else struggling - It’s time for me to be completely open.

“Hello, my name is Tiffany; I’m an addict and an alcoholic. AND I use Suboxone.”

This isn’t my opening line when I introduce myself at meetings – nobody has to divulge their prescribed medications to the group, right? The answer’s not so clear if you use Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT).

On one hand, I feel I shouldn’t have to add a qualifier to the already awkward label I use when attending certain groups. (In the program I regularly go to, we don’t use labels at all, but that’s a subject for another time). On the other hand, it feels like I must add the qualifier, otherwise I’m a fraud. I start spiraling: “Am I allowed to share? What’s my 'real' clean date? Can I pick up a chip on my birthday month?”

In my first month of sobriety, newly on Suboxone, I readily shared at meetings and with a few sober friends. Completely unaware of my disgrace, and totally unprepared for the reactions, I wanted to swallow my words as I was assaulted by:

“Do you think you’ll be on it long?”

“You’re going to get off of it soon right?”

‘You’re still on an opiate.”

“You’re still getting high though.”

“You’re not actually clean yet.”

“Well you’re definitely not sober. Don’t call yourself sober.”

“Do what you’re gonna do but don’t talk about it here.”

“You can’t have a sponsor until you’re done with that.”

“We all did it without. We didn’t need medication to get clean. You’re obviously not serious - not strong - not determined enough. You haven’t done enough steps. You haven’t gone to enough Meetings.”

“You’re not sober. Come back when you are.”

I thought I was sharing success and hope. They asserted I was “cheating the system” and “staying in the game.”

This inhospitable reception is the reason I’ve stayed silent, the reason I haven’t written about it in my own blog. I found myself avoiding meetings altogether, second-guessing my sobriety; debasing my worth and value in the recovery community. 

Despite the booming increase in patients using Suboxone, popular opinion – especially in traditional 12-step programs - is that Suboxone treatment and “clean and sober” are mutually exclusive. Regardless of research showing decreased morbidity and mortality of medication-supported patients, and the success addicts are seeing as they put their lives back together, the underlying criticism persists:

“You’re not CLEAN.” 

If I’m not “clean” I’m still dirty. If I’m dirty, I must be worthless. And if that’s the case, what’s the point of trying to recover?

It’s abhorrent that leaders in the recovery community perpetuate the degradation. At a local level, meeting facilitators model this disparaging behavior, despite literature clearly stating that a person’s medication is no one else’s business. (Read The A.A. Member – Medications & Other Drugs).

Even trusted chemical dependency physicians tout their opinions, adding to the universal disapproval. Dr. Drew Pinsky stated on the podcast “Dopey” episode #124  “I’d rather have them on cannabis.” And though he concedes he’d be open to discussing short-term use with patients to “get them in the door”, he says that Suboxone patients  “replace” other opiates and are merely surviving; that they are “not fully recovered” and “still chronically ill.”

Still chronically ill? Not fully recovered? In the 3 years since I initiated a Suboxone regimen, I’ve worked tirelessly at making amends. I’ve regained my job as an acute care nurse and clinical instructor in a nursing program. I facilitate Recovery Meetings, and I’ve transformed into a certified Life and Recovery Coach. I’ve repaired relationships with family and friends.  I’m traveling, writing, and above all – finding JOY in living. I’m not an outlier. There’s thousands of us. We’re just not  allowed the safe space to share. 

MAT is NOT perfect. I’m aware of it’s flaws and have experienced some of them myself. Anyone considering it should carefully review all potential side effects with their physician and trusted, non-biased recovery support. Suboxone causes physical dependence, and there’s severe withdrawal if one quits cold turkey. It is, chemically speaking, an “opiate.”

Some prescriptions are diverted; I’ve personally cared for patients who admit getting the drug on the street. And with full transparency, I sometimes feel conflicted about using pharmaceuticals to overcome an addiction to pharmaceuticals. I’m not oblivious to the irony. And I strongly assert that any MAT is only truly successful if taken while simultaneously working on recovery of the mind and spirit. 

But people are dying. We don’t have time to argue over which is the most righteous recovery path.

After weighing all the pros and cons, searching my soul, and utilizing critical thinking skills I’ve honed in 17 years of working in healthcare, here’s what I’m absolutely sure of:

Suboxone is right for ME.  I am Clean and Sober. 

Four years ago I was resigned to being found dead in a bathroom with a needle in my arm. Today, I prove that recovery is possible. I am on a journey toward physical, emotional and mental wellness, and have a quality of life I couldn’t have dreamed up. Suboxone, for now, is a part of my story. As it is for many, in increasing numbers every day.

Whether I wean off in a month or stay on it forever has no bearing on my credibility.

It’s likely that someone sitting next to you today in a meeting is on Suboxone. It’s also likely they’re petrified to talk about it, like I was, and might leave the meeting fighting the humiliation of being “unclean.”  

They might decide that it’s better to go back out and use, since they don’t belong in recovery; or to wean off without a doctor’s supervision, undergoing agonizing withdrawal and back at risk of using street drugs- which is part of my story as well. They might even decide that they don’t belong here – at all. That the only choice is to end their life. 

What is your role in this? Are you hurting or helping? Consider the language you’re using. Is it pejorative and shame-inducing? Or do you cultivate love and belonging? 

Those of us in recovery have a responsibility to welcome everyone who is making positive progress towards a sober lifestyle. It’s not our business to take the inventory of someone else’s medication list – it IS our business to eradicate stigma. Offer compassionate acceptance. Keep an open mind. Suboxone users deserve a safe space, in and out of the rooms. And we deserve to proudly call ourselves clean and sober.   

Next time someone shares with you that they choose to use Suboxone – or any MAT - as part of their journey, don’t criticize. Don’t interrogate or give them a timeline to stop it. Ask how it’s working, and If they’re happy. Ask if they’ve been successful staying off street drugs; if they’ve made strides towards repairing the damage of their past. And when they share with you their clean date, congratulate them on being SOBER. 

Tiffany Swedeen, RN, BSN, CPC/CPRC is a certified life and recovery coach, She Recovers Designated Coach, and a registered nurse in recovery herself from opioids and alcohol. Tiffany lives “sober out loud”, proudly sharing her story through advocacy and blogging and is passionate about helping others do the same. Her goal is to eradicate shame and empower all to live a life of radical self-love. You can reach Tiffany through her blog www.scrubbedcleanrn.com and follow her @scrubbedcleanrn. 

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