What they don’t tell you about the nursing profession.

This week’s guest blog is Kristy Riggall, an ex-nurse turned commerce & behavioural sciences student. You can read more about her on her website here.

The use of alcohol is rife in the health industry. It’s just hidden. I was an enrolled nurse for 8 years until I decided to take a hiatus mid-2018, due to burnout from an imbalance in work and life. I fell into nursing in my mid-twenties, caring for people; I could do that in my sleep, it was easy. I have been a carer since I was a little girl. I grew up in the country and am the first-born of two. First-born children are often chronic over-achievers and often carers of others. 

What I did not expect upon entering the industry was for my alcohol intake to increase, from bingeing on the weekends to driving into the bottle shop on the way home from work after every tough shift. Which happened a lot as my time in the industry came to an end. For that whole time, I worked on a busy medical ward; it was emotionally and physically draining, yet thanks to the support of my fellow nurses we all got through it. As the years dragged on, my husband and I obtained a mortgage, a child and well, life just got a hold of us – we were busy being ‘adults’. Yet I was unconscious of my life for a long time and I was in deep emotional pain.

So unconscious I drove myself into a problematic relationship with alcohol because I just could not cope with the never-ending imbalance of work stress, home and adult life. Why wouldn’t I turn to alcohol when it was the only coping mechanism I understood to work, as a kid. Life gets stressful – turn to the booze; something to celebrate – turn to booze. I raised my daughter surrounded by ‘Mummy needs wine’ marketing ploys. An extremely harmful tactic towards incredibly vulnerable people. That’s when my intake got a little out of hand.

Juggling shift work and motherhood with no family support, struck me big time. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders at home and at work. I was like one of those IKEA chairs being put under pressure to see how many times you could be pushed to the breaking point. It seemed like the bottom of a wine glass was my only choice from the abyss my life had turned into.

The problem with this was, it was NOT the way to cope with life. I desperately wanted to ask for help, however my job as a health professional could have potentially been in jeopardy and I was not going to let my livelihood be affected because of my inadequate coping strategies. So, alcohol did what it does best. It kept me quiet and it remained in my life for far too long; I held it in the shadows, right where it wanted to be kept. 

Thankfully, I found Daybreak; it was a godsend at the time, for me. It helped me to watch others win/lose and restart again – the resilience and compassion of everyone gave me hope. Not only that, it was anonymous, just what I needed. I could ‘pretend’ to be someone I was not. It was a place where I could freely ask questions of others who were actively trying to abstain or moderate. 

Not only that, it also had members who owned up to when they ‘fell off the wagon’, and were met with non-judgement and nothing but support. It was great to watch. It helped restore my faith in humanity a little bit. It was nice and safe; I could be me, and no one would be any the wiser! 

Except. I knew. 

I had nursed a lot of drunks and a lot of people with substance abuse issues. I judged them as harshly as I judged myself. Only I was jealous – they could get the help I wanted for myself. I did not want to be outed by my GP or anyone else for that matter. Wouldn’t that affect my registration? I kept being told ‘drinking is how we cope after a crap shift’ – for some it would be drinking to excess or eating too much, hitting the gym to sweat it out, whatever their addiction was at the time.  

Had I ever hit a rock bottom like some of the people I nursed? No, thankfully I had the gift of fear in me. Was I drinking every day? No. Well not yet anyway, But I had seen enough people addicted to drugs and alcohol to know where that bottomless pit could end up. I desperately did not like the amount I was consuming. It was more than the recommended amount and less than the person who was living on the streets. That was my measuring stick. Which as it happens is a pretty big stick!

It took me a few years of trying to moderate with no real action plan. A few days here, a week or two there. The longest time I got to was 22 days. I white knuckled it the whole way. I thought I could ‘think’ myself away from the drink. 

In 2018 I decided something needed to give. It was not going to be my marriage to an also shift-working husband. It had to be my job. So, I took a hiatus from nursing, worked casually until I decided what I really wanted to do and what would cause the lesser impact on my life and my family’s life. While we all recalibrated.

It was 12 months later that I finally decided to open up to my GP about how I hated that I was using alcohol to cope with life. It took a lot of courage to do that. I was shaking when I went in. I could see the pity in her face. She said, ‘you can’t just moderate?’ This question almost made me walk out the door and straight back to the bottle shop. 

Yes, I know, why couldn’t I stop at one when I did drink? I could never tell you. Once I got the taste for it, the numbing feeling it gave me made life ‘more manageable’, as I liked to tell myself. 

I grew up in the country, started drinking at 16 years old and moved out of home at that age. I had the emotional maturity of a 16-year-old in a 30-something’s body. I had read somewhere that the earlier the age at which you start to drink, if it becomes a regular occurrence into your adult life, you hinder your brain’s ability to emotionally ‘grow up’. 

So here I was in this 30-something-year-old body with a potentially 16-year-old mind. That stark reality hurt a little. I wish alcohol did not play such a big part in our culture. We potentially have a bunch of 30–60 + year-old people running around in old bodies with teenage minds. That is a scary reality. Teenagers do dumb things, no matter if it’s in an adult body.

Eventually I decided to seek out help through means other than Daybreak – via community connection amongst some outside groups of people who do not drink. There I found a lot of other health professionals hiding in the woodwork, swearing they would never tell. Since the start of 2019  I started the moderation process, but quickly decided moderation was not for me. I enjoyed waking up hangover free and being more present with my family. It’s also given me more time to be a better mature-aged student. I decided to go back to university to study business. 

I’ve come to realise, I just don’t need alcohol to cope, and I am sick of living with this 16-year-old brain in a 30-something body. Alcohol served its purpose for a while, until it stopped. I am ok with that now. I am loving waking up on Sunday mornings and Saturday mornings and any other morning without a hangover, free from anxiety, emotional dysregulation, and a plethora of other things my poor body endured while I found healthier habits. Life is SO much better now. It all started with the Daybreak app. I love Hello Sunday Morning and what they are doing. This country needs this, especially our health care workers.

A very inspiring post. I too struggled a fair bit of my life with alcohol which culminated in a really bad situation a few months ago. I too work in a stressful job and Investigated a harsh fatality where the deceased drew similarities to one of my sons. I subsequently self medicated on a full bottle of vodka a night, hiding it from my wife. I eventually sought help and as has probably been said many times here before, if you stop something you must immediately replace it with another. Mine was going to the gym/spa/sauna and combat contact sport Krav Maga. I feel great life now has a purpose and my family (except my poor wife who did a runner half way through) love me all the more for it well done Kristy..take a bow

Wow this resonates so much with me. Thank you for your courage and honesty

Wow what a read this has been. Yes I could identify this chapter of over-achievers first born being the caretaker of the rest of the family or others

Wow what a read this has been. Yes I could identify this chapter of over-achievers first born being the caretaker of the rest of the family or others, what’s interesting yes, wine seems to be the social drink women go to and it’s habit forming, a rough day, a stressful day, an over the top day, celebrating, grieving,

What a fantastic, real, inspiring entry. Thank you. I remember well feeling like this. My research area of interest is nurses’ use of alcohol (and other drugs) – across the continuum of use. I think what we recognise, is that, nurses use mirrors that of the general population, however, what makes it difficult is that we often use alcohol as a way to destress after a busy day at work etc and we provide care to patients and their families. I wonder how our use (or misuse) impacts on our ability to provide safe patient care? How many of us come to work with a hangover? Of course, it is really difficult for us to talk about as we run the risk of compromising our license to practice, and we don’t easily admit to the impact that alcohol use may have on our lives, relationships and work. Its not about nurses having an addiction (although some of us do) is it, it is about how and why nurses use alcohol – their unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and what we, as a profession can do to talk openly to eachother and support nurses who are feeling concerned about their own or their colleagues health and wellbeing.

I am getting a wow moment as I read your blog, Kirsty. I’m sure many others are too. My story closely mirrors yours, except teaching is my profession. Thank goodness for Daybreak & people like you who share their stories.

Hey Minnie, Alcohol was all i knew how to cope as an adult – it was a learned behaviour for me at least. I would have loved a quiet space to destress with no talking and without all of the bright lights to debrief with myself or someone else when things got a little tricky. Sadly wine was the only option for me at the time, even when i used the free counseling sessions it wasn’t enough. The health industry in my time became higher stress as the years went on hence the burnout. Never the mind, I am now doing something I love even more now – learning more about human behaviour and hoping my story continues to help people come out from the shadows! I would never have been brave enough to tell it – with a current registration. I even attended a few support groups and the number of health professionals needing to hide their anonymity is a bit sad really. If only there was something more we could do huh. Alcohol isn’t the answer that’s for sure. How great is Daybreak!!!! Ps I love reading these comments – makes me feel less alone, thanks for your kind words everyone xx

Reading this almost brought be to tears as it could very well be my story, it is my story except my alcohol abuse continues to go on. i have managed to abstain for weeks at a time with up to 10 weeks being the longest, then i find an excuse, any excuse to have another drink, that’s not hard, whats hard is trying to remain abstinent when drinking has become so normalized that going tee total makes you the odd one out. As I write this i wake with a hangover, filled with regret for drinking last night when I know this was exactly how i would feel today. Most of what I planned will not get done as i will be nursing a sore head for most of the day. I take my hat of to you as I also know the feeling of not being comfortable turning to the usual supports such as GP, AA due to my profession and the potential impact ‘coming out’ may have on my work. I also look after those with alcohol and drug addictions and see some of myself in them and feel like such a hypocrite. I feel like im rambling right now but i think its because in part your story resonates so much with me and its like a reality slap in the face as i know what i have to do now. Putting that into action is the hard part, but something has to give, this is not how i want to live my life. So glad i read your post this morning. Thank you.

What an inspiring story. My job was also all consuming and I was a total stress bunny. Retirement late last year gave me the chance to take a long look at myself and commit to change. This programme and support is priceless.

Im a nurse and im 49yrs old. Ive always been a drinker but ive amped it up over last few years. 1-2 bottles of wine everyday. I dont know how ive managed to work and not harm someone. Im also married to someone whom is heavily alchol dependant. Ive found now that i can moderate thnx to Craig Beck. I have control back in my life now. Well done and goid luck

I work in the nursing profession also and had a very similar struggle for many years before I finally accepted that I needed to stop altogether as moderation seemed out of my grasp. I remember the constant hangovers, anguish, fear, shame and 1001 promises to myself to slow down. I knew I had a problem and it was serious.. That was 2 and a half years ago. I no longer live with that fear or shame. Life is good. Actually life is great. It feels like a gift again after so many years of denial and relentless torment. I think the hardest thing is acceptance and being able to ask for help.

Thanks Kristy. It’s when you work out that ‘1st borns’ who are over achievers and para-military professions (like nursing, Police, firies, teaching) and team related jobs (FACS, Centrelink etc) don’t mix that you begin to understand why the stress occurs and why you ‘downtime’ moderate the crap that festers the stress in these jobs with alcohol. Getting out and away into new and more liberating experiences has been your saving grace. Well done. Enjoy many more ‘less alcohol controlled’ days ahead.

Wow this is my life!!!. Ive just resigned from my En permanent position. Now I want to stop drinking and find a new career. I cant believe it , I felt I was reading my own story. Thank you and I know Ive made the right choice and am on the way to a happier healthier life!!!

I started nursing when I was 18 and it was a given that you drank and partied. I came from a small country town to start my nurses training in Sydney. I was extremely shy and alcohol helped me feel more confident. I have used alcohol as my way of NOT dealing with feelings. I have gone through many stages of drinking over the years. From binge drinking on weekends in my 20’s & 30’s to being sober for months at a time and moderate drinking in my early 40’s. After losing my brother,partner and father within a few years I became an every day drinker. I am now facing a health crisis .. not directly related to alcohol…but OMG I am struggling to stop drinking. I feel hopeless and angry with myself that I can’t stop. Reading your posts has been so helpful. The fact that I am writing this now is a huge positive step for me.

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