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From Nurse to Unlikely Addict and Back Again
Kristin Waite-Labott vividly remembers the first time she took the opioid painkiller fentanyl. “There’s getting high and there’s getting lost, and I just feel like I got lost once I took that.”
She was a talented and respected ER nurse at the time, as well as a loving mother, a trusted co-worker and a valued friend. But she had a secret: a growing substance use problem, one that reached a new and more dangerous level the day she stole fentanyl from a Milwaukee hospital and discovered its pull.
From then on, “every time I walked in the door of the hospital, it just called to me. I had so much guilt and shame over what I was doing, but I just couldn’t not take any. It was a compulsion. I was powerless over it, but I also had no idea how to get help.”
It would take an arrest for stealing from the hospital’s pharmaceutical stock before she started down the bumpy path toward the addiction treatment she needed and reclaimed her life. As part of her recovery therapy, she put her story on paper, writing in the third person and giving herself a different name in order to maintain some emotional distance.
When her counselor encouraged her to publish the tale, Kristin resisted at first. “I just didn’t think anyone would be interested. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, what I would have loved back in my using days in the hospital is if somebody had said to me, ‘If you have a problem or if you know someone has a problem, this is what you should do.’ To hear that from someone who had a problem I think would have been very impactful.”
In 2015, her book was published under the title An Unlikely Addict: One Nurse’s Journey Through Addiction, and her goal now is “to get my story to as many people as I can so that if they’re struggling, they’ll know, No. 1, where to go for help and, No. 2, it is possible to overcome it and to get your life back. I know it feels like your life is over, and for all intents and purposes, for a while, it is. But if you work hard, you really can get it back.”
The Early Steps Toward Addiction
In tracing the story of her addiction, Kristin realized the roots ran deep, back to a Wisconsin childhood that included a sexual assault by a family friend and a sometimes troubled relationship with her parents. “In my generation it was, ‘Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.’ I never learned to cope with anything.”
In college, Kristin discovered drinking and realized she liked it — a lot. “It made me feel like I was pretty, like I was funny, like people wanted to be around me. Otherwise I just felt so insignificant.”
It wasn’t until she was prescribed the painkiller Percocet after minor surgery in 1997, however, that she discovered the lure of opioids.
“I took it as I was supposed to in the beginning,” Kristin said, “but as I started healing from the surgery, I found myself taking it for no good reason. I didn’t have pain but I’d think, Boy, I need one of those pain pills. And I just remember feeling very calm and sedate when I took them, like everything was fine, everything was good.”
A couple of years later when she threw out her back, she was prescribed another opioid, Vicodin. “I remember calling for a refill when I really didn’t need it and using the pills not for the pain, but for the effect of the pills.”
In the early 2000s, while working as an ER nurse and also while going through a divorce, “it just occurred to me that there were a lot of really good drugs going to waste at the hospital. And so I started taking them. I had myself convinced that there was nothing wrong with it because it was waste. It was very occasional at first, but over the years, it became something I sought out. And I didn’t start stealing from stock until I tried fentanyl. The first time I took that drug — I don’t know how to explain it — but I immediately began to crave more of it. And I know that pretty much the next day at work was when I started stealing from the floor stock — not just taking the waste on occasion, but every day I was working I was taking something. And most of the time it was fentanyl.”
Fentanyl’s Deadly Power
These days, fentanyl is dominating the headlines about our nation’s ongoing addiction epidemic. The drug is powerful — 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and up to 50 times more potent than heroin, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency — and it’s potentially deadly even at low levels. In hospital settings, it’s usually reserved for post-surgery pain or for those who need end-of-life pain relief, such as cancer patients. But because fentanyl can be manufactured cheaply in labs, it has become a popular street drug for those wanting a quick and extreme high. It’s also used to cut heroin or sold as heroin, sometimes to unsuspecting buyers. And it now appears to be edging out heroin as the main driver of surging overdose deaths.
Even though Kristin took only hospital-grade fentanyl, she knows she is lucky to have made it out alive and not to have hurt anyone else during her days of taking it. “Obviously, I never should have been treating patients,” she said. And it worries her to know that she is far from alone.
The easy access to pharmaceuticals in the healthcare profession makes drug addiction in this environment disturbingly common. “It’s one of my biggest messages to the public: There are people — doctors, pharmacists, nurses, nurse anesthetists, a lot of them, a minimum of 10% of them, they say, are addicted, and you would never know by looking at the person.” It’s why she advocates for a more open dialogue about the problem and random drug screens for those in the medical profession, “because then you can intercede before everything falls apart.”
Identifying those who need help is a point she wants to hammer home: Addicts aren’t just the skinny, haunted-looking people portrayed on TV shows. Anyone — your friend, your spouse, your child, your doctor, your nurse — can be addicted without showing a single sign.
When she was finally arrested for stealing drugs from the hospital, “I never had one person say, ‘Oh, I thought you were using.’ It was shock and dismay. Nobody knew. Nobody.”
Allowing Herself to Be Helped
With the arrest came multiple felony counts, but because of her squeaky clean record, she ended up with only one misdemeanor. She considered herself lucky at the time but now realizes it only allowed her to rationalize avoiding the more intensive care she needed.
She had lost her nursing license but managed to find a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. But she was still drinking, and “within a week of starting there, I was calling in prescriptions for myself under that poor doctor’s name who was so nice to give me a job.”
This time when she was caught, she was convicted of a felony and sent to jail for four months, a time of painful separation from her two daughters, then 4 and 15. On her release, “I followed my AA sponsor around like a puppy,” she said. Her insurance at the time wouldn’t cover an inpatient addiction treatment program but she threw herself into an intensive outpatient program. She had finally learned, she said, “to allow myself to be helped.”
Today, she has reclaimed her license and works as a research nurse, a job she loves, her children are doing well, she’s happily remarried, and her sobriety is 11 years strong.
She couldn’t have done it, she says, without the support of family, friends, co-workers, those in the recovery community, therapists, treatment counselors and others. “I’m so grateful,” she says. “My life today is nothing compared to what my life was then. It’s a complete turnaround. I’m happy now. I was never happy. I was never content in my own skin. And I’m not like that anymore. I’m at peace. I think I’m a decent person. I’m not perfect but I try and do the right thing, and it’s a beautiful life now.”
Kristin is also thrilled to see signs that her book is giving others the same kind of encouragement she received. “So many people have reached out, and it makes me so happy to think if going what I had to go through helps somebody then maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe something good can come out of this.”
By Kendal Patterson
Follow Kendal at @kendalpatterson