On communicating with those who are suffering from addiction

So something that I found really interesting this week was how openly judgmental people can inadvertently be when talking about those who are suffering from addiction. Over the course of the week, I’ve spoken to at least 3 classmates who have all expressed judgments (away from the patient of course) about ‘whose fault it is’, or ‘that addict should not have been blaming another Person X because it is their own fault that they started taking [drug name] and became addicted’.

When you’re talking to someone whose life has spiralled down to the point where they physically cannot control their substance abuse (yes, it’s a biological phenomenon–and not just psychological), looking for a party to blame or someone to correct is not therapeutically constructive. Drug and alcohol addiction is a hugely complex issue. Not just medically but also socially, in terms of stigma. You shouldn’t point out unhelpful things to a patient who just clearly needs your help, not your judgment.

People talk about communicating ‘non-judgementally’, but do they really understand what it means to do that? Do you know exactly how much of an impact your mentality has on the way you project yourself onto a person who is conscious about the stigma surrounding their problems?

The idea is to adopt the non-judging mentality as a lifestyle, not just a temporary thing while a you’re at work. Because odds are that the person you’re talking to can sense exactly what you’re thinking even if you’re not directly expressing your thoughts. Body language, facial expressions, tone, and a genuine sense of empathy mean everything.

I would work in drug and alcohol addiction medicine if it wasn’t so emotionally taxing. Speaking to patients about their addiction has been an insanely eye opening experience and–more people need to learn how to talk to them so that they can get all the support and help they can get.

Choose sleep.

I never imagined waking up alone to be liberating. Clinic days are early, but when you’ve woken up earlier than your alarm has you know today is going to be great — even the anger from last night dissipated quite quickly and all I cared about was that I had the best sleep that I’ve had in the past month. (Five hours a night would be normal for me). But I’m feeling better today.

When you’ve got clinical tutors like mine, you’ll be standing lots and going at least an hour over the scheduled time. Forget timetables. Patient X has is having difficulty swallowing and is vomiting bile — now tell me all the symptoms, signs, differential diagnoses, investigations and treatment options you should be aware of. It’s a lot to take on, but it’s just that we’re expected to know everything. Your legs will be sore from standing for hours and you’ll be stretching your hamstrings every chance you get to relieve the pressure off your calf muscles. Walking from patient to patient, talking, examining, listening, understanding. Do med students even understand human beings anymore? All the things we do are so mechanical and systematic that I’d lost sight of the human component of medicine. My colleague is asking questions and taking notes, but he’s not responding to the patient. I’m thinking, That dude has oesophageal cancer, that’s why he’s not swallowing! Patient X is obviously upset with the diagnosis — but why are you not giving him any hint of sympathy? Where are the boxes to be ticked for compassion?

I was cracking under the pressure last week. It was a miserable experience, to forget why you entered med school in the first place, to forget that you’re already halfway through, and to constantly dread the notorious medical work culture. But I’m okay today. I look forward to my exams now and trying to see them as a milestone to get over. I just hope they come soon.

Tip for med school: Good sleep detoxifies you from the poisonous thoughts that eat away at your mind. Prioritise it.

My name is Grace,

And I’m halfway through medical school. This blog is for you if you’ve ever been curious about what the medical student life is like. If you’re interested at all in learning the medical profession. If you like to read about the issues that matter in this continually expansive field.

It’s also for you if you like reading personal blogs.

I’d love to create conversations where possible, so I’d be thrilled to have you tag along on my journey.