Coming Back Around

Pain medication threatened Kurt S.'s long-term sobriety, but he reclaimed his recovery and wants to help others do the same

As a psychiatric nurse practitioner with nearly 20 years in recovery from alcoholism, Kurt S. was adept at detecting addiction—with one exception.

His own, growing dependence on prescription painkillers.

"I was in long-term sobriety when I was prescribed Vicodin to relieve back pain," Kurt relates. "Because the drugs were medically indicated, I didn't see my situation for what it was becoming: full-blown addiction. After all, I wasn't drinking. I was still going to meetings. I considered myself to be sober."

In retrospect, Kurt understands his reasoning might sound absurd, "but that's how insidious and deceptive this disease is."

When dependence took hold, Kurt suffered multiple overdoses, including one that landed him in the psychiatric emergency hospital where he worked as a nurse practitioner. He arrived by ambulance.

"Talk about humiliation."

In short order, Kurt lost his career, his wife, and his home. What he didn't lose was his debilitating back pain.

"I got to the point where no amount of narcotics helped. I was in more pain than ever. I couldn't walk down the sidewalk without grabbing onto parking meters to hold myself up."

It wasn't until he was living in a homeless shelter, broken in every way, that Kurt let down his guard and accepted the truth. What he recognized was painkiller addiction. What he reached for was hope.

During inpatient drug rehab, Kurt reconnected the dots of his lifelong struggle with the disease. His drinking began at age 11, waned during his years as a US Army paratrooper and medic, and returned in fits and bursts as he finished college and began working as a special education teacher. He put together two decades of sobriety and built a gratifying career as a forensically trained psychiatric nurse practitioner before the disease resumed with a vengeance.

"I'm hearing my storyline time and time again in meetings now," Kurt offers. "People with 20 or 30 years of sobriety undergo a surgical procedure, receive prescription pain medications, and bam! It's the restart button for addiction."

Today, as a student at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies, Kurt is shaping his lifetime of learning and experience into skills to help others still struggling.

"However much life I have left, I want my education and experience to benefit others. I am so grateful to be alive and to be in a position to offer help and hope."

Kurt's clinical training at the graduate school includes an internship at Hazelden in Center City, Minnesota, where he works with patients in the Health Care Professionals addiction treatment program. He sees the opioid crisis as particularly hazardous to individuals working in health-related professions. Extensive knowledge of pharmaceuticals, easy access to medications, and other workplace challenges can complicate treatment and recovery for health care professionals.

"Even among health care professionals, there's tremendous stigma with this disease and gross misunderstanding about opioid treatment and recovery."

Kurt's biggest message? People can and do make it back from addiction.

"Look at me. I've certainly come full circle."

Recovering Hope

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"It's been exciting for me to see the treatment field evolve over the years, bringing together the best of science and Twelve Step practices to help more people. The graduate school continues to set the highest standard, preparing students to effectively address all aspects of addiction."
—Al S., a loyal donor

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By the Numbers icon

>The Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies awarded 58 Master of Arts degrees in 2015. Most graduates work in the field of addiction treatment, bringing the latest protocols and evidence-based practices to benefit patients.

> Students at the graduate school provided more than 4,280 hours of clinical services at agencies reaching underserved and economically disadvantaged populations.

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