(Marie Claire) I Was One Of The Top Doctors In My Field. I Was Also An Opioid Addict.
Alison ran around her palatial six-bedroom house in Georgia on a crisp January night in 2016, preparing to depart the next day for a family ski trip in Colorado. She washed dishes, tidied counters, put in several loads of laundry, and crossed items off her packing list. Whenever she found a moment alone—every 45 minutes or so—she retrieved the syringe containing sufentanil she’d tucked inside the Ugg boots she wore around her house, pulled a makeshift tourniquet out of her hooded sweatshirt, found a usable vein, and plunged the needle into her arm, delivering one tenth of a milliliter of the most powerful opioid available for use in humans.
That night, as Alison hustled her house into order, she shot up in her 13-year-old daughter’s closet (she once used her ballet-shoe laces as a tourniquet), her oldest son’s bathroom (he was away at college), the kitchen pantry (she sometimes kept vials inside boxes of dry pasta), the laundry room (her favorite place to use), the bathroom (her least favorite), and the stairway leading up to the second floor, where she could gauge if family members were getting close.
By the end of the night, she had polished off two milliliters, an amount that could kill an average-size adult if given in a single dose. Sufentanil is an opioid painkiller five to seven times more potent than fentanyl—another powerful opioid—at the time of peak effect and 4,521 times more powerful than morphine, but Alison wasn’t intimidated. As an anesthesiologist, she’d spent her entire professional life delivering such substances to patients during surgery.
What Alison didn’t know then was that in just over two months, her whole world would come crashing down. She had no idea that three nurses would grow wise to the ways she was stealing drugs from the hospital. Or that she’d spend 90 days at an in-treatment center, followed by a five-year monitoring program for physicians. All she was thinking about that night was that her drugs of choice, sufentanil and fentanyl, made her happy at a time when her work demands were overwhelming and her second marriage was falling apart. “It was immediate; everything just chilled out. For me, it felt like when you have a really good glass of wine and you’re like, ‘Ahhh,’ ” says Alison, now 46. “During that time, that was the only thing I looked forward to. That was really the only thing that was good in a day of life for me.”
Before she started abusing opioids six months earlier, Alison had never used a drug recreationally other than a puff of marijuana during high school. (She didn’t like it.) She enjoyed a glass of red wine with dinner once or twice a month but hadn’t ever thought of using the substances she injected into patients all day, every day. “I’d been in anesthesia for 18 years, and it never even tempted me,” she says. “I never wondered what it felt like. It did not enter my mind.”
Alison was raised in a small town in Tennessee, the third youngest of seven children born to strict, conservative Christian parents. Her father is a physicist who liked to pose math questions at the dinner table (“In a group of 27 kids, there are 13 more girls than boys. How many girls and boys are there? Go!”), and her mother is a stay-at-home mom. For vacation, “we didn’t go to the beach or Disney World; we went to a place with a telescope or a planetarium,” says Alison, recalling one trip in which they piled in a station wagon and drove to South Dakota to watch an eclipse.
Today, three siblings are physicians, one worked for the CIA, and another chaired a university department. Alison likes to joke that she’s the underachiever in the family, and though she deserves no such title, the lifelong pressure she felt to outperform her siblings took a toll. “I was raised in a family where the lowest thing that was allowed was perfection,” she says. “I felt like I needed to do more, always. That was a big thing that came up in treatment—that my ‘good enough’ wasn’t good enough.” She had an eating disorder as a young teen and remembers dropping 30 pounds from her petite frame one summer by consuming only iceberg lettuce and fat-free French dressing. She says she felt like a failure because a younger sister weighed 15 pounds less.