Monday, 6 February 2017


I’ll let you decide and by the end perhaps we’ll disagree?  I’m not an alcoholic, maybe that’s the first sign I am.  I’m not because I know full well the how and the why it happened and I know what to do to stop. 

There are many vets who accept that complaints, legal accusations and professional questions are just part of the job.  They accept it as part of the 9 to 5 and move on.  I’m not one of them. I wish I was, but each questioning accusation or each occasional loss of a client I take personally.  So much so I question every action I made in the lead up to that moment.  An introspection, a self-examination, a dissection of my personality.  It always results in the same conclusion, “I could have done better.”  But you know what?  It actually doesn’t end there.  “I could have done better, I could have been more thorough, I could have been more professional, I could have been a better person.”  It is this spiralthe snakes and ladders lifestyle of an equine vet that gives us a profession of ozone rich high and calamitous methane lows.   

We are trained to review and evaluate, it is a clinical skill, but it often leaves us feeling that we don’t know enough, didn’t do enough, or now and most fundamentally, do not matter enough. 

The spiral can continue, “is my professionalism sufficient, am I one of the misguided who should leave the profession to ultimately respect primum non noncore, is it right I leave my family in a potentially parlous situation based upon my wit or lack of, to survive in this velvet glove world of cloak and dagger?” 

Booze usually starts as a quiet tipple.  The end of the night wind down.  But for me, when staring into the abyss that is my inner reflection, conscience and consideration of my soul and core, booze becomes a way of shutting out that clarion call of a brain screaming at you – “you’re not bloody good enough!” 

I first recognised this at university.  4th year and exams at the end of every subject or every 4-6 weeks.  Each and every one counted towards finals and the questions we sat in the exam were the very same we had been taught only the previous day.  This may be the norm now but at the time we were the first year to try this, the guinea pigs and no one knew how it would go.  At the end of the first term one friend was in hospital due to stress, another on anti-depressants.  I and most other students hit the bars.   

Second term was more of the same only this time the end of night collapse into bed and finding of anxious sleep was eased by Vodka.  A bottle or two a week, a method of escape by any means.  Luckily within a couple of months I realised the unhealthy spiral and made the active decision not to loose sleep over exams, not to base my health on success or failure.  I decided that if I failed, I failed,  so be it.  Better that attitude than succumb to further booze or follow my colleague into hospital.  Luckily, thankfully or perhaps deservedly I passed and my attitude continued to final year exams with the same results.  In fact excelling and achieving University recognition. 

Time passes and we each gain experience and responsibility.  Sometimes both are thrust upon us without a desire to receive but it is part of “the job.”  Booze hit me again 10 years later due to an RCVS investigation.  Forgive me for not supplying details suffice to say I was not fraudulent, not lying, not unethical, merely naïve.  It was ultimately thrown out but the process led to the soul searching each of us does in that situation. 
I remember the letter and I physically shook for 5 days.  Whilst the physical manifestation went, the emotional burden that availed me lasts to this day and during the 18 months it took to resolve I regularly found solace in the bottle.  Whiskey this time.  At it’s worst, half a bottle a night. 

I wasn’t an alcoholic, I didn’t wait for opening time or dive into it the moment I went home but used it only to bestill a mind that shouted even though my personality became mute. 

I was lost in a morass of mental doubt at this point and couldn’t see the dangers.  Out of hours were worst because of the quiet when all you have for company is your mind. 

Ultimately and with a slow return to self I recognised the behaviour.  Perhaps this is the moral or the kicker or where we’ll agree to disagree but I didn’t and still do not consider the behaviour wrong, I needed something to alleviate the mental pain and it did.  This is not wrong but a normal human behaviour to seek respite from a stressor.  Some may drink, some take drugs, some seek physical contact, some self flagellate through physical pain.  All are simply human reactions.   

What, of course, we should do is seek help in a non-damaging way.  Through spouse or partner support, through counselling, through friends and professional aid.  But at that point, when your brain is ablaze and your inner voice is in conflict, you don’t think straight, you don’t rationalise, you look for respite, I reached for the bottle. 

Ultimately I sought counselling to allow me to understand and hence control my emotions and actions.  Even when the case was dismissed I continued to question even more if I wanted to remain as a vet in a profession which would or could expose me to such torment apparently without empathy or personal consideration. 
That is why I carry it today, waiting perhaps for the next circumstance or shift in luck for the pendulum and sword of Damocles to sway back again.  I hope this time I’ll be better equipped to avoid the pitfalls.  Perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t.  Sadly I know I won’t, it is partly my nature, but I will know it is damaging and the phase will be short. 

There by the Grace of God go I and we should all be mindful of the situation of others, do out best to recognise, and do our best to empathise.  Sympathy, understanding and support is all anyone would ask for and it is in the power of all of us to provide it. 

If you have been affected by this story or want to talk confidentially about this or a similar subject then contact Vetlife here


  1. I know the feeling, but I am an alcoholic. I guess it depends how you define it. I know once I start, I don't have proper control over what happens next, no matter what I tell myself to make it okay. I don't get to decide how much I drink, once I start. But even though I know the damage, I couldn't not life the first drink of the night.

    It's all a long time ago now, I'm 13 years clean. I've got other ways of dealing with stuff. I don't have it hanging over my head, what I might do next time there's a problem.

    Being a vet and an alcoholic is pretty hard sometimes, when the going gets tough, I can't just go home and have a glass of wine in the bath like my colleagues can. All our practice nights out centre around alcohol. It's like constantly being the odd man out. But it's worth it- I have a life today, a good job, good relationships with family and friends, and I don't hate myself. Stopping drinking is the single best thing I have ever done in my life.

  2. Thank you for your comment Heather and great to hear you are 13 years clean. Your comment on having alternative ways to cope with the pressures and how to respond to the problems that are thrown at you is really valuable-importantly that you can learn different ways of doing things and be happier and healthier as a result. This isn't easy but as you say its worth it. I do think we need to consider how we all use alcohol both within and outside the profession, it seems to be something that is positively encouraged from vet school all the way through to professional conferences! Should it be like this?
    Great to hear from you and thank you for commenting.

  3. Absolutely agree.

    Thanks Heather for your brave response and a hugely significant milestone of 13 years.

    We all have different mechanisms and strategies for coping with the pressures and challenges of our jobs. I wonder whether the "glass of wine because I've had a tough day" should be viewed as normal - and that's not restricted by any means to the veterinary profession - but it is easy to slip into a pattern of routine. Perhaps there will be a cultural change akin to the apparent decrease in smoking?

    It would be great to hear how others in the profession cope with stress. Just like the old Maureen Lipman BT advert -It's good to talk.

    Thanks for sharing your story Heather!

  4. I have definitely used alcohol to relax after a bad day... and to celebrate after a good day... alcohol is a strange drug of contradiction. I'm very lucky and can take it or leave it, but I think it's always worth remembering that this is not the case for everyone. Something I found works really well (which sounds glaringly obvious but I'll say it anyway) especially when there are non-drinkers amongst your friends/colleagues, is to go for a meal - a long, relaxed meal where people can sit and chat and move around and enjoy eachother's company. Alcohol can be consumed by those that want it but it's not the reason people are sitting there. Going down the pub is definitely a different story and really encourages excessive consumption and alienates those that really don't want to drink. This was something we did when we were younger/undergrads/new grads, but now we're older and wiser it's more fun going for some good food and a chinwag.

  5. This is all we need - a pissed vet !!