26 Jan 2024  •  Blog, Mental Health  •  7min read

Breaking the taboo of addiction

Despite celebrities and prominent public figures sharing their stories, addiction remains a taboo subject. Which is why it’s brave of qualified dentist Sheetal Jain, to share her experience of learning to live with addiction and her mission to help others experiencing similar circumstances.

I was so lucky I got the treatment I did abroad in rehab. It was a long and very in-depth, soul-searching treatment. I’ve developed a real curiosity around addiction, along with a real compassion, empathy and understanding with the knowledge that I’ve gained. And now, as an addict I want to help fellow dental professionals who may be struggling too. All I’ve known is dentistry and I recognise that I’m not alone in my behaviours, my coping mechanisms or my way of thinking. It’s prevalent among medics and dentists.

Loss of control

I underwent an intense six-month journey at treatment centres in Thailand and South Africa. This was where I was able to start my lifelong healing journey; to gain inner peace and serenity by firstly surrendering to this chronic progressive illness of alcohol addiction, an eating disorder due to childhood trauma, and learn a new way of living with acceptance.

When I was really ill, I couldn’t see light from day. My habits probably began at a very young age. But in terms of professionalism and my struggles within dentistry, it was from university onwards. I was on this constant trajectory to try to always be the best and consistently deliver. So there was no room for mistakes or humility in that climb. Even when I was at my peak professionally, there was always more I was trying to strive for.

To me, what I did was never the best,  I always wanted more. And even when I did my best, I never thought it was my best and I was my own worst critic. If you then throw in patients’ complaints, the stress of being a manager, a mother, a wife, and just being a friend and add into the mix my unclear boundaries between work and personal life, it was a recipe for disaster for me.

Things really hit home during COVID when a lot of things were taken out of my control. I was used to having things very organised, very controlled. I knew what my day looked like, what the outcome was going to be and suddenly, that was all stolen from me. So I struggled with that. Then you throw in everything else on top of that and I was left not knowing who I was and feeling lost in this world.

When I was ill, I was drinking in the morning. I knew I didn’t want to drink at those times and I didn’t like the way I was being as a person. I could see this person but it was almost as though I was looking down from above thinking, “Who is this Sheethal? I don’t recognise her.”

I also didn’t recognise that I needed help then. Eventually, I was called out by my husband saying, “You are an addict, and you need help.” So, that was when my denial was burst. Before that there had been a real thick denial.

Looking back now, I think someone was watching over me and I have an angel on my shoulder. Giving up practising dentistry happened organically when I had my third child. I went on maternity leave quite early and on reflection, I was ill. I didn’t know that. But I was really ill and I was not coping. My husband recognised that, and he very quickly saw that if my illness was chronic and progressive, he would have to terminate my role in our practice to safeguard not only myself, but himself and the patients in the practice. If I’m being honest my hand was forced, but for the right reasons. And I count my blessings that no-one was put in any danger through me going to work during my illness.

A new purpose

Towards the end of my treatment when everything was more stable, I knew where I was. And then I had to decide what I wanted for my life. What purpose I wanted to fulfil. I think I got everything I wanted out of the clinical side of dentistry and did the best I could. I had been practising for 18, 19 years. And so I decided in rehab that dentistry wasn’t going to serve my mental health and it wouldn’t help with my illness. Addiction is chronic. So, I had to make a choice for my own wellbeing and that was for my sobriety. And so clinical dentistry or being a part of the practice in the way I was before, doesn’t serve me anymore.

It’s taken a lot to admit and to come to terms with because boundaries were really blurred. My practice was my life. I put everything into it. The staff in the practice weren’t just my friends, they were my family and I cared deeply for them and I invested deeply. But I went past that boundary of it infiltrating every avenue of my life.

I’m now readjusting to that, including readjusting my marriage as my husband and I worked together in the practice. It’s all a learning experience. However, what I’ve learned over the last year and a half to  two years is I still have that yearning to help my fellow professionals within dentistry and medicine. I think that’s part of my vocation – helping people. I have a strong understanding and connection to the profession and it’s my way of paying back now.

My future goals is to study for an undergraduate degree at Birmingham University to embark on a career of psychotherapy and counselling to help those still suffering in addiction. I want to continue to highlight awareness of addiction, unhealthy coping mechanisms and unrelenting standards among my peers in this demanding career.

Recovery is the priority

My recovery is coming first at the moment and along with that recovery is my role as a mother. When I discussed everything in rehab with the occupational therapists about where do I see Sheetal in 10 years and how do I want my children to see their mommy in 10 years, my core values and my moral values have always been the same, but I just was not aligned to them. So, motherhood and recovery come first.

However, I’ve completed my Foundation Level in Counselling and Addiction Therapy, and I am now pursuing a career in mentoring any dentists, medics or anyone suffering from addiction. My particular niche is to mentor those that are on this journey of an illness that can kill them, addiction. With the wealth of knowledge and experience I have gained, I can use that as a real gift to help others to navigate through this very blurry, unsupported, very confusing and taboo label.

And so, I will be mentoring within stress management, burnout, not feeling fulfilled, lacking purpose in life. The dental profession can be an isolating field to be in. It is repetitive and has triggering factors that I experienced when I was not an addict. I’m sure many dentists can identify with that.

I want to make people aware that if they are struggling with any of those things, it’s easier to catch them early and turn the corner without having to go down the addiction route. However, if they do go down the addiction route, I can also help with that. So, it’s a holding space for people in both of those circumstances. I can be a soundboard and offer that space for them to go and get help.

About Sheetal

Sheetal Jain is a qualified dentist. Together with her husband, she owns a private dental practice in Sutton Coldfield.

Following the birth of her third child in October 2021, she gave up her role as Principal Dentist and no longer works clinically working as a partner/dentist. She has completed her Foundation Level in Counselling and Addiction Therapy and is now embarking on a career in raising awareness/ offering therapy to help addicts, and vulnerable practitioners in the medical health profession.

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