By Nzinga A. Harrison, M.D.October 21, 2020
When I was 6 years old, I decided to be a doctor and a teacher. I wanted to be a pediatrician until I met Dr. Mark, the orthopaedic surgeon evaluating my scoliosis. He was everything I wanted in a doctor, and everything I wanted to be as a doctor when I grew up.
Though our visits were likely no longer than eight minutes, it seemed as if he really knew me. He checked in on cheerleading and piano. He asked about my friends. He explained his medical decision-making and seemed to value my input. We were like a team, figuring out how to conquer my illness—he, an expert in scoliosis, and me, an expert in what was important to a preteen girl. So I decided to be a pediatric surgeon.
About a decade later in medical school, psychiatry and then addiction medicine captured my heart and soul. I fell in love with the biology of emotion and thought. But I was also infuriated at how the medical system—including doctors, who took oaths to do no harm—treated people with addiction and mental-health disorders with disdain.
Raised as an activist, I revisited my proclamation at age 6: I will be a doctor and a teacher. I will take care of people with mental health and addictive disorders. I will see them. I will advocate for them. I will be a partner against their illness. I will teach others about these illnesses. I will undermine stigma and marginalization and change the system.
About a decade later in medical school, psychiatry and then addiction medicine captured my heart and soul. I fell in love with the biology of emotion and thought. But I was also infuriated at how the medical system—including doctors, who took oaths to do no harm—treated people with addiction and mental-health disorders with disdain.”
Since then, I have shared recovery journeys with thousands of people. I have cried tears of pain, held the grief of losses, helped manage the anger of desperation. But more so, my tears have been of joy and triumph.
I have let my heart be full of the people who have shared their lives with me: their battles, their survivals, their absolute courage in the face of a devastating illness in a country that heaps shame on top of that struggle. My hope is that the current compassion movement for people with addiction will continue to grow, that people with active addiction will be as valued as people in long-term recovery. I want us all to truly see people, separate from their illness. If we truly let ourselves see the people who struggle with addiction, we will see that they are worth every ounce of passionate compassion we have to give.
Nzinga A. Harrison, M.D., is a physician board-certified in psychiatry and addiction medicine. She is the host of the podcast In Recovery—by the creators of Last Day. Every week, In Recovery answers questions about addiction, treatment, mental health, recovery and everything in between. Harrison is co-founder and chief medical officer of Eleanor Health.
(If you haven’t listened to Last Day, this handy overview of highlight episodes may be a good place to start.)