Wellness: 'Are you ok?'

by Amy Ruzsa, Nebraska Medicine | June 17, 2021

Image with caption: Amy Ruzsa and Titan

Amy Ruzsa and Titan

Resumes are filled with achievements and accomplishments. Much like social media, we often only share stories of greatness, matters we're proud to share as it shows each of us in the limelight of society and our professions. Now imagine if you received this resume:

  • Nebraska Medicine: leader, strategist, passion for compliance and regulation
  • Sanford Health: continuous process improvement, project management
  • New England Journal of Medicine - MA Medical Society: organizational performance
  • American Academy of Neurology: education advocate, communications
  • Two-time prescription drug addict with a strong focus on OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet
  • Recovering alcoholic with an innate ability to outperform everyone and driven to blackouts
  • Depression extraordinaire, goal driven to end my life at age 10 after endless, unyielding bullying; self-perceived inability to cope later in life

The reality is everyone has a story.

Some are joyful, some are not. There are lessons learned, and journeys in the making. When you see someone on the street, in a store, or walking down the hall of our campus -- how often do we create stories. Better yet, how often do we pause to learn their story?

I've lost count of the number of times when people learn mine and hear, "You?! . . . but you have a professional career, you're 'healthy,' you smile all the time, or you're always happy." Well, yes, that's what is seen. But trust me, addiction and mental health do not discriminate. There are thousands of people that can confirm that.

It would be a lie if I told you I knew what triggered my path.

My brother and I joke that we have the most amazing dysfunctional, yet functional family. Our loving parents supported our hopes and dreams and did all they could in their means to give us a genuinely happy life. They worked diligently to protect us and prepare us for what lies ahead. But as we all know, there are moments in our lives that we can't anticipate or want to admit will happen, that no one can truly prepare us for.

Anyone that knows me knows that dogs are at the core of my existence. Dogs are such simple, intelligent beings that provide unconditional kindness, sheer joy, and perpetual smiles. My fellow volunteers at humane societies and rescues often contemplate the hurt of losing a pet. You bring them into your family knowing that their lives are shorter than ours. Yet, I was still surprised and unprepared when I suddenly lost one of my chocolate Labradors, Titan.

Life wasn't done with its curveballs.

Not even one week after losing my Titan, I received a call that my dad's dementia had progressed, and his driver's license was being take away. Two days later, my mom called to tell me that she was re-diagnosed with cancer -- round three. She tackled her first two battles against cancer with grace and determination. I honestly was in denial and believed that this time would be the same, and she would overcome this, too. Our family and friends rallied around my mom, yet our "cat with nine lives, on life 12" peacefully passed only seven short weeks later surrounded by family.

Everyone processes pain and grief differently. I chose a path that we'll call, another chapter of self-destruction. Having never drank in high school and rarely in college, I found comfort in alcohol in this time of sorrow. The irony of how I was processing all my grief, is that my mom was a recovering alcoholic - 28 years sober when she passed. She was the most kind, loving, supportive mom anyone could ask for. She was also an expert at hiding her pain and her addiction. As a child, I didn't understand or see what was happening; until I was 13, home alone with her, and her first responder when she relapsed two weeks before her one-year sobriety. There are no words that express the anger and fear one has in that moment. I vowed to never use a substance from that day forward. Yet here I am.

It wasn't until after college that I started drinking and using prescription pain medications. It started as completely social and quickly downward spiraled. To pass my extra time, I bartended in addition to my professional health care career. It filled evenings and weekends, and for me, offered excuses. Being in the service industry, I created this false understanding that it was acceptable to drink and I quickly justified my actions with my perceived belief of it's normal, it's the culture, and I don't have a problem.

The reality is, this wasn't at all true and yet again, I was making more excuses.

This is what my family and friends kindly define as my unhealthy relationship with substances. I've since learned I can't just have one drink or one pill, I had to have the entire bottle of either. It was my distraction from now -- for now. I was methodical in my actions to ensure I would never jeopardize my professional career. My personal time, however, was intentionally secluded to hide this acquired level of binging. When you're in pain and feel you're unable to be vulnerable to those closest to you, it's easy to be your strongest inner critic and self-silence. It's powerful, and unrelenting.

Then a morning at HyVee started a change in motion. I ran into our very own chief nursing officer, Sue Nuss. This isn't the first time I've run into Sue at our neighborhood HyVee. But this was the first time that I ran into Sue at 0900, hammered drunk on a weekend morning, walking out with bottles of wine in tow. She stopped me and intently asked, "How are you? Are you ok? How is your weekend?" I felt like I stumbled through my response and wanted to hide. My walk home was filled with guilt and despair. I kept telling myself, you've just been caught. Who buys more alcohol at 0900. Drunk. Come to find out, after later conversations with Sue about this day, I was "successful" in hiding my intoxication and my pain. She had no idea. It's not that she couldn't or wouldn't recognize it, it was that I was "that good" at my addictions.

That morning I ran into Sue was a moment of self-awareness. I needed help. I was determined to join my normal CrossFit class that day, but not to workout. I stumbled through the doors of CrossFit Hydro, giving in to my lack of coordination and ability to justify my actions. I sought out my friends and we just talked, about everything. This community never judged. There was no stigma. It was safe to acknowledge my struggles and they supported me, the conversation with my dad and brother, and encouraged me to contact our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for counseling. I wasn't alone. Finally, I had traction and months of sobriety, just in time for a pandemic.

I honestly thrived in my mental and overall wellness when we were faced with COVID-19. The hours of work, planning, and response gave me purpose and distraction at the same time. But as many of us know, this level of engagement is not sustainable if you're avoiding all unresolved matters, unanticipated painful moments, and the inability to find words to explain what you're facing. You may indeed crumble. I found myself texting my friend and colleague, David Cates, for guidance. He quickly responded and offered every option to support me. Yet avoiding my incredible friends, like Liz Hamilton, who relentlessly checked in on me with little to no response. It's not that I don't have an amazing circle of support, it's that when you're at that level of depression, you don't see it.

I left my office for a "mask break," fresh air and sunshine and walked to what I thought would be a hidden space outside our UNMC Pharmacy building. I sat alone, contemplating what I saw in that moment as my only two options- relapse in my addictions, or simply end the decades of pain and self-destruction by taking my own life. My thoughts were interrupted by a cheerful, "Well, hello! How are you?" It was Steve Williamson, making his way back to his office. I tried to wipe away tears, saying the sun was making my eyes water. He kindly paused, sat down, and simply asked, "Are you ok?" I'll tell you in that moment, I fought every ounce of vulnerability to hide what I was going through. Yet, he patiently sat with me. No judgement. No questions. Just my friend, conversation, and simple kindness. Steve knew I wasn't "just ok," and that moment of compassion was the difference in my perceived two options; and a third, to finally address my pain and struggles to find the amazing life I've been hiding from.

If you were to ask me what I was thinking in that moment, I can only tell you that when you are at rock-bottom, you are not rationalizing with what is actually happening. You don't see it. You refuse to feel it. I can only tell you that my single concern in that moment was what would happen to my dogs if I were gone. The crazy thing is the innumerous times that my family, friends, and colleagues had already asked "How are you, are you ok," yet I refused help because I was "strong" and I was "just fine." Something that day clicked and I'm grateful that it did. I'm here. I didn't relapse.

It's natural to want to hide our weakest moments. Many of us have been conditioned to. I have yet to meet anyone that says they love being vulnerable. I've reflected with those that have supported me who followed their gut instinct. My reality is that no matter how alone and scared I felt, I wasn't. They saw my pain, my struggle; and while I didn't- they refused to give up.

To anyone who is struggling with addiction and/or mental health, I guarantee you, you are not alone.

This is not a journey to attempt by yourself. There are so many avenues here to support you: family and friends; EAP/Arbor Family Counseling; your primary care physician, any provider can help you; our free Nebraska Medicine Behavioral Health Connection; we have an Intensive Outpatient Program; even our Peers in Need of Support (PiNS) program for Nebraska Medicine and UNMC colleagues who need to reach out but are unsure what they need or where to go; your Pandemic Partner; suicide and addiction hotlines; AA/NA/Al-Anon, Refuge Recovery, SMART Recovery; mental health and addiction social media sites; organizations such as The Phoenix; all to connect you to those experiencing what you are, too.

I will tell you that you're surrounded by the most accepting and supportive work community you could ever encounter. Sometimes the hardest part is knowing that we actually need help, or not having the words to explain what we're feeling. If you've ever felt misunderstood or silenced, you are NOT alone. There's been a stigma and perception placed on mental health, emotional health, and addiction. As if being sober is boring or we cannot share our feelings. The idea of addressing painful situations and/or sobriety from any substance can be terrifying. I get it! But I will tell you that what's waiting for you on the other side is a whole life; a healthier, more balanced life. It's fulfilling and vibrant. You discover joy in the simplest of things. Your truest of family, friends and colleagues will be your strongest support and advocate. They do and will listen if you give them the chance. They want the "best you," too. And guess what, you're still invited to social gatherings, but instead of a cocktail, you're offered static water (aka La Croix and Bubbly LOL); you may even have the opportunity to say "I'm sober," or in my case, my friends quickly tell people that don't know me, that I'm clean and sober - out of pride. The response always, even from strangers, "congratulations. that's amazing," even sober-curious questions to learn more for themselves or a loved one.

No matter your struggle, "one day at a time" is not as cliche as I even saw it. No one is asking you to commit to three years of sobriety- today; 12 years of a pain-free mental health path- today; or 27 years of positivity- today. It's asking you to consider getting through just TODAY with the support of those that see you and love you. Mental health is health. Recover the you, you were meant to be.

To everyone. Kindness is free. When you pass down our hallways and say, "Hey, how are you?" be intentional. This simple impactful question has turned into an odd greeting as we ask that question yet keep walking past each other, often with a head nod, a "good," or even no response. Pausing to listen costs you nothing. Take time to engage with those around you- a family member, a friend, a colleague, even a stranger. You never know what that single gift of kindness just gave to someone else.

Ken Zoucha
June 25, 2021 at 8:16 AM

Thank you for your vulnerability, and for giving back. Untreated addiction is very isolating. This series just points out how many extraordinary folks are living their best lives at UNMC. You are truly one of them. I really liked that you took so much time to talk about your life now, and how you got there. Recovery is possible and people can and do get better!

Rachel Schmidt
June 21, 2021 at 6:07 PM

Thank you for sharing your story. I wrote down a couple of your throughts word for word. So very powerful!

Helen Odo
June 18, 2021 at 2:52 AM

My eyes are so teary right now.. I have been here a couple of times and this just sums it all up.. knowing that I am not alone... Thanks so much for sharing your story.. You write so well..

Kathleen Gast
June 17, 2021 at 3:06 PM

Thank you so much for helping me to understand.

Sue Anson
June 17, 2021 at 10:23 AM

Thank you so much for being so open and honest about your journey. YOU are a success in the making.....one.step.one breath.one moment.at.a.time.......

Lauren Edwards
June 17, 2021 at 9:45 AM

This is just incredible! There is so much power and beauty in this honest reflection on suffering and recovery. I really appreciate this series so much and each person's story. It must take such courage and compassion to share them, and I hope that we all follow their lead!

Sandy Williamson
June 17, 2021 at 8:34 AM

There is a saying that sharing your story is heart work. I hope it brings further healing and hope to you. What a powerful and courageous thing to do. Thank you.

Lucie Case
June 17, 2021 at 7:52 AM

What an amazing story! And one that needs to be told and retold over and over until everyone really hears it! Thank you for sharing!

Barbara A Breazeale
June 17, 2021 at 7:20 AM

Such an uplifting story...one day at a time!

June 17, 2021 at 6:54 AM

Thank you for sharing your story!

Sherry Andersen
June 17, 2021 at 6:14 AM

Thank you for sharing your story. You are right when you say that simply taking time to care and asking a simple "Hi. How are you?", and meaning it, can help. What also helps is people hearing stories like yours to know they are not alone. It was very brave and courageous for you to put your experience and recovery out here. I truly believe this will help more than one person face their own dark path and hopefully, like you, start their journey back to brighter days. Keep working on your journey towards your light. We all know life isn't easy and triggers will try to find us all. It's how we handle those triggers that help or hurt us. Again, thank you for sharing and I wish you many, many bright days ahead.