“Hi, my name is Chris Hart, and I am a long-time recovering addict.”
“Hi Chris,” students in the lecture hall responded.
This is how Chris Hart, lecturer in the College of Pharmacy, starts every session of his chemical dependency class, and it serves as a daily reminder of his experiences.
The chemical dependency course, now taught in six of the seven pharmacy schools in Ohio, follows the journey of addiction through recovery and beyond. Throughout the semester, students are confronted with ideas of addiction for health care professionals, the process of addiction, loss of license, treatment, recovery and relapse, all with the overall message for students to view addiction as something other than a character flaw.
“It’s a disease. [What] it is not is a moral condition. Someone who is addicted to drugs is very sick. They’re a sick person who needs to get well. They are not a bad person that needs to get good,” Hart said.
Hart was a pharmacist for 10 years before becoming addicted to painkillers. The addiction lasted six years before his actions were reported to the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, when he lost his license to practice.
Hart said his class aims to address the specific needs of future pharmacists looking to practice in this time of crisis.
Nealofar Madani, a second-year in public health, said she took the course to fulfill an academic pharmaceutical science minor but also out of general curiosity.
“Something I never really considered before is the risk of pharmacists getting addicted and I thought it would be an interesting course, especially since it is being taught by someone who has experience with addiction,” Madani said.
Hart’s desire to help people has transformed from providing medicine to teaching future health care professionals how to avoid what he went through, he said.
For Susie Hart, his wife, addiction did not even cross her mind. She said she assumed her husband’s drowsiness and altered mood were due to working too hard.
“The thing is, I didn’t know that he was doing this all this time, either time. I knew that when he walked in the door, he would put his stuff down and just stand there and sleep on his feet,” Susie Hart said. “And I would say, ‘Chris you are working yourself to death,’ but I didn’t know he was stashing pills in the attic.”
A large component of the chemical dependency class is highlighting addiction as a disease with genetic ties.
Someone with a hereditary predisposition is roughly 30 percent more likely to encounter addiction in his or her lifetime, Hart said.
Hart also said that easy access to medications also leads to about one out of every six pharmacists developing a substance abuse problem in their career, which is almost double that of the rest of the population, at addiction rates of one in every 10 people.
The paradox of familiarity also leaves pharmacists and other health care professionals susceptible to addiction. The paradox is a phenomenon by which pharmacists, who are supposed to be the most knowledgeable about drugs, believe their expertise prevents them from being able to abuse drugs because of a perceived awareness of their effects.
“This is what pharmacists and health care professionals sometimes think: ‘Well I know all about these drugs. I’m a drug expert. Nobody knows more about these drugs than I do. Therefore, because I have so much knowledge about them, I won’t become addicted. I know what I’m doing,’” Hart said.
With her husband in a rehabilitation facility, Susie Hart said she was faced with taking care of the family finances.
“Now suddenly, there’s no income. It was kind of a disaster, but like I said, I went into ‘fix it’ mode. And I just stayed strong and did what I had to do,” she said.
Every student in the course has to attend a 12-step meeting such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, much like the ones Hart used for treatment.
“The biggest thing I learned from treatment is that I had a disease. When I got caught the first time, I thought I was that stupid, weak-willed, immoral, terrible person who did such a bad thing,” Hart said. “And then I realized this disease is a lot more complicated than what we think and by having a disease and treating my disease by going to meetings and talking to my sponsor, things they told me to do, I could get better.”
Once out of rehab but still in recovery, Hart said he performed odd jobs to financially support his family and allow his brain and body to heal.
During his year and a half of recovery, Hart said he earned skills needed to cope with the high stress of working in pharmaceutical sciences. Eventually, he applied to get his license back, going through pharmacy board meetings and a probation period to get it.
“Theoretically, a recovering pharmacist is somebody you really want in your pharmacy, because you know how they’re going to try to do their very best job of keeping track of everything,” Susie Hart said.
Coming back to a job as a pharmacist a year and a half later, Hart said he was apprehensive, but he had new techniques learned from his treatment to cope and random drug screenings to protect him.
After five years, the drug screenings stopped, leaving him without an accountability safety net.
Six years after starting his job as a pharmacist again, Hart relapsed and permanently lost his license to practice, which resulted in jail time and a suicide attempt.
In recovery for the second time and faced with life decisions surrounding his survival and recovery, Hart went back to his alma mater, Ohio Northern University, to develop the chemical dependency course with a former professor in 2005.
“He just set to work immediately to develop a course because he knew he had to get the word out and warn everyone. I was so proud of him,” Susie Hart said.
Every semester, her experiences are shared with students through a visit or a pre-recorded tape. Susie said that she would ask the students to look around in their class of between 20 and 50 students and imagine that one in six of them became addicted.
“In the class, I would say, ‘Don’t let it be you,’ and I would cry,” she said.
When students ask if Hart would ever go back to pharmacy again, he said he tells them no.
Now 15 years sober, Hart has transformed his desire to inform people into a teaching career at six of the seven pharmacy schools in Ohio, where he gets to share his story with future pharmacists across the state.
“And now, I feel like — as odd as this sounds — we went all through that for that many years and to have come out on the other side, he is happier than ever. He is stronger than ever. He loves teaching,” Susie Hart said.