A Doctor Conquers His Demons

Dinah Miller, MD


August 11, 2020

Adam B. Hill, MD, is home on a "staycation" this week. Today, he took a 3-hour nap. I know this because I follow Dr. Hill on Twitter, where he has an active feed, a lot of posts, retweets, and more than 20,000 followers.

I also know from Twitter that he is married and has three young children, that he was once suicidal, and has been treated for major depression and alcoholism. As a palliative care doctor, Dr. Hill was required by his state medical board to blow into a breathalyzer several times a day for 5 years – something he felt quite shamed by – and while I've never met him, I felt just a little bit proud of this stranger when he was released from the medical board's oversight.

Dr. Hill's memoir, "Long Walk Out of the Woods: A Physician's Story of Addiction, Depression, Hope, and Recovery" (Central Recovery Press, 2019) is the culmination of his efforts to use his difficulties as a way of offering hope and connection to anyone who struggled as he has, or to anyone who has struggled at all. Like his Twitter feed, it is a display of vulnerability and gratitude by someone who has been through dark times then returned to conquer his monsters.

He begins by setting the stage for us. "My name is Adam," he announces in the preface. He tells us his various titles: human being, husband, father, physician, recovering alcoholic, and psychiatric patient. "In the midst of these struggles, working in modern medicine fractured my identity, stole my authenticity, and left me a shell of the person I wanted to be."

We learn that he tried to buy a gun, but there was a waiting period and he could not purchase the firearm. Instead, he walked into the woods to drink himself to death, with sleeping pills as an add-on – obviously, he didn't die, and his journey back from his failed suicidal mission is the meat of the book.

Dr. Hill was a quiet and timid child, and he was bullied at school in a way that has lingered on. He struggles with perfectionism and with a sense of never quite belonging. He was a good student, and later a competitive tennis player who was destined for a regional competition until he broke his ankle after drinking just days before the competition. He did well in college, felt more accepted, and went on to medical school after getting in from the wait list. He went on to do a pediatrics residency, and he and his wife moved from Indiana to North Carolina so he could do a hematology oncology fellowship. It was toward the end of his 2-year fellowship when he tried to purchase a gun, then walked into those woods.

His wife called, asked him to come to dinner, and he left the woods before he'd overdosed. After a meeting with his wife, parents, and sister, he returned to psychiatric care, restarted antidepressants, went to Alcoholics Anonymous, and told his employer that he had a problem. This admission started a distressing series of events, including years of being monitored by state medical boards and being labeled an "impaired physician."

This is the only thing I didn't like about Dr. Hill's memoir: As open as he is about his emotional life, there were pieces missing with respect to what actually happened. At this point, I was befuddled as to why he self-reported his difficulties, and it wasn't until he talked about starting a second fellowship in palliative care in his home state of Indiana that I could fill in some missing pieces. Dr. Hill and his wife purchased a house, and in November, he started his fellowship. The timing was off from the usual start in July, and I realized that perhaps he had gone to an inpatient setting for a number of months – his disclosure to his employer was voluntary, but his treatment likely interfered with his training and couldn't be hidden. What else transpired he hints at: bottles hidden, driving while intoxicated, a nurse who gave him IV hydration when he came to work with a hangover.

From here, Dr. Hill's story becomes every doctor's nightmare. Settled into his new house and weeks into his fellowship, he is called in and fired: His application for a medical license in Indiana has been denied because of his addiction history. He met with a friend of his father's who worked in a large pediatrics practice. The meeting went well, but the group felt he was too much of a malpractice risk.

He now needs to pay his mortgage and student loans, so he takes a position in Oklahoma with the Indian Health Service. He's 700 miles from home, living alone in a hotel room, feeling like the work is beneath him, and the chapter is titled "Exile." His new boss greets him with, "Listen, we all had our own stories that led us here." Surprisingly, he likes the work and feels supported. If only it weren't for all that loneliness, and not surprisingly, he relapses despite the mandated breathalyzer. Six beers later, and Dr. Hill is off to Chicago for a rehab program, then back to Oklahoma to finish off his stint.

What happens next is the second time I wondered about the plot of his life: Through "connections and concession," he returns to Indiana for the palliative care fellowship, and goes on to work at Riley Children's Hospital.

When a colleague unexpectedly dies from suicide, Dr. Hill tells others that he, too, once entertained suicidal thoughts. The story from here gets better and better: He uses his history of addiction and depression to help others – patients, their parents, and other medical professionals – to conquer their shame, to share their stories, to feel less alone. He and his wife become parents, he remains sober and healthy, and therapy leads him to a place of self-discovery and success.

Intertwined with telling his story, Dr. Hill takes on some of the institutional issues surrounding addiction and mental illness. He feels shamed and punished by the state medical board that mandates the terms of his medical license. Any physician who reads this book will think twice about revealing a diagnosis of depression or substance use disorder. It's not a new idea that to protect the public, medical boards should ask about current impairments, not a past history or conditions that have been successfully treated. They should encourage treatment, not punish those who seek care.

Dr. Hill writes about how helpful it has been to allow himself to be vulnerable in the aftermath:

In my experience, the more vulnerability I show, the more opportunities I have to connect to other people. I learned the hard way that when I hide my true self from others, I spiral toward shame. Conversely, when I bury my shame, I begin to accept myself as a beautifully flawed human being, and my perspective on the world reflects that. A turn of the vulnerability dial has opened up connections to other people, while turning away pity, judgment, fear, and shame. Meanwhile, when I am to create spaces for vulnerability, permission is granted to have open and honest conversations about mental health conditions on a larger scale. But I would never have learned these lessons without having been humbled by this disease.

Perhaps the thing I liked best about Dr. Hill's memoir is that he proposes some solutions. He talks about the importance of fighting stigma, how he finds it everywhere, and how the medical field equates mental illnesses with weakness, thereby perpetuating a self-deprecating cycle in those who have them.

In palliative care, there is an acronym – SPIKES (Set up, Perception, Invitation, Knowledge, Explore emotions, and Summary) that provides guidelines for how to deliver bad news to a family. Dr. Hill suggests using this format to discuss mental health and addictions with patients, colleagues, students. He talks about having "Compassion Rounds" to provide a safe space for his colleagues to talk about their emotional reactions to treating very ill children. And he talks about providing mental health care for trainees as an "opt out" – he schedules all his residents for a counseling session – they can cancel without repercussion, but this serves to "normalize" seeking care. I love the idea that each resident might have someone they've met with at least once whom they can call if the going gets rough. "As a result," Dr. Hill writes, "once secretive conversations about attending counseling happen openly, and the physicians actually feel more comfortable going."

Adam Hill's memoir is short, it's an engaging read, his openness is refreshing, and his plea to let doctors be human beings with human problems is so needed in medicine today. Thank you, Adam.

Dr. Miller is coauthor of "Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatry Care" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, both in Baltimore. Dr. Miller has no disclosures.

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