TRAILBLAZING IN COLLEGIATE RECOVERY
I was fortunate that I had done the bulk of the work for that semester before I started drinking again. It was 2002, or ’03; I’d have to look it up. At any rate, they were hazy times. I was making my sixth attempt at college at Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas where I had landed in another one of my famous geographic moves; this time I was escaping from Monterrey Nuevo Leon where things had gone south again and bridges were burned. Things were quickly coming to a head here as well. The wife was on the verge of taking off, I was persona-non-grata the last few weeks of the semester and I was so drunk during finals, I could not even tell you what classes they were for.
This was the latest of my adventures. I had attended six colleges and universities. I flat out failed out of two, withdrew from the others, and I managed to barely get 12 credits at Sul Ross. Either the drinking or these humiliating attempts at higher education were going to have to end. Like a good alcoholic, I decided at that time to give up on formal school. I attended paramedic classes a year later while working as an EMT. Fortunately the job required me to be 100% dry 24 hours a day. Adrenaline replaced alcohol, and I did well. Still, the link between drinking and my inability to succeed in college was lost to me. After pissing away my career as a medic by going on a bender, I took another shot at rehab which lasted up until I joined the US Army, consequently my drunken wandering in Itaewon South Korea landed me with a œGeneral Under Honorable Conditions discharged and in summer of 2008, at the age of 31, I attended rehab for the fourth and final time.
The man who came out of treatment that summer is not the man I am today. There have been changes so vast, I would be hard-pressed to describe them in one essay. Suffice to say, I was earnest about recovery, and ignorant about many things. I kept my gains small, not fully trusting the idea of success. I worked in construction, hotel maintenance, I was the assistant manager at a convenience store, and then one day I ended up getting a job in a non-profit specializing in mental health. Working in mental health was like coming home. I fell deeply and convincingly in love with the work. My employers trusted me far beyond my credentials, and they supported me in my passion to help others. The main supervisor eventually cornered me, she grilled me about my past educational experiences, and she pressed me to reconsider my fear of higher education. She spoke honestly to me about my prospects at my current level of education, she mentioned my passion for the work, and she spoke of the certainty of my success. The conversation caused a splinter in me. As the son of two highly educated, liberal middle-class parents, education was always top priority growing up. I knew she was right. College at some point would have to be re-considered despite my history of failures in education and in life. But how to attend a university and remain on my newfound path of recovery was something that was beyond me.
Coincidentally, a close friend of mine from rehab had invited me to be in his wedding. He was six hours away in Lubbock, Texas at Texas Tech. He was attending school through some sort of program for drug addicts, but I was unsure about what it was. On my first night there he took me for a tour of the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery. I was amazed. I could not get over the idea that someone would give a drug addict or an alcoholic in recovery actual money to go back to school. I couldn’t believe a Division I university would have any concern for such types. Why bother? Out of all the people you could choose to support at a university, why would you pick addicts and alcoholics? I had a ton of questions.
Over the course of my stay however, I witnessed the œcommunity aspect of what a CRC means. Everyone immediately befriended me- Total strangers of various ages, all attending school through the CSAR and each and every one of them asked me the same question- When was I going to apply? I tried to signal protestation but it was laughed off. My newly married friend sat me down on my last day and answered all my questions. Neither he, nor my newfound friends at the CSAR, were going to be satisfied with any response other than a firm commitment to apply and see what happens. œJust apply and let God sort out the results, was what they told me. From that day forward the momentum and trajectory of my life changed in a way that is indescribable. This was indeed œthe fourth dimension of existence of which I never could have even dreamed.
The sum total of thousands of dollars wasted and several years of time squandered at previous colleges all came down to one firm verdict. I had a 1.7 GPA. Which was down five points from my wonderfully mediocre 2.2 GPA from high school. I had amassed a sum total of 43 credit hours, switched majors and minors twice. Academically, an autopsy of my life-long educational experiences read like a bad Hollywood tragedy on par with the likes of Jim Belushie. While drinking, my ego had put a cap on my ability to give a crap about my intellect. Thinking myself terminally unique had caused me to pursue a self-education agenda that was a strange mix of alcoholic life experience, and cherry-picked book learning. My total self-knowledge summed up meant that I was kind of an expert at being an asshole, poetry, and WWII. I could write because I had been doing so my whole life. I could think when the ego was at bay and I was willing to learn. If I was passionate about something, I could teach it to myself. All in all, I had a few strengths in a pile of liabilities. Despite all of this, the CSAR at Texas Tech took a chance on me. My admittance into the CSAR netted me a small scholarship and more importantly, got me past the admission requirements to attend Texas Tech. In fact, Texas Tech turned me down, and my scholarship through the CSAR overrode that decision. I was in. I declared Psychology as my major and Addiction Studies as a minor.
Despite the desire to attribute my admittance into Texas Tech as a testament to my intellectual brilliance, I now know why the CSAR admitted me. They were aware of something that would really take me years to understand. They knew that addicts and alcoholics in recovery are amazing people. They knew that when a guy like myself gets the opportunity and support that the CSAR offered, that we flourish. And this was no mere gesture of good will. They had the science and the data going back 25 years that clearly showed it.
The CSAR knew that someone like myself, when placed in the right environment would meet or exceed any academic standard he or anyone else may place on him. They knew that the community would lift me up, that I would contribute to that community, and that my success in the classroom would closely correlate to my success in recovery. Staying sober, giving back, having an active recovery, operating on spiritual and altruistic terms would all serve me well in recovery, and in my academics. It was a fusion of sorts. A place where people believing in you made you believe in others. When a classmate struggled in a class, we all pitched in. We did everything together. We redefined the college experience. College became a place of love, a place of healthy challenge, and a time to explore. The staff and professors held us to a standard of excellence and we held that standard- for ourselves, for them, and for one another. I made a 4.0 my first semester and graduated three years later with a 3.5. I was on merit-based full academic scholarship my entire senior year, and my junior year I was given several thousands of dollars for a recovery-based scholarship. Upon graduation, I got into the exact grad school program I wanted.
More important than all of that however, was the collegiate recovery community itself, I have never been a part of something so incredible. Friends, staff members, and graduate students; all of us aligned under a common purpose at the heart of a university campus. I was supported in all of my endeavors. My friends comforted me. I was able to impart knowledge, and I received knowledge. I was guided, pushed, and reigned in at the precise time where I took on too little or took on too much. I was held accountable. I was shoulder to shoulder with my peers. We went crazy at Red Raider football games, we supported each other when we spoke in public and at meetings, we traveled to conferences and training seminars. Our community at Texas Tech was closely woven into the fabric of the Lubbock recovery community. We saved lives. We went through it together. Unlike every other college student in America, my college experience was about love, it was about service, it was about humility, and most importantly, it was about living in gratitude.
And here we are. I chose the University of Vermont because it was the right place for me. It was the most expensive choice I could have made. It was a choice that likely appears illogical on the outside. Paying 120k dollars for a Master’s in Social Work is a financially ponderous decision. But if I did things based on their numerical value, I would have found life intolerable long ago. I was driven here because I saw a CRP that was in a specific phase of development. The CRP had been around long enough that I was fairly sure it wouldn’t disappear, and my discussion with Amy Boyd Austin told me that I would be working side by side with someone who was incredibly dedicated to the vision of CRPs. I knew, that I had an obligation to the CRC movement. If I didn’t take that risk, could I be sure someone who felt such responsibility to the CRC movement would take my place instead? Who, if not I, would be the one? Amy had done an incredible job. This was a truly challenging environment. We agreed the next phase for the CRC would need a couple people who truly believed in what we were doing. There wasn’t any real money for it, and we had no idea how it would play out. But as we talked over that winter, I felt that with all our combined talents, we could carve out a sustainable presence at the University of Vermont. It was, in short, probably the largest gamble of my adult life. Yet when I thought of the power of community that the CRP offers those in recovery, I knew that few crusades in life are as vivid and clear as this one was to me.
I made the gamble for two reasons. The first was that I knew my experiences at Texas Tech had value. I had learned how and why CRC’s operate, I learned about replication, and I learned about the social and psychological factors that make it a success. I learned what dedicated staff looked like, and I learned what value there was in providing addicts and alcoholics a toehold in higher education. I came to believe over my time at Tech that people in recovery are probably some of the most talented, insightful, humble, and effective people on the planet. Secondly, I chose to come to be the Coordinator at the CRP at UVM because the CSAR once gambled on my future success. I see slim chance of failure and a world of good that can be done here. I love our students. I love our school. I love our program. The story of my success is not one of personal victory. It is a story of those who cared enough to believe in those of us in recovery. It is their story. We are the product of trust, love, and acceptance. We are the story of addiction science and the revolution of addiction treatment. We are the FACT that people get better in recovery. I cannot imagine anywhere else I would rather be. Each day I find I am honored to be a part of this thing of ours. And finally, I believe more now than ever that no student should ever have to choose between their education and their recovery.