At event, students talk struggles with substance addiction

By Younjoo Sang, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 15, 2012

While many students struggle with the daily grind of balancing school work and extracurricular activities, others deal with a challenge that’s a bit more trying — overcoming addiction.

To address this issue, five University students recovering from addiction openly described their battles with substance abuse at the Michigan League yesterday in front of about 40 students and faculty members in a panel titled “Students in Recovery.”

The program was presented by the Collegiate Recovery Program in conjunction with the LSA Research Theme Semester. The program, associated with the University Health Service, was first founded by students dedicated to the cause of addiction recovery.

Mary Jo Desprez, UHS’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Policy and Prevention administrator, said the panel aimed to raise awareness among faculty, staff, students and community members about students recovering from addiction.

“I really thought the student voice on recovery was a really important part to have featured as part of the theme semester,” Desprez said.

Jennifer Cervi, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, Rory Crook, a graduate student in the School of Public Health, LSA freshman Jake Goldberg, LSA junior Piper Keyes and Amber Smith, a Rackham graduate student, all spoke on the panel.

Smith said the crucial factor that motivates her to overcome her struggles is her proximity to the Collegiate Recovery Program staff and their support.

“I really need to balance life off of other people, to know that I’m not alone,” Smith said.

Smith became sober in 2010 as she took part in her graduate program, at which she received support and help from acquaintances at the University.

Cervi, who discovered the Collegiate Recovery Program upon her acceptance to the University, has been a recovering methamphetamine addict since 2006.

Cervi said it was most important for her to focus on her recovery, as academic pressure occasionally made her forget that recovery was what had kept her in the University. She also noted that having a sense of community was crucial for her.

“I need a place where I can feel belong,” Cervi said.

Crook, who has been sober since February 2003, said it was important for him to be in a precise routine.

“If I get caught up with empty amounts of time in limbos, things could turn out for the worse,” he said.

During the panel, the students discussed several factors that they wished faculty and staff would be more aware of how they encourage substance abuse. Smith pointed out that most occasions to bond with staff in graduate programs were during happy hour in bars.

“I could not even go to bars because I was not in a state of mind to even be near alcohol,” Smith said. “I just wish that there were more events not associated with happy hour.”

Crook echoed Smith’s sentiment, explaining that these practices continue to exist at the graduate level.

“I feel like I have to work harder to make connections and network without drinking,” Crook said.

Goldberg was accepted to the University in the fall, but didn’t start his freshman year until the winter semester due to issues with substance abuse. He said he recently celebrated his sixth month of sobriety.

Goldberg said he he would like to be open about his recovery, but wished his professors and GSIs wouldn’t differentiate him from other students when he confessed his condition.

Keyes, who has been sober for seven months and is currently working in a neuroscience lab on drug addiction, agreed with Goldberg that it’s difficult at times to determine how peers or professors may perceive her if they knew about her past.

“In my lab, I work with amphetamine every day and have access to space where they store heroin and cocaine,” she said. “I’m pretty well respected in the lab by now, but if I were to tell them I’m a recovering addict, I don’t know how they would react.”

Keyes expressed that she had to work harder than most people in order to live a normal life, adding that she did not want to worry about the stigma of being an addict during the process.

“People’s general idea of an addict is some dude with a brown paper bag walking down the street in a gutter shooting up heroin or something,” she said. “That was never my life.”

Keyes explained that she was trying to portray the image of the addict in recovery and did not want to be compared with other types of addicts that are inactive and aren’t seeking recovery.

The students also shared several difficulties of living in Ann Arbor and attending the University, most notably the issue of being surrounded by a college environment that encourages alcohol consumption.

Keyes said she missed the nightlife and added that she lives with friends who still engage in alcohol consumption and other behaviors.

“There is alcohol in my freezer, and there are weed brownies chilling on the counter,” Keyes said.

As a freshman, Goldberg said not being able to go out to parties and engage in typical collegiate life last fall was tough at first.

“In the Notre Dame game, I saw people who were wild,” Goldberg said. “I was nearly in tears. I wanted to drink so badly, and I wanted to be part of it so badly.”

Goldberg said the presence of many young people in recovery at the University has been helpful, explaining that most people in the recovery program in his hometown were over 40.

“You can relate (with similar-aged peers) on so many levels,” he said. “It’s like I found a home.”

Cervi said she was surprised that in Ann Arbor, she could not drive two miles without running into another member of the Collegiate Recovery Program, which helped her stay on track when under pressure.

“It’s like a little secret society, it’s a powerful connection,” she said. “Sometimes, that’s all I need to feel.”

Smith agreed with Cervi, and said her connection to individuals in the program on campus keeps her from using substances. She also noted the tight-knit and supportive environment to be a big advantage.

“It’s reassuring to see U-M professors or other students working at the University while recovering from addiction,” she said. “If you want to get sober, all you need to do is ask for help, there will be people at your side.”

Students also expressed that the notion that one cannot have an “authentic college experience” without alcohol needs to change and that other students should also be open to talking about their experiences.

Keyes said she initially used alcohol as a social lubricant because the University has a significant party culture.

“You should not think that activities without alcohol are ‘lame,’” she said. “You don’t have to be drunk all day to have fun.”

Goldberg explained that though he initially did not want to be “that one guy” who broke the mood by refraining from drinking, he ultimately lost who he considered his best friends when he didn’t participate.

“You figure out who your true friends are,” he said. “The people in the program become your true friends.”

The panel of students emphasized that there does not need to be a grand aim in life to recover from addiction, but Cervi said after her recovery, she began to develop and exceed her goals.

“What recovery had given me is hope, the opportunity for possibilities, and trust for myself,” she said.