Behind the Lie: "It's not alcoholism until you graduate"
If I hadn’t already known that graduate student Ary — who requested her last name not be published — was recovering from several years of alcohol and drug abuse, I wouldn’t have guessed it from her appearance. As we talked last Wednesday in my most comforting setting (the Daily newsroom) I quickly caught onto her dedication to her studies and noticed the bright smile on her face, much like that of any other student.
No matter the substance, college students in recovery look and act as any other: walking the halls in a backpack and jeans, a ponytail or baseball cap, a cell phone in one hand and a textbook or coffee in the other. With my own perception of those in recovery inundated by dramatized depictions in the media, I realized I would have no idea if the person sitting next to me in my 10 a.m. was going through the same challenges as Ary.
As I spoke with her, I was quickly reminded those in recovery are just like anybody else — and the negative stereotypes and misconceptions that plague these students are keeping them from seeking help.
The stigmas attached to addiction are harmful to the recovery process. Ary said when her recovery began in the winter of 2015, she sought help with University of Michigan Counseling and Psychological Services — but getting there first was difficult.
Ary began drinking in high school and experimenting with various pills and other substances to overcome anxiety and depression upon entering the University, where her substance abuse spiraled out of control.
“The big thing for me most of my time here was Adderall,” she said, adding that she felt her depleting mental health and drug abuse were tied.
A therapist at CAPS recommended she try attending Contemplators, a student group for those interested in talking about issues of alcohol and drug abuse. Though Contemplators is no longer a student organization, it has been replaced by other resources on campus.
Ary recalls it was during one of these sessions that she first admitted to herself she was an addict.
“What became really obvious to me after a few sessions of that is that, many of these people looked like they would be able to use the tools from the group to control or limit their drinking and using and for me, it became really clear that that just wasn’t possible,” she said.
She became afraid and stopped going to the group.
“That was scary. It was, ‘Fuck, I have this thing that is only going to get worse and it’s already pretty bad,’ and then also the stigma of, ‘Now, if I ever want to treat it, that’s acknowledging it and therefore I get that label of being an addict,” Ary said. “At this point, I would just go on big benders of three, four, five, six days of not sleeping and then I’d be drinking around the clock to counterbalance all the stimulants.”
Even still, she was able to graduate on time, with honors in her program. But her recovery journey continues even today.
Alcohol abuse on college campuses has become increasingly commonplace. To many, substance abuse looks like extreme cases of fatality or assault. But for others it’s an everyday, binge-drinking session that results in months or years of hiding liquor bottles and trying to piece together countless forgotten nights.
Roughly one in four college students report academic consequences — ranging from decreases in grades to missing classes — from drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Within the University of Michigan, a 2007 survey notes 52 percent of undergraduates engaged in binge drinking within two weeks of being surveyed, as compared to 44 percent nationally.
The abuse of opioids, opiates and prescription medication has become more silent — yet is growing, and subsequently, becomes more dangerous. Opioids are synthetic drugs, while opiates are derived from the poppy plant.
Pill-sharing parties and a widespread opioid epidemic can quickly lead some to a vicious cycle of paying dealers and needing a fix, debt and overdose.
In August, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national state of emergency due to numbers stating the epidemic kills about 100 Americans daily. Even within Washtenaw County, opiate and opioid use has spiked, ultimately leading to the introduction of Naloxone — a life-saving drug capable of reversing the effects of an overdose — in police departments locally and nationwide.
Social Work student David Awadalla told me how he first attended the University of Georgia, where he played on the lacrosse team until sustaining a sports-related injury.
Awadalla was prescribed opioid painkillers, and at first, took them as prescribed.
“It made me comfortable in my own skin and I could study, or talk to my parents, or go out with friends and I felt confident,” Awadalla said. “Over time, my dependence on them grew and I started doing illegal things to obtain more pills.”
After two suspensions from the University of Georgia and spending time incarcerated, he was given another chance to graduate and then was accepted into the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work in fall of 2016. Last year, he interned with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Awadalla has been helping others with similar issues ever since.
The more alcohol Ary consumed and the more drugs she took, the less she showed up to her post-graduation lab position on time, if at all. Her system stoked from so many stimulants, Ary kept a bottle of gin next to her bed, slamming cupful after cupful every two hours to counterbalance the rush until 6 a.m.
After one final night abusing several substances, she sought an assessment from University Treatment Services — a division of Michigan Medicine’s psychiatric services.
“They had told me: ‘You’re definitely an addict and you’re definitely an alcoholic,’ and I was like, ‘Alcoholic? Everyone in college drinks like this, everyone’s grades suffer because of drinking, I only drink this much because I do too many drugs,’ ” Ary said.
She soon attended her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting but suffered a relapse just 17 days later. Finally, a woman in one meeting told her about the Collegiate Recovery Program, which aims to reduce the stigma behind addiction and provides students with a supportive community in the recovery process. Ary attended a meeting and has been sober for two and a half years since.
My first impression of LSA senior Mandy — who requested her last name remain anonymous — was that she, too, was motivated in her school work and dedicated to helping others. Mandy had a similar experience, though she only seriously started drinking during Welcome Week her freshman year. For her, it rapidly became a bigger problem.
“I was nervous about being in a new place and insecure — I just felt more confident and it became this cure-all solution to everything,” Mandy said. “I wasn’t 21 yet, but if I had been, it would have been literally all the time.”
Toward the end of her freshman year, Mandy went to meetings for AA and Students for Recovery (a group similar to Contemplators) in an attempt to curtail her habit. She found temporary relief, but she relapsed the following fall as academic and peer pressures constantly loomed.
“I was trying so hard and was not able to do as well as I wanted, and of course the drinking didn’t help either,” Mandy said. “If I’m drinking before classes or missing class because I’m hungover, then I’d be upset about my grades so I would drink more or drink after an exam.”
Though she didn’t want to, Mandy withdrew from the semester to take time off.
“I hated that I wouldn’t be graduating in four years and that I had to take time off and I thought I was a failure and all these things, but now, looking back, it was the best thing I could have done,” Mandy said. “I also thought I was better at hiding it than I was, but I definitely worried especially about my family finding out.”
“I just felt very lonely and isolated and I didn’t know how I would get through it or how I would turn 21 and stay sober,” she added.
This cycle of abuse continued until she met Matt Statman from the Collegiate Recovery Program when she returned to campus. The program changed everything regarding her recovery process.
CRP was founded with the help of Wolverine Wellness Director Mary Jo Desprez and a student in recovery, along with funding from UHS, CAPS and private donors. The CRP has introduced opportunities for sober events and recovery support to the University community. The CRP evolved from the Students for Recovery organization and has since become more accessible to the student body. Over the past year, for example, the group has held sober tailgates, birthday parties and a graduation for outgoing seniors.
Statman, director of the CRP, said the program has helped hundreds of students cope with addiction. While alcohol and marijuana are the most commonly abused substances on the University of Michigan’s campus, the program has also seen students seeking help for opioid recovery.
One of Statman’s central goals is to ensure those in recovery feel comfortable with their environment — and through abstinence-based programs, meetings and personalized recovery efforts — he believes recovery is a realistic goal.
“Primarily, what we’re designed to do is support students who are already embracing a recovery identity on campus,” Statman said. “When you start to have a more visible recovery community, it’s attractive to people, especially people who are miserable with the status quo. If their relationship with substances is causing pain and misery, and they’re unable to change it on their own, being part of a community of students in recovery is attractive.”
Statman sees about 25 students regularly each semester, in addition to dozens who come for help on a less formal basis and generally need more direction as to where to start with their recovery process.
“My goal isn’t to get students sober, it’s to support those who are already sober and those who are highly motivated to make those changes that are required to get sober,” Statman said. “(It’s) really designed to support this very specific group of students who have this identity that is marginalized and often forgotten about.”
The peer support group within the CRP helps those in recovery cope with a campus culture that isn’t particularly conducive to recovery. Statman specifically singled out the high-pressure academic environment and unhealthy student behavior as drivers of this.
“For people in recovery, wellness might be especially important, because if they’re not taking care of their wellness, they are vulnerable to relapse. A culture like ours that places a value on being out of balance, not sleeping … that culture is also threatening,” Statman said. “We’re seeing huge numbers of students who are having a lot of emotional and mental health issues resulting from the culture on college campuses, and I think the idea that all that matters is academic success is harmful.”
Mandy — who was first enrolled in several demanding engineering courses — echoed Statman.
She added the stigma she first experienced while in recovery about a year ago has been somewhat removed as awareness has grown on campus. But she said she still believes there is a long way to go in terms of changing the negative misconceptions of those with addiction to spreading awareness about substance use and misuse.
“Hearing people talking about drinking and being like, ‘I’m such an alcoholic,’ and making light of it can be tough sometimes, and I’m just sitting there like — you have no idea,” Mandy said. “The saying, ‘It’s not alcoholism until you graduate’ … it prevents people from getting help sooner when they could use it or before things get more serious.”
There are additional resources available on campus and locally for those struggling with a substance, or who just want information on how to better manage their use.
Aside from individual wellness coaching made available through UHS, there’s the Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Program, Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students, the Individual Marijuana Education Program and the Ann Arbor Campus-Community Coalition, a resource for both students and Ann Arbor residents in recovery.
BASICS and IMEP interventions are shorter-term interventions — a two-session alcohol and two-session marijuana screening and education discussions, respectively — sometimes mandated by the Office of Student Conflict Resolution to those who committed a related offense on campus, but many also attend of their own accord.
And though the University has no specific housing for those in recovery, substance-free housing is available upon request. These environments host additional support for students choosing not to engage in substance use, a step further from traditional on-campus housing.
At an event last November that promoted an open dialogue on opioid addiction in Washtenaw County, Mark Albulov, a residential therapist at Dawn Farm — an Ypsilanti-based nonprofit with an outpatient center in Ann Arbor geared toward long-term drug and alcohol recovery — discussed the significance of labeling addiction as a serious medical concern.
“We want to … educate people that it is a medical disease,” Albulov said. “It’s not a moral failure, it’s not a criminal behavior, it’s a medical disease that has treatment.”
Despite the different options, to many students on campus, the CRP has steadily remained the best avenue through which to recover.
LSA senior Sophie — who requested her last name remain anonymous — first got into recovery one year ago. This in itself wasn’t easy.
“I hit my bottom, dropped out of classes and dug a little deeper until I ended up going to treatment,” Sophie said. “When I dropped out, I really didn’t imagine coming back. I couldn’t imagine very far ahead at that point in my life.”
It was a challenge not only to reach out, but also to find a place to fit.
“You’re stuck between these two sides — where you’re in treatment, and everyone is just focused on getting a part-time job, and one day at a time, and then there’s the other side where there’s Michigan students where their resume is five pages long and I felt stuck in the middle,” she said.
At the CRP, however, Sophie said she found a home.
“It was totally acceptable and understandable and even an act of courage to have taken time off of school to get your head straight,” Sophie said. “I don’t think I found any other community at Michigan where that was the perception, because as an outsider, there is stigma and even before I went to treatment and didn’t think I had a problem, I thought that that was going to be the low point of my life.”
Awadalla, also an intern with the CRP, says it the program has been the most important part of his recovery.
“It’s cool to be able to come into a room with a bunch of other students who all are trying to accomplish the same thing,” Awadalla said. “Whenever we start doubting ourselves, someone else picks us up.”
Awadalla said he embraces his experiences to help others, noting addiction’s non-discriminatory nature.
“It’s such a big part of my story that I can’t even try to hide it,” Awadalla said. “It doesn’t discriminate — it doesn’t matter what race you are, what gender you are, what sex you are, what orientation you are, what your socioeconomic status it, it affects everybody.”
Many of those interviewed brought to light the question of using the word “addict.”
“The term ‘drug addict’ — yes, I’m a drug addict, but sometimes now even still there’s a part of my brain that justifies it,” Ary said. “There’s something in that term that’s uncomfortable to be associated with.”
Destigmatizing the word “addict” is important, and Statman offered up the option of saying an individual “has addiction.” On the other hand, however, Statman noted the importance of allowing those in recovery to accept the identities they want to best recover.
LSA senior Heather Martin watched her sister’s health and well-being decline as her addiction to opiates spanned seven years, something that came to a rapid halt one day with a fatal overdose.
Martin first opened up to the Daily about her family’s story last October. Now, more than three years after her sister Angie’s death, Martin and her family continue to maintain the organization Angel Wings for Angie, created in her sister’s honor, to provide local support for those in recovery.
“How can we expect these people (to recover),” Martin said last year, “if everyone just keeps looking at them and telling them that they’re not going to be anything, that that is all they're going to be labeled with?”
Statman believes providing these recovery resources on campus is a necessity.
“We owe it to our students who have this disorder to provide support for them when they come to campus or return to campus. It’s an indispensable piece of the alcohol and drug puzzle,” he said.
And for these students, receiving these recovery resources largely determines whether they will relapse.
“The quality of my life is completely different now,” Ary said. “There’s a lot I need to do every day to maintain my sobriety, and now that’s just a part of my life, but just seeing how much things can and have improved for me in two and a half years makes me really excited about what’s going to happen.”