Let me start this off by saying I am a huge proponent of evidenced based and reviewed research. As the recovery oriented continuum of care continues to emerge as the preeminent philosophy in treating substance use disorders and mental health concerns, the need for in-depth research on the field will be paramount to increase the amount of funding to grow the capacity of these programs. Without entities like Transforming Youth Recovery and the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, tracking the efficacy and scope of collegiate recovery programs around the nation, we would have no legs to stand on when it comes to national funding sources like NIH, NIDA, SAMHSA, amongst others. We wouldn’t know that there are 120+ programs, communities, and efforts at institutions of higher education in this country if it wasn’t for these organizations tireless efforts. We wouldn’t know that programs are most successful when they implement peer-to-peer support services above all else, without Dr. Alexandre Laudet’s ground breaking exploratory research. We wouldn’t know that reoccurrence of use rates are less than 8% nationally, that retention rates can increase 4-10% at institutions with collegiate recovery programs, or that GPA rates and Graduation rates for students in these programs increase dramatically as well. It goes without saying that research leads the way as we continue to build programs focusing on recovery, and that without it we would be “lost” so to speak.
However, it should be noted that research does little to explain the story behind the numbers. It doesn’t discount lived experience of students in these life-saving programs, but it doesn’t do them justice by merely relaying efficacy rates and bottom line savings. It doesn’t share the stories of mother’s, just like Melisa Ashford, who have their son back because of the services provided at his university. It doesn’t portray the caring relationships built between peers, like that of Jeremy E. and Michael C. at the University of North Texas, brothers bonded in recovery; brothers who otherwise would not know each other if it wasn’t for the CRP. Most importantly, it doesn’t show on charts and graphs the empowerment given to students that otherwise would have no second chance at a post-secondary degree. Students just like me.
I am a person in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder and mental health concern, and my name is Robert Ashford. For me, that means I no longer utilize mind-altering substances to change the way that I manage and cope with my life. For 10 years, I did just that. Throughout my short life, I am currently 27 years old, various genetic factors and environmental occurrences came together to make me an individual with addiction, or a severe substance use disorder. Throughout those 10 years I also self-medicated generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and a bi-polar diagnosis. I was a highly functional individual even throughout this time, and found my way into college, but unfortunately as I am sure you can surmise, that wasn’t very successful. If you were to look at my transfer transcripts, you would see a 3 year span filled with some A’s, one B, 3 C’s, and a large frequency of W’s and WF’s. Eventually, I found myself out of college, and into the general workforce, where it was much easier to engage in my active substance use disorder, and being in the service industry, it was largely celebrated.
As this isn’t a story of my time spent in active use, but rather a story of how collegiate recovery at my University helped me get back on track, let’s skip forward a bit. After 10 years of an active substance use disorder, I found myself at a crossroads. 3 DUIs, which in the state of Texas means that yes, I am a felon for multiple drunk-driving offenses. I am choosing to sugar coat nothing in this essay, so let’s be clear that even in my long-term recovery I am on felony probation for 10 years in Texas; I take responsibility for my decisions, even as manifestations of a chronic disorder, and make no excuses for my actions. By the grace of a help first criminal justice system, I am not in TDC for 2-10 years. However, back to the crossroads I mentioned earlier. 3 DUIs, felon in Texas, and finally graced the awareness that I would need help to overcome my substance use disorder; I knew, after 10 long years, that I could no do it alone. I sought help, and by the discretion of the court, was allowed to seek out in-patient treatment at a state run treatment center in Fort Worth, Texas. The reason I mention this is largely to make the point that even with a substance use disorder, I do believe that I consciously made the choice to pick up drugs and alcohol in the first place. That isn’t to say I chose to become an individual with a severe substance use disorder, but I did make that first choice to use. However, I also made the choice to seek treatment. It wasn’t forced on me, just as the first use wasn’t forced on me. I have found it important in my own recovery to be aware of that fact, and to embrace it.
After a voluntary increased length stay at the treatment center in Fort Worth, I knew that I would need long-term support and services to continue on this newfound path called recovery. Rather than return to the work force, I had found in treatment that like so many others before me, I wanted to go back to school, to finish what I had started so many years ago. So off I went, to Denton, Texas to one of the most highly recommended recovery residences that I had been referred to, and one that would require me to pay my own way (I couldn’t rely on my family, which was a blessing in disguise), and either get a job or be enrolled full time in school. At 58 days in recovery, which for me is complete abstinence, I began the process of enrolling full-time at the University of North Texas.
I can’t tell you how nervous I was as I started the process. I felt strong in my early recovery, with a conviction that I was able through my program of recovery to stay on this new path, but being on a college campus again reminded me of the last time I was there. Walk in any direction and you could hear discussion of smoking marijuana, finding Adderall for studying all-night, or the neon lights of the row of bars that every college and university has within blocks of the main campus. I remember wondering to myself how there was any possibility, that knowing what I had accomplished the last time I was on a college campus (which was a tremendous amount of nothing), how was I ever going to maintain my recovery AND get a college degree? Nothing had seemingly changed about college; it was still in large part the gigantic party scene I remembered from years ago.
Bill White, who is a powerful advocate and researcher into recovery oriented system of care, and has written widely on collegiate recovery programs, said it best when describing colleges and universities: “These are abstinent-hostile environments, that is how I would characterize colleges and universities”. In large part, he is absolutely right. Colleges aren’t hostile in the sense that you will be brawling with other students when you let slip that you are in recovery, but the disdain or confusion that enters into peers minds is almost as bad. Still to this day, I get many looks of “huh?” when I let knew people know that I am in long-term recovery, though luckily they are getting farther and farther apart these days. I remember telling this to the first person on campus after I had been accepted, and the response was something akin to “so you don’t drink…like ever? How can you deal with your classes and all the drama?!’. To me, that’s what Bill White meant when he attributed colleges with the “abstinent-hostile” moniker. It is not that I would be physically abused on campus, but rather at every turn, I would be an “other” on campus…and if history tells us anything, most individuals are very afraid of anything or anyone that falls into that “other” category.
For the first few weeks during that first semester, I felt overwhelmed and as an outsider on the University campus. I had successfully made it back into college, but what I didn’t realize at this point is that though I had a personal conviction and what I considered a strong program of recovery, I was in an environment that was unintentionally a detriment to my recovery. If things had continued in this way, and I am not a fan of hypothesizing outcomes, I can say that it was only a matter of time between one of two things happened; I would either fall into the “party” life once again, or I would discharge myself from university to save myself and my recovery. Luckily, neither of these things would have to happen. In my 4th week back in school, I found a number of like-minded peers, and one staff members, that had knowledge of what is was like being in recovery and being on a college campus. This first semblance of peers like myself, who understood what life in recovery meant, and that being on a college campus was difficult living that kind of life, saved my college career as a student in long-term recovery.
Banded together with these new peers, I was no longer an outside burdened with the label of “other”. Rather, even though some of my fellow students still had no clue what it meant to be in recovery, I now had peers who I felt just like. Just as in my program of recovery, this fellowship was more important than I could ever realize. Before becoming a part of this community, I was left to largely internalize the experiences of being a student in recovery, rather than processing it with people who understood. Stress from homework, mid-terms, and finals were now more manageable because I had found a support network of students that I had the opportunity to meet with multiple times a week in a safe space on campus. For the first time outside of the treatment center and program that had shown my how to live in recovery, I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. For this to exist on a college campus that was “hostile” to who I was, was life saving.
If the community I was a part of now had ended the support and resources it offered there, I would have been content. I had found a way to be successful in thriving in my recovery, as well as having an outlet to deal with the stressors and challenges of being a student at a large university. However, that wasn’t the limit of its efforts, but rather the tip of the iceberg. Finishing up my 5th semester back in college, I know now that one of my hopes was to always have that “normal” college experience. For a long time, I thought that meant hitting the best parties, blacking out at tailgates, and mainly having the party of my life for a few short years. The college experience though is really about self-exploration, taking part in large spirit-filled events like homecoming and bowl games, building a network of friends and professionals, and expanding my mind in a field of my choosing. The last item on that list I had from that 4th week of being back, but what about the others? How could I ever expect to go to a University tailgate before a home game, or from a larger picture prospective, have a social life and participate in the college experience outside of academics? Today, outside of the peer support services I receive for coping with life on a college campus, the ability to do all of those things with peers in recovery is the part I value most about my collegiate recovery program. I find myself able to do anything that I want, not having to say no to any part of the college experience, because the collegiate recovery program on my campus affords me the ability to do it all, while still being able to focus on my recovery. It is amazing the ability you find within yourself to experience all facets of life, when you have a program that empowers you to do it; and provides resources, services, and support at all of those programming events so that you can fill surrounded by love and care.
That last sentiment I believe is the most important thing you will find in this entire writing; love and care. Collegiate Recovery Programs and Communities vary widely across the country. Some offer more enhanced clinical services; some operate purely on a peer support basis. A common thread amongst all of them however, is that those students that participate in the program have unconditional love and care surrounding them at all times. All of the research in the world cannot adequately show that love and care that fills these programs to the brim. No academic paper you read can show you the admiration students have for their program directors and peer mentors. No amount of power point presentations can show you the bond that is built at the annual ARHE conference between students from programs across the country. And the point of fact is, that it shouldn’t. Research can show how much money these programs save universities, how retention and graduation rates are improved, and countless other meaningful statistics. What matters most though, at least to this student, is that I have a home and a life on a college campus because of my collegiate recovery program. I will graduate with two bachelor’s degrees, and be on the way to grad school in a little under a year, and the only reason I am able to do that today is because of my recovery, and because of the resources I have at the University of North Texas.
As a student receiving support from a collegiate recovery program, I can testify to the fact that my college experience isn’t different from other students on campus, rather it is just like the experiences of other students – fulfilling, empowering, and life-changing. I wouldn’t have it any other way.