(Originally posted and written in collaboration, Sober Nation)
“People never change because they are under threat or under duress. Never. They change because they see something that makes their life seem valuable enough to start moving toward a life worth living.”
This quote was one of the first that I ever read when I first found recovery roughly 15 months ago. For the longest time, I wondered why my early attempts at finding lasting sobriety never really worked. From a clinical perspective, I was locked in a cycle of pre-contemplation, and could not find the motivation for moving further ahead in the stages of change model. As I look back on the past, I believe today that it was for the lack of knowing what life would be like in long-term recovery. More importantly, I didn’t know that anything existed in the world for me to want to live a life that was “worth living”. In my shell of an existence, the chronic brain disease that had taken a hold of my life, and I had become resigned to the fact that this was merely the truth that would always exist. Through a series of circumstances that landed me in my first treatment, mainly being the good will and love of families and friends that saw things that in my inebriated state I never could, I began to be awakened to the fact that in recovery anything was possible. Not only could I be a different person, perhaps even a better person, but I could begin to achieve the dreams and goals that I had once had as a young man. 45 days in treatment had awoken me to the notion that life held infinite possibilities if I wanted it to. Thus began the journey to finding out just how far I could go.
The treatment that I had access to, coupled with a 12-step program, is the platform that I attribute my early recovery to, and is still a very big part of my life today. However, what had granted me the grace to achieve early abstinence was not the only thing that would allow me to continue to blossom in my recovery. As with so many things in life, I found that as my spirituality blossomed, not only was I being called to reach out to others, but that I needed a variety of outlets to express this burgeoning mentality of self-worth, love, altruism and empathy. Thus, I quickly realized that I wanted to help others, both personally and professionally. To do this though, I would need to return to school and finish what had so badly ended many years before due to my use of drugs and alcohol. I had heard mention while in treatment that a new movement was happening in higher education, spearheaded by programs like those at Texas Tech and Rutgers, and that a student in recovery could find the resources and support they needed to be successful in school. What a concept I remember thinking, these people really get it!
A bit of quick research, and my dreams were quickly shattered. The fine print at a large portion of these programs mentioned that a minimum sobriety time was enforced, and many numbered at 6 months or greater. Needless to say, I was heartbroken; what a few days before had seemed like the next big step for me, was suddenly not a possibility for many more months to come. If possible, pause for a second, and place yourself in my shoes. 55 days into my recovery, ready to find the next step for my continued success and growth, and I was lambasted by the inherent associations of negativity that had plagued my life the last 10 years in active addiction; I had been told that where I was at, who I was, was simply not good enough. My recovery, though new, was not “good enough” for me to qualify to go back to school. While that may sound a bit extreme, and not the intent behind these schools rules and regulations, that was my truth. In a world where we advocate for decreased discrimination and stigma, I felt the pulse of those very things in the world I was trying to be a part of.
As I talked more with the powers that be, I found that I could work for the next few months, continuing to grow in my sobriety, find a job, and perhaps even enroll in a school that had a collegiate recovery program. But that wasn’t enough for me, I couldn’t fathom, with the mindset and the resolve that I had, to be a part of a system that didn’t want me until I had proved myself, until I had qualified my recovery to meet certain standards. After some much needed meditation and reflection, I found myself enrolled at the University of North Texas, with a great peer support group in the community and at the transitional living I moved into, but with no collegiate recovery program or community. Not to be dismayed by this, I quickly set to work with a group of like-minded students and faculty members to create something that would embrace all who walked through the doors or inquired: 6 hours, 6 days, 6 months, or 6 years of recovery were welcome, no one turned away.
Over the last year, this program we created has blossomed into a university supported and sanctioned collegiate recovery program. We have successfully enmeshed the academic life and recovery life for those students who wish to have it, whether in recovery from substance use disorders, compulsive behaviors, or mental health illness. Personally, I have grown more in my own long-term recovery from this experience. I found something worth living for, a much larger dream than originally found while in treatment. This larger than life dream was simple though; it was the person I had now become, through being a student, a sponsor, a mentor, a friend and even a son. I had been embraced by a university, by peers, by professors, by faculty, and by staff. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I belonged, and even that I was needed in some capacity. For the first time, in what felt like forever, I had something that was worth fighting for, that I would strive to take steps to protect it from anything, even myself if need be. This simple fact has empowered me, more than anything that I have found placed in my path over the last year and a half.
So often, in this field, we are inundated with statements that young people entering into recovery should wait for a specific time to start really living life again. Be this dating, moving, going back to school, or various other things. We are encouraged to humble ourselves in a manner of speaker, to fight the good fight and preserve until we are ready to take bigger steps. I have no idea where I would be if I had not been given the chance to bring things into my life that have given me new personal meaning.
Today, being a successful student, has given me the self worth that had been taken by my disease. It has transformed me into being a better person, becoming a voice for recovery, and an advocate for the countless friends I have lost to this disease. It hasn’t all been easy, at times it has been littered with mistakes and missteps, and things that I would probably redo given the chance. That’s what life is all about though, the give and take, the experience, being human. My recovery was about returning to that, overcoming a disease that had taken my very humanity, and living again. I had waited 10 years to start living a life worth living; my recovery meant that I was going to get the chance to do that, not 1 year after I got sober, but right then. It has been the most second most freeing experience I have ever had, right after knowing that I never had to drink or use ever again.
I implore our larger recovery community to take a closer look at what we suggest for young people entering into recovery, and the messages we are sending when they start that journey. Are we proliferating our culture with the very messages we seek to destroy, those of exclusivity and negativity? Our responsibility, as allies and individuals in long-term recovery, is to uplift and empower at every possible turn. I understand that certain safe guards are built in (such as sobriety lengths) for the larger population, but the message it sends is quite possibility more detrimental to those emerging in recovery than we ever had anticipated. The students I work with today, my friends and my peers, have a new outlook on life because they all have some core ideas in common. They are growing in their personal recovery, and they are reaching for their dreams; all because we let them. Will you?