Students and sobriety: the college experience without drugs and alcohol

Some Chapman students have struggled with addiction but are now focusing on living lives of sobriety. Illustrated by Gaby Fantone

Up to 20 times a day, senior business major J.S. takes a phone call from someone he is mentoring. He knows all too well what these people are feeling because he has been right where they are: trying to gain control of his life, struggling to stay alive, and wrestling with addiction.

“I feel this conviction (to answer these phone calls) because I got this gift that I don’t deserve,” he said. “They help me more than I help them.”

This gift, as J.S. describes it, is his sobriety. He has mentored over 100 people. Phone calls from addicts of all walks of life flood his phone; whether it’s a union worker from the Midwest, a salesman three times his age or a 15-year-old kid, J.S. wants to help them.

“I tell them to call me everyday, so they know they can call me on a bad day,” he said.

For most college students, an honest picture of social gatherings wouldn’t be accurate without alcohol, and the “college experience” is almost incomplete without it.  About 90 percent of people who need rehab for their addiction will not receive it, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Amid this epidemic, Chapman is home to some students who have. With their party days behind them, their definition of the college experience is more unconventional.

By the time he was 15 years old, J.S. had already been expelled from high school for selling drugs to students. Less than three years later and nearly a year sober, he relapsed on Percocet, a painkiller, and heroin, and woke up in a psychiatric ward, unaware of where he was or what had happened.

“I realized I am powerless over life,” J.S. said. “This was self-inflicted pain.”

For nearly a decade, J.S.’s life has been consumed with abuse, rehab, relapse, 13 months in a sober living community and countless Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.

Now 22-years-old, J.S., who has chosen to remain anonymous so as not to detriment his future in the workforce, has been sober almost four years. He said part of what is great about Southern California is that there is a large community of sober people and treatment centers.

Only 2 percent of AA attendees are students and 1 percent are under 21, according to a 2014 survey by Alcoholics Anonymous.  Four percent of attendees were students, according to a 2015 Narcotics Anonymous survey.

Senior business administration major Mary Hall’s past of abuse contrasts with her light wash denim shorts and yellow sorority T-shirt. Hall celebrated her fourth year of sobriety in September 2017, after uprooting her life in Tennessee to go to rehab in Los Angeles after her freshman year of college.

The culture of partying and binge drinking that is customary at universities, Chapman included, creates an environment in which not having a drink on your 21st birthday is practically a taboo.  90 percent of underage drinkers binge drink, meaning they consume alcohol for the sole purpose of becoming intoxicated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s a big difference between people that choose to be sober and people that have to be,” Hall said.

One student who chose to be sober is senior television writing and producing major Emma Girson. She never went to treatment for addiction but decided to stop using drugs and alcohol after a bad experience with drugs her sophomore year of college.

Steven Sussman, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, is known for his research on the demographic he calls “emerging adults.” Sussman has examined the relationship between young people’s lifestyles the promotion of potentially lifelong addiction problems.

“I think there’s always been in our society an extended period where we live without certain obligations,” he said. “Promoting people 18 to 25 to explore identity and go wild is promoted by society at large.”

Sussman said this is particularly prevalent in college students because they are given more freedom without having the responsibility of an older adult with a career and family.

He also recently published a textbook, “Substance and Behavioral Addictions,” which details in depth the research he has done on this topic.

Girson saw this dynamic within her own friend group and said the culture of drug and alcohol use is something she fell into in high school.  

“It was just like a way of life for us, but I didn’t realize how negatively it was affecting me until after I stopped,” she said. “I would not be in a good place right now if I wasn’t sober. It was a conscious decision but it didn’t come out of nowhere.”

The societal norms people conform to can make them less willing to make a change, Girson said, even if an individual knows what he or she is doing is harmful.  

“A lot of people aren’t as aware of it because people get lost in the drinking culture, but I do find that they are aware of it sometimes but choose not to do anything about it,” she said.

By the time she came to Chapman, Hall said she had outgrown this mindset. Drinking just to be like everyone else didn’t tempt her the same way it used to, she said.

Ninety percent of underage drinkers binge drink, meaning they consume alcohol for the sole purpose of becoming intoxicated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Illustrated by Gaby Fontaine.

Her sobriety was the result of years of trial and error, she said. She wanted to stop using but never could for more than a few days by herself. She said she went to AA meetings high or drunk as a teenager because the part of her that knew she needed help wasn’t strong enough to overcome the part that didn’t.

Some nights, Hall would call a detox center in her hometown when she was abusing, only to forget she’d done so the next day, she said. After approaching her parents, she finally ended up at the center but relapsed because she didn’t go to rehab afterward.

Now that Hall has been sober for four years when people ask her if she feels like she’s missing out, it’s almost like they’re asking the wrong question, she said. She’s more socially and academically involved in school, and she has fun with her friends like anyone else, she said.

Hall had heard about Chapman while in treatment and it took her three semesters of community college to get her grades up before she was accepted. She said she was excited when she started classes that she joined a sorority and every club she could to experience college in a way she knew would supplement her sobriety.

She is active in the Chapman consulting team and served as an Orientation Leader, a coveted and admired position among Chapman students.

Hall added that amid her busy schedule, there is always the fear of relapsing, but it’s the bonds she shares with other people now that keep her from the isolation she felt when she was using. She has a boyfriend who is also sober, and she relies on her spirituality, she said.

“The opposite of addiction is connection,” Hall said. “And whether that be to a higher power or the people around you, that’s the difference between what keeps somebody sober versus what makes them not.”

When Hall first got sober, she said she would try to put on a “life of the party” persona because she felt like she had to prove how fun she was.

“I was self-conscious that I was the most boring person ever (when I was) sober,” she said, which was part of why she had a problem in the first place. Now, Hall is much more comfortable and confident in herself and enjoys going out to parties like other students.  

Along the same lines, undergraduate student T.M., who also wishes to be referred to by his initials, said that the stigma surrounding sobriety made him self-conscious when he first stopped using. Unable to use drugs and alcohol as an outlet, he had to find new ways to focus his energy. While T.M. thinks it’s important to address the stigma surrounding sobriety, he feels his sobriety is not something everyone needs to know about him.

“There are times when it appears kind of lonely because I’m used to having that to blow off steam,” he said.

By the time T.M. was 18, he’d been to outpatient rehab twice, but it wasn’t until the second time that he committed to sobriety because he started to feel the consequences of what he was doing, he said.

“I lost my education and the sport I loved and I didn’t see a future for myself,” he said.  

T.M. is now a student-athlete at Chapman, but he said it’s the changes he’s made in his life academically that make him confident in the path he’s on.

Before he was sober and for a time after, he doubted himself because he was used to people assuming that he wasn’t capable in the classroom.

“You’re told along the way that you aren’t smart by people who don’t realize what you’re going through. They mistake (addiction) as a lack of intellectual ability,” T.M. said. “And then you get to a point where you’re like, ‘They were wrong.’ And that’s a cool place to be.”

Once he was committed to a healthier way of living, T.M. said he knew his choices shouldn’t be influenced by what other people think, even if it meant isolating himself for a period of time.

“I just had to completely detach, do my own thing and get over what other people thought of me, or whatever thoughts they have about addiction,” he said. “I got a lot of confidence from that, and then I could be comfortable in any social situation, doesn’t matter what it is. But there’s definitely a period of detachment.”

Mary Fritz is a certified alcohol and drug counselor at Cornerstone of Southern California, an addiction treatment center in Santa Ana. The stigma surrounding sobriety among young adults can keep people from getting help, Fritz said.

“It’s socially acceptable to use drugs and it makes it difficult to have fun,” Fritz said. “There just aren’t a lot of sober activities for young people.”

With his kind of personality, once he gained confidence, finding things to occupy his time wasn’t hard because he applies himself to the things that drive him forward, T.M. said.

“I do things 110 percent or I’m not doing it at all,” he said. “So if it’s alcohol, drugs, sports, whatever it is, if I’m in it, I’m in it totally.”

Like J.S. and Hall, T.M. stays involved in sobriety support groups, which he said is the only way to stay sober long-term.  

This is an essential step, Fritz said, because young people face the challenge of finding new social circles.

“It’s hard for them to tell people that they’ve used with that they’re sober,” she said, adding that people are more likely to relapse if they have their friends continue to use.

A connection to one’s spirituality or a religious affiliation can also be important to long-term recovery.

T.M. doesn’t believe in “God” according to the western definition of the word, but his spirituality is a big part of the way he makes decisions now, he said.

“Essentially, I try to choose to do what I feel is the right thing to do,” he said. “As we go through life, we experience things which can corrupt or jade us, and we, in turn, learn to mimic what has been done to us. What I try to do now is remove that negativity by not reacting as I might have (before).”

Spirituality is also the driving force for J.S., whose life now revolves around his relationship with God and mentoring others, he said. He described his relapse, the night he almost died, as the night he started his second life.

“I woke up and finally figured out that it wasn’t my drinking and my using, it’s my thinking and my choosing,” he said.

He described his sobriety as an undeserved gift, and in order to keep it, he feels obligated to do what he can for others with the disease.

J.S. added that answering phone calls and sponsoring people is not always rewarding, but he does it because it’s what he has to do. Long-term recovery is not a milestone everyone is going to reach, and seeing people continue to abuse or relapse is routine.

About 27 percent of drug users will die within 20 years from when they first started using, according to the American Journal of Epidemiology.

It’s a grim side of addiction you don’t always get to hear in success stories, and  J.S. is no stranger to this statistic.

“I had a (someone I sponsor), 17 years old, (who) hang himself four days ago. He didn’t do any of the (expletive) I did,” he said. “Why am I sober, and he’s dead? I don’t deserve this life I have.”

For addicts that have been sober for five years, there is about a 15 percent chance of relapsing for them, as opposed to those who are sober for just a year, who have a 50 percent chance.

In addition to his spirituality, J.S. said the most valuable thing he has now is his ability to love himself and lead a life in which he is able to appreciate his situation in a way other people might not be able to.

T.M. said that to be young and sober has refreshed his perspective on his relationships with other people. One of the biggest improvements he’s noticed in himself is that he is less self-concerned. Being part of a very limited age group of sober people made him adopt a new way of thinking about his ability to conquer his addiction.

“You get the cards you’re dealt, you realize it isn’t working – hopefully sooner rather than later – and you do something about it,” he said. “Sometimes people work up, ‘Oh you’ve been sober for so long that must have been so hard.’ Yeah, I’m not going to say it wasn’t hard, but let’s not make it so it seems impossible or that other people feel like they can’t do the same.”

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