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Sober at School

I thought college would be the time for education, decadent drinking, close friendships, and the beginning of a fabulous life. I didn't realize then that I couldn't have it all.

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By Taylor Ellsworth

05/22/12

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I grew up fantasizing about what it would be like to live on my own; I envisioned a stocked bar in my mini-fridge and paparazzi flashbulbs going off every time I walked home. I felt that I was destined for glamour and greatness. Not because I was particularly good at anything or deserving of recognition, but because it was simply what I wanted, so I figured it would probably just work itself out. I was just waiting for the chance to let my inner Holly Golightly or Carrie Bradshaw blossom.

The closer I got to adulthood, the more these rational plans began to crumble. I didn’t get into any of the far-away East Coast colleges that I’d applied to. This may have had something to do with the fact that I missed the deadline for the SAT, or that I wrote all my admission essays the same day the applications were due. These required applications felt like a compulsory formality. I thought I should be accepted based on the innate fabulousness of my spirit and my unique mind, not some paper intended to both impress and sum up the gist of my character. My essays did, however, sufficiently express my work ethic, which is why I consistently received rejection letters in the mail. I didn’t even get accepted to my home state school, the University of Oregon, because I failed to meet basic high school curriculum requirements. I applied to Portland State University—the absolute last choice—at the 11th hour, and to my dismay, I was accepted.

Portland State isn’t a party school by any means, but the freshman halls still smelled like weed every day and I often came home from meetings to find my roommate taking shots of Bacardi off her desk with my former friends. 

The best part of my admission to Portland State was the housing offer. My financial aid (which I would later discover was not, in fact, free money) covered the cost of dorm living. I was assigned a shared room with another freshman girl, with our own bathroom, boys down the hall, and a dining card that allowed for 15 meals per week. I quickly got over the disappointment of having to attend a school in the city where I grew up when I realized I would be downtown, living for “free” with little supervision in a large building full of students; a building which I now refer to as the PSU Projects, due to its popcorn ceilings, moldy gray carpeting, caged balconies, and general air of hangovers and uncleanliness. I could smoke and drink as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted. 

To my sweet roommate’s enjoyment, I woke up most days having pissed the bed, not remembering what wreckage I had created the night before. I burned through the majority of the freshman class in about a month: making new friends; burning them by stealing their alcohol, puking on their floor, or lying to them; losing those friends; then finding a new crowd. I constantly reeked of cigarettes and Old English. When I eventually got sober, I had missed my chance to build meaningful friendships with the majority of my peers. 

I didn’t realize how prevalent drinking was until I had stopped doing it. Portland State isn’t a party school by any means, but the freshman halls still smelled like weed every day and I often came home from meetings to find my roommate taking shots of Bacardi off her desk with my former friends. And I picked a terrible time to quit drinking: November. This meant that I still had seven months of dorm life to endure while trying to stay sober. 

When I ate in the dining hall, all I could hear were tales from last weekend’s acid trip or mushroom adventure. The few who both knew and cared about my sobriety tried to avoid bombarding me with the same stories, but they also didn’t know what to say, because most 18-year-olds have limited experience with alcoholism.

My routine changed drastically after getting sober. Before, I would wake up around noon, throw on dirty clothes without showering, and shuffle into class hung over after drinking five cups of coffee and leaning out the window to smoke (since going outside to do so demanded far too much energy from my weary limbs). Later, I would commence getting drunk as soon as my last class was over, or after I got off work at the frozen yogurt shop, where I made exactly enough in tips to buy a 40oz and a pack of cigarettes after every shift.

But now I began to wake up around the hours of eight or nine, like a real human being. I had granola—which I still suspect was just a giant bin of crushed Nature’s Valley honey oat bars—yogurt, and a mere two cups of coffee every day in the early-morning light of the empty dining hall. I made it to class more often than not. After class, I would head to a coffee shop uptown to study, do step-work, and wait for other alcoholics to show up before my 11 PM home group. I went to that meeting every single night. Lonely old men, underage boys with full sleeve tattoos, strippers, restaurant servers, homeless drunks, and other college kids all flocked to the late-night meeting for fellowship and camaraderie. After the meeting, a group of us would always do something until the wee hours of the morning: ultimate Frisbee; greasy cheese fries at a 24 hour diner; trips to the hot springs; various things I’d always been too lazy to do drunk.

The first time I was invited to hang out with a group of young, sober people after the meeting, I was terrified. Several people with far more tattoos and sobriety time than me were going to a very intimidating, dark-haired woman’s house to watch a movie on her projector. Her ex-boyfriend was carpooling in the same vehicle as me, and he had recently taken a vow of silence. He was communicating everything by writing on a small notepad. At the time, he seemed the friendliest, because I didn’t have the opportunity to read into his tone of voice and find judgment within it. Everybody else was absolutely terrifying. In those early days, people were constantly asking me why I was so quiet. My brain had forgotten how to socialize sober; it was like I had lost all my social skills and had to painfully re-learn how to engage with the world. I was so accustomed to being surrounded by alcohol and wasted peers who spoke on the same, barely-conscious level as me. Meeting people my age that could soberly make an entire room laugh or tell a story without stuttering was astonishing.

Despite the fact that I lived in the dorms, I was never really there. I was always either in class, at work, studying at a coffee shop and chain-smoking cigarettes, or at a meeting. I avoided ever being home because I didn’t know how to relate to my former peers, and I was afraid of the party environment. I went out with my roommate and a few girls, once, a few weeks after getting sober. We were at a generic frat guy’s apartment, and his coffee table was covered in full wine bottles. I don’t remember any of the night’s details; I only remember spending what seemed like hours smelling and staring at the wine, silently praying for the obsession to drink to be removed. I managed to stay sober that night, but I never went out with those girls again.

After coming home from fellowship, usually around 3 AM, I would be too exhausted to study. I got straight C’s during my first sober term of college—worse grades than the ones I’d gotten when I was getting high before filling out my Spanish worksheets. I got a new job as a customer service clerk at a grocery store, and began taking shifts instead of going to classes. I felt alienated from the class work I was doing and the environment I was living in; I convinced myself that I didn’t belong in college, because I didn’t belong in the dorms. Instead of officially dropping out, I simply stopped going to my classes during my second sober college term. I did this without telling my sponsor, of course, because she probably would have reminded me that part of being in recovery is showing up for my life, which I was not interested in hearing. I moved out of the dorms several months early, in April, into an apartment with two of my sober girlfriends. 

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