How I Stayed Sober Through College

By Charlotte Grey 12/17/19

It took intense emotional, psychological, and physical energy to mourn my lifelong relationship with drugs and alcohol and process the trauma I had spent my life suppressing.

woman in red graduation robe, dabbing
I recently received my Master’s degree at 11 years sober. Photo by Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz on Unsplash

I was lucky to get accepted into one of the top colleges in the U.S., but I brought with me a serious drug habit and alcoholism. In my first semester, I would down 3 ½ - 4 ½ bottles of cheap red wine in a night, paired with a combination of cocaine, angel dust, weed, and benzodiazepines. Most nights, I passed out by 8 pm and my friends slipped out to clubs without me. Two months into college, I started collecting write-ups for violating the school’s drug and alcohol policies, which snowballed until I hit my bottom. 

The first sign that my style of “partying” was out of control was that three groups of friends each suddenly severed ties with me. I still don’t know what happened, but I can imagine, based on scenes I've snapped into from blackouts—my boyfriend trying to scream sense into me after I punched him in the face at a concert, rolling naked on the kitchen floor in a pile of broken glass while crying, friends dumping me on the doorsteps of psych wards. That’s how I partied.

I somehow managed to squeak out mostly A's in my first semester, but I struggled to show up. I was constantly handing in assignments late, rescheduling exams, and conjuring doctors’ notes to excuse excessive absences. I was oversleeping for classes and therapy appointments in the late afternoon. At the end of my first semester, my school forcibly relocated me to a new dormitory for erratic behavior and chronic drug use. 

Friendless on campus, I turned to the local homeless population. That’s when I found heroin. It didn’t take long for consequences to reach a tipping point. Halfway through my second semester, I was arrested on two felonies and two misdemeanors after waking up next to my best friend’s lifeless body (she overdosed but was revived and survived). My school suspended me for a year, pending expulsion if I didn’t get sober. My probation officer pushed me into rehab and warned that if I left, he would send me to jail.

I fought getting sober that entire year. But at the eleventh hour, something clicked and I suddenly wanted recovery. I abruptly left the dilapidated drug den I was living in and ran to AA meetings. I only had 30 days when a school psychiatrist evaluated if I could be readmitted. I think they saw that despite the little time I had, I was serious about sobriety. I was; I’m still sober 11 years later. And I only got through those first years of sobriety while in college because of the life I built and resolutely maintained.

Solutions for Sobriety

Getting suspended from student housing for two years was a blessing in disguise. I instead commuted from my family's home an hour from school, which made it easier to build a new life free of drugs and alcohol and kept me far from the parties that were definitely happening back in the dorms. I made friends with everyone in my local AA groups; fortunately, there was a community of sober young people in my area. Those friendships showed me that I could have more fun sober than I could while using, and I was never pressured or tempted to relapse. Between classes, I went to local meetings and established a second support system at school.

The first two and a half years of sobriety were my most challenging. I struggled with cravings every day, so I kept recovery literature with me at all times. In the streets of New York City on any given night, I was confronted with scenes of the cunning fantasy of social drinking, passing by clusters of casual drinkers jovially sharing laughs over sparkling cocktails at posh outdoor lounges. I often walked past clouds of weed smoke and stepped over empty dime bags. Like so many of us reintegrating back into society in early sobriety, temptation was everywhere, despite my careful avoidance of people and places that I associated with using. But I always had silent support from a Grapevine or copy of Living Sober conveniently stashed among my schoolbooks for when I couldn’t call someone. 

I also developed the self-respect to walk away from situations when I was uncomfortable, like changing seats on the train when passengers were sipping liquor concealed in brown paper bags, or switching tables at a restaurant because nearby diners were drinking. For the first year, I took detours around the blocks where my homeless friends sat so I wouldn’t risk running into them. These extra buffers and barriers made it easier for me to keep my sobriety amidst incessant cravings.

I shamelessly shared that I was sober with professors and classmates, so that when I had the opportunity to study abroad in Istanbul at two years sober, my professor helped make sure I got to and from AA meetings and fellowship in a city where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t have a cell phone. My study abroad classmates frequented clubs after class and drank during meals, so every effort helped since I had only e-mail contact with my sponsor and network. 

I would have similar conversations with classmates when we planned group work outside of class. They always agreed to meet during the day at school lounges, libraries, or cafés when I asked. Strategies that kept alcohol out of sight proved to be the safest for me in early sobriety. During my last semester, I got to help form a recovery group for students at my school. These organizations are common on campuses now, and some schools even offer sober housing. 

It took intense emotional, psychological, and physical energy to mourn my lifelong relationship with drugs and alcohol and process the trauma I had spent my life suppressing. After I got sober, I re-enrolled part-time in college and completed my bachelor’s degree over six years. My diligence paid off: I graduated Magna Cum Laude and immediately began a full-time position in my chosen field.

Graduate School

Five years after receiving my bachelor’s, I realized my career didn’t match what I finally discovered was my purpose and calling in life. After six months of meditating, therapy, and weighing feedback from my sober network, I left my steady career job and started graduate school. Unexpectedly, my new school hosted a heavier drinking culture than my undergraduate campus. The omnipresent partying frequently left me in uncomfortable situations with my recovery feeling tenuous. Everything involved alcohol, including lab assignments and fieldwork excursions. The school even hosted weekly drinking socials, with most students slurring and stumbling by 8pm. When my cohort got together several times a week, the event always included hard drinking. 

I realized on the first night of orientation that I would need to double down on recovery again. Even though I entered graduate school with nine years of sobriety, I treated myself with the same care and caution as I did in undergrad as a newcomer. During graduate school, I felt I had no business in a place where the main activity focused on alcohol. When I’m tense or upset, the glamor of psychological escape can suddenly seem desirable. As an alcoholic, I know I have no defense against that first drink if my spiritual condition is anything less than fit that day. 

Adding to the constant stress of endless coursework, my career change challenged my self-esteem, confidence, and self-worth. I rarely felt grounded. As a result, I only saw my cohort outside of class when I felt absolutely secure in my sobriety. I didn’t form as close of bonds with them as they did with each other, but I made a concerted effort to be fully present when we were in class or working in our offices. Though I wish I could have gotten closer to them, I don’t regret honoring the boundaries I had set to care for my recovery.

I didn’t have to entirely avoid being around drinking; I just had to distinguish the acceptable conditions. If an event would be beneficial to my studies or career, I only went at the beginning when attendees were adequately sober and constructive conversations were possible. Cocktail receptions and academic conferences felt safe because professional networking was the main purpose, and the pressure to perform distracted me from the drinking. I found comfort in idly sipping on water throughout the night as others do with their wine or cocktails. And as attendees became tipsy, I remained articulate, poised, and professional, and carried impressively intellectual conversations in the eyes of the inebriated. If the night turned into a party, my cue to leave was when people started talking loudly and laughing infectiously at nothing intelligible. At that point, I couldn’t connect with anyone and there was little left for me to do there. If the drinkers stayed only mildly tipsy, I ended up enjoying getting to know them because they were relaxed enough to reciprocate the deeper conversations I’m accustomed to in recovery.

I was lucky that my school already had a strong student recovery group that held meetings several times a week and frequent sober outings. They became my friends because I didn't mesh with the local 12-step meetings. At this point in my recovery, AA had sadly become monotonous for me, but I was still committed to sobriety. I wanted to dive deeper into healing the trauma, childhood wounds, and character defects that continued to hamper effective relationships with myself and those around me. Over the years, I found guidance and wisdom in self-help books, A Course in Miracles, Refuge Recovery, Kundalini yoga, Western astrology, and Buddhist meditation. So in graduate school, I crafted a program of self-reflection and accountability around these practices, which doubled as solutions for stress management. 

I also stayed close to my networks where I got sober. Those women remain my dearest friends and strongest support. I worked closely with spiritual advisors until I found a local sponsor. Strengthening my program was critical because graduate school was emotionally demanding. It required at least twice the amount of work as my undergrad classes; it wasn’t even possible to complete all the assignments each week. The psychological strain combined with a busy schedule left little time for much else. I quickly recognized the need for self-care and balanced it with the coursework I would be graded on. I went to my favorite exercise classes at least twice a week, also setting aside time to rest and prioritizing a full night's sleep. 

At the end of the day, all the effort paid off. I recently received my Master’s degree at 11 years sober and it is one of my most proud accomplishments. I graduated with a higher quality of life, stronger sense of self, and more solid sobriety than I imagined were possible, thanks to the unique challenges I had to face in the process of obtaining each degree.

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Charlotte Grey is a pseudonym for a nonfiction recovery writer in Hawai'i. Her work explores her experiences in overcoming adversity in recovery by integrating 12-Step solutions with other spiritual and psychotherapeutic methodologies to inspire healing, compassion, and hope. For more of her published pieces, visit or follow her on Instagram.