Making College Safe for Recovery
I went back to college last week*. I graduated from a pretty good school in the Boston area back in the 70’s. It is now a really good school that probably would not admit me if I applied as an 18 year old today. When I got there as an 18 year old in 1971 I only had three goals: 1. Stay out of the draft for the Vietnam war; 2. Play hockey; 3. figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
I had already begun drinking and smoking weed a few years earlier but I wanted to make sure I did not get in trouble, get expelled and get sent to Vietnam so I unloaded all of my weed just before leaving home and moving into the dorm. My roommate, another kid with the same concerns, did the same. We were discussing this in our room the second night on campus when there was a knock on the door. What we saw when the door swung open was not expected. There was a short, stocky sophomore, with thick hair down to his shoulders, holding a large paper shopping bag with handles. “Want to buy some weed, man?” In the bag, neatly bundled in their own plastic bags were about 30 ounces of marijuana. My roommate and I looked at each other, dug into our pockets for the $15 and purchased a bag. This was our introduction to college.
Last week was different. I was on campus to attend the open house and official opening of the Haven at College office. The Haven provides treatment and support services for college students with substance use and addictive disorders. There are opportunities for individual and group counseling, a place to just hang out and a sober residence on campus. This program is needed on every college campus.
Over the past year I ran an intensive outpatient program in a nearby community that provided individual, group and family therapy for people with substance use and addictive disorders. This summer, the program was filled with college students who had been suspended, expelled or taken a leave of absence from their studies to begin their recovery. As the summer, and their treatment experience came to an end, we talked about returning to school. Most of the kids decided to take at least the Fall semester off, as they did not see the supports they needed for continued recovery and did not feel ready yet to return to the school where their problems had become so serious. I wish there was something like the Haven at each of their schools, but I know each of these schools have not yet caught up with this need.
Last week as I drove through the still familiar campus, I thought of Brad, my fraternity brother who died at 19 from a drug overdose. He was a real good-looking kid, a talented artist, friends with everyone, a star athlete. There was a lot of experimentation going on in those days and some of the guys had discovered nitrous. This is the same drug used by dentists, only they mix it with oxygen and are trained to administer it carefully. The fraternity brothers had discovered that nitrous was also used to power restaurant quality whip cream dispensers and that you could get the small canisters, known as whippets, at a local restaurant supply store. Brad took nitrous to a different level. He borrowed the small oxygen tank we used to power our beer tap system, lifted an oxygen mask and some tubing from the bio lab and had the restaurant supply store fill the tank with nitrous. Some of us tried to talk with Brad, let him know that this was too much and we were worried. He reassured us he had it all under control. We found him dead in his bed, the nitrous apparatus at his side. Nitrous oxide is a central nervous system depressant. He depressed the function of his central nervous system until it just shut off.
One of the speakers at the opening ceremonies last week, a graduate from the 1980’s, spoke about “flying under the radar”. In those days, very few people paid attention to drug use and dangerous drinking. Programs like The Haven and other progressive college health services are raising everyone’s awareness to improve the safety of the students. Brad and the rest of us flew under the radar. If Brad were around today, it is more likely someone would have taken the oxygen canister away from him and walked him across campus to The Haven. College students in recovery can feel alienated. As an addict, alienation is already a challenge.
In his highly regarded Ted Talk, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong”, Johann Hari maintains that the antidote to addiction is not sobriety but rather a sense of connection. A healthy community offers that connection. One of the things The Haven provides is a community for college students to feel connected, watched out for and protected. Every college campus needs one.
*times, personal descriptions and details have been altered to maintain confidentiality. Everything here is based on real events.