Ask “Ann,” a 21-year-old recovering heroin addict who graduated from the University of Vermont in May, what was the hardest thing about staying sober at college. Her answer may surprise you.
It wasn’t living in the dorms, which often reeked of marijuana and stale beer. Nor was it going to frat houses and off-campus parties, where friends downed shots of booze and got high before heading downtown to the bars.
It was studying at Bailey/Howe Library.
“Ugh, I hate the library!” Ann says with a laugh.
Ann, who asked that her real name not be used, joined 14 undergrads who agreed to give a Seven Days reporter a glimpse of what it’s like to pursue a degree while also recovering from addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Ann didn’t mind studying. But in the relative quiet of the library, she says, it’s too easy to hear other students snorting cocaine or Adderall in their cubicles and “tweaking out while I’m trying to write a paper.” As Ann describes the library experience, the others murmur or nod their heads in agreement.
“Laura,” an undergrad and recovering opiate addict who transferred to campus in the spring of 2012, says she can always spot the students who are “using” during study sessions based on the frequency of their “smoke breaks,” their incessant fidgeting or the sound of their teeth grinding.
“Some of them could be on way too much caffeine,” she says, “but I can usually tell.”
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in a windowless, ground-floor lounge in UVM’s Davis Center. Every Tuesday a small but growing number of students meet in the Living Well office for a free lunch and get-together to talk about their college lives, which are anything but typical.
This is the Collegiate Recovery Community, a program launched in 2010 to help students getting over substance abuse continue their studies without compromising their sobriety. The CRC isn’t a drug-treatment program or a sober house; there are no mandatory drug tests to ensure that students stay clean, nor any residency requirements other than those that apply to all incoming freshmen. For former users, who enroll voluntarily, the CRC provides an invaluable survival tool for college: a social life that’s not centered around getting drunk or high.
Amy Boyd Austin is director of the CRC and its only employee. Before coming to UVM in 2004, she spent 12 years running substance-abuse treatment programs in Delaware, Maine and California prisons. She founded the CRC three years ago after hearing a coworker express concern that recovering addicts living in the dorms were at risk of relapse due to the behavioral “triggers” all around them.
Because those students were bound by university housing contracts, Boyd Austin explains, most couldn’t find other places to live that were more conducive to their recoveries. As a result, many would end up couch surfing with friends, where they were often exposed to equally unhealthy lifestyles.
In addition to the free weekly lunches, the CRC offers students monthly socials, weekend outings such as movie nights and camping trips, and drop-in hours three nights a week in the Living Well lounge. There, CRC students can study, talk, sleep or just hang out, without fear that someone will be using, dealing drugs or talking about last weekend’s bender or ecstasy trip.
Though CRC’s numbers are still small — about 15 active students and another 20 who are either recent grads or not currently enrolled in classes — the need is there and growing. In 2010, Boyd Austin had just 10 referrals all year. This fall, she had 15 students referred to her in September alone; another four students contacted her just last week. Addiction on campus, she’s discovered, “is a lot more prevalent than most people realize.”
It’s not news that alcohol and illicit drug use are commonplace at UVM. “Groovy UV’s” consistent ranking among the top-20 U.S. party schools can be quantified: In 2012, campus police services reported 558 drug-law violations, 1192 liquor-law violations and 118 students requiring detox.
But UVM students are hardly unique in their liberal consumption of intoxicants. According to 2012 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than one in five young people between the ages of 18 and 22 meet the criteria for substance-abuse disorders — and those figures tend to be several percentage points higher for college students than among their nonstudent brethren.
Students find the CRC through one of several routes, Boyd Austin explains. Some are high school students already in treatment when they apply to UVM. In fact, two of her students this year specifically chose UVM because it’s one of only a handful of colleges around the country with an organized recovery community. Others are transfer students who finally decided to get serious about their studies but don’t want to “return to the scene of the crime” at their former colleges. Then there are those, Boyd Austin says, who arrive at UVM, “do the typical college thing, then crash and burn.”
A native of Houston, Texas, Ann says she first started drinking when she was 8 years old, then quickly graduated to harder drugs. With two parents who are also addicts, Ann says she’s been in and out of court-ordered rehab since she was 13. (According to Boyd Austin, long and intractable addictions among incoming students are becoming more the norm than the exception.)
Ann arrived in Burlington in January three years ago and was in trouble within two months. “I spent spring break at the hospital going through withdrawal,” she recalls. Once she got out, someone referred her to the CRC.
Recently, Ann hit the one-year mark of remaining clean and sober. She’s now applying to a doctoral program at the University of Texas at Austin. After years of failed rehab attempts, she credits the CRC for much of her success. Why? Among her friends in the group, Ann says, she doesn’t have to explain herself, or her sense of humor, such as when she jokes about overdosing or smoking crystal meth.
Enter “Dave.” As he does, the tall freshman with closely cropped hair grabs a freshly baked brownie off a tray, sits down at the table and introduces himself.
“Hi, my name is Dave, and I can’t stop eating brownies,” he announces.
“Hi, Dave!” the group echoes, mimicking the ritual greeting of support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, with which everyone in the room appears all too familiar.
Dave, who describes his addiction as “pretty traditional — mostly whiskey and cigarettes,” applied to UVM out of high school, where he’d been in treatment since his junior year. Dave started coming to the CRC on Tuesdays “just for the free food,” he confesses. But thanks to the people he’s met, he says, he’s now majoring in “staying in school.”
And despite his flippant, self-deprecating humor — “I’m such a judgmental asshole!” he says — Dave talks seriously about how the CRC has benefited him. He talks about the opportunities he’s had to speak to first-year medical students, fraternities and students at other Vermont colleges about substance abuse and mental illness.
“Those are good opportunities” to make addiction real to other people, he says. “We’re not in the gutter and shit. We’re your students. We’re your kids. We’re your friends. We’re your fucking employees, your doctors and teachers. We’re all over the place!”
Unlike some CRCs at other colleges, the one at UVM has only a modest set of requirements. They include a one-credit academic course on dealing with addiction, which students can take up to three times, and a commitment to stay clean and sober, as expressed in a written “recovery protection plan.” Finally, all incoming freshmen and transfer students must be in recovery for at least six months before they can apply to it.
But even that “mandate” has some flexibility. Boyd Austin has allowed current UVM students to join the group who had been in recovery for as little as two months. Her reasoning: It doesn’t make sense to force them to weather an entire semester of sobriety alone.
“Plenty of students don’t use on campus, but they often struggle to find one another because they think they’re the only ones,” she explains. “Finding an identity and a college community based on what you don’t do is much harder.” To assist with that, the university has set aside two residential cottages on its Trinity campus for as many as 25 CRC students who want drug- and alcohol-free housing options.
Interestingly, as more incoming students are coping with serious addiction issues earlier in life, Boyd Austin says parents often ask her whether their kids should reveal those problems in a college application. After all, an intravenous drug habit isn’t the sort of extracurricular activity that usually wins over admissions boards.
But while some CRCs at other schools urge students to conceal that aspect of their identities, Boyd Austin actually proposes the opposite.
“Going through a recovery process is one of the hardest things you will ever do in life,” she says. “There are people my age, people my parents’ age, who have not done the internal work these young people in recovery have done to figure out what’s going on in their lives and set themselves on a different path. So I think they should be loud and proud about who they are.”
Indeed, many CRC students appear to have forged tight bonds with each other, which seem akin to those of combat veterans who return from war, then find it difficult for others to relate to their experiences. As Laura puts it matter-of-factly, “I think that’s because we all almost died. Most people never experience that.”
So what happens if — or more commonly, when — a CRC student relapses? As Boyd Austin explains, a “zero-tolerance” policy is neither a compassionate nor realistic approach, given the prevailing understanding of addiction.
“Relapse is a part of the recovery process, and recovery is a process,” she says. As long as students who slip up admit that they want to stay in the community, she says, the CRC will support them.