SUPPORT For Devin Fox and others who have shaken addictions, the camaraderie at Rutgers’s recovery dorm has been a life changer.
By ABIGAIL SULLIVAN MOORE
Published: January 20, 2012
In their undergrad uniforms of fleece and sweats, a clutch of Rutgers students gathered on the worn red couches of their dorm’s common room and told their stories. A good-looking, fun-loving 23-year-old named Greg described arriving at college freshman year with a daily pot-smoking habit and a close relationship with alcohol. He soon followed the lead of his alcoholic father and was binge drinking (five drinks or more in a row). “It was pretty scary,” he said.
Marcus Yam for The New York Times
For his self-diagnosed anxiety and depression, he secretly began taking Klonopin, which he bought from another student. By sophomore year, he was taking six a day. And when it ran out, he wound up in a hospital to manage withdrawal, followed by nine months of rehab.
Unlike the other students on the couch, Devin Fox, 26, gave permission to use his surname because of his career choice. He is pursuing a graduate degree in social work, hoping to work at a policy level in the mental illness field. Mr. Fox had been so despondent over his addiction to methamphetamine that he tried to overdose. Like Greg, he is now three years clean.
The students live in one of two recovery dorms tucked away in anonymity on the sprawling New Brunswick, N.J., campus. In 1988, Rutgers started what is believed to be the first residential recovery program on a college campus, according to Lisa Laitman, director of its Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program. She helped create the program after seeing students struggle to abstain as dorm-mates partied.
Back then, there was little talk about helping students transition to college after treatment for their drug and alcohol problems. Even in 2002, when the nonprofit Association of Recovery Schools was formed, only four colleges joined. But over the past several years recovery programs have been popping up at colleges, large and small, public and private. Now there are more than 20 programs, with more in the pipeline. Texas Tech University has used some $900,000 in federal grants to help campuses build programs.
Case Western Reserve and Augsburg College, like Rutgers, provide separate housing. William Paterson University groups recovering students in substance-free housing, where drugs and alcohol aren’t welcome. Texas Tech puts its first-year students on their own floor. New this fall, students at the University of Michigan could choose a recovery room from the residential life drop-down menu to live with a like-minded roommate.
“There’s a big difference between a substance-free and a recovery option,” explains Mary Jo Desprez, the program director. “A recovery room is for students who are actively pursuing staying sober.”
Until recently, public policy focused on prevention and treatment. “We never talked about recovery as a kind of separate entity — it was almost like treatment was the end in and by itself,” says R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is joining with the Department of Education to urge colleges to consider recovery programs.
And, no wonder. Research shows that young people are among the most vulnerable to addiction. Though pleasure-seeking, risk-taking parts of their brain are in full throttle, areas that control judgment, emotion and impulse aren’t fully developed until the mid-20s.
“You’ve got the accelerator without the brakes,” says Dr. Robert L. DuPont, first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and author of “The Selfish Brain: Learning From Addiction.” Genetics, peer pressure and psychological disorders up the ante. And the earlier people start to drink or take drugs, the more likely they are to become addicted. A Texas Tech survey of college students in five recovery programs found that the average age of addiction was 15.
Recovery program directors say many of their students had both an alcohol and drug habit, with marijuana dependency increasingly common. Studies have found that 17 percent of college students report smoking marijuana at least once a month; 8 percent use other illicit drugs, including pharmaceuticals like Adderall, Vicodin and OxyContin without a prescription; and 42 percent binge drink, a rate fairly constant over the past decade.
The social fabric of college can be harrowing for students who are trying to shake addictions. After rehab, some don’t return to school, or they live at home while continuing their studies. Students living on campus often face relapse triggers — old drinking and drugging buddies; stress over exams, finances and social lives — without a supportive environment.
“It’s simply a recipe for failure,” says Dr. Jon Morgenstern, director of addiction treatment in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, which recently collaborated with Hazelden, a nonprofit addiction agency, to establish a recovery residence in the TriBeCa area of Manhattan for college students.
While older adults often have a spouse and job that give strength and identity, college students usually don’t, Dr. Morgenstern notes. Getting young people to accept a life forever free of drugs or alcohol is difficult. “They exist in a youth culture,” pushing the envelope in countless ways. “At some point,” he says, “you expect them to come back and transition to adult responsibilities.” Some don’t.
Instead, they are frozen developmentally. Texas Tech students play catch-up in a required one-credit course, which Kitty S. Harris, director of its Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery, describes as: “How to build relationships, how to problem solve, how to talk to the opposite sex, how do you learn to avoid drama in relationships, how do you manage money.”
The programs, for which students typically pay no additional fees, include classes on how to prevent relapses, community service opportunities and an array of activities — substance free, of course. At the heart is the peer interaction that is so important for young people.
At Rutgers, there are 31 students in recovery dorms, some having arrived straight from high school — a group that is growing, say program directors. They are part of a community, knit together by required attendance at Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at least twice a week, a weekly group meeting with an addiction therapist their first year of recovery, and a monthly house meeting at 8:30 a.m. with Ms. Laitman; their recovery counselor, Frank Greenagel Jr.; and two other therapists. The students shuffle in wearing pajamas, flip-flops and often dazed looks of dreams interrupted. To soften the shock, the adults bring bagels and coffees.
By design and happenstance, the students participate in a host of activities. They study together and make Starbucks runs. They compete in the intramural soccer and softball leagues. They run in a 5K race for the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, go tubing, play croquet and read poetry at Walt Whitman’s grave. And to help envision themselves in a sober life after college, they barbecue with the program’s successful alumni. There are jokes and pranks, and complaints about who broke a glass in the bathroom.
“If you’re not having fun in recovery, then you aren’t going to stay sober,” Ms. Laitman says.
The buffalo-wing-eating competition is part of recovery-dorm lore — captured on video and shown at the seniors’ graduation. As it played on a laptop, the students around the couch gloried in the memory. “The wings were so hot you had to sign a waiver,” said a resident adviser named Dan. Here’s Ben, cross-legged, trying to meditate the pain away. Here’s Amanda, bending over in a bout of nausea. Other frames show students laid out on the ground, overcome.
They are, said Mr. Fox, an extended family. “There are some people I really like and some I can’t stand in my family, and I have to talk to them anyway.” The students laughed in agreement.
Their shared experiences of addiction’s fallout — school expulsions, failed relationships and distraught parents — bind them in ways both casual and profound.
“I’m a little burned,” said Jessie, 19, who used L.S.D., alcohol, pot and other illicit drugs.
“Can’t you tell,” teased Trevor, 22. But the ribbing stopped as Jessie described how his girlfriend dumped him when he was asked to leave his previous college after he was arrested for smoking and selling pot on campus. “I feel terrible for all the things I was doing to hurt her,” he said. Occasionally, she calls. It’s painful. “My head is messed up for about a week afterward.”
Revealing their history to others is a personal choice. When Jessie’s friends outside the program invite him to party, he declines. His excuse: homework.
Another student, who abruptly left Rutgers midsemester for rehab and returned through the recovery program, is more straightforward with his old classmates. “It makes me more comfortable,” he said. “It’s better than saying that I was abducted by aliens.”
When a friend relapses, they learn what it’s like to care for someone who loses their battle. (“It must suck to be our parents,” Dan said.) Last year, when a student returned to the dorm noticeably drunk, friends dumped out his stash of beer and notified the recovery counselor, Mr. Greenagel. Typically, students are taken immediately to their families or someone in their A.A. or N.A. network. Sometimes, students report themselves. “It always seems to happen in the middle of the night,” Mr. Fox said.
But students at Rutgers, Texas Tech and Augsburg have been breathtakingly clean, with abstinent rates averaging in the mid- to high 90s. Generally, a third of 16- to 25-year-olds who seek help will improve substantially, according to Dr. John F. Kelly, associate director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Students at Augsburg, a Lutheran college in Minneapolis, take announced and random drug tests. Rutgers and Texas Tech lean on students’ desire to stay part of their community.
Of course, there’s a self-selection factor at work here. Students are screened to gauge their level of commitment. They must be sober for a minimum period: three months for Rutgers to nine months for Texas Tech.
The students all share the goal of graduating. Grade-point averages of the Rutgers and Texas Tech students hover at 3.0 or a bit higher; both award scholarships to students who maintain certain G.P.A.’s.
Though he does well academically at Rutgers, Greg measures his success in other ways. “The most noticeable thing is all the friends I’ve made,” he said. “I live with a lot of good people. I have some good laughs these days, good true laughs. I really didn’t have that before.”Abigail Sullivan Moore is the co-author, with Barbara K. Hofer, of “The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up.”