Monday, December 24, 2007

When road to recovery goes through campus

James Jones developed a drinking problem in high school that became so severe he ended up forgoing a college scholarship at West Virginia University and entered a treatment program. He now counsels other young people struggling with addictions.

James Jones' first shot at college ended before it began.

In August 2004, days after his freshman orientation at West Virginia University, he went into treatment for a drinking problem that had grown so all consuming he walked away from an engineering scholarship without taking a single class.

An even lower point came months later as the young man, by then in an orange jumpsuit and shackles, was escorted into a courtroom in his hometown of Weirton, W.Va. Arrested for petty larceny, he locked eyes briefly with his sobbing mother, from whom he'd stolen his late grandmother's diamond to feed his addiction.

"I couldn't bring myself to say anything, so I just walked past her," said Mr. Jones, then 18. "I had used up all the 'I'm sorrys.' "

His downward spiral, it turns out, was short-lived. Now sober and earning solid grades almost halfway to a bachelor's degree at Penn State University's Beaver campus, Mr. Jones is part of a largely invisible group of college students often left out of the discussion of campus drinking.

By some estimates, at least 25,000 college students nationwide are in the early stage of recovery from alcoholism. Many thousands more, including Mr. Jones, whose last drink was in January 2005, have made it even further, reaching their second year of sobriety and beyond.

For them, pursuing a degree means a daily test of resolve in a setting where making friends often revolves around getting drunk.

"They're in one of the toughest environments you could imagine to stay sober, and yet they're succeeding," said Amanda Baker, an assistant director of the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech University. "It can be a very lonely existence because the way you socialize is different, and yet you're forced to keep one foot in that environment."

Mr. Jones, who is now 21, said it's unrealistic to wall himself off from campus peers who drink, so he occasionally attends parties and accompanies friends to off-campus clubs. But he also knows he can never drink himself. He learned that lesson painfully when, after an initial attempt to get sober, he started drinking in moderation and relapsed within a month.

"I know how fast I can fall," he said.

At his worst, he was downing a fifth of liquor a day, and, when the high wasn't strong enough, he supplemented it with 80 milligram tablets of the painkiller OxyContin.

It drove this once high-achieving high school senior off Weir High School's baseball team the year it took the state championship. It even put him on the streets briefly after his mother said she would not tolerate his behavior in her house and he walked out.

These days, as he strolls the Penn State campus, a baseball cap turned backward, it's hard to envision him as once so desperate he pawned a family heirloom -- his mother's necklace set with the wedding diamond worn by his late grandmother.

Now studying psychology, Mr. Jones completed treatment at Gateway Rehabilitation Center, and the center later hired him part-time to help counsel young people facing similar addictions.

He said he hopes that by speaking openly he can show others "that your life isn't over. Things do get better." He said he feels gratitude both for the opportunity to touch other people's lives and for his own second chance.

"The way I look at it is I went through a rough period," he said. "I'm not ashamed of who I am."

His mother, Gale Jones, a nurse at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, said she and his stepfather feel blessed by their son's rebound. "I'm so very proud of him," she said.

Fighting for recognition

Experts say that for all the focus on alcohol in college and all the emphasis on combating binge drinking, relatively little is known about student alcoholics who are in recovery. Though some schools are showing more interest in their needs, very few campuses offer dedicated programs such as recovery housing for students.

Rutgers University pioneered the concept of recovery housing two decades ago, experts say. Today, a handful of others offer it and about 15 campuses have full-blown recovery programs.

The small number of schools is due partly to a reluctance to commit funding and partly to the difficulty gauging demand, since students in recovery won't necessarily approach the campus counseling center or even acknowledge their situation to peers.

An institution's image also comes into play, said Andrew Finch, executive director of the Association of Recovery Schools, a group whose members have dedicated recovery programs for alcohol and drug abusers.

It's one thing for a college to tell parents their child can live in a dorm where everyone pledges to abstain or to help Alcoholics Anonymous hold campus meetings. It's another thing for a college to openly market itself as an institution with specialized programs for alcoholics.

"I've even been told by a college administrator that there was some hesitancy among his administration to build programs for recovering students because the image would be 'Oh, you must really have a problem,' " said Dr. Finch, a Vanderbilt University professor.

That's a shame, he and other advocates say, because problem drinking is everywhere.

In fact, one in five full-time college students nationally, ages 18 to 22, needs treatment for alcohol abuse or dependency, according to a special analysis of data conducted this month for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by the federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The finding is based on 2004-2006 surveys of 16,000 of the estimated 8.2 million full-time college students in that age group.

Many of those were facing a problem long before they arrived on campus. In fact, nearly 6 percent of individuals ages 12 to 17 ought to be in treatment for an alcohol problem, the federal agency says.

Ms. Baker said her center's estimate of 25,000 students in early recovery is likely a conservative one. Even so, the government said most who need help aren't seeking it.

Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway, said those who do undergo treatment need support, including peers who can insulate them from temptation.

"Most relapses happen in the first year," he said. "Of those, most happen in the first 90 days. And of those, most happen in the first 30 days."

For Gary Mahoney, 27, sober since 2002 and working on a bachelor's degree at the University of Virginia, pressure these days has less to do with alcohol's allure than with whether and how to tell others on campus he is in recovery. One time he tried in class.

"I got really uncomfortable," he said. "The second it came out of my mouth it felt like I was from Mars."

At large social gatherings, he tries to have at least one person with him who knows he's in recovery, helping him to avoid the sort of pressure he felt when classmates and a professor at an end-of-semester reception unwittingly kept urging him to toast with champagne.

He benefits from a group of students, staff and faculty who meet twice monthly to discuss their recovery, but he wishes colleges did more to raise awareness that people like him are part of the campus population.

"It might remove some of the stigma," he said. "Maybe people would be more likely to seek and receive the help they need."

Sinking to the bottom

Sitting in the campus library at Penn State Beaver, Mr. Jones talked about his new career goal of counseling young people. He said some of those with whom he works at Gateway remind him of himself, struggling with image problems, in denial about their addictions and, in some cases, trying to get back into school.

"You can actually see these kids change, from the time they get there," he said of those in treatment. "Some of them change for the worse once they're there, but the majority of them, you can just see their outlook improve. It's an awesome feeling."

He reassures them by using a most striking example -- his own.

He was 5 years old when his father, a steel mill foreman who also had a drinking problem, died of a pulmonary embolism linked to alcohol use. James' mother watched helplessly years later as alcohol began to claim a second family member, a bright teenager who for most of his high school career brought home A's and B's and earned admission offers from WVU, Pitt and other schools.

Mr. Jones said his drinking at first seemed like a normal high school diversion, something he and friends did on certain weekends. But he began to crave the feeling of acceptance it provided.

By his senior year, he was drinking daily and in growing quantities, switching from beer to rum. He smoked marijuana. He abused prescription pills.

And he changed friends.

"We would get drunk before school, or use drugs before school, or leave early and get alcohol, one or the other," he said. "I got to a point where I felt -- and this is horrible -- that I had to be high or drunk to go to school."

Some mornings, he'd awake feeling so sick and achy from the previous day's binge that he'd swig alcohol from a bottle hidden in his room.

And his grades fell. He bombed physics and calculus. His mother later learned that he wasn't showing up for class. She said she underestimated the problem.

"I was alert to alcohol," she said. "I really didn't know a lot about drugs."

His baseball coach at Weir High, Bob Rosnick, said the trouble involving James didn't square with the polite teenager he had known since middle school. "I didn't see it coming," he said.

When James came home drunk or got high in the house, his mother would lay down the rules, finally telling him to leave after he ignored her warnings about getting high in her home.

"I was going crazy. I was sick. I was losing weight," she said. "I was beating myself up, saying 'What did I do wrong?'"

The teenager was anguishing, too. He wanted to believe things would improve once he got to college. But instead of joining peers on campus, he entered 133 days of residential treatment at Gateway weeks after graduating high school.

He came out clean, but started using again and in less than a month was consuming so much he went into his mother's bedroom one day looking for something to pawn. Mrs. Jones said the hardest decision she made was pressing a charge of petty larceny after confronting her son about the stolen necklace and other jewelry.

"James," she told him. "That was grandma's wedding ring."

He went into rehab at Gateway a second time, and now says he's grateful his mother loved him enough to be tough on him when he needed it.

He said friends of people abusing alcohol or drugs have a similar obligation not to look the other way, even if it's an uncomfortable thing to raise.

"Anyone can drag somebody to a car and drop them off at their apartment, but you're enabling them by helping them not get into trouble so they can do it again," he said. "You definitely have a responsibility to say something ... something like, 'I don't know if you remember what happened last night, but it's definitely not OK.'"

source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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