The High-Functioning Alcoholic

Understanding this Hidden Class of Alcoholics from a Professional and Personal View

Staying Sober is Possible- in College!

How to return to college-SOBER?

It is almost time for college students around the country to return for the Fall 2011 semester.  I have recently heard many women speaking about their experience of getting sober when they were in college.  Some women were now in their 40's and reflecting back in time and others in their early 20's currently attempting to return to school adopting a new sober lifestyle.   At any age, their stories are inspiring.  There were events that led these women to conclude at a young age that they needed to get help for their alcoholism, despite being immersed in the college culture of binge drinking.   Some were able to function academically, but emotionally, they hit a bottom they were unable to ignore.  Many individuals are active alcoholics throughout college and could not have imagined integrating a sober lifestyle into their college experience- but it is becoming clear that it is possible.   

Working for 5 years as a therapist at a college in Boston gave me a unique perspective on this topic as well.  Many of the students whom I had worked with had alcohol problems.  While it was unclear if to recognize that their drinking was causing problems for them and they chose to abstain for periods of time and to examine their relationship with alcohol. 

Much of the research and articles about college drinking can paint a grim picture of the chances that college students will take alcohol problems seriously or that alcohol prevention programs can be effective.  A recent article in USA Today article "The Intoxicating Allure of Alcohol" by Sharon Jayson quotes college students making statements such as "I think everbody's aim is to get drunk on the weekend" http://www.houmatoday.com/article/20110822/WIRE/110829937/-1/opinion?Title=The-intoxicating-allure-of-alcohol  This quote exemplifies the common belief system of college students who often surround themselves with peers who drink heavily.  However, there is a rising number of students who are seeking help in addressing their problem and even others who are in recovery. 

A recent and encouraging Wall Street Journal article "Campus Life 101: Staying Sober" by Kevin Helliker  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903520204576484472998036078.html explores the growing population of college students who are in recovery.  Research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has found that there has been a 141.3% increase between 1999-2009 of college students ages 18-24 checking into addiction recovery programs in the U.S.  This article reports that there is a growing trend of colleges who are providing support services and housing options for students in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction including: The University Michigan www.studentsforrecovery.com, Texas Tech University, Kennesaw State University in Georgia and Penn State University.  

Harvard University has addressed drug and alcohol problems on campus head-on and have a designated Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Services directed by Ryan Travia.  The Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisor (DAPA) program is thriving with college students who are eager to help their peers and to lead by example in initiating preventative programming on campus and serving as advisors for other students.  The DAPA program is a great example of service work on a campus that could be beneficial for a student in recovery to get involved in www.harvarddapa.org.  Additionally, Boston College sponsors weekend evening social activities such as "Nights on the Heights" that do not involve alcohol: http://www.bc.edu/offices/studentprograms/programs/latenight.html 

Since many colleges do not provide housing options for students in recovery, it is important for those in recovery to explore alternatives when returning to school.  For example, The Hero House in Atlanta GA and Costa Mesa, CA is a sober living program targeted for college students in early sobriety www.herohouse.com.  For those who may need continued substance abuse and mental health treatment while integrating back to college, a transitional living program such as The McLean Residence at The Brook in Waltham, MA may be an appropriate fit www.mcleanbrook.org.  Sober living programs are a lower level of care and structure than transitional care.  They may be located near colleges but are open to residents in all phases of life.  Hopewell Sober Living in Brookline, MA is an example and is located near several Boston area colleges and is structured in a way that supports those acclimating back into the community, such as college students www.hopewellrecovery.com

With the growing numbers of college students receiving treatment and returning to college with the intent to pursue a sober lifestyle, it is unfortunate that more colleges have not catered to this population.  However, there are many suggestions of strategies that have helped students to graduate from college-sober:

  • Research appropriate housing options:
    • Substance-free dorms
    • Renting an off-campus apartment with other sober peers
    • If having to live in a college dorm, being sure to have a sober roommate or roommate who respects sobriety
    • Local off-campus sober house, independent living or transitional living program
    • Living with family and commuting to college (if that would be a safe environment)
  • Immediately connect to your campus Counseling Center in order to inquire about possible local and/or campus resources that may be helpful. (ie, support groups, sober activities)
  • Locate and attend mutual-help groups on or near campus (ie, A.A., SMART Recovery). Specifically, A.A. has "Young People's" meetings that that are listed in meeting list books and online with a "YP" abbreviation

          A.A. meeting list finder: http://www.aa.org/lang/en/central_offices.cfm?origpage=373

          SMART Recovery meeting finder:  http://www.smartrecovery.org/meetings_db/view/

  • Connect with a local addiction therapist and/or early sobriety therapy group either through the college or get a referral through the college counseling center or PCP
  • Make self-care a priority (ie, regular and healthy nutrition, sleep hygiene, exercise)
  • Find ways to manage stress in a healthy manner
  • Engage in spiritual practice if helpful for recovery (ie, meditation, prayer)
  • Get involved in extra-curricular activities that may allow for making connections with students who have interests beyond drinking
  • Find balance-be sure not to overbook academic, extra-curricular or social commitments
  • Consider attending an "Alternative Spring Break" service trip either offered through the college or another organizations (ie, Habitat for Humanity)
  • Commit to community service activities through the college or in the local area, which may lead to meeting others living a healthy lifestyle www.idealist.org
  • Explore new activities to engage in with friends who may not be sober (ie, got to coffee, grab lunch, go to the movies)
  • Be proactive and reach out to the office that handles student activity planning and start a club or programming for students in recovery

For more information and resources on the topic of High-Functioning Alcoholics visit www.highfunctioningalcoholic.com

Sarah Allen Benton, M.S., L.M.H.C., LPC, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights.

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