Group at ASU strives to help those battling addiction

Andrew Bird sat down in his backyard feeling defeated. He sat there alone, with a bottle of liquor in one hand and a clenched, bloodied fist in the other from continuously punching a wall out of anger in the other. It was at this point he knew he had a drinking problem, and only a day after he promised himself he would remain sober.

An hour before that moment, Bird was studying for a test he had in Coor Hall. He was sitting at a computer reviewing, when suddenly the words on the screen began to scramble. The sentences began to have no meaning to him, he was sweating profusely, and his skin was turning pale. Panicked, he bolted out of the building and caught a bus home so he could have a drink.

Alcohol was his drug of choice for nearly 10 years. It was alcohol that helped him fit into social circles since the age of 13. But Bird had become dependent on alcohol, drinking multiple times a day, nearly each day. He would show up to classes intoxicated and somehow manage to pay attention. If he wasn’t drinking, he didn’t feel normal.

“I felt like if I wasn’t drinking with my friends, I was a ‘square,’” Bird says, holding up air quotes, laughing at his word choice. “I was literally waking up and doing it until I went to sleep or passed out. I would drink and do whatever I needed to do during the day.”

Bird got increasingly efficient at fulfilling his fix for a high. He would sneak alcohol into class in unsuspecting containers and had a designated spot on campus to roll and smoke his own cigarettes, which were dashed with marijuana. As his drug use began to gradually increase, he saw his overall sense of self gradually decline.

Not surprisingly, Bird says he failed a handful of his classes due to his drinking habits. His GPA had sunk to a 1.6, and he was put on academic probation, but he couldn’t let his grades slip any lower and lose any more friends than he already had. Bird says he knew he had to get sober and change his life for the better.

Today, Bird is 28, holds a Bachelor’s of Science in urban planning from ASU, which he earned in 2014, and owns and operates a business. He is more than five years sober and happier than he ever was before.

“I’m not one to count the days, but this ‘birthday’ feels special,” Bird says, in reference to the anniversary of his sobriety. “I usually don’t like keeping a running tally on those things. But five years, man, wow, I’m proud. I definitely wouldn’t believe you if you told me I would be sitting here today five years sober.”

The journey to sobriety was not easy for Bird. It took many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at churches all around Tempe, time spent in rehab, and support from friends and family to become sober again. He insists it was well worth the work and that it’s worth noting he wasn’t alone.

Bird is only one of the countless college students who abuse alcohol. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 60 percent of college students aged 18 and older drank alcohol in the past month and two-of-three engaged in binge drinking during that same time period.

There are many reasons college-aged people may choose to binge drink and abuse drugs. For some like Bird, they do it to fit in, while others drink to cope with stress from balancing school and a job, or simply out of curiosity of what a certain high will feel like, Bird says.

There are warning signs that suggest a student might have a problem including: not attending classes, earning poor grades, or altering their schedule around the consumption of a substance, according to the National Institutes of Health. Luckily, there are resources for ASU students who feel they might have a problem with substance abuse or dependence, such as on-campus counseling.

Assistant Clinical Director for ASU Counseling Services Marissa Grimshaw-Clark says she and the rest of the ASU counseling staff are there to provide students with a strictly confidential resource for students to seek help. Clark and the counseling staff work with students individually to help talk out their problems and find ways to help them recover.

“We encourage any student who thinks that they may be having difficulties with drugs or alcohol to visit any of our counseling centers located on each ASU campus,” Clark says. “When the student comes in, we will talk to them about their concerns and find resources and support, whether on campus with our providers or more specialty services off campus when needed.”

Clark says she and the staff often recommend the club, Recovery Rising to students who think they have a substance abuse or dependence problem. The club is intended to be a place of gathering for those students, provide them an informal setting for them to express their difficulties with recovery, and be a support group of peers who have or are going through a similar situation.

The club meets weekly in a classroom on the second floor at the Sun Devil Fitness Complex on the Tempe campus. It’s a very informal meeting. Students dress casually, share updates on their week and their sobriety, and then schedule club events for the next few weeks.

Adam Wheelock, a 24-year-old global studies student, is a member of the growing club. Wheelock says Recovery Rising provides students with a relaxed, inclusive environment that encourages openness and honesty about substance abuse. He says the club also constructs a network of support for those who are recovering, for it’s those friendships that help make the process easier. Members of the club also plan cookouts, tailgates and other fun events for new and returning members to bond and relax.

The on-campus club is a small step in helping those who need it the most. There are many consequences to abusing drugs that college students should be aware of. One-in-four college students reports suffering academic consequences due to alcohol and drug abuse, according to data cited from the NIH.

“I mean, let’s be honest, we’re in college, everybody is young and nobody wants to go to an AA meeting,” Wheelock says, smiling and shaking his head.

“This club is important to me because I am helping bring awareness to an issue that affects college students. I want people to know that there are other people on campus right now who are struggling with drug addiction or have struggled in the past. It sucks to feel like you’re worthless and alone.”

Wheelock is a recovered alcoholic and drug addict and has been sober for 2 years. He proposes that one of the problems causing drug addiction is simply how easy they are to buy. For some drug dealers, the risk of being arrested and charged with felonies for the amount of drugs they sell is worth it for the profit.

One thing Wheelock wants every ASU student who feels they may have a drug addiction to know is that they are not alone.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions among addicts is that they think that they’re alone, that they’re struggling alone,” Wheelock says. “There are many other students just like you who could use support as well, that’s why it’s so important that people know about this club.”

One factor that makes treating addiction so hard is that the subject itself is taboo. Club President Marissa Rodriguez says that people should instead be honest and open about sharing their struggles with addiction and that the act of sharing experiences and advice to others is one small effort to help fight the complicated social issue of addiction.

“I just feel that nobody ever wants to talk about stuff like this, like we should feel embarrassed to even discuss it,” Rodriguez says. “We need to normalize these kind of meetings and conversations that take place. Nothing needs to be anonymous.”

Rodriguez and other club members all know people who have died because they abused a substance. This issue is such a personal one for all of them, and it’s so easy to see the passion and empathy radiate from their expressions and actions when they speak and listen to one another.

For Wheelock, the struggle to stay sober is a life-and-death matter. He says if he were to break his sobriety pledge and reintroduce harmful substances into his body, he could be risking the possibility of overdosing.

“I can’t possibly explain how much becoming sober has changed my life,” Wheelock says.

“My grades are better — school is still hard, though — and I am lucky to have such great friends. It feels good being sober and I feel a lot of gratitude. Why would I want to throw all of that away?”


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