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Back where it started: addiction on campus

Coping with addiction, three college dropouts are now at the University of Minnesota, trying to find the resources to prevent a relapse in the culture where their problems started.
Cody Lake, left, and roommate Nick Fehst smoke a cigarette on the porch of University House, a sober house in Marcy-Homes neighborhood. Lake will start taking classes at the University this summer.
Image by Marisa Wojcik
Cody Lake, left, and roommate Nick Fehst smoke a cigarette on the porch of University House, a sober house in Marcy-Homes neighborhood. Lake will start taking classes at the University this summer.

Bridget woke up strapped to a hospital bed after passing out on the sidewalks of Chicago. Steve, clouded by drugs and depression, tried to kill himself one summer morning. Cody’s drug was heroin. He shot it up every day in northern New Mexico.

Bridget, Steve and Cody are now sober, and these once college dropouts are degree-seeking students at the University of Minnesota — a university that, like most in the nation, lacks adequate resources for students recovering from addictions.

They’re part of a drastic increase in the number of young adults struggling with addiction.

For a long time, the typical addict in recovery was thought to be older, “but today we know the truth, that addiction strikes early,” said William Moyers, a spokesman for Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center.

A 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that young adults ages 18 to 25 have the highest rates of substance abuse disorders of any group in the country.

Staying sober for recovering addicts is a daily battle on the nation’s fourth largest college campus. Left to fend for themselves, Bridget, Steve, Cody and other former addicts returning to campus must ultimately confront the culture that pushed their addictions to the edge in the first place.

In response, recovering students often bind together to create sober communities of their own — crucial for staying clean after treatment.

Some universities have started to respond to the growing problem of addiction in young people — the fastest-growing demographic seeking treatment for substance abuse — but most provide almost nothing. The University funds a small, student-run group for recovering addicts but little else beyond that.

Students and professionals at the University and around the nation say young adults in recovery need more.

“I think we as a society, including higher education, have come to recognize that college students can become addicted, but that they can also recover,” Moyers said. “Sadly, the awareness of the need is far greater than the resources to support that need.”

Vice Provost for Student Affairs Jerry Rinehart said the University, “at best, provides semi-adequate” resources. Recovering students would likely be better off attending other schools, he said.

“If my son had a major addiction problem, I’d want to find an environment where there are those resources,” Rinehart said, “and it probably wouldn’t be the University of Minnesota.”


Bridget McGuinness’ mind was blurry. She’d been drunk every day for the past month. Sobriety felt foreign.

For the third time in the past week, she woke up in a strange, sterile room in Chicago after passing out on the sidewalk. Fearing she might attack another officer or bite another nurse, police handcuffed her to a hospital bed.

Outside the fully windowed room, disappointed nurses who recognized McGuinness from her past visits huddled, whispering. She couldn’t hear them, but she knew what they were saying:

“This poor girl’s going to die.”

Today, McGuinness is a 24-year-old University junior studying psychology, four years sober, who heads Students Off Booze Enjoying Recovery (SOBER).

As co-president of the group, McGuinness organizes sober events where recovering students can hang out without the pressure of drugs and alcohol.

But the group struggles to bring in students.

SOBER was founded by students in 2005. When McGuinness discovered the group at the start of the semester, it wasn’t doing enough.

Dave Golden, director of public health and marketing at Boynton Health Service, said SOBER, which the University funds, is essentially the only resource the school provides for recovering students.

“SOBER is the closest thing we have to that student focus, and it’s hit or miss,” Golden said.

The University has been slow to fully support the group, McGuinness said.

“I think [University officials] were kind of like, ‘We’re not used to doing all this stuff at once for you guys; let’s take it a little bit at a time,’” McGuinness said, “which is frustrating because I know that there is a bigger community of people out there that either don’t know we exist or don’t feel comfortable reaching out yet.”

Still, the University is not behind the times when it comes to recovery. Most colleges and universities offer few resources for students in recovery, researchers say, and most help comes in the form of unaffiliated 12-step programs.

But there’s a recent trend among universities to mimic schools like Texas Tech University, Rutgers and Augsburg College in Minneapolis — three schools nationally recognized for their recovery resources.

These schools create strong support communities by providing sober residence halls geared toward students in recovery, academic support and easy access to addiction counselors.

Last summer, more than 15 colleges across the nation formed the Association for Recovery in Higher Education to promote collegiate recovery programs.

In addition, two Big Ten schools, the University of Michigan and Penn State University, have recently launched recovery programs that they expect will eventually serve hundreds of students. These programs will offer counseling, recovery courses, housing and substance-free activities to help students avoid relapse. Officials from both schools said the programs are small, but they expect steady growth over the years.

St. Cloud State University is establishing its own recovery program for students based on Augsburg’s StepUP program — a nationally recognized collegiate recovery program.

But for now, most recovering students can’t find resources on campuses. For many, the opportunities and pressures to join the college party culture cause them to drop out.

McGuinness’ story reflects that.

She dropped out of two schools three times total before she successfully entered treatment.

She started drinking and smoking pot at 14. But what started out as occasional fun quickly grew into a depressing circle.

“It was like a switch flipped, and all of a sudden, I was blacking out all the time. I couldn’t drink and not crave more. I wanted to be high all the time,” McGuinness said.

For McGuinness and many like her, the college culture perpetuated problems that had been contained while in high school. Without consequences from her parents, college allowed her to completely break free.

“As soon as I was totally on my own and left to my own way of doing things, my addiction took over tenfold,” McGuinness said. “Because I’m an alcoholic, it was just going to catch up with me anyways, but I know for a fact that I sunk faster going off to college.”

McGuinness’ college career, which started at Indiana University, didn’t last long. She dropped out before the semester’s end and moved back home with her parents in the spring to attend community college. She re-enrolled at Indiana in the fall.

Excessive, and usually violent, drinking cut that attempt short, and she dropped out again — this time before Halloween.

Fed up, McGuinness’ parents cut her off. She moved to downtown Chicago to work, but instead of the independence she expected, her life unraveled. She lost her job and was soon homeless as her newfound freedom culminated in a violent and dangerous 30-day drinking binge.

“I looked like a homeless person; I was dirty, bruises all over me, my skin was like yellow from like so much alcohol,” she said. “I still to this day only remember bits and pieces.”

That final night in the hospital, her blood-alcohol content tested at .37. Experts say .40 is the average fatal BAC.

About a week later, McGuinness checked into Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center — considered the nation’s, if not the world’s, best place to get clean.

In 2010, 628 young adults ages 18 to 25 received residential treatment at the Hazelden Center for Youth and Families.

Her initial days of sobriety foreshadowed the long road ahead.

“I couldn’t read. My mind was so messed up from drinking that I couldn’t read when I was getting sober. I would shake and be puking all the time,” McGuiness said.

McGuinness is now four years sober and confident she’ll stay that way. She said the only time she spends on campus is for class and group meetings because she’s older than most students, and she doesn’t want to be around students talking about drinking and drugs.

“It would be hard for me now if I lived on campus, and that’s why we want [SOBER] to be a social network of kids in recovery,” McGuinness said. “We want to help kids who are not sure. It is possible to have fun and be sober. I didn’t know that.”

University officials said SOBER is made of a unique group of students who have built the recovery community themselves.

“It’s a grassroots network here at the University for recovering students,” said Gary Christenson, the director of Boynton’s mental health clinic who has treated students facing addiction.

McGuinness said she and other members will continue to push for more University resources.

“I think the ultimate goal [of SOBER] would be like sober dorms” for recovering addicts, she said, or “a place for students in recovery to hang out.”

At a massive University with few resources, students and professionals say organizations like SOBER, in addition to 12-step programs, are integral pieces to their ongoing recovery.

“To foster recovery in a young person means to foster a culture that surrounds them,” said Hazelden’s Moyers.


Steve Porter liked to party.

Partying, coupled with long-standing depression, nearly killed him.

After a difficult break-up with a girlfriend at the end of his sophomore year, Porter lost control. He smoked pot and snorted almost five times a regular dose of Adderall every day. He blacked out nearly every night.

Pushed to the edge one day in the summer of 2010, Porter tied a rope to the foothold of a telephone pole and wrapped the other end around his neck. Standing on a stool, he kicked it away.

“I blacked out and wet my pants … somehow came to, and I was still hanging there,” Porter said. “I reached up and grabbed onto the foothold and pulled myself up, untied the rope and hopped down and called my mom.”

His mom called 911, and Porter was taken to the psychiatric clinic at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.

There’s a strong correlation between mental illness and addiction.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 31.9 percent of adults aged 18 to 25 with mental illness had substance dependence as well — the highest rate of any age category.

Porter’s parents gave him an ultimatum: an extended stay at a mental institution or 28 days of treatment. He reluctantly went to Hazelden.

“It wasn’t until probably two weeks in, in my small group — they made me read my suicide note to the group and I was bawling, and that was kind of when things turned around,” said Porter, now 22.

He ended up staying at Hazelden for four months before halfway and sober houses led him to the University House, a sober house in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood.

Three recovering addicts founded the house in 2005. Richard Mark, a 1975 University alumnus, was one of them.

“I remembered how hard it was going through the University, feeling alone and uncertain. So I just wanted to provide a place for people for students with that struggle,” said Mark, who still owns the house.

The house has no formal affiliation with the University, but Mark said many of its residents have been University students that used the sober house to continue their recovery while attending classes.

Even so, Mark said the University has provided almost no support, and the house hasn’t received a single referral from the University since it started in 2005.

“You can’t tell me that there aren’t eight guys at the University who are recovering from addiction,” Mark said.

Capable of housing up to 12 students, the house currently is home to four — the lowest since it opened.

Porter drank in high school and experimented with pot, but football and a summer job kept his partying in check.

Before his four-month stay, Porter had been to Hazelden once already. But he lied to counselors.

“They just said I was a heavy abuser, just like a normal college student, which I might have been at the time,” Porter said.

According to a 2007 study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 22.9 percent of college students meet the medical definition for alcohol or drug abuse.

“You know, a lot of young people experiment with legal and illegal substances, some of them develop consequences,” Moyers said. “But only a small percentage of those are what we would define as becoming dependent or addicted.”

Steven Hermann, a Boynton psychiatrist who specializes in prescription management, said the typical Adderall prescription is 30 mg daily. The drug, commonly used to treat ADHD, is rarely prescribed higher than 60 mg per day.

 “After that, there are a lot of cardiovascular risks,” Hermann said.

Before his suicide attempt, Porter was snorting about 140 mg daily.

Now two years sober, Porter said the sober house has been essential to his recovery, especially on big partying days like St. Patrick’s Day and April 20.

The toughest thing about campus is “driving through Dinkytown on a Saturday night and seeing all that,” Porter said.

“Just having guys that are my age to hang out with was huge. On a night when I needed to hang out with sober friends, the University House was there.”

Even though the University House played a large role in his recovery, he questions if there is much the University can offer to assist recovering students.

He said with such a large student population, he doesn’t know if it’s realistic to have a sober community.

Porter is set to graduate next spring and hopes to become a high school history teacher. With admitted challenges ahead, he looks forward to finishing his college career.

“It’s the best thing I’ve done in my life, getting sober. Things are just so much easier.”


Cody Lake spends most days looking for jobs and working out. But it was only 90 days ago that he last shot up heroin — his second relapse since treatment.

As one of the four residents of the University House, Lake has managed to stay sober, but his history with substance abuse is a close memory as he prepares to start classes at the University this summer.

“I’m excited about it, but I’m also a little bit apprehensive,” said Lake, 23.

He said being away from academics for so long — he went to two schools in New Mexico in the past — makes him especially nervous to return.

The University will be the third Lake has attended since high school, where his addiction began.

He drank and smoked pot, but once he started his freshman year at New Mexico State University, there was nothing holding him back.

“I didn’t start taking any hard things until college,” Lake said. “Having the freedom, I didn’t have to hide things from parents anymore, and I had money, and I had the source for drugs.”

Lake’s drug use progressed. By his third year he was injecting heroin.

“There wasn’t any balancing after that. It was all the addiction.”

Lake dropped out after his grades plummeted. He went to outpatient treatment and attended a small community college but then quickly found his way back to heroin.

After an overdose, Lake moved to Minnesota and got treatment at Hazelden. He lived at a couple sober houses after he left but relapsed twice.

Lake eventually found the University House, where he’s managed to stay sober with the support of fellow recovering addicts.

“We all have this understanding; we’ve all been through all the shit of using, so we all kind of know what’s going on,” he said.

“They’re probably one of the only things that keeps me and a lot of people sober.”

Lake attends three 12-step programs a week and the sober house meetings.

Still, he’s nervous to return to the college environment.

“If I were living on campus I would be way worried about relapse,” he said, “but just having this place to come to after school, to study and to hang out will be [helpful].”

He said he isn’t aware of other University resources but feels confident the University House will be enough to support him.

“I’m going to rely on this house a lot.”


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