WORDS: MICHAEL DARER '15
IMAGE: ROXIE PELL '15
The names of all students who were interviewed for this piece have been changed, both out of respect for their privacy, and out of deference to the anonymity that stands as the fundamental principle of the 12Step Recovery Programs of which they are members.
It is around seven forty-five when James exits the church, fifteen minutes following the ending of his meeting. He is washed out into the darkness along with a wave of men and women, most of whom are chattering excitedly, while a few remain contemplatively, yet joyously silent. Many are digging through their pockets for cigarettes and lighters, or expectantly extending hands for shaking to those who still haven’t found their cartons and keys.
It takes me a moment to spot James within this friendly little tempest. He is among the youngest in attendance at twenty two, but, as he speaks with those around him, he seems almost completely unaware of this, sharing firm handshakes and backslapping laughter with men, some two, some three times his age. He appears more at home than I’ve ever seen anyone, gliding about in this great echo chamber of a family, the great grin that splits his face somehow unobscured by the early evening.
He bums a cigarette from a large man in a tweed jacket, and lights it off the proffered flame of a neighbor. He must have noticed me some time ago, because in one swift motion he has turned on his heel to offer up a sweeping ‘goodbye’ wave, and begun to move my way. When he reaches me, he grabs my hand and shakes it, his face still clutching that same gracious smile. I apologize for not going over to meet him, explaining that I didn’t want to interject, or make anyone feel uncomfortable.
“It’s no problem,” James says, smiling. “Those guys are all a bunch of asshole drunks, anyhow.”
James is, of course, one of those asshole drunks, and just like the mass of men and women with whom he joked and jabbed, he has not had a drink in quite sometime. James and his comrades are, as self described, “a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.” At twenty-two, and as a college junior enrolled at Wesleyan University, James is a proud member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I guess, when I really give it thought, it’s a little strange to say,” he explains on the walk back to campus. “When you say it in there”, he gestures back towards the church, which is now little more than faded geometry against the black sky, “you don’t have that other context, though. In there, everyone is an alcoholic, and everyone’s admitting to it. In there, you don’t really have that gulf between perception and reality that I think makes my saying, ‘Hi. I’m an alcoholic,” so weird for some people.”
AA was founded in an abstinence based substance recovery program founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, out in Akron, Ohio. Both men were themselves alcoholics, and they structured the program as a mutual aid organization for those suffering from the disease. At the time, there was no formal treatment other than institutionalization, which often involved using techniques such as shock therapy. In the place of such methods, Wilson and Smith drafted a treatment program based around Twelve Steps. These are repeated perpetually by the alcoholic in order to prevent relapse by encouraging humility, self reflection, compassion, and acceptance. As of January 1, 2014, AA is estimated to have well over two million members worldwide in almost 115,000 groups, and has had its program and philosophies implemented by many other treatment organizations, most notably Narcotics Anonymous (NA), of which James is also a member.
“It’s honestly one of the most incredible things I’ve ever been a part of,” James states, almost sheepishly. “It really is. It’s an amazing program, and something that I both need and want desperately.” He looks around a little hesitantly as we move through campus. “I mean, especially here.”
According to statistics gathered by Wesleyan’s own Health Services, in coordination with Public safety, the substance use on Wesleyan’s campus dwarfs the national average among college students (including at some institutions more typically denoted as “party schools”) in both frequency and intensity. While Wesleyan’s numbers appear more regular when held up to those of other schools in the NESCAC, and to other East Coast schools in general, Wesleyan’s Health Center, more specifically its WesWell Branch, which deals with substance and sexual education, as well as counseling for issues such as sexual assault, mental illness, and eating disorders, is still on alert.
In recent years, WesWell’s director Tanya Purdy has turned a special eye to the patterns of substance use of campus, with focus mainly on alcohol and marijuana consumption. Her office lies at the very back of the Health Center complex, at the end of a bending hallway and through a stone waiting room whose walls are lined with brochures on everything from safe sex within the gay community to recognizing depression in a friend. In comparison to the waiting area, which contains a large classical fireplace and whose ceiling is vaulted by intricate wooden columns, Ms. Purdy’s office is starkly institutional, seemingly divided evenly down the middle between an administrative space, and a counselor’s office.
Purdy, who began working for WesWell in April of 2011, looks shockingly young for her position, an impression only amplified by a sort of casual exuberance that she seems to have been born into. She is thirty-three, but she could easily pass as a student, her brown hair sleek and cut to shoulder length, fronted by long bangs more often seen on shows like New Girl than in a health administration office. When she discusses her work, though, she becomes steely, her seemingly boundless enthusiasm crystallizing into a more directed passion.
When she came to Wesleyan, the WesWell director’s position had been vacant for almost two years since the exit of her predecessor Lisa Currie in the fall of 2009. Ms. Purdy’s appointment came following a 2010 review of Wesleyan’s existing policies around sexual assault by the Sexual Violence Task Force, which recommended the WesWell position be filled once more in order to facilitate more comprehensive policies and programs.
To those who are concerned about Wesleyan’s drug scene, however, her most notable contribution would be Recovery@ a network of students and faculty who have achieved, or are attempting to achieve, sobriety from substances which she founded roughly a year after her appointment. The program, which is modeled after a similar initiative at Princeton University exists in order to help students who are interested in recovery feel connected within their community, and is, as Purdy herself puts it, “ultimately a way to get students into a more structured recovery scene, like AA or NA.”
Partly because of this, Recovery@ remains a very small presence of campus, only apparent to non-members through the small red fliers containing emails and phone numbers for support, that are stacked haphazardly on the tables by the check-in window of the Health Center.
“With a program like this, there’s a very delicate balance that we have to strike promotion wise,” Tanya explains. “On the one hand, you want the program to be available to those who need it. On the other, we’re a small school, and, as a result, anonymity is harder to maintain on campus.” It is a long held belief among those attend 12-Step Recovery programs such as NA and AA that no one can make use of recovery unless they’re truly willing to seek it out. Tanya asserts that this holds true for Recovery@ Wes as well.
She smiles. “As they say in AA: ‘This isn’t here for those who need it. It’s here for those who want it.’”
James had his first drink when he was 13, after he snuck a sip of a beer left on the a living room end table at a family Thanksgiving party. Later that evening, he coaxed his father into letting him have a little more. “It was really the greatest feeling I’d ever had up to that point,” he chuckles a little grimly.
The common thread in most stories told in AA is a sense of isolation, that somehow the pre-drinking alcoholic was trapped in a frequency that no one else could reach. “Drinking or using always ends up being the antidote for guys in the rooms,” James explains. “If you’re talking to five different people in AA or NA, chances are the feeling that first caught them all off guard is gonna be the same, same with the way they tried to fix it.”
The same goes for James.“I decided that there was this thing in my head that was making me feel so weird about myself,” James says, pressing at his scalp with the tips of his fingers. “And I said, ‘Well, whether it’s an emotional thing, or a chemical thing, let’s find something that’ll fix that up.’”
For many, the means by which addiction is able to plant its roots is entirely behavioral.
Certainly, there are those who are genetically inclined to alcoholism, or pill dependence, or the general “addictive personality.” On the other hand, though, there are a great many who simply condition the need within themselves, accidentally. Those who choose to self-medicate frequently and heavily often find that their alternative medicine for depression or anxiety eventually becomes the only medicine that works.
“That really became the ticket for me,” James nods. “Neither of my parents are big drinkers, and their parents aren’t really either. So, genetically, I doubt I’m preconditioned to this.” On the other hand, between emotional stress and newfound academic pressure in college, James definitely believes that he could have inadvertently created the dependence that tried to swallow him. “I was absolutely trying to medicate myself,” he confirms. “And that wasn’t weird at all for the people who I spoke to. Everyone was stressed. Everyone wanted to cut loose. Maybe not everyone was medicating the same emotional things that I was, but they were all trying to feel better. We were all trying to feel better. And we all knew we deserved to feel better.”
This became the great rationale for James, even as he began to outpace those around him on Friday and Saturday nights. “By the time I was drinking on Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and Sundays, it all just seemed normal to me,” he explains. “Then, when I started drinking on Mondays and Tuesdays as well, I really didn’t care anymore. It felt phenomenal for a good chunk of time, and then it felt necessary.”
By the end of his freshman year, James had already come into conflict with the University over his drinking. “I thought that was such bullshit, you know,” James waves up at the sky in mock fury. “I mean, who the fuck did they think they were? Granted, at the time, I didn’t think about the fact that I was walking home alone at 3 in the morning, tripping over myself. I didn’t think about the fact that I was under 21 and drunk out of my mind, in public. I had it under control, you know? And I had the right to feel good, so who were they to get me in trouble for it? I was such a fucking ass.”
Ms. Purdy has had her own experiences with this sort of defensiveness. “You definitely get the feeling that a lot of people think they have the right to drink, and smoke, and use, however they want, without consequence, which is a ridiculous assumption. I think Wesleyan does a great job trusting its students to make good decisions, but we also have to be the ones to catch those students when the trust doesn’t come through.” When she next speaks, Ms. Purdy’s voice has hardened slightly, and she looks almost pleading. “Alcohol, pot, whatever it is doesn’t give anyone the right to act a certain way. It’s not a get out of jail free card. You hear people trying to excuse behavior with things like, ‘Oh, she only does that when she’s drunk.’ No. She never does that. Drunk or sober, she never does.”
When asked about why this attitude is so prevalent, Ms. Purdy barely needs to think at all. “It may have something to do with permissiveness,” Purdy explains. “When I speak to Wesleyan students about the consequences of their actions, they don’t seem at all worried about the possibility of legal or administrative repercussions. When you talk to students nationwide, they’re very nervous about getting caught.”
This level of protection translates smoothly into the outside perception of Wesleyan as a sort of drug school. From Purdy’s data, the pre-freshman who enter into Wesleyan already have much higher drinking and smoking rates than the average student their age. “I don’t know how those two things relate exactly,” Purdy says. “Do we just attract students who then create a drug culture? Do we have a drug culture that is then externally fed?”
Whatever the case may be, it would be somewhat foolish to ignore the way in which Wesleyan students view substances, and how they use them as a result. “Wesleyan students feel very entitled to use and drink. They see it as a right.”
Perhaps there is no greater showcase of this attitude than the Tour de Franzia, which has long been banned by the school’s administration due to the astronomical damage it causes to the school, and the city of Middletown as a whole, as well as for the number of students who end up hospitalized due to the night’s proceedings. Despite this, the Tour was an annual event, seemingly inaugurated by the emails that the administration sends out in the weeks leading up to it. These messages promise suspension for participation, drunk or sober.
“I remember a forum that we did on the Tour a few years back,” reminisces Tanya. “All of the students in attendance explained what a great communal event it was, how responsible the majority of people were. They were really eloquent and thoughtful about the issue.”
That night, Tanya went out to see what the Tour was all about. Administrators had refused to allow the event at the forum, but students had implied that it would happen anyway. So, Ms. Purdy took the opportunity to get an honest perspective.
“It was disgusting. And it was really sad,” she says. “I saw two different students so drunk thatthey peed themselves and didn’t even notice. Then someone pulled a fire alarm, which on its own is intensely problematic, and when the trucks arrived, students simply walked out in front of them, completely oblivious.” She pauses for a moment, thinking. “I love Wesleyan students. And I don’t just say that because I work here and I’m supposed to. But, that night, I was shocked and heartbroken to see these students, who are usually so smart, and so self-aware, put their own safety, and that of their friends in such complete jeopardy.”
In many ways, James thinks events like this can be responsible for the wider patterns of substance abuse among students. “I would never blame my drinking or my using on any person, or any thing. That would be dishonest. I made the choices. Those choices were my responsibility.” At the same time, though, he think its worth acknowledging that the normalization of binge drinking, and of the sense that it’s not any one else’s business, doesn’t help.
"You’ve got to be clear that even when your choices are your own, your choices will be inflected with what is allowed, and advised, and enjoyed in your environment. That holds a lot of sway for people. So, when you’re having trouble studying for finals, and you hear that there’s some kid who hides baggies of Adderall and Ritalin in the library stacks to help people out, and that this kid is cool, your perception begins to shift. It does. Even if it’s not the driving force, it’s still a perpetual motion machine.” He pauses, and when he resumes speaking it is with a sort of vigor that seems to twinkle just beyond the periphery of anger. “It’s not about weakness of will. It’s not about some sort of moral shortcoming. It’s that people have fears and needs and wants, and a given environment has different methods and patterns and attitudes towards how those feeling can be dealt with.”
In James’ case, those feelings were dealt with in extremes. “I’m a textbook case of escalation,” he explains. “I mean, I very quickly went south with my patterns. I was a fucking rocket ship.” By sophomore year, James was drinking almost every night, and had abandoned pot for Xanax, which he would pick up on breaks and bring back to campus in his suitcase. “It was so so stupid of me,” he says. “If I had gotten caught, I would have been so fucked. So completely fucking fucked.”
In addition to this, he was able to secure hallucinogens relatively easily from friends at school, and spent a few days during finals week searching for those baggies in the Olin stacks.
“I honestly don’t know what I was thinking,” he chuckles, darkly.
That’s not to say that the road to recovery always seemed easier, or more logical. As he walks, James recounts his early frustrations with AA, and his gradual, mounting understanding of the program. “I feel like, in a way, people in early recovery are poised to hate their first few meetings. It can feel like people are talking down to you, or getting too close. It can feel like everything you value is being called into question. Oh, and of course the idea that you’re being inducted into some sort of religion or cult.”
If there is anything that still haunts AA, it is the program’s designation as “spiritual”, a notion which runs definitively through the Twelve Steps. In the third step, the alcoholic is told to turn his life over to a Higher Power, which, in the AA Big Book, is referred to casually as God.
"I mean, it can be a doorknob, though,” James says, laughing. “No one gives a shit. The point is that you’re not the biggest thing in the world. Your needs don’t come first all the time. You may not be 100% in control of your life.” He pauses for a second before going on. “The way I tell people to think of it is, you’ve had a Higher Power that you answer to. That’s been the alcohol. That’s been your God, that you’ve been willing to do the dumbest shit in service of. You just need to find a better one. You have the whole world to choose from.”
“There are always going to be misconceptions about recovery programs,” Ms. Purdy agrees.
“In the end, they’re in a tough spot, because the need to remain anonymous prevents them from having people come forward and say, ‘Actually, that’s not how it works.’”
Factors such as these often play a large role in discouraging people from entering or attempting recovery. “It’s hard,” Purdy says. “It is really really hard, and people are often looking for any excuse not to do it, not to have to realize they need it. If you can find one thing that seems like a fair argument to stay away from AA, you’re gonna go with that until you’ve hit the very bottom. James agrees. “I went in there,” he says, “absolutely certain that I’d just come out, and go right back to where I was. To me, it was just a way to get my parents off my back. If the program hadn’t been able to really kick my ass and make me care, I would most likely be dead. And I really mean that. It was so easy, here, for me to make excuses for my behavior. I would see the way in which some people acted, and decide it was just easier to use than not to.”
That’s not to say that addiction is posed to consume the school. “I don’t think that Wesleyan has a higher percentage of addicts than any other college campus,” James says. “I obviously don’t have the stats, but I would say we’re the same as other places.” He scrunches his face, and searches for his point, jokingly holding out his hand to promise that he has one in mind. “I don’t think everyone who gets crazy on the weekend is an addict or an alcoholic. But I think we’re in a place where those who may be are more likely to be swiftly convinced that they’re not.” He pauses once more. “I think we have the same number of addicts, but because of the way in which we view substances, we have comparatively few who are in a position to recognize that their usage is dangerous, or worthy of a critical eye. I don’t think the notion of addiction registers as a possibility, and I don’t think the idea of recovery registers as an option.”
Ultimately, according to Purdy, the mass of those who are in Recovery@ for personal recovery (as opposed to those using it for counseling regarding the substance use of a family member or friend) come from an intensive rehabilitation clinic. “We have a very well off community in many ways,” Purdy states flatly. “So most of those people who suffer from serious substance use and do end up recovering, do so by a paid treatment program.” For those who don’t have the resources to participate in such a program Purdy admits there needs to be an alternative. Whether or not Recovery@ could ever be that alternative, reach out to create the drive for recovery in the way that the structures of rehab do, she is not sure.
By the time, James and I reach his dorm, it is around 9:30, and the campus has been blanketed in the night, the buildings and their edges softened as though the whole of the world had been smoothed over in one great stroke. In apartments and houses across the university, students are no doubt preparing for the evening, setting out the typical Friday night trappings: frosted handles of cheap vodka, legions of red plastic cups, one or two dainty shot glasses bodies craning and then blooming, like small crystal orchids.
“I hope they all have a good time tonight.” James smiles. As he speaks, there’s no bitterness in his voice, no sarcasm or judgment, and he seems to have picked up some of the excitement that moves through a college campus on the evenings of the weekend.
“I hope they all get what they’re looking for,” he says, and then he steps inside, and the click of his door closing splits the crisp black like a starting bell.