Clean in College


I was anxious when I reached six months clean and called up my favorite rehab counselor. The receptionist answered, and I asked for the women’s inpatient unit, trying to remember if Saturday nights were Julie’s shift. The day I “graduated,” Julie had told me I was like a daughter to her. A lot had changed in the past six months—24 hours at a time. The receptionist transferred me, and the on-hold music almost lulled me into a state of calm. But then someone answered, “women’s inpatient.”  It was Julie, and I heard my voice say my name.

“Julie, it’s Maia. I know you probably don’t remember me . . .”


I told her I had made it to six months clean, and here I was calling her—just as she had told me to do the day I left treatment.

“I always knew you could do it.”  She said it with so much zeal and assuredness. How had she known, when I didn’t?  Back when I had two days clean, why couldn’t she have shown me a movie of what my life would be like now?

We spoke for quite a while. While we spoke, my mind’s eye took a tour of the unit. Rehab is the place where everything is hard and plastic and cold to the touch.  It’s where everyone gets constipated and has to start taking fiber pills. It’s that strange in-between environment that’s not quite as sterile as a hospital but not quite as artificially “homey” as a hotel room.

As we talked, I knew exactly where Julie was sitting, keeping an eye on the girls as they watched their one hour of Celebrity Rehab before lights out. I imagined myself reading the Twelve Steps at the end of group each night, still not quite understanding what they meant. I remembered my pregnant friend smoking outside with one of the speakers who came to share her story. I imagined the ceiling in my room—the way I used to lie in bed and stare at it, wondering how I had gotten there.

Julie was very emotional now, and I felt my own voice getting shaky. I could still taste the cake from the awkward Narcotics Anonymous (NA) dance I had been so happy to leave 20 minutes before. We finished talking, and she made me promise to come speak at the rehab unit as soon as I was back in town. Back in town? I had forgotten where I was. I’m in Burlington, Vermont, now, not at home in Chicago. That time and place seems so far away to me now. I’ve got three years, one month, and 19 days clean today—and I feel three years, 1 month, and 19 days old.

At four months clean, I had left Chicago for the University of Vermont. I was actually still in treatment when I found out I had been accepted there. Both times I applied for college, I was either in a psychiatric ward or in the last months of using—strange times to be making big decisions.

As soon as I arrived in Burlington, I stopped going to my Twelve Step meetings.  Misery didn’t take long to set in. I soon felt alienated at the university. When I studied at the library during finals, it was hard to ignore the sniffing sounds, as other students snorted lines of Adderall to stay awake and study. There was always a faint odor of marijuana in the air when I walked down Pearl Street to my apartment. On Friday and Saturday nights, as I was heading home from an NA meeting, hoards of people would be walking down to Church Street to get drunk. And once I got back to my apartment, I could seldom escape the squealing of the girls next door and the sounds of belligerent men yelling for the sake of making noise, drunk on their own testosterone and cheap beer.

It was hard not to be simultaneously resentful and jealous of my peers who could forget everything and act out their pure Freudian id. I sure didn’t fit in with this group. But I also couldn’t connect with the substance-free students who had never struggled with addiction.

“Maybe it was just a phase,” I would tell myself about my rock-bottom on speed of every variety. “Maybe I can have just one beer—I wasn’t a drinker anyway.”  For a long time, my inner voice and my addict voice sounded exactly the same.

What helped me to name that voice as my addiction was finding a community. After a tumultuous semester of willful struggling, I finally got back to meetings and found a sponsor.  I was working steps again and going to meetings all the time, but I had no friends, and I had forgotten how to socialize without substances. It was also around this time that I stumbled upon the brand-new Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC) on campus. It was only a semester old, with fewer than 10 members when I joined.

I forced myself to talk about everything—everything that made me uncomfortable and everything that was real for me. Through the CRC, I finally found a place to belong on campus and a community of people who weren’t just addicts, but addicts in college. These were my real peers, these people who were completely committed to trying to live clean, no matter what.

Although we have this bond, nothing can take away the awkwardness of reentering the land of the living, of rushing through the opening give-and-take dialogue of meeting new people:


“Hi there, how—”


“How are you?”

“Oh, sorry, I thought—”

“No it’s okay, I’m good . . . yeah . . .”

“Yep . . . happy to be at another meeting . . .”

After a lot of prayer and patience, I’m happy to say I have become more able to express myself honestly and embrace these moments as an amusing part of life. I really don’t need to go out every Thursday through Sunday and get trashed to feel involved in “the college experience.”  I’m content today to be sober and sane in my own way.

It was my sponsor, also a student, who forced me to go to my first CRC lunch.  She helped me to embrace structure and use it as a way to avoid isolation. After all, an addict alone is in bad company. Whenever I had a whole day of free time, I tended to invent catastrophes in my mind. This is why I attend CRC lunches every Tuesday and CRC dinners once a month. I check in with other CRC members and addicts in the community at least three times a day, and I make sure that I have to be somewhere at least once a day. I keep in contact with my sponsee every day and my sponsor a few times a week.  As part of community outreach, I chair NA meetings at the women’s jail every other week. I regulate my time by showing up for class 15 minutes early, doing schoolwork five hours a day, watching at least a movie a day (I’m a film major), and going to sleep at the same time every night. Because I am not a self-starter by nature, I make sure I have no choice in the matter. The more accountable I am to others, and the more I listen to my heart, the better I can see that what I want and what I need don’t always coincide.

As an addict, schoolwork is a blessing and a burden for me. Together with my Twelve Step work, it’s the perfect way to stay accountable and keep a schedule. It pushes me to take risks, keeps me from isolating, and makes me think when I want to be complacent. But even though it makes me strive to become the woman I want to be, it also triggers a glaring character defect of mine: I’m Maia, and I am a control freak. I want to manipulate everyone to like me or feel bad for me—to satisfy my wants, which I used to think were needs. And I don’t want to look stupid and inexperienced. Nobody does, of course, but I’m an obsessive person, and I tend to intellectualize and rationalize everything to avoid feeling anything.

When I take on a paper, I write it to please the professor, as pathetic as that might sound. I want people to like me, desperately sometimes. But I need to always remember the old program cliché, the one Julie told me over and over again in treatment: “The first thing you put in front of your recovery is the first thing you’ll lose.” To clarify: If school takes priority over my recovery, I’ll lose both my ability to stay in school, then my sobriety.  It may sound harsh, but I know it’s true for me.

By continuing to participate in the CRC and taking advantage of opportunities that presented themselves, I slowly started to feel “a part of” rather than the excluded “other.” Gaining a community and having a structured life are what saved me in my recovery, especially at college.

So, here I am, two classes left to graduate after six years of working on my undergraduate degree in film and television studies—and I decided last month to put my fledgling film career on hold and become a drug and alcohol counselor.

I never imagined I would become addicted to drugs to the point of total dereliction and have to go to rehab. I never imagined I would have the opportunities I’ve had since then. But what is most unbelievable of all is that I’m loving my life, with three years clean and counting, by the grace of God and the people in my life who support me—people like Julie, my “rehab mother,” and the other friends that I met in the CRC at the University of Vermont.

Again and again I’m reminded, sometimes rudely, that my life is not going to unfold in a way that I’ll ever be able to plan for. And for me, at this point in my recovery, there is no greater relief.

Written By Maia


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