The Power of Narrative and Vulnerability in Self-Disclosure
What Students in recovery most need is to be understood by other students, staff and faculty.
By Nika Gueci
Substance abuse has unimaginable costs. National statistics tell a staggering story when it comes to the number of people affected, and costs related to crime, work productivity or health care are at $740 billion annually. But nothing compares to the costs on human lives — both for those who have personally battled substance abuse and for those who have felt the toll in our loved ones.
My first husband, Ryan, was a statistic in the early years of the opioid crisis. He was brilliant and handsome, graduating top of his nursing class with job offers lined up. He loved helping people and had a deep well in his heart for those who were without hope. He was especially drawn to terminal patients and would sit by their bed as they took their last breaths. He was extraordinary, but his story is familiar — a shoulder injury and subsequent operation left him with a dependence on painkillers. When the prescriptions stopped but the hunger remained, his profession as a nurse allowed him relatively easy access to morphine. Once the hospital caught wind of his use and fired him, he turned to heroin. After a year of use, our families and friends witnessed him change into someone whom we did not recognize. At 27, his autopsy report marked cause of death as acute drug intoxication.
At the time, I was a neophyte university administrator working in college health — specifically substance use prevention, which placed me in an interesting juxtaposition. During the day, I coordinated prevention and harm reduction programs. At night, I navigated the unrelenting and violent aftershocks of my husband’s addiction. Although my job centered on messaging and programming to fight the stigma around substance misuse, I was too ashamed to accept that these messages applied to me. Therefore, I kept quiet about the daily traumatic events on the home front.
Fast-forward a decade, the opioid crisis has morphed into a raging epidemic. It is safe to acknowledge that most everyone in America has been touched by their own or another’s substance use. All populations and demographics have been affected, including college students. Federal response to the epidemic has included monetary incentives for universities to create collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) for students in recovery from alcohol and other drugs. Universities establish CRPs to provide a structural system of recovery advocacy and social support. This support can increase community and reduce the isolation that students in recovery may experience in an environment that they perceive as the antithesis of sobriety. Their ability to thrive depends on relapse prevention and community support — important factors in university retention, persistence and graduation efforts. Within the scope of the larger drug epidemic, CRPs can make all the difference in the lives of students in recovery.
Recently, I spent two years building and leading an effective CRP within a local university. In conducting my dissertation research, I learned about and experienced the effects and potential of such efforts firsthand. But this also cast me into an area full of memories and great vulnerability. My vulnerability was compounded by my preconceived need for secrecy about my past. I came to realize that I have never recognized or explored the unconscious bias that forced me to keep quiet years ago.
The mission of the CRP and the focus of my dissertation was to build a university culture that was inclusive of every student by reducing the stigma associated with being in recovery or receiving help for addiction. Inclusion, in this sense, meant the acceptance of diverse experiences and narratives. Understanding these narratives was the foundational research step toward building the CRP, where I asked students in recovery about their background and what they most needed to have the best college experience. This first cycle of research allowed me to determine that what students in recovery most needed was to be understood by other students, staff and faculty. These students wanted others to know what it means to be in recovery and the weight they carried to be where they are. They wanted their stories to be heard. This sparked the connection to and power of personal narrative for me.
To fill this need, I developed a training called “Recovery 101” designed for peer educators (fellow college students working for university wellness) who were able to support their peers, such as those in recovery or thinking about recovery. The learning objectives for the peer educators were to gain knowledge about the recovery process and enhance positive attitudes toward students in recovery. The peer educators had to be equipped with both knowledge and a positive attitude toward supporting the recovery process. This training began with a knowledge-building lecture and ended with a panel of students in recovery sharing their stories.
Through the power of narrative, the student panel was by far the most impactful portion of “Recovery 101.” At their level of comfort, the students in recovery voluntarily shared their experience. Talking points included:
- Why and how they began their recovery in college;
- What support from other students, faculty or staff was helpful to their recovery; and
- What words or actions from students, faculty or staff within the college environment were harmful to their recovery.
The peer educators had time for questions and answers with the panel.
The objective was to provide peer educators with the background needed to support students in recovery. I conducted interviews to garner viewpoints from the peer educators to see the impact of the training. Although a full review of the qualitative data is beyond the scope of this article, the key point I wish to emphasize is the transformative power of narrative. When asked about their opinions of people in recovery pretraining, the peer educators’ attitudes were either neutral or negative (e.g., “I didn’t have a positive opinion of people who were addicted to something or in recovery. I still did associate that with people who had made bad decisions, and it was more so their fault. … I had biased opinions.”). These attitudes were usually driven by personal experience and family history, which led the peer educators to have “more of a negative light when looking at those people.”
After hearing the narratives of the student panel, the peer educators gained a compassionate understanding toward those in recovery (e.g., “I might have been willing to say that becoming addicted to some substance may be a student’s fault, a result of bad decisions. I recognize now the outside impact. … I gained a lot of respect for people who are in recovery.”). The peer educators also expressed an enhanced ability to put “a face to the name” of those in recovery (e.g., “Being able to talk with the student panel, I see how bad addiction can affect somebody, how hard it is to recover from.”). The personal stories of students illustrated the life of the student in recovery and their individual struggle. A peer educator stated that the narratives of the student panel “put a human face to the, ‘when your brain is addicted, this is what it looks like,’ there’s a person that that brain belongs to … here’s this real live person dealing with this.”
The peer educators moved from believing that substance misuse was a result of “bad decisions” to an “increase in empathy” for students in recovery (e.g., “The more knowledgeable I can be, the more perspectives I can hear, the better I can treat everyone I meet and the more aware I can be of conditions or things they’re going through.”). Compassion is a positive trait in a peer educator, one that can be strengthened through the use of hearing various narratives and perspectives.
The “Recovery 101” training received a great response. Students in recovery were sharing their narratives. Peer educators were responding to these stories by enhancing their understanding and ultimately helping to create an inclusive university environment. Yet, as an administrator, my own narrative felt unsafe to reveal. I could only imagine the questions that may arise if anyone knew my story.
I imagined questions like, how can a woman whose spouse overdosed successfully lead students in the CRP? Was she ever on heroin, too? Why didn’t she help him? Most importantly, if she couldn’t save him then, how can she help us now? Although full of doubt, I realized that an authentic narrative was important when working with high-need, vulnerable populations and that any disingenuousness would be immediately recognized.
So, I shared this part of my life with one of my students. Then I told another student and another.
The story of Ryan’s death was not a glorified way to bypass significant connection and position myself as a “normie” claiming to know the struggles of students in recovery. Rather, it was an authentic communication pathway that served to denounce the stigma associated with substance misuse. I did not know what it meant to experience addiction, but I did know what it meant to be powerless. In the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, powerlessness refers to lack of control toward a substance. But for me, the powerlessness was watching the person I loved slowly kill himself.
Rather than holding onto my story as a sacred secret or using its revelation as a badge of honor, I flipped my own script to use my experiences as a way to better communicate with the students I meant to serve. Students in recovery are often navigating through their own narratives of self-disclosure (many are in Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous, communities that welcome deep, rich descriptions of personal experience). So perhaps communal narrative-sharing could be a tool both for enhanced communication and for modeling self-disclosure and vulnerability where it can help another.
Substance use is highly stigmatized and misunderstood. This stigma hurts us all — in that students who are dealing with substances struggle not only from the repercussions of the use itself but also secrecy and deep shame. Their loved ones then share that same shame, guilt and confusion. One way that we can actively reduce stigma is to show that addiction is not a character weakness, but it is rather an illness that can be tempered with evidence-based approaches. The benefit with transparency is that it illuminates the very real stories of substance misuse and puts a human face to it. So that those who are thinking about reaching out for help know they have a safe, empathetic and unbiased platform to do so.
My experiences talking to students in recovery and my research on peer educators revealed the power of narrative and vulnerability to debunk misconceptions and enhance empathy and compassion. Self-disclosure can be a pathway to rapport and trust. However, in disclosing, it is crucial to not dominate the conversation with your story at the expense of another’s. I view the role of the administrator as a facilitator of communication and trust among students and their peers. Therefore, my focus is on continuing to promote diverse narratives from a range of backgrounds in an effort to build an inclusive, compassionate campus community.
Once information is given away, it cannot be taken back; therefore, it must be used when circumstance and intuition tell you it makes sense to and is safe and right to do so. It is not advisable or feasible to relay confidential information about yourself to students or peers indiscriminately. My personal experience is just that — personal experience. With the self-disclosure of Ryan’s life and death, I opened a vulnerable space within myself where others could choose to step in. This is an important point to take away from the power of narrative and self-disclosure, in the power of humanness and vulnerability. Administrators, faculty or others in positions of authority are often hesitant to let students get a sense of their own vulnerability or to see any chinks in the armor. And, as I have noted, there must be caution and wisdom in showing this. But when it is safe and helpful to do so, by letting students see the humanness and vulnerable places, we may be able to make connection and show empathy that can lessen the alienation, trauma and sting of the struggle.
I came away from my role as manager of the collegiate recovery program with a better sense of myself, a greater openness to the experiences of others, and a transformation of the sorrow, fear and shame that gripped my speech for years. Individual stories create and shape a societal narrative. Perhaps this self-disclosure was a small contribution in designing a culture where it is acceptable and encouraged to reveal your struggles and to openly ask and receive support without reproach.
Nika Gueci is the inaugural executive director for University Engagement at the Arizona State University (ASU) Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience. Under her direction, the center advances an environment of well-being through the promotion of skills such as mindfulness and compassion to support lifelong resilience. In her previous role, Gauci served as associate director of the ASU Health Services Executive Team. Her duties included directing ASU’s first collegiate recovery program, Recovery Rising, and scaling an innovative, outcomes-driven model to advance a university culture consistent with the ASU Charter, one that is inclusive of students in recovery from alcohol and other drug addiction.