The Ripple Effect of Addiction
How the University of North Carolina Wilmington created a safe place for students who have been affected by addiction in their families and in close relationships.
College is supposed to be the best four years of life. For Bridget, it had been anything but.
A sophomore at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), Bridget still hadn’t found a home on campus. Although more than 13,000 students surrounded her every day, she felt alone.
No one understood why she wasn’t looking forward to going home for Thanksgiving break or why turning 21 wasn’t a milestone she really wanted to celebrate.
Addiction runs in Bridget’s family. Two of her immediate family members are alcoholics. And when someone has a substance abuse problem, the disease affects the entire family emotionally, psychologically, and behaviorally. There is no normal.
After months of feeling disconnected from everyone around her, Bridget began desperately searching for a place to fit in. That’s when she stumbled on the website for Crossroads, UNCW’s substance abuse prevention and education program. In addition to sponsoring outreach programs and support groups for people in recovery, Crossroads hosted Al-Anon meetings for friends and family members of problem drinkers.
“I was looking for support, so I thought I might as well go and see,” Bridget recalls. “I was already uninvolved and unhappy. I didn’t have anything to lose.”
When Bridget hesitantly walked into the room for her first Al-Anon meeting, she was shocked. She recognized two women, seniors who were impressive leaders on campus. “They’re the people I want to be,” she thought to herself.
“I connected with people who were not only like me, but who were also people I wanted to be like,” she says. “Even if it didn’t fix anything, knowing that what I was going through was real allowed me to feel more settled and at ease with myself, and I felt I had a lot stronger ties to UNCW.”
That was three years ago. Now Bridget is the thriving senior welcoming new students into the room. But instead of Al-Anon meetings, Bridget attends The Ripple Effect, a peer support group for students who have been affected by addiction in their families and close relationships.
Creating a Community
Located only five miles from the Atlantic Ocean, UNCW has a reputation as a party school. For 25 years through Crossroads, the campus has offered nationally recognized programs to prevent substance abuse among students.
Aimee Hourigan, assistant director for campus prevention, worked with students who identified as being in recovery, and every year, the informal list of students in recovery grew. At the same time, there was a groundswell of requests for services by students affected by someone else’s substance abuse. At UNCW, about 5% of students identify as being in recovery, and about 40% of students say they have an immediate family member who has a problem, Hourigan says. Crossroads needed to build its efforts.
In spring 2012, students formed an Al-Anon group on campus, and six months later, Crossroads established the CRC Hawks, a Collegiate Recovery Community where students in recovery find social and academic support. The Al-Anon group was less than a year old when Bridget went to her first meeting, and the students were struggling.
“They didn’t have a ton of experience with a 12-Step organization,” Hourigan says. “It was like having an AA meeting where everyone only has 30 days sober.”
Not only was it a room of newbies, but it was also often a room with just Bridget and one other person. But she had finally found a safe space. She was not going to lose it now. The group decided to change directions.
Before Thanksgiving break in 2014, instead of another 12-Step meeting, Crossroads announced a series about how to cope with going home to a family that might not be healthy. The seminars were a success. Armed with funding from Transforming Youth Recovery and Gov. Pat McCrory, Crossroads hired UNCW alumna Lauren Riverbark to assist the group as it moved from a 12-Step-based group to a facilitated support group.
In January 2015, Riverbark sat down with a group of students who had been regularly attending Al-Anon meetings and the seminar series and asked them what they were looking for. The first thing they wanted to do was rename the group. The students talked about the impact of substance abuse on their families, what happens to the family when addiction becomes a part of it, and how addiction puts stress on anyone who is part of the home. They came up with The Ripple Effect.
Finding People Who Get It
College is not necessarily an abstinence-friendly place to be, and students who have a sibling who abuses alcohol or a parent who uses drugs often do not know how to interact socially with those typical college behaviors.
“For people who grew up with a parent or a sibling who was using, day-to-day life was scary,” says Missy Reed, who co-facilitates The Ripple Effect with Riverbark. “Students feel as though other students don’t quite get it. Other students were worried about getting their homework done, and they were worried they might walk in on their brother dead from an overdose.”
Everyone who comes to The Ripple Effect has a different story, but no one has to explain why they feel like they are always waiting for the other shoe to drop or why they have difficulty dating. Instead, they brainstorm about how they can go to a party and explain why they do not want to drink or how they can be smart about their own drinking.
“It can be difficult for students who haven’t been affected by addiction to understand just how it can affect every single part of one’s life,” says Ashley*, a junior at UNCW and a member of
The Ripple Effect. “It is always in the back — or the front — of your mind, so we have to learn how to go about our lives and still function in a healthy way.”
The Ripple Effect meets at noon every Wednesday in the Fisher Student Center. Each meeting starts with check-in where students can vent or ask for feedback and support with things about which they are struggling. Sometimes the process takes five minutes. Other times, it lasts the whole session.
“It’s a great outlet for me because it is not a strict set of procedures and rules,” Ashley says. “It is just a group of people who understand one another and are there for one another on campus.”
Sometimes students who attend The Ripple Effect are in recovery themselves, which provides an opportunity for the students to learn from one another.
“It helps students in recovery understand the impact of addiction on their family, and it helps the students who have been affected really, truly understand what the addict has gone through,” Riverbark says. “Sometimes it makes it easier for students in The Ripple Effect to forgive their family members. They understand the disease better because they’ve heard that experience from somebody who lived through it.”
Healing Through Understanding
In addition to serving as a social support system for other students who are affected by addiction, The Ripple Effect also helps students learn wellness strategies to cope with the challenges of having a friend or family member with a substance abuse problem. After check-in, if there is time left, Riverbark and Reed facilitate a group discussion.
One topic that comes up a lot is boundaries. Substance abuse can often blur boundaries in relationships. If a student has a sibling who is abusing substances, the parents tend to violate their boundaries, being unnecessarily intrusive and overly curious. Or, if the parent is abusing drugs or alcohol, the child sometimes assumes the role of the adult.
During a recent meeting, students talked about different types of boundaries and why it can be hard for them to set healthy ones. Students are able to freely talk about the guilt they feel if they have to say “no” to a loved one or the responsibility they feel to do certain things that might cross their boundaries for a family member. The students practice saying phrases, such as “When blank happens, I feel blank” or “It’s important to me that you not do blank around me anymore.
Ashley lost her brother to an overdose, so her parents have always been overprotective. More conflicts arose when Ashley went to college and became more independent despite still living at home. “The Ripple Effect has been there as my parents and I have worked to redefine our relationship, set boundaries, and work through conflicts that naturally occur as I get older,” she says.
At another meeting, the group discussed trust in relationships. Substance abuse can have a negative impact on trust. A person who abuses substances is often unreliable. Developing trust can be a constant struggle in families with a member who has a substance abuse disorder.
During group, the students defined what trust is and what it is not, as well as where they feel safe. The facilitators handed out a worksheet, and the students answered questions, such as “How much do you trust yourself to make decisions” and “How much to do you trust a family member to offer support when you have a personal problem?”
“The most important lesson I have learned through The Ripple Effect is that I cannot fix everything,” Ashley says. “It is important for my mental and emotional health to not feel like I am responsible for the health and happiness of everyone I know. I can do my best to help others, but I also need to be aware of when I’m stretching myself too thin or trying to fix something I cannot.”
Other meetings might include progressive muscle relaxation exercises, tips for how to get better sleep, how to handle unhelpful rumination, how to speak to others about the role of addiction and recovery in their lives, and self-affirmations.
In May 2016, Bridget graduated from UNCW with a degree in psychology. College might not have been the best four years of her life, but because of The Ripple Effect, the past two years have been.
“My first experience with the recovery community was through my family members,” Bridget says. “Their anonymity protected them, but it left me feeling isolated. It was their secret, but I was affected. Having this community let me transition out of that isolation. Not only did The Ripple Effect give me tools I could take with me, but it also gave me a home.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.