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A campus in recovery: Battling alcoholism

Posted April 2

— A small group of happy picnickers sits by the banks of a river when a sharp cry is heard above the wind. A man is tumbling through the water unable to get to shore. Without help, the man might die.

Distressed, the onlookers wade into the current and pull the stranger ashore. However, there is no time to rejoice because another victim is coming around the bend. More and more people keep coming down the river. Many are saved, but some slip by, and some pull their rescuers down with them.

Eventually, one person walks upstream to see why so many people are going into the water. There, a large sign with thick lettering reads, "Come on in, the water is fine."

Elinor Landess, director of the Campus and Community Coalition, used this analogy to describe the mindset that surrounds alcoholism in American culture. Victims are pulled out of the water, but no one takes down the sign.

The public health model is taking down the sign. It is the mindset that you can pull individuals out of the water all day long, or you can treat the environment that is causing people to fall in in the first place.

“The public health approach is about treating the environment rather than the individual,” Landess said. “The other thing it does is says the accountability needs to be educational rather than punitive.”

The Campus and Community Coalition was organized to bring together all of the stakeholders of addiction -- the campus, local business, law enforcement, town government and community members -- to create a comprehensive policy to address all things alcohol in Chapel Hill.

The 22 initiatives put together by The Coalition solidifies firm policy on how to address alcohol infractions in Chapel Hill. They cover everything from fake IDs, compliance checks conducted by Chapel Hill police, doubling the amount of training restaurants and bars receive, and holding campus organizations accountable for underage drinking at sanctioned activities.

“One thing that we know can mitigate problems is consistent and swift enforcement,” Landess said. “Word gets out, and students pay attention.”

The new policy focuses on education, policy transparency, and, of course, enforcement. Frank Allison, the program coordinator of recovery initiatives at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the college creates an intersection where misuse of substances can become exaggerated.

“In some regards, we have a perfect storm,” Allison said.

Allison said that there are between 50 and 75 students on the main campus who are seeking some form of help with recovery in the collegiate recovery program. Some of these students are first years who are starting to question their substance use. Others, like Bart Arconti, have been in recovery for years. Arconti, a 25-year-old junior from Maryland, said his sobriety from drugs and alcohol took him years to achieve and being on a college campus can be challenging.

“It is definitely harder to connect with people on campus who are pursuing alcohol and drugs when the main social aspects of their lives revolve around alcohol, weed and stuff like that,” Arconti said.

Arconti said his substance addiction started when he was 13 to help numb a feeling of depression and feeling out of place in his own skin.

“There was never a time in my life where I didn’t escape in some means,” he said. “…When I discovered those social lubricants like alcohol and drugs, they worked instantly.”

Arconti said his path to substance abuse began with alcohol and marijuana because those were the easiest to come by at such a young age. He later progressed to oxycodone, cocaine and heroin, but he still considers alcohol one of the hardest addictions to overcome.

“I think alcohol is one of the worst drugs out, I really do,” he said. “It is almost as bad as those other chemicals because it is sold legally, and it is socially OK to do it, and it impairs your senses. Like heroin and oxycodone to a certain degree in certain ways, but alcohol makes you sloppy.”

As his dependency grew, so did his desperation and willingness to engage in risky behaviors in order to get his fix. He said he lied, cheated, stole, borrowed and begged in order to foot the bill.

“There were points in my use where I was spending $90 a day to keep my habit,” Arconti said.

Although he knew he was hurting himself, getting well was not easy. He was in and out of treatment centers, rehabs, and even jail for years. He said the symptoms of withdrawal were so painful it was nearly impossible to withstand. He attempted to explain exactly what it is like to go through withdrawals from substances like oxycodone and heroin.

“It is the most uncomfortable feeling in the entire world,” Arconti said. “You want to not move, but you have this sensation in every joint in your body that there is something that you have to move. It feels like bugs crawling in your body, in your joints, in your hands, in your knees, in your feet, and it makes you have to move.

“At the same time, your bowels are just emptying. You're hot. Your nose runs a lot, and the sun will make you sneeze. You just sneeze all day long. And, you are just in pain everywhere because you have been numbing the pain for so long that you had that it comes back in full force.”

He said that alcohol symptoms could be different, including dizziness, headaches, nausea and body pain, but he was often experiencing both at the same time.

“I had to go cold turkey, and I didn’t sleep for 11 days,” he said speaking of one of his time in rehab. “I can still vividly remember that. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.”

In April 2013, he had a spiritual awakening and was able to get his life back on track, a track that eventually led him to UNC-CH. He is now an active member in the recovery programs on campus. He said that treating his addiction took more than just removing the substances, but took a spiritual mindedness and continued support.

“To just take the drugs away,” he said, “the drugs or the alcohol that someone is using to feel normal. … The problem lies deeper than that. It is not the drugs and alcohol. It is some fundamental issue with, I hate to use the word spirit, but the psyche of the individual.”

And, although he found recovery outside of the school, he said he was drawn to UNC-CH for its support surrounding addiction.

“I bet if you polled 100 students, five of them would know we have a collegiate recovery program,” Allison said. “We are probably one of the best-kept secrets on campus.”

He said that awareness of resources was important for students like Arconti but also for the rest of the campus population.

“If you take a step back and look at the 1,800 undergraduates we have, there is a small number of them that might need assistance with their use,” Allison said, “but there is a much bigger number that have been impacted by it.”

In order to fill that gap, the collegiate recovery program created The Ripple Effect to meet with students who have been affected by addiction in ways other than use. Some students are affected by connections with addiction for the first time as a student, Aaron Post, persistence coordinator for the Wellness Center, said. But, he said that for many students it is a repetitive pattern.

“We gravitate towards what we have already done instead of trying something new,” he said. “We do it kind of subconsciously. So, sometimes people from families where there is always a crisis, where someone has had an issue with drugs or alcohol, and there is always a crisis going on, they might gravitate towards friends where there is always a crisis going on and the wonder ‘why do I feel so bad and why do I feel so anxious all the time? Why is it that when things are calm I am always waiting for the next crisis to come around the corner?’”

The Ripple Effect helps students deal with these relationships, new and old, in a healthy way.

“When someone in your life is struggling with something like that, first of all, you care about that person and want to take care of them, but also there is the sense of consistently being on the ledge," Post said. "It is almost like a perpetual Jack-in-the-Box. … You are just waiting for it to pop out at you. And, that creates anxiety.”

Allison said that most students who experiment with addictive substances will never have experiences that require intervention and long-term treatment, but the presence of alcohol and addiction will never leave the campus. He said he wants students to be educated enough about the issue to reach out when they are in trouble.

“We are invested, and we care about the students at Carolina,” Allison said, “and we don’t want students to not call because they are afraid of the repercussions.”

One step in removing that fear comes back to the policy shift that was put in place earlier this year. Now, students who need to call 911 for themselves or a friend can do so without fear of legal retribution. There may be educational and intervention-based repercussions, but the town of Chapel Hill is on their side.

Landess said that this comes back to the idea of creating an educational viewpoint that treats the environment and understanding of alcohol and addiction rather than treating addiction as an individual’s moral problem.

“Students are always going to go to bars,” she said. “We have no illusions that we are going to stop students from doing what they want to do. Our hope is that they do it in less risky ways. My hope for students is that they will feel empowered to make the choice that is right for them.”

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