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Opening up about addiction at UNC

You would never know his UNC career has differed immensely from that of his peers. You wouldn’t know he once doubted he would make it to graduation day. You wouldn’t know he battled alcoholism and now, more than three years sober, is continuing to thrive on campus with the help of a new student support group.

Owen arrived at UNC in 2007 from a sheltered high school. Like many freshmen, he started drinking, but over time found that his body reacted differently to alcohol than others did.

“Some people just can’t process alcohol at all and once they start it’s hard for them to stop. It can be impossible for them to stop. They’ll take more than they intended when they start.”

Alcoholism runs in Owen’s family, and the risk of alcoholism is higher for those with a family history.

“Some people, we just get consumed by it, and it is not all environment — it is an interaction between genes and environment” he said.

After a gradual decline into addiction, Owen had several drinking citations and a negative balance in his debit account. He stole from his sister, found out about missed family vacations through Facebook, and even began to lose track of his hygiene.

On October 15, 2010, the last day of Owen’s alcohol and drug use, he drove drunk to his father’s office around 9:30 a.m. His father decided to take his son to UNC Hospitals where Owen met the doctor he says saved his life.

As his life spiraled beyond his control, UNC administrators and Student Wellness helped him through multiple medical leaves and semesters away.

“They viewed alcoholism like a disease and they gave me everything I needed, and all the time that I needed,” he said.

Owen is certainly not alone, with the fastest growing new population with alcoholism or drug addiction being people between the ages 18 to 25, said Dean Blackburn, director of Student Wellness.

“UNC realized a number of years ago as we were identifying more and more students who had developed a dependency and needed to get treatment from a local counselor, and outpatient clinic or inpatient service,” he said. “When they came back it was still really hard on college campuses to maintain their goal of complete sobriety or abstinence.”

Last year, the Carolina Recovery Community (CRC) was created on a student-centered model where students are supported through programs, events and celebrations of their sobriety, Blackburn said. Today, there are around 20 students involved in the CRC.

“When a student is trying to remain sober, they have to be more conscious of how they spend their time and where they go,” Blackburn said. “The CRC provides additional support, community and activities that keep them safer.”

Blackburn said a new staff member will be hired for the growing program to work with students on course advising, plan fun activities and service opportunities, and work to find the student housing conducive to sober living.

UNC joined a growing list of universities offering collegiate recovery programs based on a model program at Texas Tech University.

The University of Michigan created a formal program in 2012 based on the same model, creating a recovery community on campus. The Collegiate Recovery Program is designed to help students support each other, not to duplicate resources available off campus, said Program Manager Matt Statman.

Collegiate recovery programs are separate from treatment programs. For some, a college program combined with a twelve step program may be enough to get sober, Statman said. But others require more intensive care such as residential treatment, outpatient treatment or transitional housing.

“When I think about interventions for people who have addictions, I think about it as a spectrum of services from not intensive to very intensive, and you mix and match from that spectrum,” Statman said.

Blackburn said students can ask both UNC Counseling and Psychological Services and Student Wellness for help assessing their needs and seeking out resources.

One place UNC has referred students to in the past is Four Circles Recovery Center, a residential treatment program in Asheville. At Four Circles, small groups of young adults stay for between 60 and 90 days and alternate between living in the wilderness and at a residential center, said Meg Nygren, admissions and business development director.

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Nygren said young people take skills learned backpacking in a national park such as leadership and confidence and apply them to everyday life.

Owen said his time in a rehabilitation center in Virginia was some of the most fun weeks of his life. Today, he hopes to show others struggling with addiction that there is a way out.

“I didn’t see myself ever getting better because I knew my personality. I knew how hooked I was,” he said. “It was a very lonely place.”

He is working to pay back his debts and now helps others suffering from addiction.

“It’s a wonderful responsibility.”