- Associated Press - Sunday, May 3, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - It started in high school on a friend’s back porch.

Michael Levin, who was 15, put a pipe to his mouth and smoked marijuana for the first time. A couple days later, he and his friends got together and drank apple schnapps. It was his first taste of liquor.

For his buddies, those were moments of youthful indiscretion. But for Levin, it was the beginning of a battle that would climax a few years later when he arrived at Vanderbilt University.

By the time he started his sophomore year in 2010, he had added a battery of other drugs to his daily regimen of drinking and smoking. He ignored assignments and skipped classes to accommodate his addiction.

Then, one Sunday, he couldn’t manage to stay sober long enough to write a few sentences. Lying in his dorm room and staring at the ceiling, he hit rock bottom.

“Wouldn’t it be better if I didn’t wake up?” he wondered.

The next day, he met with counselors and administrators, who suggested he take medical leave. He left Vanderbilt and entered rehab at 19.

Levin is one of the growing number of college students across the country who have come to terms with their addictions in environments where casual alcohol and drug use are commonplace.

In recent years, Vanderbilt has embraced the college recovery movement, adding support services and even a special residence hall for students who are fighting to maintain their sobriety on campus.

The first collegiate recovery communities date back to the late 1970s, according to Andy Finch, a Vanderbilt professor who has researched recovery among young people for more than a decade. Today, there are more than 50 programs nationally, and many colleges are developing new efforts as perceptions of addiction continue to evolve.

“We’re understanding that this is an issue that is widespread,” Finch said of a recent spike in on-campus recovery communities. “I think for a lot of years colleges did not want to necessarily acknowledge that they had a problem.”

Vanderbilt first established a recovery community in 2007. Vanderbilt Recovery Support started modestly with small student-led recovery meetings on campus.

Katherine Drotos Cuthbert, who oversees VRS as part of her work in Vanderbilt’s Office of Wellness Programs and Alcohol Education, said it is vital that students recovering from addiction find the support they need within their campus community.

“It’s really a time for students to be able to be with others who understand,” Drotos Cuthbert said. “Sometimes people don’t get it if you have three exams the next day.”

This year, more than 50 students connected with the group, with about 10 of them attending weekly meetings.

As more students have connected with VRS, services expanded.

The group now hosts special social events and outings that are alcohol- and drug-free. There is a private student lounge where students in recovery can gather to study or chat.

Starting last fall, VRS established on-campus housing that is strategically located to avoid potential triggers, including loud parties or the smell of alcohol or marijuana. The housing also offers students a system of accountability, where they live alongside peer advocates who understand their struggles.

“Anyone in recovery, not just students, really needs a lot of support,” Drotos Cuthbert said. “Our goal is to offer as much support as we can.”

For Levin, who completed rehab and returned to Vanderbilt in 2012, the value of an on-campus support system was “impossible to measure.” He leads the weekly meetings and lives in recovery housing.

“So few universities offer that to students,” he said. “And I think so many need it.”

Soon after he returned to campus clean and sober, Levin found a home on Vanderbilt’s rowing team. He has embraced the “sport of pain tolerance” and delayed gratification that give structure to his newly disciplined lifestyle.

While addiction once threatened to squelch Levin’s dreams of becoming a physician, he said recovery has armed him with the tools to succeed. He will graduate with his bachelor’s degree May 8 and will leave Nashville for medical school this fall.

“College is an opportunity when you really are defining yourself and for a lot of people it’s their first draft of what the adult them looks like,” he said. “A lot of that self-discovery for me really began in recovery.”

Levin’s resilience is typical of college students recovering from addiction, according to Drotos Cuthbert.

“When individuals are in recovery, they’re actively seeking self-improvement,” she said. “We don’t always see that at this age.

“Students that are in recovery are focused and determined and creative. That’s what we want to show. That’s one of the beautiful things that recovery can offer.”


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