By the time I went back to college, I had four years of sobriety under my belt.
I was confident that my recovery was strong enough to withstand the unique challenges I’d face as a sober student. I wasn’t attending a school that had a reputation as a “party school” but it was an extremely competitive, high-stress environment. Most of my peers were dedicated, hard-working students who strived for perfection. They often embraced the “work hard, play hard” mantra, and I couldn’t blame them. Most of my peers, myself included, were full-time students who also worked part-time or full-time. Almost everyone I knew had taken out significant loans to afford textbooks and tuition, and we felt tremendous pressure to get our money’s worth.
Soon enough, I found out that maintaining my sobriety on campus would require more work than I had anticipated.
I was surprised to find myself longing to fit in: I wanted to be a “normal” college kid but being sober ran counter to the typical college experience. Even though I was four years removed from the lifestyle that had wreaked havoc on my life, I was still drawn to the chaos. I had to find ways to maintain my sobriety on campus, while still making friends, keeping my grades up, and staying connected to my support network off-campus. Whether you’re just starting out on your sobriety journey in higher education, or if this is your last semester, these tips can help you stay sober on campus, too.
1. Research support services that already exist on campus.
Halfway through my first semester, I was struggling to cope with the enormous academic, financial, and relationship stress factors in my life. I didn’t have time for therapy so I decided to look at my school’s homepage for help, and located a counseling center on campus. The center offered individuals, couples, and group counseling, along with a number of self-help resources.
The Mind Spa caught my eye, so I decided to check it out. It was located in a small back room of the counseling center; when I walked in, there was another student in a massage chair but it was otherwise empty. There were large, comfy cushions on the floor, a hot tea bar, a portable biofeedback machine, and light therapy lamps available. I spent many afternoons there to decompress and it truly helped re-charge me on stressful days. Thankfully, most universities offer counseling and mental health services that include resources for students with alcohol use disorders.
2. Know your triggers, set boundaries, and stick to them.
Learning to set appropriate boundaries can be a difficult process to navigate in recovery, but knowing your limits is essential to staying sober in college. I was fortunate not to attend a party school but I steered clear of obvious triggers anyway.
I didn’t attend get-togethers where I knew everyone but me would be drinking. If anyone asked, I simply told them I needed to study — which was an acceptable excuse that was universally understood and accepted. Most of my hard-working peers agreed: Studying came first.
3. Practice healthy coping skills to deal with stress and anxiety.
Staying sober on campus was less about avoiding obvious triggers and more about managing my stress and anxiety. I looked at the reasons I started drinking to begin with: It wasn’t to fit in; it was to cope with the reality of life.
While college can be fun, it can also be extremely stressful. Research consistently shows that exercise can be an effective component in stress management for coping with acute and chronic stress. I hit the gym on campus between classes at least twice a week, and there I met people with similar interests. Consistently treating this component of my addiction helped me to continue to stay sober.
4. Stay connected to your support network.
One of the most critical components of my recovery, as a student and beyond, is staying connected to my support network. As a full-time, working, college student, and a mother, I was extremely busy. Staying close to my sponsor, network, and support group kept me grounded. I made sure to check in with them at least once a week, even if it was just a quick text between classes.
5. Find out if your school has a collegiate recovery program, and if they don’t, consider starting one!
Most campuses offer organized support for students in recovery. Universities across the country are implementing collegiate recovery programs: Institutionally-sanctioned and supported programs for students in recovery seeking a degree in higher education. These programs offer space for students in recovery to come together to build relationships and join in fellowship.
You can learn more about starting a collegiate recovery program by checking out the Association of Recovery in Higher Education’s (ARHE) website. Even if you attend a college or university that doesn’t yet have a collegiate recovery program, you can find a wealth of resources and student support services on the ARHE website.
Staying sober through college can seem daunting but being prepared, knowing where to find resources on campus, and staying connected to your support network can make it easier. For many, a new life in recovery includes pursuing a degree in higher education so it’s important to remember that you aren’t alone on this journey.
A sober lifestyle on campus doesn’t have to be synonymous with a boring, lonely experience. There are sober communities on campuses across the country, made up of students empowering, supporting, and encouraging one another along the way.