It was a gradual process — a beer here, a joint there — that seemed to spiral out of control, and before he could even comprehend what happened, narcotics agents were busting down the door of his apartment and dragging him off to jail. “For a year, I thought I was the man, and I was completely delusional,” said Robert Smith, an Honors College student whose name has been changed to protect his employment. “Once I got arrested, I got sent back to reality.”
Today, Robert credits The University of Alabama’s MPACT recovery program with saving his college career, and maybe his life. Nevertheless, it has been a long grind. To him, the past five years seemed a blaze, not unlike the cherry embers of a marijuana cigarette. It all started in ninth grade as a casual hobby, but in his senior year of high school, it became a habitual everyday thing.
The drinking, the drugs, they became a lifestyle that he chose. He was not alone. About 17 percent of American high school students are smoking, drinking or doing some other type of drug during the school day, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Robert started selling marijuana in high school. He wanted to help out his friends, but more importantly, he wanted to be able to smoke for free. After graduating high school, he chose to attend UA. College would be an oasis for him, a zion of boozing, partying and trying to pick up women. That’s what his idea of a big name university was.
“That’s a stigma that goes around with big named schools,” Robert said. “It took me getting sober to realize there’s something more to school besides drinking.” For a time, that lifestyle sustained him. He maintained his school work, but he went to college for the night life. Without his parents there to watch out for him, he was free to do whatever he wanted. About 1,825 college students die from alcohol related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle accidents, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Robert Smith met people at parties, and they went out and smoked weed. He figured if he could find a drug dealer with “really good” weed, he could monopolize a section of the market. In a study by The University of Michigan, 5.9 percent of college students in 2014 reported daily or near-daily marijuana use. He went in with that motivation, and it just seemed to grow bigger and bigger.
For a time, he thought he was invincible and untouchable. He didn’t think about the consequences or risks. He seemed balanced precariously on the plumes of smoke, adrift in some altered state of reality, but the knock on his door broke through the illusions of grandeur. The day previous he had sold to a friend of a friend. He knew that West Alabama Narcotics operated heavily in the area, but at the time, that didn’t seem to register. As the officers put him in handcuffs, his only thoughts were that his life was over. He could kiss his career goodbye. He had gambled his future and lost. “Distribution sounds worse than what I was selling,” he said. “I sold an eighth, $60 worth of weed. I never really thought through my decisions in the past heavily.” Robert immediately got a lawyer and managed to get his charges reduced to youthful offender. With his case sealed and closed, he still faced a semester’s suspension for breaking student conduct. He was given two options: take the suspension or join MPACT.
Making A Change
Started by a UA instructor, Adam Downs, MPACT is a diversion and recovery program designed to educate students about substance abuse and to show them how to live a better, more fulfilling life. In MPACT, there are five programs, ranging from brief two-session counseling interventions to the drug CORE (Comprehensive Offender Rehabilitation and Education) program. Not everyone in MPACT are addicts. Some just made a mistake; others come voluntarily because they feel they need the help.
Kelly Miller, one of the MPACT counselors, joined the program three years ago. Miller, who previously worked at Bradford Health Services, pursued a profession in substance abuse because of family and friends having been affected by it. She sees the program as secondary intervention, the opportunity to deter students before they get to a point where they have to go to a rehab program like Bradford.
“I think most of us have our own experience with it or someone we’re close with,” she said. “Students are trying to figure out where they want to go with their lives, and it’s hard to stay motivated to do well if you don’t have something you’re working towards.”
For the past few months, John Lovett has been working as interim administrator while they find a replacement for Downs, who left in May. Lovett, who’s also the assistant director of Student Conduct, has worked with the program since its inception.For Lovett, it’s been his passion for six years. He had been working in the conduct office for two months when he interacted with a student who had an opiate addiction. At the time, the substance abuse services on campus were limited. The director of the Student Health Center helped manage long-term recovery services, but there was no formal service. Lovett managed to contact the director and get the student the treatment they needed. From that point, he was assigned more of those types of cases, and over the years, the case load has increased. While working as interim administrator, Lovett said he keeps up the same amount of case work as before. He’s glad the program exists because it gives students an outlet to get the help they need. He said he wonders sometimes how many students didn’t get the help they needed or possibly died before the program was created.
“Many universities are afraid to admit this exists,” he said. “Every college or university has issues with substance abuse, but most aren’t willing to host such programs because they believe that it introduces the stigma that we’re admitting we’re having a problem. That’s not the case. This is a resource for our students. We want them to live happy successful lives and be able to obtain a degree.”Miller said the program is designed to help them realize their goals and potential, but it can be difficult sometimes because some students don’t think they have a problem. They’re still functioning at a normal level.
“It’s harder to [tell] a student who’s functioning at a student level still that they have a problem because it’s so culturally acceptable in college across the country, you’re supposed to act this way in college then grow out of it,” she said.
Her goal is to keep students in school. When she was in college, she had friends who dropped out because they couldn’t maintain the grades. That being said, sometimes if the student is having problems, they’ll go to an outpatient treatment program. MPACT arranges that with the university so the student isn’t penalized for getting the help they need.
They keep an eye out for students who aren’t showing up to group sessions or whose failing drug tests. They try to address the problem with the student first before going to student conduct: discuss things clinically, make them go to extra Alcohol Anonymous meetings or write a paper on the dangers of alcohol. Sometimes, it may be that a particular student isn’t compatible with a therapist. Miller and counselor Jaime Garza try to be aware of that. What’s really tough for Miller is the students who choose to drop out of the program and who don’t go to an outpatient facility.
“The ones that really get me is, when you’re dismissed from the university, you’re always given the option of treatment, but some of them don’t want to go to treatment because they don’t think they have a problem,” she said. “They’ll literally choose to walk out of school and leave instead of going to get treatment. Those are the ones that hurt my heart more because I want them to have a better life.”
At first, Robert hated the drug CORE program. He was angry and sad and didn’t understand what happened. How had he gone from being “the man” on campus to being in a diversion program. The thought of going an entire year without drinking or smoking seemed torturous and unreachable. Every week, he’d go to group counseling and individual sessions in Russell Hall. He’d go to AA meetings and to study hall. He’d go to case managing sessions and take Career Center assessments. In a program with 20 students, he’d do team building exercises like scavenger hunts across campus or building and climbing through cubes. For two or three months, he wasn’t excited about the program. A part of him resisted even though he knew he was lucky he wasn’t kicked out of school. Gradually, that part of himself started to shrink. For the first time in years, he felt clear headed. He could see his future, the dreams he always wanted to accomplish but that fell by the wayside. He wants to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. It was like a cloud of smoke had been cleared, awakening from a five-year haze.
It didn’t come all at once. There wasn’t a eureka moment of epiphany, but like the alcohol and the drugs, day by day, reality settled in. “Over time, I gave in,” he said. “I’m going to be in it and make the best of it.” This was his second chance. At a different university, he would have been kicked out or suspended. Though the urge to drink and smoke never went away, it never overrode his ability to resist it. MPACT taught him to consider long-term consequences versus short term gratification. Since December 2015, Robert has been sober. Even months later, the pressure to drink is still there whether it be celebrating someone’s 21st birthday or football on game days.
“Having good people around you that also don’t drink so you don’t feel isolated and alone,” he said. “The reason why I drank in the first place was to rid myself of that. Temptation is going away a little bit. I have to constantly remind myself that I’ve been given a second change and what’s important.”
After he was arrested, his friend group changed completely. When he was selling, all his friends were there for the drugs, and after he got arrested, they all abandoned him. It caused him to reevaluate who his real friends were. He’s made friends that accept him for who he is. He’s become close with people in group. Now, he has quality relationships.
He’s started reading again for the first time in years. Right now, he’s rereading books he last read in high school. His favorite genre is early 1900s dystopian novels. Looking at students just joining the program can be like looking in a mirror. Robert sees the person he used to be and how far he’s changed over his time in the program. He can sympathize with them because he was at that point himself not too long ago.
“Through MPACT and being sober for an extended period of time, I realize there’s other avenues to life,” he said. “My morals and values have changed. I don’t seek going out and getting drunk as a form of enjoyment. It’s not as appealing to me. I don’t romanticize the idea.”