Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series about students involved in UT’s Center for Students in Recovery — their paths to addiction and how they achieved sobriety. Watch the interactive documentary.
For many college students, there’s a fine line between having a good time and losing control. The line narrows between recreational use, abuse and dependency.
But the students at UT’s Center for Students in Recovery have gone across these lines and back again, and they say that the support of the center’s sober community helps them stay clean and enjoy UT without the substances that threw their teen years into disrepair.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders identifies both chemical abuse and chemical dependency as medical problems. Both occur at higher rates at universities, where more people are using, said Carl Erickson, an associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Pharmacy who specializes in chemical dependency.
“Dependence is a brain disease; abuse is students getting too drunk over and over,” Erickson said. “Either way, most people need a lot of help to overcome these problems.”
Biomedical engineering senior Evan Luther was 12 the first time he drank alcohol. He and his friends stole different bottles of liquor from his parents and mixed them together. Although he blacked out and woke up with a brain-splitting hangover, he said he remembers enjoying the experience.
“I was like, ‘that wasn’t so bad; that was kind of entertaining,’” Luther said. “Looking back, there were several indicators that my reaction to drugs and alcohol might be different than some people’s.”
Luther grew up in an affluent San Antonio neighborhood, his parents are both doctors and there is little history of addiction in his family. It is difficult to explain the next four years, which Luther said locked him into a cycle of drug addiction that resulted in his expulsion from high school, in-patient rehab, relapse and running away from home.
These consequences didn’t bother him as long as he was able to drink and use drugs, he said.
“If it could get me high, I would do it,” Luther said. “At that point in my life, I [would] have told you I [was] doing it because it was fun, but I do believe I was doing it because I had to. At some point, I passed into a stage where there was no choice in the matter — I was gonna get high, even if I didn’t want to.”
Eventually, his parents felt they had to send him to rehab. After 28 days of in-patient treatment, he started attending 12-Step addiction meetings and got a sponsor. But after his male sponsor made sexual advances, Luther said he had an excuse to give up his treatment and started drinking again.
Soon, that led to using methamphetamine, the drug he said made him “weak at the knees.” He grew more dependent on meth than he had been on any other drug, and he used it almost every day for six months. His family struggled to survive Luther’s drug use as he continued to steal from them and use drugs at home.
“You have a kid who you think is pretty bright, pretty caring, and all of a sudden, he’s a monster,” said Jackie Pugh, Luther’s mother. “I remember a Christmas Eve, his grandmother’s birthday, he was on a big binge and was totally inappropriate. It ruined everybody’s Christmas.”
Even after Luther got to the long-term treatment center in Georgia where he would continue high school and eventually get sober for good, he said he spent the first six months there trying to get his hands on the substances that drove his choices and behaviors.
“I was still trying to get high because I didn’t want to be sober,” Luther said. “My plan when I got out was to leave there and cook meth.”
For Luther, drugs and alcohol were a social outlet and a chemical addiction. Social work sophomore Kim, who asked to have her last name withheld, said the alcohol and marijuana she started using at 13 helped her overcome the social anxiety she had fought since she was very young.
“I didn’t fit in very well, even in elementary school. I have anxiety and depression, and it was self-medication,” Kim said. “I was smoking weed and drinking, but that wasn’t working for me, so I moved onto hallucinogens and opium and all that junk.”
When Kim moved to Dallas from Florida at 16, her social anxiety worsened as a new student at W.T. White High School in North Dallas. The dropout teenagers in her neighborhood helped her get in touch with heroin dealers, and her habit became a constant drive. She pawned her valuables, had sex in exchange for drugs and narrowed her social circle to other users.
“There were drug dealers on every street,” Kim said. “It was very accessible where I lived, and school was just what I did during the day. Heroin gave me complete apathy, and that’s really what I wanted.”
During the years when Luther and Kim were using drugs, they said they had no interest in sobriety. Looking back, they said it’s hard to believe where their drug use took them, but at the time, they simply didn’t have any interest in the other options.
“In that drug haze, I didn’t care about anything,” Kim said. “I didn’t think about what was happening to my family, my education or my body. As long as I could still get dope, I could keep getting through the day.”