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Sobriety 101: Is academia the new road to recovery?

September 1, 2015
by Anjali Talcherkar
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Anjali Talcherkar

Early sobriety can be challenging—even painful. I recently spoke with a newly sober young man about the arduous road to recovery. I told him he would “survive” and he responded, “Yes, but I want to thrive, not just survive.”

Kudos! This attitude yields success: determination rooted in willingness; the outlook of someone who sees a crisis as an opportunity and capitalizes on it; an entrepreneur of enslavement. Such drive is rarely the norm in early recovery, where a climate of hopelessness and despair often prevail. Nevertheless, the extended forecast of recovery is such that defeatist feelings can be transformed into vigor, vitality and an immense appreciation for life. Take the case of “Jeremy H.,” sober since January 2014:

I was broken spiritually, physically, and mentally—I had lost sight of any reason for living. I was kneeling at death’s door. It’s strange for me to feel so far from that life that it doesn’t bother me anymore. I now enjoy the happy moments in life for what they are, and endure the hardships with tact and an understanding that everything in life is impermanent. I love life for what it is, instead of hating it for how I think it should be.

Jeremy’s new lease on life illustrates the leaps and bounds made possible by recovery. So how does one cross the infamous invisible line from failure to freedom?

Purpose in recovery

Today, alcohol and drug treatment exists in an era where a range of clinical approaches, from harm reduction to complete abstinence, dictate the fate of the sobering masses. It has been up for debate as to whether or not the pickle can in fact return to cucumber-hood. Even Moderation Management (MM), a moderation-based support group network, recommends a 30-day abstinence period as part of its program. As indicated on its website, it estimates that 30% of members eventually will go on to abstinence-type programs. Marc Kern, PhD, MM board chairman, recently launched an initiative called Dryuary, where participants were challenged to maintain abstinence for the entire month of January 2015. One important study claims that when compared to moderation, commitment to complete abstinence works for short-term reduction goals. So according to the experts and the data, the “A word” works!

Abstinence has its place in treatment, especially in a young-adult population, where a period of complete sobriety from all substances enables key circuits in the brain to regain proper functioning. According to Kauer and Malenka, “Drugs of abuse can hijack synaptic plasticity mechanisms, specifically in the mesolimbic dopamine system, which is central to reward processing.” What would these young instant-gratification seekers do without that dopamine rush straight to the frontal lobe? As a connoisseur of recovery, I have a taste for programs that raise the bar and embody the idea of sober fun. That’s exactly what I found as I walked through the doors of a place that goes by the tagline “Rehab-Redefined.” Sober College is a young-adult residential treatment program and college campus combined.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “Nineteen percent of college students between the ages of 18 and 24 met the criteria for alcohol dependence and about one-quarter of college students report having academic consequences because of their drinking.” The old collegiate playground and playmates are likely to be triggering for those attempting to refrain from drinking and drug use. Pairing academics with treatment allows students to pursue academic goals while recovering; both of these are often vehicles to identifying values and uncovering life purpose. This synthesis is a clinical methodology in itself.

Clinical advances in addiction treatment have given rise to mixed methodologies in traditional inpatient and outpatient treatment settings. Among one of the newer emerging approaches is the integration of academics and learning into clinical treatment protocols. According to Kabli, Liu, Seifert and Arnot, “The inclusion of reflection opportunities is key within academic service-learning and improves students’ ability to connect their involvement in the community with their learning.”

Von der Goltz and Kiefer note, “Understanding learning and memory processes in the brain in addiction is an important key for understanding the persistence of addiction.” Learning and memory are significantly affected in long-term drug abuse. Studying, writing, and participation in class lectures allow individuals to regain vital cognitive functioning. Academics can be challenging in early recovery and may precipitate stress, but if students can pursue scholastics while in a safe, contained environment, the risk of relapse is lowered.