Sober up Boozy Britain: what can UK universities do better?

Taking my first drink of alcohol at 13 years old, little did I know how I would continue down a path of drinking to excess for the next decade. Ten whole years of heavy drinking. Not literally day in day out for ten years, but in a sense it sort of feels that way. Many of my memories, good and bad, from that period are centered around drink and drug fueled sessions. I wasn’t really present then like I am today. I don’t regret the past and can appreciate those times for what they were. Without these experiences I wouldn’t be the person I am now. They are important for me to remember why I should live in the here and now. They are the reason why I choose to live sober today.

Before I went to university I had quite a negative and uninformed view of addiction and drugs specifically. At this time I had never really tried drugs. I remember having a few off a spliff once when I was already really drunk. All I vaguely recall is whiteying, sobbing, getting the worst spinny head and then vowing never to do it again.
Well, that was a lie. 

Having suffering addicts in the family showed me how powerful drugs could be. I was able to see how substances have the ability to turn your world around. I watched as loved ones were dragged down to their deepest, darkest places through using substances. Seeing people at their rock bottom and always going back for more left me with only one firm belief: drugs are bad.

At a young age I made the foolish mistake of differentiating drink and drugs but now I see that alcohol is the most dangerous drug of all. Don’t be fooled by its legality or socially acceptable status; there are around 3.3million deaths each year through alcohol consumption. This means that alcohol kills one person every 10 seconds. This is outrageous. There is no denying if alcohol was a new drug released today it would be a Class A substance.

The minute I got to university my entire belief system went out the window because my desire to belong was too strong. Being a people pleaser all my life, naturally I wanted to fit in. My idea of what was acceptable began to change on a daily basis. Sometimes even my friends did. I have found that as we try to seek acceptance for our behaviours then it is our social circles that change. I guess this is something to keep in mind – if you start to spend more time with people that you wouldn’t usually, maybe ask yourself why. What are your motives? What are you gaining from this encounter? What are you lacking in your current life?

My mental health problems started when I was in school but I think the excessive drug use, lack of self-care and a number of personal issues lead to a nervous breakdown at the end of my first year. My attendance steadily dropped year on year after that. Despite this somehow I managed to maintain and graduate with a 2:1 grade and generally managed to submit my work in on time. I always wondered if this was the reason why nobody pestered me to show up more or do better. Whatever the reason was for the university not contacting me, I kinda wish they did. My life had changed dramatically. My daily substance use had increased dramatically. I would have loved to talk it through with someone relatable, a person who got me. Somebody I could be inspired by as they had been there and come through the other side – a person I now know as a recovery ambassador.

I never knew anybody in recovery at the time. Nobody had ever showed me that you can use drugs, come off them and get on with your life. I was surrounded by addicts growing up and now at university all my friends were substance users too. It was like the blind leading the blind, it seemed unlikely I was getting any help. Addressing my drug use during uni never seemed to be an option. In fact being a drug user at uni felt like it was the norm. I’d say there was more chance of me dying of an overdose than me getting into recovery at university.

Due to my lack of communication with the university I felt extremely disconnected which made my mental health even worse and in turn my addictions spiral. Eventually I ended up seeking help through a GP, which actually took a lot longer than if I had went via student services however my anxiety put me off going down that route. Soon after leaving uni I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which is often linked with substance misuse. It is possible if I had gotten into recovery earlier that I may not have even been given this diagnosis at all.

The partying and drinking culture at university in the UK is rife. You are literally encouraged to drink copious amounts of alcohol. If you aren’t taking drugs then you may feel secluded. Students often become drug-dealers to fund their lifestyle. Freshers week is full of boozy nights and cheap drinks. House-parties are filled with offerings of various drugs that you may never even heard of but are willing to take because ‘yolo’. Yet there seems to be no alternative. My flatmate arrived at university tee-total and chose not to join in freshers week as he abstained from alcohol and there was literally nothing else to do. The choice shouldn’t be getting drunk or isolation. Recovery and sobriety should be recognised and celebrated, for it is an achievement to maintain sobriety in a world filled with temptation.

Even though UK students claim to love seshing, recent figures show that more than a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds do not drink, compared with just over a fifth of the broader adult population. This means at least 1 in 4 young people do not drink. Currently universities do not cater to these students, possibly because the abstainers will be less likely to bring as much money for ‘bevs’ and such to the SU. Are UK universities failing these students?
Lets create alternative activities for these people. Engage with them. Cater to their needs. Do not leave them to feel isolated.
Understand that not everybody’s world revolves around alcohol.

The reality is people choose not to drink for a wide range of reasons. It could be due to religion, finances, health reasons, some may simply not like the taste of alcohol or they could abstain because they view alcohol as an addictive substance and they may be in recovery from active addiction. No matter what your reason is for abstaining from alcohol, challenges will arise; this should not put you off recovery/sobriety.

I didn’t quit drinking until after university. My new way of life did not properly kickstart until I met someone who I found truly relatable to me who was also in recovery. This shows the power of visible recovery. It’s like you have to see it to believe it. We have to stop hiding from addiction and must admit it can affect any person from any walk of life. The more open we are about our struggles the more effective we are in helping ourselves and one another.

The truth is I think my studies would have certainly suffered if I chose to tackle my addiction during university, I may have even dropped out all together. This is simply because of the lack of support available at the university. This needs to change. It is really important that universities work towards being inclusive of all its students, even the sober ones. The 1 in 4.

Universities often work with bars/clubs to offer their students cheaper drinks and entry. When you are encouraging people to drink a highly addictive and deathly substance such as alcohol I think it is only right that recovery services are also available to those who want it. For me alcohol had me hooked from the very first sip at just thirteen years of age. Some people don’t start drinking until they begin university at eighteen years old but if they do struggle with managing their alcohol intake then it is often found they are left like me – with no support. If you go to your GP and express that you feel you are drinking too much it is likely you will walk away with no help on that day. Recovery is not for everybody but everybody should be aware of it at least. The people of Britain often believe that we must live up to our ‘reputation’ of being hardcore boozers. This is not the case. Let’s start setting our own standards.

The people who are in recovery should be seen as a minority group and reasonable measures should be taken to ensure their recovery can stay intact where possible. It deeply saddens me that drinking alcohol is encouraged and sobriety is not at all supported, especially in places such as higher education. We all know the dangers of alcohol but there are no dangers to sobriety. Forget the myths you tell yourself why you drink and start to look at the facts.

In America there are Collegiate Recovery Programmes (CRP) which provide students in active recovery a chance to continue their education without compromising their recovery. Students’ sober and recovery needs are taken into consideration here. CRP aims to offer a sense of community and encourages students in recovery to come together, connect and form an alternative peer group. This scheme has proven to be beneficial to the students as it reduces risk of relapse but also to the colleges and universities as students’ academic performance have increased by one average grade point – proving that drink makes you dumb, but we knew that already right?
By integrating and normalising recovery it is more likely for other students to choose this path, if not now then in the future, as stigma is reduced and attitudes towards addiction and recovery are improved over time. CRP ensures students connect with like-minded people and encourages them to spend time doing alcohol-free leisure activities as well as studying. Mutual aid meetings are also an important part of these programmes. Attending regular meetings are an effective form of support for people in recovery.

Could a CRP have changed my life? Possibly. I don’t know if I was ‘ready’ to leave the whirlwind that my life had become. Although it is possible if a CRP was in place at Newcastle University then my life wouldn’t have become such chaos in the first place. All I ever wanted was to feel part of something and recovery has given that to me, far more than taking substances ever did. Now I’m in recovery I choose to engage in positive leisure activities with other sober people as well as attending mutual aid meetings. I spend time volunteering and choose to give back to the community that helped me so freely. I still have an addictive nature to my personality that I am wary of but now I resist from taking harmful substances.

Hats off to America for tackling their addiction crisis. Collegiate recovery is an amazing initiative in my opinion because at these colleges the idea of being a sober teen is not a crazy one at all, in fact it is encouraged. In the UK people might find you odd for making such a choice at such a young age. Drinking alcohol at such a young age can set you back and cause problems in later life, why do we want this for our children? Let’s cut the crap – we must stop hanging onto our ‘drinking culture’ excuses as it does nothing but harm society and prevents our self-development. Lets learn from the past, see how other countries are implementing change today and work to transform our attitudes towards alcohol and other substances going forward.

Know that whatever your age, wherever you are from, whoever you are – you can recover.

 

Do you think UK universities should do more to encourage/facilitate students’ recovery?
Did you stay sober through university? Was it easy/hard?

Let me know in the comments or feel free to contact me at ohevie@hotmail.com or hit me up on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

Evie xo

Helpful Links/Contact Info

Mind Infoline: 0300 123 3393 (Monday – Friday, 9am – 6pm)  info@mind.org.uk
Alcoholics Anonymous: 0800 9177 650   help@aamail.org
Narcotic Anonymous: 0300 999 1212 (10am – midnight, everyday)
Samaritans: 116 123   (runs 24/7)

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