Student finds strength in sobriety

Due to the policies of Alcoholics Anonymous, the privacy of the individual interviewed below will be respected. A false name has been used in place of the individual’s true identity.

While awareness of alcoholism has increased during recent years, dangers from excessive drinking and drug abuse are still a reality on college campuses across the country.

With the common college stereotype often including the theme of alcohol, sobriety tends to carry negative connotations on the Portland State University campus, explained Brian, a PSU junior majoring in international studies.

A member of Alcoholics Anonymous and a recovering alcoholic, Brian said he has faced extensive discrimination from fellow students.

However, he hopes that students soon realize intoxication isn’t a necessary part of higher education.

“People don’t have to partake in the typical college experience, binge drinking, et cetera,” he said.

His own experiences with alcohol have shown him that dangers exist even within seemingly innocent activities, he explained.

Brian was 25 years old and a senior at the University of Oregon in the spring of 1998. When he woke up one morning with a stomachache in late May, two weeks away from his graduation, he wasn’t really worried, he explained.

However, after he continued to experience problems for several days, Brian made a doctor’s appointment and went in for testing. After the tests were completed, the doctor explained that he had a case of acute pancreatitis, or an inflammation of the pancreas.

“I remember sitting in the doctor’s office with my parents and asking, ‘What do I have to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?'” he said. “The doctor told me, ‘Well, watch your fatty foods and don’t drink alcohol.’ I was just like, ‘Oh my god.’ That’s what 25-year-old kids do … you go to bars with your friends.”

The doctor also explained that pancreatitis is most usually caused by alcohol abuse, and, though he wasn’t abstaining from partying completely, Brian couldn’t understand how he had developed the condition.

“My drinking wasn’t excessive,” he said. “It was the same as everyone else that I knew at the time.”

His inability to drink soon caused distance between Brian and his friends, he said.

“I began to isolate myself because I couldn’t participate,” he said.

“My friends couldn’t understand, and I took for granted that they would.”

Conditions worsened until Brian was spending all of his time alone, and by September of 2001 had turned to prescription drugs in an attempt to escape.

“I needed relief,” he said “But after a while I was like, ‘Screw this,’ and started using heroin. I used all day, every day for nine months. I ended up on methadone, dropped out of school. I did everything I ever said I wasn’t going to do, and I couldn’t stop.”

Though he experienced the “stereotypical alcohol and drug addiction, where things got bad and out of control”, Brian stressed that his experiences only represent a small facet of alcoholism.

“In AA, alcohol is but a symptom of a greater problem,” he said. “That problem was that my coping skills for life didn’t work. I had grown up, somehow managing to never understand who I was, or where I was going, and when it came time to make decisions, I kept making bad ones.

“I would ask, why does this keep happening to me, but the question was, why did I keep doing this to myself? I did positive things, but the harder I tried to be happy, the less happy I was. I needed a break from life. That’s what alcoholism is, the actual drinking is a coping mechanism.”

Brian asked his sister for help and enrolled in a rehabilitation program where he was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous.

“I saw the results people have when they work diligently to apply the steps to all aspects of their lives,” he said. “I had people who understood what was going on in my head.”

After 90 days in rehab, Brian started attending AA meetings and drew strength from others in the group.

Though Alcoholics Anonymous is a well-known group, it is often misunderstood, he said.

Described as “a voluntary, worldwide fellowship of men and women from all walks of life who meet together to attain and maintain sobriety,” the organization has no affiliation with religion or other organizations, AA literature explains.

Founded in 1935 by two “hopeless drunks,” AA serves as a support group for all members, asking only that participants have a desire to stop drinking. Estimated membership has reached more than 100,000 different groups, as well as over 2 million individual members in 150 countries.

Brian explained that while abstinence only involves stopping a behavior for any given amount of time, sobriety is far more difficult to achieve.

“Sobriety takes a lot of work,” he said. “It takes work to get emotional stability. When you take the drugs away, that doesn’t fix anything.”

The program works because of the combination of a supportive, diverse environment and the opportunities for introspection, he said.

“The steps themselves, they’re an amazing deal,” he said. “It’s a very profound, soul-searching experience.”

Brian’s sobriety day, which will mark the one-year anniversary of his abstinence, is June 10, and he is in the process of completing the twelfth step of the program, raising awareness surrounding AA.

“I have to carry the message to other alcoholics who are still suffering,” he said. “I wish that when I was going through what I was in my early 20s, I would have known a way to make my life and myself feel better. I was unable to pinpoint what was wrong, and I didn’t know that one, I wasn’t alone, and two, it’s okay to ask for help.”

Encouraging anyone with interest to attend a meeting, he stressed that AA can provide a solution for people regardless of whether or not they consider themselves an alcoholic.

Despite his negative experiences, Brian isn’t sorry that his life took such an unexpected turn, he said.

“I’m not ashamed of it, it happened for a reason,” he said. “It’s an important part of who I am today. I’m pretty proud of it. I’ve been to what most people would consider the gates of hell and back. Heroin withdrawal, methadone withdrawal … that’s 50 days. And today I feel better than I have in my whole life.”

AA meetings are held Monday through Saturday at noon in the Smith Memorial Student Union, and on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. in Science Building 2.

For more information, visit, or call the local office at 503-223-8569.

Taylor Barnes

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