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Recovery is a Road All Its Own

As SHU launches its College Recovery Program this fall, it will be important to understand that ‘recovery’ is something significantly different than just addiction-in-the-past-tense.

By Tim Deenihan

Before we can talk about getting better, we need to understand being worse.

We need to talk about addiction.

“It’s a thinking disease,” explains James Cafran, project manager of Sacred Heart’s new College Recovery Program, which is set to launch as students return, or arrive, at campus this fall. “It’s an absolute certainty that you are less-than.”

Less-than smart enough. Less-than good enough. Less-than everyone else, on every level. You are fundamentally inadequate. Always. Even the things you’re good at, you’re not good enough at. This isn’t the agony of failing. This is the certainty that you are a failure. At life. At living. At being human.

Have you ever had a vacation or a holiday, or even just a weekend, that you couldn’t enjoy properly because you were distracted by some other kind of stress, a voice in the back of your head telling you there was something else you should be doing; something wrong at work or at home that you shouldn’t and couldn’t ignore? And so, the fun you should be having is overwhelmed and undercut by the feeling of inadequacy? The quiet, internal certainty that you, at heart, are simply not enough.

Now imagine that being every day. Always. You cannot feel pride in your successes. You cannot feel the love of those close to you, because you know, in your mind, that you are not worthy. A forever-ringing tinnitus of less-than.

And then, one day, you drink, or you try a drug of some kind. And the noise goes away.

Imagine that.

Imagine discovering “fun.” Imagine discovering “peace.” It is literally in a bottle. A bottle of Jack. A bottle of oxy. Whatever. You have finally found a way to be human.

And now imagine, for just a moment longer, the impact of that discovery. And if, or rather when that tinnitus returns–because it does every time you are sober–would you not give everything to return to the only quiet and peace you have ever known>

Now you, dear reader, know where this leads. The drink, the drugs, work less and less, requiring more and more just to get back to zero. “It starts out as fun,” Cafran explains. “For the first time in your life, that noise fades away. You feel like you can finally connect with your peers in a way you’ve never known. But it doesn’t always work. And then, when it does, it doesn’t work as well. And then it hardly works at all. So that the fun becomes fun with problems. And then it just becomes problems.”

There’s an excellent reason Cafran has been tapped to manage development of the Recovery Program at SHU. At a tender 24 years of age, he’s young enough to connect with the students who will be making use of the program. On the other hand, at 24, he’s not as young as he seems.

On Dec. 18, 2016, James reached a fork in the road–death or sobriety. He had already attempted both; it was now time to commit to one or the other.

Years earlier, before he started drinking, he had tried to kill himself while still in junior high. Then he found alcohol to quiet the noise. As that spiraled out of control, he’d gone through recovery programs, but they never took because, by his own admission, he didn’t want them to. Instead, he’d begun mixing anti-depressants with the booze. He got into college for a while before he lost control of that corner of life, too, and eventually dropped out. And there he was, facing himself with an ultimatum. Get sober, or get dead…

Bill Mitchell had been to that dark place, too, long ago, before Cafran was even born. Mitchell, second-generation owner of Mitchell’s Stores and board member at Sacred Heart University, had his last drink June 20, 1990, and is well familiar with the challenges–and ultimately the rewards–of recovery. “Recovery didn’t save my life,” he says. “I didn’t have a life worth saving. Recovery gave me a life.”

Mitchell, now “pushing 76” and 28 years sober, met Cafran in the early stages of the younger man’s recovery and took him under his wing. With the deafening fog of Cafran’s active addiction starting to break, they talked about the future. Sacred Heart was a school Cafran had considered the first time around, and Mitchell made the case for him to apply–a terrifying prospect.

If you’re someone who thinks of applying to college while in active recovery as building the momentum of opportunity, then you are plainly not looking at college through the eyes of a recovering addict.

First, there’s fear of rejection. Let’s face it: few addicts have the sort of academic and extra-curricular records that admissions counselors seek.

Then, once accepted, there’s the challenge of academic rigor that often will be an entirely new world to the recovering addict. For a start, your brain will have wired itself differently due to the addiction. Corey Trevena of the Caron Center, a Pennsylvania-based non-profit specializing in college recovery programs, explains that recovering addicts may be 20 years old physically, but they will have the mindset of a 14-year-old because they have been in addiction since that stage of development.

It’s not insurmountable–look, if you can beat drugs and alcohol, you can beat calculus–but it’s real and needs to be considered.

The greatest problem, however, is that of community. We humans are a communal species, and a sense of belonging is fundamental to our existence. Yet, on a college campus, drugs and alcohol appear to be wedded to nearly every activity, communal or otherwise. From the obvious examples of Greek life and parties to the supposedly “dry” events like football games and school-sponsored dances where “pre-gaming” is as much a part of the tradition as the event itself, alcohol is everywhere. Even studying–yes, ostensibly the purest reason for a school’s existence in the first place–is now frequently aided by a dose of Adderall (a prescription medication for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder that helps focus the mind and which many students view as nothing worse than an exceptionally strong cup of coffee before hitting the books). It can seem–and this time with tangible evidence–that every corner of the college experience is laced with toxicity.

When Cafran accepted SHU’s offer of admission, there was no small degree of trepidation. “I was worried,” he says. “I didn’t have my regular ‘solution.’” So, he moved into a sober house in Westport with another recovering addict and began his studies. “I was determined to be the best version of myself. Then my first A gave me the same rush alcohol and drugs gave me, and I wanted to see how well I could do.”

He did very well. A mere two years after committing to sobriety, James Cafran–SHU ’18–graduated on the dean’s list with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. 

At the same time, Bill Mitchell was reflecting on Sacred Heart’s successes over the past decade or so. He’d been a board member since 2002 and had seen the University grow in terms of capital expenditures, rising GPAs and prominence in an increasing number of disciplines. “We were headed north in every lane,” he says, but he had a sense in his gut that he personally needed to do something more. While visiting the University of Alabama for a football game, he learned of its recovery program for students fighting their way out of addiction, and he knew what he had to do.

Mitchell recalls meeting with SHU President John Petillo. “Before I finished my first sentence, John said ‘Billy, I’m in.’”

Next was the Board of Trustees, and Mitchell enlisted the help of his young friend, the recovering-addict-turned-dean’s-list-student, James Cafran.

Cafran told the board his story, illuminating for the trustees the immense challenges unique to a college student in recovery. Duly impressed, they endorsed the plan to launch a college recovery program at Sacred Heart.

The Office of the Dean of Students, headed by Larry Weilk, already operates a wellness program that includes counseling and intervention assistance. But up to now, recovering students returning to or starting out at Sacred Heart have only ever been offered housing in the established dorms which, for the reasons listed above, may not be the best environment for their situation.

Ultimately, the goal is to have a residence facility either built or reassigned as a “sober house,” specifically to grant those students in recovery the safe space they need. But you can’t build a house without a foundation, literally or figuratively. So, in the short term, Sacred Heart will launch its College Recovery Program as students return to campus this fall. There will be a dedicated lounge area, counseling support, admissions and academic advisers familiar with the particular circumstances of addiction and recovery, coordinated AA and 12-step meetings and identifiable branding and communications.

And at the helm, James Cafran.

The boy who didn’t know fun is now a man who couldn’t be happier. “It doesn’t feel like work when you’re passionate about what you do and you get to help people along the way. I’m done guessing where my life is going to go,” he says with palpable contentment. “Sometimes, you have to go away to find home.”

Bill Mitchell with James Cafran and Tim Holt at Sacred Heart’s 2018 Discovery Gala.