I was a sober college student

As a high school student, I imagined college to be a hedonistic John Hughes movie. Rehab at 17 changed all that

Topics: Alcoholism, The Fix, addiction, Sobriety, Alcoholics Anonymous,

I was a sober college student (Credit: Laura Bittner, Flickr Creative Commons)
This article originally appeared on The Fix.

Until I got sober, my fantasy of college was a constant stream of boozy, smoky house parties and sophisticated senior boyfriends, occasionally punctuated by intellectually thrilling seminars and workshops led by world-renowned professors—pretty much an R-rated version of a John Hughes movie, if Molly Ringwald had only read a little bit more French philosophy. In college, I would try new drugs (ecstasy! opium!) and finally learn how to hold my liquor, and I could smoke as much weed as I wanted, with no naggy parents to get in my way. College was where I could finally just be, with no one whining at me about chores or grades or my sullen attitude. I could just be Lily, for once in my life.

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My hedonistic dreams were dashed, though, when I got sent to rehab at age 17, the week after finishing my junior year of high school. Surprisingly, sobriety was a huge relief; I was exhausted from trying to manage an active addiction, paralyzing depression, an eating disorder, and prepping for the SAT and AP exams. I was on board with staying clean.

But I simply could not imagine how I was going to go to college in just a year. What would I do there, if not drugs? Wasn’t the whole point of college that you were away from your parents for the first time so you could drink as much as you wanted to?  One day at a time, people told me. You’ll figure it out when it’s time.

In the spring of senior year, I found out I’d gotten in to the prestigious university a mere 20 minutes from where I grew up. I was thrilled; at a year sober, I wasn’t quite ready to leave my home group, my parents, and my sober network of friends. So I packed up my clothes, bought some extra-long twin sheets, and moved across town into the dorms.

My dreams of a thrilling social life on campus were dashed on my first night in the dorms. Somehow I got assigned to the “quiet” building, designated for people who enjoy studying and never want to have fun. Despite the fact that I hadn’t gotten stoned or drunk in over a year, my desire to be a carefree 18-year-old hadn’t waned at all. I wanted the loud dorm! But I was stuck in what was basically a fluorescent-lit mausoleum, with a roommate who ate cookies so sloppily that she got an ant infestation…in her bed. It was heinous. Within a few weeks, I moved back into my mom’s comfortable, vermin-free house.

College, 1.  Lily, 0.

I’d kind of counted on my dorm-mate becoming my new best friend, so I felt a little stumped when she turned out to be such a dud. But, like any good AA, I was willing to do the footwork. First plan of action: chat up my fellow students. I started with the cute football player in my history class. Mr. Longsnapper and I dated for a few golden weeks, until I came down with mono and he told me he couldn’t bring me home to his parents because I was Jewish. Also, it wasn’t as much fun as I’d hoped to sit on his couch and watch while he and his roommates got drunk and played video games.

College, 2.  Lily, 0.

I kept trying, though. I sat next to a girl in my English class who had tattoos and smelled like cigarettes, and she seemed like a good candidate for College Bestie. She ended up being the perfect friend to take smoke breaks with and we studied for finals together but the friendship fizzled when our class ended for the quarter. Alas.

So I tried something totally different and totally antithetical to who I am: I joined a club. Besides AA, I don’t think I’ve ever joined anything in my life. I hate team sports, group outings and anything that requires me to subsume my own interests and goals in favor of the benefit of the group. But I really, really wanted to make friends and it wasn’t happening in my classes or in the dorms. So I auditioned for the Jewish a cappella singing group and donated my dignity to the universe.

Yes, it was the nerdiest thing I have ever done in my life. But at least I was trying. I did my best with those kids, but I was the only one who didn’t speak Hebrew, the only one with tattoos, and the only one who chain-smoked before our performances.  Shockingly, I didn’t last.

College, 3.  Lily, 0.

My last ditch effort to feel like I belonged was trying the meetings on campus. They were in a windowless, subterranean room and the other attendees were school administrators and receptionists. There was one other student but I quickly ascertained that he was only at the meeting to get his court card signed. Compared to the buzzing, hormone-fueled young people’s meetings where I’d gotten sober, this was truly bleak. I never went back.

I think it’s safe to say that my freshman year sucked.

When sophomore year rolled around, I got an apartment close to campus with a friend from junior high. This would be my year, I thought—I was finally out of my mom’s house, living the real college life.

My body had other plans, though. The low-grade insomnia I’d battled since age 10 ratcheted itself up to epic proportions. I would find myself conscious, sort of, for 48-hour periods. I’d lie awake in my room, battling the pillows and the sheets, dreading sunrise because it meant I’d have to haul myself to class and function on what felt like half of a brain. My depression, which I’d also been dealing with since long before I took my first drink, intensified. Between the sleeplessness and the return of the clinical depression, I felt trapped in my bed. I wouldn’t leave my apartment, and sometimes even my bedroom, for days at a time.

Needless to say, my grades plummeted. I failed two classes in one quarter, which landed me on academic probation. I felt like I was back where I had started before sobriety: a big, fat disappointment. This was not how I had planned my college experience.

Eventually my AA friends did an intervention on me at my apartment. They sat me down (actually, I was already in bed, and they just sat on it with me) and told me, quite plainly, that I was ungrateful. The opportunity I’d been given to go to this prestigious university? I was squandering it. Gratitude was an action, they said, and the way to express it was to, you know, actually go to class, even if I was suicidal and sleep-deprived.

Somehow, based solely on willpower and fear, I was able to get it together—I made it off of academic probation, pulled my grades up and changed my class schedule so that I wouldn’t have to be anywhere before noon. I even signed up to study abroad in London the summer after sophomore year, which ended up being by far the best experience of my college career.I went off to England exactly three days after my boyfriend—who I’d been dating for six months—dumped me. I literally wept for 10 hours straight on the plane and I was sure I was making a huge mistake by leaving the country. It was the most vulnerable and fragile I’d ever felt in my three years of sobriety and I was leaving my friends, family, sponsor, and meetings behind. I was scared of drinking, for the first time in my sobriety.

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When I arrived in England, my assigned roommate, Nancy, turned out to be a born-again Christian. She was a virgin; she didn’t smoke; she blushed when I cursed. Holy shit, I thought, this is going to be a nightmare. Why do I even get my hopes up anymore? College just isn’t my thing.

But Nancy surprised me.

About a week in, I was still incredibly homesick. And heartbroken. And squirrelly from lack of meetings. The drinking age in England was such that I could go to any pub and order an armful of Stellas and of course no one back home would ever find out. I could sauce it up in Great Britain and then pick up my sobriety where I’d left off once I got back to the States.

They say that, sometimes, the only barrier between you and a drink is your Higher Power. But my Higher Power was the AA group itself, so what was I supposed to do when I was thousands of miles away from my fellows? I remembered that AA taught me to be willing to do whatever it takes to stay sober, so I swallowed my pride, all the way down, and asked Nancy to pray with me one afternoon.

I told her that I didn’t drink because I was a recovering alcoholic and that I was scared I was close to a relapse. Let’s keep in mind, this was a girl whose idea of debauchery was sharing a beer with a girlfriend—I can’t even imagine how strange she thought I was. But Nancy didn’t even blink when I asked her to pray with me, and for me.

We held hands in our shitty bedroom and prayed silently. I prayed for my heart to heal and for my desire to drink to be lifted, one more time. I think she prayed for Jesus to save me. Whatever it was that we sent up into the sky, though, it worked. I stayed sober and my heart did heal. My time in England ended up being thrilling, and heady, full of late-night discussions about politics and Shakespeare and religion—finally, I was having the true college experience.

My last two years of college were a blur: I took the hardest classes I could, I did internships, I had a hectic social life and somehow I had wound up sponsoring nine (oy!) girls. It was one of the happiest times in my life—every second was accounted for, in the best way. I felt like I was finally acting grateful for the incredible opportunities that had been afforded to me.

I graduated from college on time, with my entire family watching. Three days later I celebrated five years of sobriety and when I took my cake, I was able to talk about how much I’d struggled in school and how I made it through without picking up a drink or trying to kill myself. I get to share that experience with my sponsees today and be an example of how to balance the program with wanting to be a normal college student.

Did I have the “Animal House” experience? The “Less Than Zero” experience? Absolutely not. To be honest, I didn’t even have the “Revenge of the Nerds” experience. There’s only one person I still talk to from my university days (no, not Nancy) and most of that communication takes place through Facebook comments. I only went to one real frat party, which, for the record, had a Pimps and Hos theme. I left after five minutes, when I realized I was the only girl wearing pants or a shirt.  On my way out, I was groped by several sweaty Zetas. I celebrated my 21st birthday by going on a date with a boy (from AA, natch), then to a bar with two sober girlfriends and my sister, and was in bed by midnight. I did not take 21 shots of anything, nor did I scream “Woooooo!” at any point.

Going to college sober was a lesson in sacrifices. I didn’t have the social experience I had hoped to simply because the only people who didn’t drink or smoke weed were…kind of lame. And the people who did drink—well, they drank, and it’s never fun to be the only non-drinker in a room full of boozy college kids. But what I did get out of college was a world-class education and a sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction of meeting and exceeding my goals. And when I get resentful that I never got to do keg stands in a frat house, I try to remember that I had that so-called “college” partying experience in high school.

There’s a line in the Big Book that talks about how, if our programs are strong, there’s nowhere on earth we can’t go as long as our motives are good—even, as it turns out, to Pimps and Hos parties at the Zeta house. I’m living proof.

Lily Weinstein is the pseudonym for a West Coast-based sober writer. She’s also written about being a non-zealot in AA and about sexual predators.

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