What should you do if you develop a drinking or drug problem in college? For starters, it’s a wise course of action to determine if there is one.
If you find yourself waking up hungover more often than you do sober … if your anxiety flares up if you can’t wake and bake before class … if you start obsessing about when you can buy more drugs before you’ve even started on the batch you just bought … you might have a problem.
It may not be something that ever becomes more than a fleeting thought, but once it manifests, it’s difficult to get rid of. It’s kind of like the warning light on your car: You see it, and you wonder what it means, but your car seems to be running fine and you’re worried about money and there’s absolutely no way you can get by without a car … so you keep driving, hoping that nagging little light will go off on its own.
If only your liver came with a warning light. It doesn’t, but when alcohol and drugs start to take priority over your education — which is, ostensibly, the entire reason you’re going to college in the first place — you sense that something’s wrong just the same. And while it’s just as easy to ignore, especially in the light of day when you’ve got classes to attend and papers to write and assignments to complete and so many other things to do … it’s a lot more difficult when you’re crawling into bed at 3 a.m. for the third night in a row, the room spinning, trying not to spray-vomit the walls.
That’s when you hear it: That little voice in the back of your head telling you, “It isn’t supposed to be like this.” It reminds you that you had pledged not to get plastered that night, that you had sworn off booze until the weekend … but within 12 hours of making that promise, you found yourself at a party, drink in hand, boundaries swept aside and the cycle you’d hoped to break repeating itself once again.
Eventually … hopefully sooner, but probably later … that voice will turn to a scream, and you’ll be faced with the gut-wrenching realization that you’re no longer just “having fun.” You’re not just “experimenting.” You’re on your way to a full-blown drug and alcohol problem, and like it or not, you have to do something.
First: Deep breaths
Whether you’re six weeks in or six years into your college career, and you’ve come to the conclusion that your drinking or drug use has gotten out of control, do us a favor: Give yourself a little bit of credit.
Seriously. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to admit there’s a problem? Consider this: According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration , “Of the estimated 13.1 million adults aged 26 or older who needed but did not receive substance use treatment at a specialty facility in (2015),” only 5.5 percent of them felt they actually needed it.
Why? That’s an exhaustive topic in and of itself. Suffice it to say that the stigma of addiction and alcoholism as moral deficiencies or personal weaknesses is still widespread, and many individuals with a problem buy into the misconception that asking for help is an admission of failure.
To put it bluntly, that’s the sort of thinking that kills people. Asking for help when you have a problem is one of the bravest things you can do, and it might just save your life. There are numerous options for those who suffer from addiction and alcoholism, but before you can take advantage of any of them, you have to face up to the fact that your life has gotten out of control.
Second: Talk to someone
If you’ve admitted there’s a problem, the next step is figuring out what to do about it. If it’s become clear that drugs and alcohol are interfering with your life, it’s probably wise to bring someone into that conversation who might be able to help you see things with some clarity you’re lacking. A close friend, a family member, a boyfriend/girlfriend … chances are good that by the time you’re ready to face what’s going on, they already have an idea that something’s amiss. But suggesting you might have a problem with drugs or alcohol is more apt to come across as an accusation if you’re not ready to hear it, so they’ve probably kept their mouths shut.
When you do confide in someone you trust, it’s important to select the right person. There’s a tendency on the part of some people to minimize or dismiss what’s going on, because no one wants to be the guy or girl who nods in agreement and says, “Yep, you’ve got a problem.” It makes them feel like a jerk! One suggestion would be to ask them up front to just listen. If you’re going to bring it up, be prepared to tell them why you feel like it’s a problem. Give them some examples. Let them know everything that’s going on.
And let them know you’re not asking them to “fix” you. If admitting to yourself is the first step toward a solution, admitting it to another person is a way of holding yourself accountable. If you want to get better, you need support, encouragement and even some tough love, so communicate those needs. They can't make it all go away, but they can be there for you, and they can help you figure out what the next step is.
Third: Explore your resources
The idea behind opening up about your problem is to draw strength from someone you trust, so that you feel empowered to do something about it. With the right people in your corner to offer support, you can now begin to look at what your options are. But where should you start?
- On campus. According to the organization Start Your Recovery , “Many colleges and universities have counseling centers, specialists in substance use disorders, or other mental health resources available to support students. Often on-campus counselors can refer students to long-term resources that have worked for others or can identify effective student support groups. Your university’s website can be a helpful starting point for finding support, choosing treatment options, and starting your recovery.” It may be as simple as browsing the website of your particular college, or you may want to ask a faculty adviser. Either way, you’re likely to find support without ever having to leave campus.
- In the community. If you think you have a problem, there are usually free meetings in every community. Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meet daily in cities and towns all around the world, and there’s no cost to attend, nor do you have to even say anything. Granted, the stigma attached to “those” meetings mirrors much of what society thinks of addicts and alcoholics themselves, but look at it this way: Go one time. All you need to do is sit there, for about an hour, and listen. No one is going to make you sign a blood oath or chain you to the coffee pot. If, after you leave, you find it excruciatingly boring or pointless, don’t go back. But if you hear something that resonates … something that gives you a little insight or some hope … why not go back?
- Professional help. Maybe you’re not ready to go to AA or NA, and that’s fine. And perhaps your school’s resources are stretched thin. If you have health insurance, however, you can always take advantage of behavioral health benefits and schedule an appointment with a therapist or counselor. Some schools even use a referral system to help you find such a therapist, Professor Gregg Henriques of James Madison University told Vice in 2018 : “You can ask if your school has ‘case managers.’ They are often social workers who can meet with you and help get you to a therapist quickly.”
- Start Your Recovery is a great online resource, and there are numerous other websites that can help point you in the right direction, including:
- ULifeline , “an anonymous, confidential, online resource center, where college students can be comfortable searching for the information they need and want regarding emotional health.”
- College Drinking: Changing the Culture , a clearinghouse of information, educational material and suggestions for monitoring your alcohol consumption.
- The Association of Recovery in Higher Education , a network of professionals, administrators, faculty, staff, students, parents and policymakers that “provide the education, resources, and community connection needed to help change the trajectory of recovering student’s lives.”
- The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery , hosted by Ohio State University that offers information about making safe choices, managing stress and “where to get help if you are struggling with alcohol and drug misuse.”
- Campus Drug Prevention , which aims at curbing drug use among college students but contains a wealth of information and resources as well.
- A drug and alcohol treatment center. That may seem like to you to be a solution of last resort, but just know that they’re out there, and many of them have programs specifically geared toward Young Adult addicts and alcoholics. Going to rehab is never part of anyone’s life plan or career arc, but if you now admit you have a problem, it’s time to ask yourself how bad it really is. And if your entire life is unraveling, then it may be time to consider something that might otherwise seem drastic.
Fourth: Do something about it
There’s a particular quote we’re fond of that’s very applicable to where you now find yourself, and we’ll paraphrase it here: When we acknowledge and accept the fact that we have a problem, then the problem is no longer the problem. The problem then becomes our resistance to the solution.
In other words, you know you have a problem. You know you’re not alone. You know you have support. You know there are resources available. So what are you going to do now?
That’s a question that you, and only you, can answer. You can’t make the problem go away by pretending it doesn’t exist, and you can’t keep dismissing it as a phase you’re going through. Something has to give, and hopefully it’s your resistance to the solution.
Because you don’t have to let it get so bad that it destroys everything. It can … but it doesn’t have to. Whether or not it does, of course, is entirely up to you.