Students and faculty discuss the stigma surrounding substance abuse and how COVID-19 has affected recovery
For information on addiction counseling at UC Davis visit: https://shcs.ucdavis.edu/services/other-services/intervention-services
According to Defining the Addiction Treatment Gap, over 23.5 million Americans suffer from substance abuse. This statistic is equivalent to one in every 10 Americans over the age of 12 having some sort of an addiction.
Five years ago, Aggies for Recovery was founded at UC Davis as a way to support students who struggle with addiction. During a typical school year, members of the organization would meet weekly to check in and discuss their recovery progress. The organization utilizes methods such as harm reduction and the 12 step program.
Angela Armstrong-Ingram, a first-year graduate student of anthropology, became a member of Aggies for Recovery at the beginning of this academic year. Armstrong-Ingram stated that the organization’s meetings have had to adjust since moving to an online platform.
“Every week a group of students and a counselor meet on Zoom and we check in with one another,” Armstrong-Ingram said. “We are there to support each other through our individual paths of recovery. Everyone has their own goals, and we are a community that share those similar goals and help each other achieve them.”
Armstrong-Ingram struggled with alcohol addiction during her time as an undergraduate student at UC Davis. She stated that college culture as it is portrayed in the media played a role in enabling her alcoholism.
“Pop culture has ingrained this idea that college has to be a place where you are constantly partying to have fun,” Armstrong-Ingram said. “And there is that quote that goes, ‘It’s not considered alcoholism until you graduate,’ but I think alcohol addiction can be a problem no matter what stage of life you are in.”
According to her, alcohol functions as a social lubricant for many college students to help settle into the changes of university life.
“When you are a freshman coming into college, it’s normal to feel like alcohol can help you be someone who is more social, fun or attractive,” Armstrong-Ingram said. “But when you take it too far it’s easy to lose sight of the line between having fun and having an addiction, and it’s easy to miss out on the opportunities and education that college provides.”
Armstrong-Ingram noted how easy it is to glamorize addiction as an undergraduate.
“I remember during my undergrad I would say, ‘Write drunk, edit sober,’ but I didn’t really ever edit anything,” Armstrong-Ingram said. “And I do this to myself where I bring humor into it, but the fact is alcoholism and addiction isn’t a beautiful or funny thing. It’s something that affects a lot of people and chances are you have someone in your life that it is affecting.”
Addiction in a pandemic
Since the pandemic started, many of the typical tools to maintain sobriety have been temporarily shut down, Armstrong-Ingram said. Activities such as volunteering, going to the gym and meeting up with friends for sober social gatherings are not as accessible as once before.
“Many of the things I did to distract myself are now unavailable,” Armstrong-Ingram said. “At the beginning, I struggled with social isolation for a while, and it was very tempting to pass the time and get through the day by drinking. With the pandemic, it was very easy to go back to drinking and numb yourself out from the constant fear of the events around us.”
Erica Vogt, a fourth-year community and regional development major, joined Aggies for Recovery during the pandemic. Vogt noted that the organization has helped her remain sober throughout quarantine by being supportive and providing a safe space for her to voice her struggles.
“We are all friends at this point and we support each other’s recoveries,” Vogt said. “Aggies for Recovery has helped me tremendously throughout my journey through recovery, and the group holds me accountable in a really supportive way. We don’t get disappointed in one another. There might be slip ups or relapses, but it’s all about support and love and understanding.”
Vogt said that she has used the time during the pandemic to focus on herself and sobriety.
“A lot of people talk about [a] quarantine hobby they picked up, and for me it was kind of like picking out sobriety hobbies,” Vogt said. “I had to think of all these extra things to do to fill my time and keep myself busy instead of smoking weed and watching YouTube for hours. I picked up collaging, journaling, biking and yoga, just anything that would keep my mind occupied.”
For Vogt, the social isolation during this time has provided an excuse to step back from environments that might induce giving into her addiction, such as parties.
“Because of the pandemic, I don’t have the influence of people asking to go to a party or get drunk or smoke as much,” Vogt said. “Now, when it’s a Friday or Saturday night and I’m sober at home by myself or with my roommates, it feels normal because that’s what I should be doing anyways. So in a way I think the pandemic made it easier for me to get through recovery.”
Like Vogt, the pandemic has helped first-year Master of Fine Arts student Whitney Vangrin gain a greater perspective on her journey through sobriety.
“I was thrown out of the lifestyle I was living and entered a space of intense self-reflection,” Vagrin said. “The common routine was replaced by a different way of living, and I did not want to numb myself any longer. I had to find new ways of coping and dedicated myself to radical self-responsibility. The isolation and constant stressor of this time has made recovery all the more difficult, but that is why a community like Aggies for Recovery is so important.”
Armstrong-Ingram described missing the little moments of social contact from pre-COVID-19, which have helped her remain sober for five years.
“I don’t think I realized how important physical contact was, like a hug from a friend or someone reassuring you by having their hand on your shoulder,” Armstrong-Ingram said. “I definitely do miss physically being in a room with people who are also going through recovery, and I miss the social events that come with that.”
In addition to Zoom meetings, members of Aggies for Recovery have met in person for socially-distanced group activities. Earlier this academic year, the organization held a painting event, so that members could interact with each other in a time of social isolation.
Addressing the Stigma
According to Vogt, anyone can struggle with addiction, even a straight-A student who seemingly has their life together.
“I was always able to manage school and keep everything on the surface together, so I appeared totally fine,” Vogt said. “On the outside I was totally functional and you would have never guessed how much I was struggling with substance abuse. I think it’s easy to talk yourself out of accepting and acknowledging you have addiction when everything seems fine, but at a certain point you might hit rock bottom before you realize how much your vice might be affecting you.”
Although there has been some progress to destigmatize substance abuse, Armstrong-Ingram noted that there is a lot that can still be done to normalize addiction.
“I think there are a lot of people who don’t experience addiction, who have a certain idea of what someone with addiction looks like,” Armstrong-Ingram said. “For example, I don’t feel like, by just looking at me, you can tell that I have struggled with alcohol for a very long time.”
William Smith*, a second-year biomedical engineering major and member of Aggies for Recovery, stated that the stigma surrounding drug abuse was propagated by the government during the War on Drugs in the 1970s.
“I think [society has] created all these stereotypes of addicts,” Smith said. “Like if you do drugs then you are a low life, and you don’t contribute anything to society; you’re weak-minded or you’re not a morally good person and that’s really not true. I know plenty of people and members for Aggies for Recovery who are very smart individuals that are working toward their Ph.D. or Masters degrees and they are completely functioning individuals.”
One way that Armstrong-Ingram has attempted to normalize the topic of substance abuse is by being forward about the struggles she has faced and having open conversations about it with her peers. She stated that the fact that she is earning a graduate degree exemplifies the idea that there is not solely one kind of person who suffers from substance abuse.
“I am in a place of privilege, where I have an established career,” Armstrong-Ingram said. “Even if people know that I have an addiction, it doesn’t make me lose my credibility because I have already maintained a reputation for producing good work, and because of that, people take me seriously.”
Vogt noted that addiction education and awareness could be one avenue to preventing the stigma surrounding substance abuse.
“Addiction isn’t a choice, it’s a disease,” Vogt said. “It’s a bummer to rag on college culture, like parties, and I really enjoyed all of that my first few years of college. But, at the same time, I think we need more awareness of the effects of alcohol and drug abuse, and I think if people and students were more educated on addiction, they might not feel so alone if they are going through it.”
Instead of employing scare tactics, Smith explained how having open conversations about drug usage and abuse can make strides in the way that the youth may understand and experiment with drugs.
“There is a lot of misinformation about drugs that circulate on school and the internet,” Smith said. “People will use scare tactics, like if you use this drug then your life is going to be over, and I think if we get rid of that misinformation and give people knowledge about drug usage, that would help fight against the stigma associated with drugs and alcohol.”
Vagrin noted that rather than defining someone by their addiction, as a society we should treat addiction like any other illness.
“As a culture we need to fight against apathy and the urge to forget or ignore the struggles of those battling addiction and mental health issues,” Vagrin said. “I think it would be important to talk about mental health issues in tandem with recovery support.”
Student support at the UC level
In regards to what adjustments should be made for greater university-wide support, Vagrin offered some suggestions.
“In general, there needs to be better funding for mental health and addiction support on college campuses, increased employment of therapists, addiction counsellors and psychiatrists within the university,” Vagrin said. “[We also need] to make access to care as clear and attainable as possible. Many times the runaround that students encounter when asking for help can be a deterrent in finally receiving aid.”
Stephanie Lake, the UC Davis Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs intervention service coordinator, described the trends she has seen as an addiction advisor.
“I’ve been in this field for over 25 years and I have never once met someone who was happy to have an addiction,” Lake said. “Nobody grows up wanting to have an addition. Nine times out of 10 when people first start using they aren’t thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is the most horrible experience, I’m never doing it again.’ It’s more like ‘Oh my god, this was an amazing experience and I am going to keep doing it because it makes me feel good,’ and then it gradually becomes an addiction.”
Lake also noted that 90% of people who have an addiction have underlying mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or PTSD. Lake stated that genetics and environmental factors also play a significant role in the development of an addiction.
For Vogt, friends and family have played a significant role in her recovery. Vogt cited her roommates as being some of the greatest supports throughout her recovery.
“They never pressure me, even [if] I told them that I was going to have a slip up,” Vogt said. “I would talk to them about my therapy sessions and the science behind addiction, and they would learn everything with me and were so supportive during all the ups and downs. They always trusted that I knew what was best for me and more importantly they would always meet me where I was at.”
Lake said there are many ways to be a supportive ally for loved ones struggling with addiction.
“Setting up boundaries and being there to listen is really important,” Lake said. “It could also be helpful to do your own research and reach out to your friend to offer your help. You’d be surprised how much even a phone call to check-in can help.”
In addition to being the organizations’ counselor, Lake also holds one-on-one and group meetings through the university to help students with substance abuse. Lake said that all of the meetings are completely confidential, and friends and family are allowed to sit in on counseling sessions if permission is given. Lake is also open to meeting with friends and family to talk about what it means to be an ally and how to set up interventions.
To those who are struggling with addiction and are looking for friendly faces to guide them through recovery, Vogt encourages people to stop by an Aggies for Recovery meeting.
“There are people who have likely dealt with the same issues you have and they want to support you,” Vogt said. “It’s incredible how many people in the group, including me, want to help people get through the same things we did. It’s like a cycle, the older members helped me get through recovery when it was really challenging, and now I get to help newcomers, and it’s a really rewarding process.”
For those who are recovering from addiction, Lake offers some advice.
“Getting through an addiction is a process,” Lake said. “It’s best to take baby steps, and sometimes you take two steps forward and one step back. It’s never a straight line, It’s more like a squiggly like but if you just keep moving forward you are still making progress.”
Written by Sneha Ramachandran — email@example.com
Editor’s note: The names marked with an asterisk (*) have been changed to protect the identity of the members of Aggies for Recovery who requested to remain anonymous.
For more information on addiction counseling at UC Davis contact Stephanie Lake directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
The following links can be used to learn more about addictions and find counseling services:
*LGBT meetings available
Alcoholics Anonymous Sacramento Central Office: 916-454-1771
24-Hour Help Line : 916-454-1100
Sex and Love
Friends and Families of Problem Drinkers