Penn State’s Campus Recovery Community

When I was in college my best friend tried to get me to start running with him. And I did go for a few excruciating runs with Gus at the IM building and around the town of State College, in the snow and ice. At the time, I was completely out of shape, drank nearly every day, and smoked about a pack to a pack and a half of Camel Lights a day. I had no business running.

I remember on one of our first runs Gus handed me a Joe Camel hat telling me to put it on. He was donning a Miller Lite cap. Skeptical, I asked him, “Isn’t this kind of, you know, counter productive?”

“It represents the duality of man, Dame.”

This came from the same man who once tried to prove the existence of God in a philosophy paper by virtue of the existence of a banana. That didn’t end well for him, at least in terms of his Phil 101 grade. Perhaps, I should have been more skeptical. And yet, Gus was on to something.

Life is full of dichotomies. Everywhere you look you can find forces that are diametrically opposed to one and other. Republicans vs. Democrats. Conservatives vs. Liberals. The Baltimore Orioles vs. New York Yankees. Good vs. Evil.

Sobriety vs. Drunkenness.

I spent the weekend in State College, Pennsylvania — a town where one could easily create a river of alcohol flowing down College Avenue with all the booze that gets consumed at the bars, apartments and fraternity houses. It’s not unfair to say that State College is a drinking town with a football problem.

Indeed, in what constitutes downtown State College, 1/6th of a square mile, there are over 25 bars serving booze. This doesn’t count restaurants with liquor license, or “six pack shops” (Pennsylvania has some really strange liquor laws) — this number is represents places where the primary revenue stream is selling booze to be consumed on the premises.

There are approximately 46,000 undergraduates and about 12,000 graduate students at University Park, Penn State’s main campus. With the local population of around 42,000 people (according to the 2010 census), there are about 100,000 people in the State College and University Park zip codes which cover a scant 4.5 square miles.

Now, I’m not in any position to cast any aspersions on State College. I don’t want to sound moralistic or judgmental — I’m just stating some facts about State College. Even as a sober man, it’s one of my most favorite places in the universe.

With these facts in mind, there is no doubt that being a sober person in State College can be challenging. And being a sober student might seem impossible. And yet, there are people who are doing it, and some of them are even students.

img_0420.jpgI had the privilege of attending the Penn State Campus Recovery Community’s bi-annual Recovery Celebration on Saturday night at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on the University Park Campus. About 70 students, alumni, and local community members in recovery gathered to celebrate our recoveries together.

In addition to those of us in recovery, several student’s parents were in attendance as well. Two organizations, Lions for Recovery and Lions in Recovery were represented. Lions for Recovery is the student run recovery group at Penn State while Lions in Recovery is the alumni interest group for Penn State Alumni in recovery.

I learned some interesting things about the recovery community at Penn State. The CRC was founded in 2007 and has grown to support approximately 25 students in recovery. The CRC has dedicated space in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on campus and sponsors weekly meetings for students. In addition the CRC was instrumental in establishing ROAR House, a sober living facility on campus for students in recovery. The students are active in the Collegiate Recovery movement which is gaining momentum across the United States.

Lions in Recovery currently has approximately 30 members and has been working to establish a permanent endowment for scholarships for students in recovery. The endowment is slightly short of the goal of $100,000. If you’d like to support this worthy cause, you can give at Since it’s a contribution to Penn State, you can deduct it from your taxes.

If you’re thinking that the number of people involved in the two groups sounds low given the overall Penn State Student and Alumni population, I’d agree with you. But I’ll contrast that with a story that the CRC’s Program Coordinator, Jason Whitney told about a meeting he had with a student as the CRC was getting started where the student asked Jason if he knew how many students were in recovery at Penn State. The answer was four. That was the total number of other students this student had met at 12 Step meetings in State College.

The recovery community has come a long way at Penn State thanks to the efforts of the CRC, but there’s still a long way to go. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 6.2% of the US population over the age of 18 is affected by Alcohol Use Disorder and that 8.4% of men and 4.2% of women over age 18 are affected by AUD. This doesn’t even factor in the number of people who are affected by other addiction and mental health disorders including drug use, eating disorders, and sex and love addictions. Given those kinds of numbers, there is no doubt in my mind that the number of students and alumni in recovery is well into the thousands if not tens of thousands.

IMG_0393As for the fears that I had about going back to State College, the were largely unfounded. I spent time hanging out with my fraternity brothers on Friday night and Saturday during the day. We tailgated, told stories, laughed, and had a good time. Most of my fraternity brothers don’t really drink that hard anymore. Everyone of them has had my back since I got sober. They were as happy to have me there, sober and alive, as I was to be there.

Saturday night, as I walked on campus I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude for friendships. Gratitude for my time at Penn State. Gratitude for the life that I live now. It had been at least 20 years since I walked across campus on a Saturday night. The crisp spring air felt good in my lungs. I took note of things that had changed — the old iron fire escape and second floor entrance on the south side of McAllister Building where I used to smoke before English 444 is gone. I also took note of what was the same — Old Main still faithfully chimes out the hours of the day. Campus was quiet on Saturday night, but as I approached College avenue, things grew louder, and it was apparent that famous State College party scene was in full swing.

As I thought about how many people out there might be where I was only two and a half years ago, I said a short prayer for those still sick and suffering and I crossed the street from the serene campus to the bustling downtown.

It’s Time to Slay the Dragon

This weekend, I’ll be heading up to State College, PA for the first time since I got sober for the annual Blue White weekend. For those of you who aren’t Penn Staters, this is a spring scrimmage football game complete with tailgating and about 100 thousand other Penn State fans. It’s also one of the last big weekends for Seniors who are getting ready to take their finals and graduate.

When I was an undergrad the Blue White weekend was always a great time. We’d get up early, head to the stadium, party like rock stars, and maybe go to the game. Actually, strike that, I don’t think I ever went into the Blue White game when I was an undergrad.

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a bit nervous about making this trip. I’ll be in the town where I learned to drink. I’ll be in the town that has my favorite bar, Zeno’s Pub. Even though I haven’t been to Zeno’s in years I can still smell the place.

I have avoided going back to school since I got sober. At first it was out of necessity. I got sober in the fall of 2015 during football season. I remember sitting down to watch the first game on television the weekend after I went to my first meeting. I lasted about five minutes before turning off the tube. The game was so triggering. I had never watched a game without drinking.

But with time the necessity of avoiding State College turned in to a fear of State College, even though my sobriety was getting stronger. With time, I was less afraid of going to State College and relapsing, than I was of going to State College and not knowing what to do with myself. The idea of going to State College and not going to the bars just didn’t seem feasible.

I’ve come a long way, though. I’ve been to weddings of fraternity brothers. I’ve been to lots of company events and happy hours. I’ve been around booze and not had a problem. Hell, I’ve even had a bottle of whisky in my house unopened since the day I quit drinking. If I’d wanted to drink, it likely would have happened by now.

The truth is that I really don’t want to drink because I know where that would lead.

So, I’m going to Penn State this weekend. I’m slaying that dragon. I’ll be putting that fear behind me. I know it won’t be the same as it was before. I know that there may be times when I feel like I’m missing out on something. But I also know that I can do this.

Thankfully, there is a Collegiate Recovery Center at Penn State now. And I plan to attend a meeting on Saturday night with them. I may also hit their sober tailgate. It will be a good way to get connected with my school in a healthy way and I’m looking forward to it.

I know that I’ve come too far and that what I’m really missing out on at this point is spending time with some of my best friends. I didn’t get sober to spend my days living in fear. I didn’t get sober to leave good parts my old life behind with the bad. I got sober so that I can live a rich and fulfilling life. And being connected to my school is part of that.

The featured photo is from a trip to Dublin in 2014 for the Croke Park Classic.  Cleary, this was prior to me getting sober.

Just Like Don

This post was originally published on the site Transformation is Real in the fall of 2016. The curator of that site is looking to transition the site to a new owner and so I’m republishing it here to ensure that it remains available moving forward.

On the morning of November 28th in 1977, Emil pulled the trigger of a .22 caliber rifle after covering the muzzle with his mouth. In all likelihood he died instantly. He was my birth father. I was five years old and my brother was just three. I have precious few memories of time with my birth father. My brother has none.

They say that the root of every addiction is trauma. And I suffered deep trauma as a young child.

After my mother and birth father separated, my mother moved us into my grandparents’ house. Although the situation was highly dysfunctional, I was not aware of it. It seemed perfectly normal that my uncle lived in what amounted to a shed behind the main house. And it didn’t strike me as odd at all that he had to store his urine in empty milk jugs in the refrigerator. Years later, I would realize he was likely being tested for drug use.

By the time I was in the fourth grade I had been enrolled in five different elementary schools and had lived in six different homes. We’d lived in several apartments and houses around the Baltimore and Washington metro area before settling in the small town of Taneytown, Maryland just south of the border with Pennsylvania.

From that time on, everything seemed normal in my life and I was a happy child with loving parents.

We were already living with the man who would become my father, when my birth father committed suicide. It was Don who gathered us together with Mom to tell us that Emil had died. He gathered us up in those broken years and did his very best to make us whole. And with time, we became a family.

Somehow he knew that my brother and I had suffered enough trauma and that adopting us wasn’t going to help, so he loved us as his own for the rest of his life. His unconditional love for our mother and for us provided us a safe refuge.

I always wanted to be like Don. He excelled in his profession. He was highly respected by people who met him. He was a man of character, honor, and dignity. But most importantly, he was the best father a boy could ever have, especially a boy who had lost his birth father to suicide. When Don died in 2002, I lost my best friend. I was crushed.

From a young age, I always envisioned myself becoming a father. I always envisioned myself being as great a father to my son as Don was to me. I imagined myself taking my son hiking, fishing, and camping. I imagined myself teaching him to shoot guns and hunt when he was old enough. I imagined teaching him to do all the things that Don had taught me to do. I imagined becoming his best friend.

In 2007, my son was born and I thought that my dreams were about to be fulfilled. He was the spitting image of me when I was a baby. He was perfection as far as I was concerned. He was an amazing little package of joy and I was ecstatic to have him in my life. I was on top of the world.

But it wouldn’t last.

I found out quickly that being a father was challenging. I learned that there were a lot of sleepless nights. I discovered that life is uncertain and that I was responsible for keeping this little boy safe. I discovered that I was scared. And on many occasions I wished that I could just talk to my father once again.

All the pressure of being a father, and all the fears that came with it, triggered something in me that I’d never expected. Within eight months of my son’s birth, I’d begun to go off the rails. I began to drink every day.

At first it wasn’t that much, a beer or two, but quickly it escalated and by the time he was four I’d progressed from beer to bourbon, and was beginning the downward spiral toward my emotional bottom. By 2013, I was a stone skipping across the rocks of a dry river bed of emotion and I finally came to rest at that bottom in September of 2015.

I have not worked out exactly what happened, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my addiction hit me with full force shortly after my son was born and that my bottom came when he was nearly eight years old. The fact is that I pulled myself together and sought help in a Twelve Step fellowship when my son was roughly the same age as I was when my life began to stabilize as a child.

While I am certain that I was not the worst father in the world, I was far from what I’d imagined I’d be, and I was nothing like what Don had been to me in my son’s early life.

There were times when I made big mistakes because I was drinking; times when I failed completely as a father. One of the worst times was when my wife and my son went to visit his grandmother for a week and I chose to stay at home under the pretense of work but in reality because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to drink like I wanted to on the trip. Every time I spoke to my son on that trip he was in tears because I wasn’t with him even though he was having tons of fun with his grandmother and uncle.

I felt like a complete failure during my drinking days.

I felt that I was ruining my life and that of my son and my wife. I knew that I needed to stop drinking, but I could not imagine a life without alcohol. I was certain that they would be better off without me and while I never seriously contemplated suicide, I found myself wondering if things would be better for them if I were dead.

Assuming that I don’t suffer a moment of temporary insanity, on September 23, 2016 I will celebrate a year of continuous sobriety. In the past year, I’ve started to become the father that I’d always dreamed I would be. I’ve gone from being ashamed of myself to being proud of myself, not just because I stopped drinking, but because I’ve become available to my son.

One of the first things I noticed was that I could walk him into school without an overwhelming fear of being discovered. I learned how to spend time with him, doing things that he wants to do, like playing with his Legos, reading Captain Underpants books, and shooting hoops with him—I hate basketball (with a passion), but I love shooting hoops with my boy.

In the spring of 2016 we went on our first camping trip together. It was with his cub scout pack. While there were plenty of challenges, including a canoe trip with the clumsiest scout in his pack, an encounter with an angry goose protecting her nest, and sliding down the floor of the tent all night because we’d pitched it on a hill (his choice) rather than flat ground the trip was a huge success. We both had lots of fun and I was sad when it was over.

It wasn’t long ago, that the idea of a cub scout camping trip scared the daylights out of me because I couldn’t imagine doing it without drinking.

Because I’ve been sober, I’ve been able to do the right things. I’ve been able to be both physically and emotionally present for my son. I hope that by doing these things, I’ll help to heal the wounds created by the trauma of living with a drunk father for seven and a half years.

I’ve got a long way to go to live up to the image I have of Don, but I know that I’m on the right path. I also know that maybe I don’t have to become the perfect father that I remember—maybe, just maybe—Don wasn’t perfect.

And maybe, if I just stay sober and continue to be physically and emotionally present for my son, he’ll think of me the way I think of Don when he’s grown up. If that happens, I’ll have done the best that I can.

I’ll have become the father that I was meant to be.