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.

A Tale of Two Weddings

Anxiety. Fear. Agony.

Those are the words that come to mind when I recall the first wedding I attended sober. It was a scant sixteen days after I’d given up the drink. I was still in withdrawal, and probably had no business going to a wedding of a fraternity brother. Still, I was committed to attending and even more committed to not drinking.

I gave myself the out and canceled the Friday night room at the hotel, opting to drive up to the Philly area on Saturday, the day of the wedding, in order to minimize the exposure. As my wife and I drove up I95 my neck and shoulders tightened. I’m sure my pulse quickened. My stomach turned to knots.

When we got to the hotel, many of my fraternity brothers were already well oiled. I felt left out. I ran an errand, and while I was out got a call from a large client about a TAC case that was going sideways with a critical piece of gear in their network. I desperately wanted to drink.

I gritted my teeth. My knuckles turned white. I managed.

Well before the wedding, well before I passed the table of Manhattans that was awaiting the guests after the ceremony, I was in agony with a migraine.

I wish I could say that I had fun, but if I’m honest, while it was nice to see my life long friends, that night was pure hell for me. There are photos of me with smiles, but that was all a front. I always have been good at hiding what’s wrong.

We split early, shortly after cake was served. I’d done my duty, and I was done.

Last night, I attended the wedding of one of my pledge brothers, Dave. I was surrounded by the same group of friends who drank heavily two years ago and many of them were drinking heavily again. But this event was different.

Gone were the feelings of apprehension, anxiety, and fear. I did not feel left out. I did not miss the drinking. I socialized with my life long friends and enjoyed myself.

No migraine, just fun.

I was in the moment, and at peace. We laughed, we sang, and we danced. I smiled genuine smiles and loved every minute of the wedding and reception.

So much has changed in my world in the last 22 months. I’ve learned how to have fun without alcohol. I’ve learned how to have fun in the presence of alcohol while abstaining. I’ve learned how to embrace my sober life.

Many times you’ll hear folks say that being sober isn’t just about putting down the drink or the drug, and there are usually a lofty words that follow about connecting with a higher power or your spiritual condition. And for many people I’m sure these words are genuine.

What I’ve come to realize is that recovery is not about simply abstaining it’s about living a full and rewarding life. If that means that I’ve connected with a higher power, then so be it, but the resistant self in me doesn’t fully accept that. And that’s okay.

I’ve learned that there will be cycles in my recovery. Times when I feel that the spiritual side of things is of the greatest importance and times when I will see it as a less important. There will be times when I resist the program and times when I embrace it. And that’s why people talk about this being a life long journey. That’s why people talk about staying connected to their recovery and their higher power, because we’re never cured — we only get a daily reprieve.

And still, we do heal. That’s the only word I can use to explain the difference between the two experiences. Aside from geography and time, the only significant difference in my experience of these two weddings is the healing of my mind, body, and spirit.

We do recover.

Binge Drinking & Alcoholism — Questions from a Brother: Vol I, issue 2

Are binge drinking and alcoholism related?

I’m sure there are people far better qualified than me to answer this question, but I’ll share some insights that I’ve gleaned from my own reading and I’ll share my own experience.

Let’s begin with a definition of binge drinking from the CDC’s site:

Binge drinking is the most common pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks, and when women consume 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours.

NIAAA doesn’t discuss “alcoholism” but refers to the problem as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).  NIAAA categorizes AUD as having three phases, mild, moderate, and severe as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently DSM-5).  A diagnosis is made based on the number of positive answers to 11 questions regarding a 12 month period.

Severe AUD is probably the stage that most people think of when they here the term Alcoholism.  It certainly was what I thought of as the Alcoholic.  Picture the guy in dirty clothes on the street corner with a cheep bottle of booze in a bag.  Picture the person who gets up and starts the day with a drink instead of coffee.  Picture the person who can’t stop shaking without a drink. One of the later stages of alcoholism/AUD is physical dependence upon alcohol.  That’s when your body can’t function without it.  That’s what most people think of when they hear the term “alcoholic.”

But here’s the thing:  The CDC says that most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent

So, binge drinkers are not necessarily alcoholics. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a correlation between binge drinking and alcoholism or AUD.

In October of 2015, Scientific American published a blog post titled “Why Binge Drinking May Wire the Brain for Alcohol Dependence.”  In this blog post, the author discusses protein bonds that are formed in the brain as a result of binge drinking.

 “Neuroscientist, Amy Lasek, at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and colleagues, report that after binge drinking, neurons in brain circuits responsible for alcohol addiction become encased in a protein material, called a perineuronal net. The impenetrable coating cements neurons involved in alcohol addiction into a circuit that is extremely difficult to break.”

When I look at the definition of binge drinking above, I can’t help but think that this describes ALL the drinking I did in college.  And it was in college where I learned to drink, and it was all binge drinking.  Though there were times in my life when I could drink without binging, they were rare (very, very rare).

Did binge drinking cause my alcoholism?  I don’t know.  The truth is, science isn’t clear on what causes this problem.

Did it contribute to my alcoholism?  Most definitely.  In the end, I was binging daily.



Questions from a Brother: Vol I, Issue 1

As I mentioned yesterday, earlier this year I got a number of questions from a concerned fraternity brother about my journey in sobriety that I’d like to address on this blog.  I felt the need to paint the picture of my college experience as background for this series of posts.  I’m writing my responses to these questions, in hopes that others may learn from my experience, strength, and hope.

What should the Psi Chapter Alumni Association (hereafter referred to as we) be doing to help known alcoholics, those living with alcoholics, and those that will one day discover that they have the disease?

Well, this isn’t going to be easy. Continue reading

College: where it all started…

We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.

39216_458599814953_4267907_nA few months ago, a fraternity brother of mine sent me a list of questions related to my recovery.  I’ve been mulling over answering them directly or on the blog and after discussing them with my fraternity brother decided to answer them on the blog.  Before I start that series, I think a little background on my college experience might be in order.

University Park is located at the exact center of Pennsylvania and is mostly surrounded by the borough of State College, PA.  The town is a total of 4.5 square miles and is surrounded by farmland and mountains.  In the 1990s, the town boasted a total of 42,000 residents and the student population was approximately 40,000 undergraduates.  The entire area is peaceful and relaxed and goes by the moniker “Happy Valley.”  To say that it is an idyllic location is an understatement of perhaps the greatest magnitude.

When I was in school, there were 56 fraternities registered with the Intra-Fraternity Council and 23 sororities registered with the Panhellenic Council. Within the confines of the 4.5 square miles, there were approximately 25 bars.  There were at least 10 beer distributors within ten miles of the town.  Due to Pennsylvania’s insane liquor laws, you can only buy beer in cases or kegs at beer distributors – if you want a six pack, you have to go to a “six pack shop” where you pay significantly more than at a distributor.  And if you want wine or liquor, you have to go to a state store.  There were two state stores in the town.

Penn State University Park is officially a dry campus.  Continue reading

25 is not 30

Having a Laugh with Schwinger
Having a Laugh with Schwinger
Photo by Marvin Joseph

Update:  This is a post from another blog.  I migrated it to this blog because it’s an important part of my story.  This was posted just over three years before I fully surrendered and accepted that I am an alcoholic.

Calculations have never been my strong suit. When I announced my plan to go on a 30 day alcohol fast, I didn’t look at the calendar. Today is July 20th. Day 25. It’s also my fraternity brother’s surprise 40th birthday party with the boys.

When I first realized that I would be 5 days shy of the 30 day goal, I panicked. How the hell was I going to get together with my old crew – a crew with which I’ve got many hours days years of drinking history — without taking a drink? Early on, I discussed it with Mrs. TKD and even she said, “Maybe you should give yourself a break on that day.”

I thought about it. I admit it sounds like the wise choice. Why set myself up for failure? What would one day hurt? I’d be close to 30 days – a number that was arbitrary anyway. And I could pick it back up again on the 21st. Maybe extend an extra day to make up for it?

All of this was rationalization.

When I started this, I recognized that I’d been putting it off for a long time because there was always “the next big event” and I was stymied the Fear of Missing Out. I recognized that there will always be something on the calendar that would normally involve a drink or two six and that I needed to just commit.

Roundstone, by Andrew Spell

And so, I made the commitment and announced it to the world.

I’m sticking with this commitment today. While I would love to share a cold one with buddies today, or enjoy some of the fine rye whiskey I bought to commemorate my friend’s joining LONLYBNO (league of no longer young but not old), today is not the day. Today is day twenty-five.

25 is not 30.