By Danielle Joliet
Collegiate recovery is for everyone who has lost sight of their purpose. I say this because I have lived it. I started using at the age of 14 and from that first high, I could see no reason to stop. It made me feel so good and it seemed like no matter how hard I was trying to get things right in my life I was failing. I had alienated teachers, counselors, parents, friends, and family. The only thing I was getting right was my drug use. I was finding new ones, new ways to use them, and people willing to do them with me. There came a point when I was no longer escaping reality, the escape became my reality. At the age of 17, I was heavy into my use and dropped out of high school. With no school or purpose, I ran the streets and found houses to crash at and parties that seemed to last days and span states.
My first experience with a bottom was waking up on the steps of a house in Kensington, Philadelphia unable to move my body. That scared me right into a U.S. Army Recruiting Center. I walked in desperate, hopeless, and told them I needed to get out of there and join the Army. The recruiter didn’t judge me on my appearance. He merely asked if I could pass a drug test and if I graduated from high school, to which I replied — ‘no,’. “He could have easily told me I was hopeless, but he told me to come back tomorrow with sneakers and be ready to work.”. With that recruiter’s help, I gained some sobriety and earned my GED. I thrived in the structure of the Army and dropped the idea of doing drugs, but unwilling to admit I had a problem I welcomed drugs more socially acceptable partner alcohol.
There came a point when I was no longer escaping reality, the escape became my reality.
Years later, I left the active Army with a son, transitioned into the Army Reserves, and became a civilian police officer. I served my community from behind a badge and swelled with the sense of pride that the badge gave me. I had taken that scared, lonely addicted 17-year-old girl who dropped out of high school and turned her into a police officer but unwilling to look at what drinking was doing to my life I was bound for another bottom.
Then, in 2008, my reserve unit was called up to Iraq, where I was injured. I spent five months in Walter Reed Hospital discounting my experiences – my injuries paled in comparison to other soldiers I knew from the war — and feeling afraid of what my future looked like. I was medically discharged from the army and was physically disqualified from returning to police work. My return to civilian life was excruciating, and I found that there was much more to process from Iraq than I had been willing to acknowledge. I went on to blot out the shame and guilt, and for the next seven years, I turned to prescription drugs and alcohol.
My last bottom came upon losing myself completely, I was so far down I couldn’t see a way out, but thankfully I had the encouragement from a vocational rehabilitation counselor at the Department of Veteran Affairs who was willing to share his own struggle with alcohol with me and encouraged me to return to school and change the trajectory of my life. Armed with good intent and fearful, I lacked the preparation, I chased my dream of getting an education at Penn State. I was content keeping my head down, going to class and going home. I did not feel connected to the university. I felt I was in recovery and there was just no place for me or recovery on a college campus. Then, while sitting in a lecture, my professor shared that he had written a book on collegiate recovery programs. I was intrigued because of my own recovery and approached him after class. He was encouraging and told me about a collegiate recovery program on campus. I shared my story of recovery with the program coordinator, and he invited me to join their community. In the first few peer-support meetings at their center, I began to realize how useful sharing my story could be. A spirit of service ignited in me that I thought had been crushed in Iraq. I began to see that I could still serve people – It was just going to be a different kind of service.
I felt I was in recovery and there was just no place for me or recovery on a college campus.
With that sense of service, I began to volunteer at the Penn State CRC, later intern, and now I am the assistant program coordinator! Recovery alone gave me sobriety, recovery, and education gave me PURPOSE!
And my journey has brought me here today. Here to tell you that there is an answer to substance use disorder we no longer have to throw our hands in the air and say, “here heroin, you win. Here are my hopes and dreams I am just going to stay over here and collect whatever I can from the system. The same system that has set me up for failure will feed me, 3 hots and a cot right?”
Instead of jails and institutions, the answer to substance use disorder is to better support and fund subacute systems of care in our high schools, technical schools, and community colleges. When we pair education with recovery, we begin to not only save lives but change them. We change them from the inside out, we give young adults the why that allows them to see through any how!
Instead of jails and institutions, the answer to substance use disorder is to better support and fund subacute systems of care in our high schools, technical schools, and community colleges.
Since 2003 in Iraq, a place that I once served, there have been 4,840 soldiers deaths. In the two years I have been in recovery, we have lost 3 times that to substance use disorder. Just as I suited up and showed up when I was called on to go to war for this country, I remain suited up. I am still the same hero this is just a different war! I refuse to let another one of my brothers or sisters dealing with substance use disorder die when I know there is something to be done!