Goodbye to the Binge: The Recovery House

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SAFE HAVEN: Resident adviser Veliz, left, helps Nick find hope

As the first week of school wound down, Nick, 20, a sophomore at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, was feeling pretty comfortable in his new digs, a still tidy five-bedroom, red clapboard house he shares with three other guys on the edge of campus. He didn't know any of them well when the semester began, but he knew they had a couple of things in common. All four are in various stages of recovery from substance abuse, and each is a charter member of Recovery House, a new residential program at Case designed to help students with drug and alcohol problems stay clean and sober.

Most colleges offer substance-abuse prevention programs that warn about the dangers of binge drinking and illicit drugs. Many urge students who develop chemical dependencies to leave school and get treatment. But when those former abusers straighten themselves out and try to finish their education, they often encounter the same social situations that got them into trouble in the first place. Now a small but growing number of colleges are setting up on-campus recovery programs, and a few even have housing specifically for former substance abusers. Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., introduced the first recovery dorm in 1988. Last year an alumni reunion drew about 100 former residents, who credit the housing program with enabling them to succeed in school and thrive after graduation.

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Case Western decided to open Recovery House after the number of students evaluated for substance abuse at the college jumped 69%, from 29 in the 2000-01 school year, to 49 last year, an all-time high. Says Jes Sellers, director of Case's university counseling service: "These students need a safe place to live where threats to sobriety can be balanced by the collective strengths of a community in recovery."

While Rutgers and other schools insist that students seeking a spot in their recovery housing be substance free for at least a few months before starting the program, Case has no sobriety minimum. Indeed, a Recovery House resident admits that he had his last drink as recently as Aug. 1. The only requirements Case imposes are that students be serious about kicking their habit and agree to attend regular support-group meetings. Andy, 20, a former fraternity president, is thrilled to be free of the "distractions" that led him to fail most of his classes last semester. "When [pot] is in your face all the time, it's easy to get caught up in it," he says. "Now I don't have the apathy I used to have. I'm ready to apply myself."

Between meetings at local A.A. chapters or the campus support group, resident coordinator Joe Veliz, a social-work grad student, provides an empathic ear and makes sure that students stick to their plans. The only non-negotiable house rules: no drugs or alcohol, of course, and the observance of quiet hours between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. "I am not their parent," Veliz says. "But we know that people in recovery stay sober longer when they build connections." Given the fragile nature of recovery, Veliz is prepared for the possibility of a relapse but says residents won't automatically be booted out for slipping up, if they recommit to sobriety.

A couple of Recovery House residents admit they have been worried that living in the dorm will stigmatize them. "It seemed like I'd be wearing a target on my back," says Nick. "I didn't want everyone to know." He has solved the problem by telling only his trusted friends where he lives and saying to others that he shares a house off campus with friends. None of the undergrad residents felt comfortable enough to disclose a last name for publication, but Nick, Andy and their new housemates seem grateful to have a refuge from the keg parties and the bar hopping that define much of undergraduate social life. They all agree with the maxims that recovery is accomplished one day at a time and that it's easier to do it together than alone.