Alcohol ruined my student life. But recovery made me who I am

Marketing and Communications Lead at Recovery Connections, Simon Trelfa has experienced student life as both an active alcoholic, and a person in recovery from addiction. Here, he reflects on these very different experiences, and what the charity he works for offers for students experiencing similar issues.

I can still feel the silence of that first afternoon, in my new room at the halls of residence in Tottenham. A tearful Mum and stoic Dad were on their way back up North, and my girlfriend was now 200 miles away.

All my favourite stuff was here, but now arranged in awkward piles on the floor, stuffed into random boxes, and haphazardly stacked on strange, new shelves.

While completing a long list of almost identical registration forms, earlier, it was mentioned to me on numerous occasions that there would be a gathering of new students at the on campus student union bar, from 6pm. A little over three hours away, I was already considering leaving it a few nights until my first visit. I was just too anxious to risk venturing out, right now.

However, there was soon a knock at the door of my room, and three of my new neighbours were ready and waiting to bring me along. This felt far more comfortable, so I did a spot of unpacking, a fair bit of panicking about all the new people who would be there (these three friendly strangers included), and anticipated my first pint(s) of the new term and adventure.

And little did I know it, but this uncomfortable process of overthinking, under-socialising, and eager drinking would become more intense, desperate, and uncontrollable, for the next 12 years.

Now I must stress that it wasn’t simply a spot of social anxiety that led to me becoming a full blown alcoholic. There were other underlying issues that I wasn’t aware of then, and have come to understand since, at play throughout this time.

But that is how I felt it began, back then. The terror of the new. The uncertainty of myself in these strange surroundings. The fear of not being accepted. Stuff that most people go through on some level.

After eventually, and predictably dropping out of university at 19, I assumed such feelings would eventually subside, and I’d simply ‘grow out’ of them. So imagine my surprise, when 12 years later I had a second bite of the academic cherry, and stumbled onto the shores of the River Wear, at The University of Sunderland, awash with that same sense of terror and bewilderment.

Well, I say it was the same. A decade-plus of ever-intensifying drinking had actually made this sensation unimaginably worse. But there I was, still avoiding new peers, trying to duck away from eye contact, and longing for a moment to sneak away to a toilet and down one of the cans I had tucked away in my bag.

And despite leaving a curious procession of empties around the media campus for nine months, at the end of that first academic year I eventually found recovery. And since then I’ve completed a BA in Journalism, a MA in Digital Media, and launched a rewarding career in marketing - which is how I ended up here.

As you can imagine, the above is a drastically abridged version of the story that brought me to where I am now. But I began this blog with that wary, and still very real memory of arriving at university, as it’s a feeling many students experience at this time of year.

Not that this means all of them will develop problems with alcohol or substances (which is a whole other story of mine, unfortunately). But the point is, some of them, some of you, unfortunately will. And why that is, who it is who becomes the problem drinker or user, is extremely difficult to predict.

Ultimately, it’s only ever us who truly know how we feel. And therefore it’s us who can reach out for support, when required. Unfortunately though, readily available alcohol or substance use support, specifically for students, isn’t something that’s readily available on each campus across the country.

And this is what makes what we do at Recovery Connections, on site at The University of Teesside, and our partnership with Student Space, so important. As a Lived Experience Recovery Organisation, we don’t simply signpost people to other services, or throw a few leaflets at you and suggest you give your GP a call.

Instead, we offer 1-2-1 calls, online group meetings, or in the case of Teesside students, a safe place to talk, on campus, every week of the academic year. And while I didn’t get sober in this way, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do so alone - or without the support of others who have walked a similar path.

What I learned from these people is the reason I’m still breathing, working, and using skills I’ve acquired along the way to reach out to others who may need the same support, either now or in the future.

And that’s what I’d suggest to any student who comes to question their own relationship with a drink, drug, or even a behaviour, over the next few months. Asking a question costs nothing. Leaving it unanswered, and untethered, can cost you years of your life, or worse. 

And I’ve seen many, including people much younger than me, who never grasped the chance of recovery, who became statistics, memories, and absent family members. That’s the sad reality of addiction, but it certainly doesn’t have to be.