Why Collegiate Recovery could have changed my experience of University

Reflecting on a successful three years at University, this personal account highlights where Collegiate Recovery could have made an even bigger difference to one student's life.

My three years at University were each very different. Which I guess is what’s supposed to happen. 

There’s that year of getting settled in, learning to work at a higher level, and getting used to the demands of university life. (Don’t ever let anybody tell you it’s not demanding, either).

And then the second, when the work gets a little harder, but you’re in a positive flow and there’s not quite the stress of knowing it’s coming to an end…

…Until that third year arrives. And everything gets real. That combination of desperate to get it all over with, self-imposed pressure to ensure it’s all been worth it, and wondering what will actually happen, next.

A more pressing matter

Weaving its way awkwardly through my university existence, however, was my more pressing relationship with alcohol, before the positive journey of recovery began.

My first day on campus, in early September, I rocked up in a beanie hat, quilted leather parker, and hoodie. This was how I dressed, outside, whatever the weather. What I truly desired, on that late summer afternoon, was to be inside. Tucked up and hidden away. I guess my choice of outfit was as close to an eternal blanket as I could get.

Already a couple of days late for registration (not wanting to join the initial rush to get started, and somehow believing things would have calmed down, three days into Fresher’s Week), I had a plan. Arrive slightly late to every lecture and seminar, to get the last seat at the back, avoid talking to people wherever possible, and make it through until weekend. 

Along with a shiny new laptop, and a collection of unused stationery, I carried a few cans of cider to keep me calm and (de)hydrated throughout the day. I managed a whole day Wednesday, whole day Thursday, and left early on the Friday - delighted with the start I’d made.

50% attendance, and I’d not spoken to a single human being. This was already more success than I’d had in two of my previous three attempts at university.

Attendance aside, there was little change in that first year, although I muddled through and did manage to meet a few of my new peers along the way.

New year, new you

In the first six weeks of Year Two, I wound up in hospital on three occasions. And the third time, they wouldn’t keep me in. Back home, and sensing that all too familiar feeling of life slipping away, I lay on my bed and looked at the ceiling.

I would never recommend that anybody attempts either a detox, nor recovery, on their own. One is horrendous, not to mention obscenely dangerous, and the other is, in my experience, near impossible.

But that’s what I did. For four days I writhed around in agony, in and out of consciousness. Hallucinating, crying, hysterically laughing, drenching my clothes and sheets in hot and cold sweat until I was strong enough to stand up again. 

It was at this point that I reached out and got some help. Without which, I wouldn’t have made it back to Uni, and certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed my second year so thoroughly.

I soon found socialising so much easier. Although the offer of drugs and alcohol was never far away, I can’t recall ever being tempted. I was too busy enjoying a clear mind, lower anxiety, far less self-doubt, and the confidence to speak up and lead on sessions and projects.

Although I’ll never be completely sure, I think I became something of an enigma, around my peers. From quiet, barely present, and rarely able to speak my mind, I’d become a person with opinions, solutions, and a sense of humour I’d never recognised in myself before.

Life was suddenly so wonderfully good.

Final year stress

And third year was too, in the main. But it was stressful. The impending graduation conjured up an entire new life ahead, and self-doubt naturally crept back in. Outside of university, I took on far too many other responsibilities, at least in hindsight. I was racing from campus to my hometown, to work nights, then get up for the gym, before getting back to my studies.

And then there was the social life, too.

For someone who’d rarely been able to manage one aspect of his life, juggling several was too much. Not that I listened to people who suggested that might be the case.

So I did relapse, rather heavily, towards the end of my third year. And it nearly cost me far more than a degree.

But with a compassionate student support service, and a new network of people in recovery around me, it thankfully didn’t last too long.

Clear-headed once again, I set out my priorities, effectively. Recovery came first, as without this I wouldn’t have anything else. Then there was university, which I believed my future depended on (and proved myself right, for the next seven years and counting). After that, I did need some money from employment, so I threw my job in at third. 

I put my social life dead last, and I don’t regret that. Even though it meant missing my graduation, while I deferred for a few months, it almost suited me.

The person who originally turned up late, didn’t want to talk to anyone, and probably wasn’t 100% sure what they wanted to achieve from university, graduated later that year, six months after everyone else.

And although it often felt like a lonely experience, it’s led to only positive things, ever since.

A reflection on late graduation

In the context of why I’m writing this now, I’m thinking of Collegiate Recovery, and where that could have helped. From the person who began that terrifying first year, knowing there was a problem, but didn’t know where to look, to the lively third year, revelling in a novel joy, a CRP could have made the experience different. 

Every phase of that journey, whether drunk or relishing sobriety, I was aware that I couldn't truly talk about the most pressing part of my university life. Unable to fully share what was going on behind the scenes, so to speak, it was a heavy secret to carry, at times.

Would I have avoided the relapse, if there had been a programme on campus? Possibly. But possibly not. I’ll never truly know.

But there’s no doubt that I would have had a peer network, right there, who could have supported me at any stage of that journey. And visible recovery is so important. It’s ever-present evidence that you are never truly alone.

That I have become part of trying to embed that in UK Universities is one of the proudest professional times of my life. And would have been impossible if I hadn’t found recovery.

In all honesty, I don’t think I’d be here to write a single word without it.

Simon Trelfa is the Marketing & Communications Lead of Recovery Connections, and Recovery Connections on Campus. He graduated from The University of Sunderland, in 2016, and the University of Brighton, in 2020.