Dustin Huckabe had a “moment of clarity” while pouring his fix into his veins through a needle one night.
He had been shooting up heroin every day for three months, watching several friends overdose and one die.
But shooting up that day was different — the high and euphoria he was addicted to were gone. “It was,” he remembers, “just a means of survival.”
He called his mom and told her he needed help, but he hated her response because it was the truth.
“You know,” she told him, “where the answers are.”
A day later, he walked into a 12-step recovery meeting in San Antonio wearing a long-sleeved shirt to cover his track marks, and he heard a sentence that changed his life forever.
“This guy said in the meeting, ‘How free do you want to be?’” Huckabe said. “And he was talking to the group, but I felt like he was talking to me. I just remember thinking to myself, ‘What does that look like? I have a lot of shame, and I have a lot of guilt. And I feel inadequate, and I feel all of these things, and I don't know how to stop that, and I want some freedom from that.’”
He has been sober since that day — May 26, 2011.
Huckabe, now 31 and a social work senior at OU, started Students in Recovery, a support group for students recovering from addiction, in fall 2018. As president of the organization, he is advocating for OU to create a collegiate recovery program after being a part of Texas Tech University’s program, which helps students struggling with addiction get their degree while in recovery, according to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education.
After speaking with OU administration and being told “no” repeatedly, he decided to hold an event called “A Night of Recovery” on Sept. 27, where Students in Recovery put together a panel to talk about collegiate recovery. Before the event even started, the organization received a $10,000 donation from the Charles and Cassandra Bowen Charitable Foundation to aid in its fight to persuade the OU administration to create the program.
“(I decided) we're going to invite everyone I've ever met doing this work, and we're going to make it to where they have to listen,” Huckabe said.
‘I instantly felt at home’
When Huckabe was 25, he moved to Lubbock, Texas, after his girlfriend Emma Lewis was accepted into Texas Tech.
Huckabe met Lewis, whom he married in October 2018, while he was in the 12-step recovery program in San Antonio. He had been sober for two years.
He joined the recovery community and kept hearing about “how amazing” the collegiate recovery program at Tech was.
“It's everything that they said it was,” Huckabe said, describing his first visit to the program’s facility. “There was a huge building that was three stories tall for students that are just in recovery from everything — eating disorders, gambling, sex, drugs, alcohol, depression, whatever.”
The facility has offices, meeting rooms and a lobby, according to the website for Texas Tech’s Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities. But the basement, reserved for the program’s members, faculty and staff, has a meditation room, a kitchen and a break room, a computer lab, study areas, a game room and a TV lounge. The program also holds various meetings every day except for Saturday.
Huckabe started attending a local community college in Lubbock and got a job as the “urinalysis guy” at an addiction treatment facility called The Ranch at Dove Tree.
But he never expected the phone call that came shortly after he took the job.
Vincent Sanchez, who has been the associate director of Texas Tech’s collegiate recovery program for 24 years, was “someone everyone in the recovery community” heard about, Huckabe said, and he was “this ‘Wizard of Oz’ character that I’d never met.”
“I had no idea how (Sanchez) got my number — none of that,” Huckabe said. “And he goes, ‘I don't want you to take that UA job,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I've got bills to pay, man,’ and he goes, ‘I want you to become the director of the Outdoor Adventure Program for The Ranch at Dove Tree. I want you to take these clients on camping trips. I want you to teach them life skills, and I want you to show them that recovery is possible.’”
Huckabe took the job — his first management position — and started leading a staff of about seven.
“It changed my life forever,” Huckabe said with tears in his eyes. “Because that doesn't happen to me. And I don't know why he asked me to do that, but it changed a lot.”
Sanchez said he chose Huckabe for the position because he heard countless times from his students “what an amazing person” Huckabe was, and how he was “really willing to do whatever he could to help other people.”
“Everything I'd heard about him was so positive, and I thought, you know, this is the kind of guy that would inspire young people in recovery,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez started “hounding” Huckabe to apply to get into Texas Tech, but Huckabe didn’t feel he was academically ready and never saw school in his future. He’d failed first grade, hadn’t learned to read until fifth grade and “barely made it through high school.”
Lewis said Huckabe had always felt inferior when it came to school, and his family had never encouraged him to try higher education.
“It wasn't ever talked about,” Lewis said. “And if somehow the topic was brought up, it was always, ‘Oh, you shouldn't do that. You should do something else.’”
Lewis was in school when she and Huckabe started dating, and she encouraged him to try it. He enrolled in an English class at a community college in San Antonio.
“I sit at the front, and I'm taking notes, and I really don't know how to take notes,” Huckabe said. “I'm overwhelming myself, but I'm showing up like I did in recovery. I was going to treat school like recovery. I'm just going to show up every day, and I'm going to sit in the front, and I'm just going to ask questions. I'm just going to be here.”
He made a B — his first B ever.
Sanchez eventually convinced Huckabe to apply to Tech, and he was denied.
But two weeks later, he got an acceptance letter with a $1,200 scholarship into Tech’s collegiate recovery program, which would override the denial.
“And then all of a sudden, I'm at a huge university surrounded by 18-year-old kids in biology lab class,” Huckabe said.
Huckabe said the classes were much harder than what he was used to at community college, but one thing helped: He was able to lean on his peers in the collegiate recovery program.
“The beautiful thing is that I have this community that I could go to in between classes, before classes, after classes, with people that were just like me,” Huckabe said. “People of all different ages and all different backgrounds and had one fundamental identity — and that was that we were in recovery. And because of that, I instantly felt at home, and I felt instantly capable of doing whatever.”
‘I instantly felt isolated’
Lewis graduated from Texas Tech in May 2018 with a degree in chemical engineering and landed a job in Oklahoma. Huckabe started attending OU and “instantly felt way out of my element, instantly felt isolated, instantly felt marginalized, instantly felt stigmatized.”
“I go from being highly supported, and I could lean on these people emotionally, physically, whatever, to nothing — to absolutely zero recovery support at all,” Huckabe said. “I needed something.”
Huckabe said the prevention programs OU offers at Goddard Health Center are not enough, and the university perpetuates stigmas about addiction by "fining someone for a mental illness" like alcoholism with its “three strikes” policy. Each strike results in consequences, such as fines and eventually suspension.
He started looking at research about collegiate recovery programs and found statistics that showed how beneficial the programs were, and that Texas Tech has materials other universities can replicate to create their own.
“I start finding amazing statistics — that students that are in these collegiate recovery programs out-pass their peers of their institution in GPA's, retention rates and graduation rates,” Huckabe said. “Because they're supported, and these are really resilient people.”
He started meeting with anyone on campus who would listen about implementing a collegiate recovery program. He met with Jane Irungu, interim vice president for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion; David Surratt, vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students; and Kristen Partridge, associate vice president for Student Affairs and associate dean of students, along with multiple deans and administrators at Goddard.
But all Huckabe was told by members of OU administration was “no” — whether it be because of “budget restrictions” or the administration was “too busy.”
He got frustrated and decided to “back off.”
‘I’ll keep knocking on their doors’
Huckabe described himself at 13 as “that kid” — constantly going in and out of in-school suspension, smoking weed, drinking alcohol and regularly being sent to behavioral and mental health clinics and therapy.
By 16, he had run away from home and started using almost any drug he could get his hands on — methamphetamines, cocaine, weed, Xanax and alcohol.
He started robbing and stealing to pay for his addiction, and he didn’t care “about anybody or anything.” He was in and out of jail, on probation or in zero-tolerance boot camps or lockdown treatment facilities from 18 to 23.
“Once drugs came into my life, that was it,” Huckabe said. “That's what I was going to live for.”
But the story of Huckabe’s battle with addiction from 13 to 23, he said, is what drives him to keep going and fight for students like him.
“I'm just that kid, man,” Huckabe said. “I'm that kid who went to ISS, and I'm that kid who got in fights every Friday, and I've been told ‘no’ a lot. And they can continue to tell me ‘no,’ and I'll keep knocking on their doors.”
Huckabe invited important stakeholders to be part of the panel for “A Night of Recovery,” including Tim Rabolt, executive director for the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, OU student leaders and Oklahoma judges and politicians.
“I was like, ‘All right, if the university can't go anywhere, or they're unwilling, or they can't or whatever — I'm just going to bring them here,’” Huckabe said.
Huckabe said there were about 100 people at the event, including Partridge and two other university officials of the Student Affairs division — Maggie Pool, assistant director of clinical services at Goddard Health Center, and Kye LeBoeuf, Comprehensive Alcohol Program coordinator, Alcohol Strike One health educator and general health educator at Goddard Health Center.
Partridge was taking “crazy notes” at the event, Huckabe said, and also spoke with Sanchez, who flew to Norman to attend the event.
Huckabe said he is “very hopeful that there will be tangible steps going forward from the university.”
“Currently, we have raised $14,695 from private donations,” Huckabe said. “I have a meeting with Dean (David) Wrobel of the College of Arts and Sciences, who is interested in learning more and will be meeting with the Southwest Prevention Center to look into grants.”
Sanchez said Huckabe was always someone who stood out to him and knew he would do great things, and he has loved watching Huckabe “take this mission and run with it.”
“I hate to say that it was expected, but it kind of was,” Sanchez said. “But he did it in Dustin's way, and he made it bigger than what all of us expected.”
Lewis said she’s really proud of Huckabe and where he is now compared to when she first met him.
“He would joke around just so that he wouldn't have to be vulnerable or authentic,” Lewis said. “So he's shed that mask he was using to protect himself. And he's going out and advocating for people that can't advocate for themselves fully, and advocating for people that don't know they need to be advocated for.”
Huckabe said he once was asked where his passion comes from. The answer, he said, is simple.
“Because I don’t think I should be here. If you were to look at the history of my life and where it was going, I shouldn't be here. So I'm not going to squander this moment. I'm going to live in it, and I'm going to embrace it.”