Dylan Williamson is an OU student finishing a pursuit he began eight years ago before addiction derailed him. He's picking up where he left off but a bit older, more experienced and, he hopes, wiser.
Now 27 years old, the chemical engineering junior came to OU in 2008 after a one-week hospital stay to detox two years of hydrocodone and oxycodone abuse. But as a recovering addict, college may have been the worst place Williamson could have been. The environment allowed him to feed his habit while creating new ones. Like most addicts, he wanted to stop, but he didn't know where he could go, and he had nobody he felt he could turn to.
By the end of the fall semester, Williamson had traded pills for booze. The problems were apparent in his GPA and were measured in missed lectures, but the real damage he kept to himself. It was not long until pills found their way back into his life — old friends to dull the doubt and discomfort that echoed in his skull.
"I finally felt at peace. I felt like I belonged, " Williamson said. "I never really felt that way. I'd always been anxious and everything like that, and when I took those, everything felt OK."
The academic year took a toll on Williamson, one he could not hide. When he returned home to Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, in the summer to parents he had been trying to avoid, they could see it on him. In one month, Williamson had lost close to 50 pounds, and though he tried to deny it, his parents knew he had relapsed.
Williamson couldn't explain why. He just didn't know.
"You think of the alcoholic like a bum on the street, a bottle in a bag, sleeping outside, pissing themselves or whatever. And the addict, he's some meth head, no teeth, a junkie with track marks and all that stuff," Williamson said. "You look at yourself. You're like a 19-year-old kid from a good family and doing well in school; you're like, 'Who am I?'"
Part of Williamson always wanted to ask for help, but he knew nobody would understand. Not at home and not on campus. He had to find help elsewhere, and so he spent the rest of the summer and fall at rehab in Atlanta.
At the facility, Williamson could see himself in others, and he wasn't alone in his shame.
It would be years before he would return to OU. Life went on. Sometimes sober, sometimes not, always uncertain if he could ever quit. In that time, there were relapses, jobs and relationships, classes at community colleges, a stint at Oklahoma State University and a return to rehab that left him more doubtful than before.
"I already knew everything they told me there. It's not about knowing," Williamson said. "I've known I'm an addict for a long time; that's never stopped me. I've known people loved me for a long time; that's never stopped me. I've known I'm hurting people for a long time, and that has never stopped me."
In February, Williamson will be five years clean. He gives most of the credit to fellow addicts, both current and recovering.
"I've gone to counselors and psychiatrists, and they understand it from a medical standpoint or a psychological standpoint, " Williamson said. "But the most powerful thing I've ever found is another person that understood and that I could tell understood. The only place I've ever found that is in other addicts or alcoholics."
Universities across the country are taking new approaches to substance abuse, ones that could have helped Williamson.
At OU, there are counselors, psychiatrists and mandatory alcohol education programs for incoming freshmen. One counselor, Jackie Jordan, is OU's licensed drug and alcohol counselor. She comes to campus twice a week to deal with students who have received strikes or have substance abuse issues and want to speak with someone who specializes in that area.
For those looking for the sort of understanding Williamson talks about, there are referrals, recommendations from counselors to look elsewhere in the community.
There are no official on-campus recovery groups at OU, though an increasing number of universities nationwide are adopting them to combat addiction and substance abuse among college students.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, at least 20 percent of college students suffer from alcohol use disorder, and that number is often higher at institutions with a large greek system and that have a larger focus on athletics.
Sierra Castedo-Rodgers, the director of the Center for Students in Recovery at the University of Texas at Austin, said she has seen the number of collegiate recovery programs across the nation grow from eight, when UT established its center on campus in 2004, to almost 170 in 2016, she said.
Castedo-Rodgers was a 25-year-old second-year graduate student at UT when she herself found the path to recovery in CSR and, like Williamson, knows the importance of being able to share the burden of addiction.
"Because I didn't even know anyone who was an alcoholic at that age, I thought that meant I was really, really bad and that there was no way I was going to get better," Castedo-Rodgers said. "Once I actually met other young people who were in my situation, I understood that ... people get better from this, no matter how young they were at its onset."
Collegiate recovery programs like CSR place an emphasis on keeping students on campus. Pushing students off campus to get the help they need can be psychologically damaging, Castedo-Rodgers said.
"The validation that you get from knowing that you're wanted on campus because there's a space that's specifically for you ... that sends a message that you're not a social pariah, that you're not unsalvageable. You're not someone who is considered too risky or too dangerous for campus," Castedo-Rodgers said. "But you are someone who deserves a second chance and is able to prove that you deserve that second chance by coming back to school and by being supported while you're at school."
Texas Tech established its Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities in 1986, one of the first three created in the U.S. What began as a handful of students periodically gathering in a cramped office has grown to fill a 17,000-square-foot center, according to George Comiskey, the associate director of external relations for CRCC.
Filled with ping-pong tables, computers and TVs, this space functions like a sort of clubhouse where students can go to get away from a college environment that is often the enemy of recovery, Comiskey said.
Comiskey said he has data showing that the GPA of students in recovery is higher than the institutional average and that, over the years, the graduation rate for those same students has risen to nearly 100 percent. But charts and graphs can't capture the feeling Comiskey gets when he walks into the common area of the CRCC. He overhears students laughing, commiserating, leaning on each other, knowing that in this slice of campus, they are safe.
"That's the gift of this deal," Comiskey said. "You see that there's hope, that there's another student like yourself who has gotten recovery (and) that wanted an education, and they have come back and are doing it. You go, 'Wow, maybe one day I'll get to the point where I can graduate.'"
While Williamson looks forward to his sixth year of sobriety, he also looks back to his 19-year-old self, recalling those feelings that persisted between the highs and blackouts, of not knowing what to do or where to turn.
"I know where I was at my freshman year with drugs and alcohol, and I know there are other people out there like me — that are like that now," he said.
While there may not be a collegiate recovery program at OU, Williamson said there are resources outside of campus that students may not be aware of.
"Being a part of the recovery community in Norman ... you have people from all walks of life, excellent people, coming together to help one another," Williamson said. "I never knew about any of that when I was here before. I know there are students out there right now that have a problem and don't know that within miles of them there's an answer. There's help, if they really want it. All they have to do is ask."
Williamson also said he wants to make himself available to help any students struggling with addiction or substance abuse. He can be reached at Dylan.C.Williamsonfirstname.lastname@example.org.