Her alcohol addiction had progressed untreated after years of denial and poor decision making, and she found herself forced to sit out for a semester at Ole Miss, the third college she attended.
“I finally was just to a point where I hated myself, and I hated everybody around me,” the Marks native said. “I prayed to this God that I wasn’t even sure could hear me. I prayed, ‘Just please get me out of this.’ I would do whatever it took.”
At just the right time for Henson, Ole Miss’ Counseling Center launched a collegiate recovery community for people like her — students, faculty and staff in recovery from addiction. Henson attended the program’s first meeting in fall 2010.
“What those people had, I wanted it,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to be happy and alcohol-free and in school, and all those things worked together. So I stuck with it.”
Ole Miss’ recovery community joins a growing number at universities nationwide, ranging from small support groups like at Ole Miss to programs including sober housing, scholarships and academic guidance.
The University of Southern Mississippi is in the planning stages for its own program, and staff hope to offer on-campus meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Eating Disorders Anonymous by the end of this semester.
Shortly after Ole Miss’ launch, Eileene McRae, who retired after 20 years as an alcohol and drug counselor at Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services in Hattiesburg, called a meeting with university leaders in January to discuss this apparent need.
“I saw people coming out of treatment who really wanted to go back to college but were scared to death,” said McRae, who now works from her home as an outreach coordinator for Cumberland Heights, a treatment center in Nashville. “They’d be going back to old playmates, old playthings and old playpens — and it just doesn’t work. They would usually end up relapsing.”
McRae said students who are biologically predisposed to addiction often have experience with alcohol or drug abuse before they leave for college, but today’s campuses provide an ideal environment for the disease to emerge.
“Students leave home and are really independent for the first time in their lives, and most of them have more freedom to drink or use drugs than they did when they were at home,” she said. “So many students drink and party … It’s the American way.”
Amy Fisher, substance abuse services coordinator for Ole Miss, presented the early success of her program’s launch at the meeting, which took place before the recovery community movement gained national momentum. Twenty schools this summer formed the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, an organization aiming to encourage further development of these programs nationwide.
“Mississippi always seems to be behind in everything, and we really are not behind in this,” McRae said. “We are one of the forerunners, and I really am proud of that.”
Fisher created the recovery community with support from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, where the first program of its kind in the nation was founded in 1986.
Texas Tech’s Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery has offered guidance to other programs across the country, though no two programs look alike.
Ole Miss’ Recovery Community is small, with just three active student members and three alumni, and consists mainly of weekly meetings and sober activities, like a sober tailgating tent at the Oct. 15 football game against the University of Alabama.
While Texas Tech attracts students from around the country who choose the school specifically for its recovery program, Ole Miss’ program is structured differently, as so far it has served only students who were already at Ole Miss.
Also, Fisher said the students in her group are older than traditional college students, in their mid- to late-20s. So while Texas Tech includes sober housing, a residential component at Ole Miss wouldn’t quite fit.
Fisher’s dreams for the program’s include securing an office space that students could access 24/7, as well as offering scholarships to those maintaining good grades while staying clean and sober.
Fisher’s wish list won’t be addressed until she can secure funding for the program, and many of the nation’s recovery communities rely on private dollars, she said.
Texas Tech is administering surveys throughout several universities, including Ole Miss, in an attempt to prove the programs are making a positive difference in students’ lives. The research might demonstrate the legitimacy of future funding requests.
Jodi Ryder, health educator at USM, said the Hattiesburg campus is in a particularly good position to benefit people coming out of Pine Grove who wish to attend school and possibly live in sober housing.
“This would be an opportunity for them to be offered a scholarship and continue their education and pursue a career,” she said. “They’ll see there’s hope for the future.”
But that’s far off, Ryder said. She just secured a space for 12-step meetings and is generating interest among current students.
Since Henson joined Ole Miss’ recovery community last year, she no longer feels unsafe on campus, which she said before felt like a scary place where easy access to alcohol lurked around every corner.
“I know that when I shut that front door to the Counseling Center, I don’t have to worry about anyone there tempting me with anything because they all know who I am and where I’ve been in my life,” the senior said. “It’s a place where I can walk in and shut out the rest of the world.”