Spending spring break sober in Florida

It’s deemed the biggest party of the year. But just because you’re a university student recovering from an addiction, it doesn’t mean you have to turn down the invite.

sober-floridaA spring breaker in a string bikini chugs a beer out of a hollow wiffle bat and face-plants into the sand.

Fellow college students raise their red, plastic party mugs to the sky and cheer.

It’s spring break in Florida, a time when thousands of students from all over the U.S. descend for a week of round-the-clock partying on the white sandy shores of the sunshine state.

They play beer pong on the sand, smoke marijuana under beach cabanas and dance on rooftops of waterfront motels.

But, in Fort Lauderdale this year, one group of spring breakers isn’t quite like the rest.

Two things set them apart: They are sober and they are proud of it.

This particular group of students and young professionals are all former alcoholics and drug addicts now in long-term recovery.

Some of them can’t recall large patches of their teenage lives; the time is lost in a haze of heroin and crystal meth.

They are disowned children, high-school drop outs and felons.

Tara Moseley, 28, of Kentucky, a fun-loving blonde who was drinking bourbon at the age of eight and left high school with a GPA of 0.0. Shawn Riley, 23, of Texas, a young father whose hands shake from a crystal meth habit he picked up at 14 and Chris Konken, 29, of Kentucky, who overdosed and flat-lined three times in two weeks when he was 23.

Moseley, Riley, Konken and about 35 others with substance use disorders landed in Florida in mid-March, but they didn’t come for spring break — a time of the year when they usually feel isolated and vulnerable to relapsing. It is Clean Break, a sober retreat for youth battling addiction, which drew them to Fort Lauderdale, the seaside city that was the capital of spring break in the early 1980s.

Against a backdrop of intoxicated revelers, the clean breakers practice yoga on the beach, learn how to surf, go parasailing, play ultimate glow-in-the-dark frisbee and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Lounging on a yellow towel on Deerfield Beach last Tuesday, University of North Texas (UNT) student Robert Ashford, 27, smiles as he watches spring breakers chugging beer and playing dizzy bat just metres away.

“I see other people stumbling around and acting like an a**hole and I’m just happy it’s not me anymore,” he says.

From the age of 15, Ashford was addicted to alcohol and cocaine. His sober date, May 7, 2013, is tattooed on to his left arm, above another tattoo of a Bible scripture dedicated to his best friend, who died of an overdose in 2005.

Recovery is not about “hiding from drugs or alcohol,” Ashford says, adding that this would be a near-impossible feat for anyone living on a college campus as 60 per cent of students binge drink.

Recovery, he says, is about overcoming your addiction, learning to live again, befriending others facing the same fight and advocating for substance use disorders to be brought out of the shadows.

Most people deem spring break to be, “a giant debaucherous party,” Ashford says. But, just because you’re a student recovering from an addiction doesn’t mean you have to turn down the invite.

Clean Break, now in its third year, has been riding the wave of a growing student-led recovery movement sweeping the U.S.

Over the past five years, the number of recovery programs on American college campuses has almost tripled. More than 135 universities now offer recovery support, providing students battling addiction with 12-step meetings on campus, peer-support and access to sober events such as Clean Break.

While the recovery movement flares south of the border, it remains stagnant in Canada.

Not one Canadian university offers a college-based recovery program, the Star has learned.

Eileen Shewen, founder of the country’s sole recovery high school, says young people battling addiction in Canada are falling through the cracks because “there is nothing for them here.”

The lack of support systems drove Shewen to establish the Quest Collegiate Recovery Centre, a private charitable high school in Midland, Ont. that weaves addiction rehabilitation into secondary school curriculum. The Quest Collegiate campus stretches over four acres on the shores of Georgian Bay; its doors only opened on Feb. 27 this year. The school has five enrolled students, but Shewen says dozens of applications from teenagers across Canada have been flowing in over the past two weeks.

It’s crucial the college recovery movement breaches the border so Canadian students are given similar opportunities such as Clean Break, Shewen says, an event she would back “in a heartbeat.”

Last year, Clean Break ran for only one week, this year it grew to three weeks, attracting about 40 students. The Star attended the third week along with seven students and young professionals from New Jersey, Philadelphia, Texas, Kentucky and New York.

Clean Break was the brainchild of former alcoholic Asher Levine, 41, of Nashville, who is the founder of Blue Community, an organization that hosts sober events targeted at students in recovery. The program is sponsored by treatment and recovery-based organizations in the U.S. Students pay $250 to attend; this covers a week of accommodation in the Wyndham Deerfield Beach Resort, some free meals and sponsored activities, such as yoga and surf training.

Levine acts as camp dad over the three weeks, picking students up from the airport, chauffeuring them to AA meetings and collecting them from clubs in the early hours of the morning.

Over a plate of fish and chips in a cafe overlooking Deerfield Beach, Levine says a perfect storm is brewing for the national youth recovery movement.

“A lot of people are talking about it and I think it’s going to break wide open soon,” he says. “I hope we will have 100 students a week here next year.” Read more…

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