People who need help for drug or alcohol addiction can find a million reasons not to seek treatment.
Among them is this unspoken assumption: Living sober would be a real drag.
“I’ve had many people tell me, ‘I thought I could only have fun when I was drinking or using,’” says Laura Merrill McCaleb, LCSW, a clinical therapist at Oxford Treatment Center.
McCaleb is among therapists dedicated to the center’s young adult clients, ages 18-25. Among that age group, she says, those who achieve recovery are sincerely surprised by the joy they find.
“They thought recovery was going to be really boring,” McCaleb says. “But you see what you look for.
When you put yourself out there and get engaged in a recovery community and create a new life for yourself — it can be really beautiful.
“It surprises people how happy they can be and how much joy they can have.”
McCaleb has been a part of the clinical team at Oxford Treatment Center’s residential campus since 2016. Her previous experience includes working with teens as a high-school-based therapist. Those years gave her insight into the social patterns that lead young people to abuse drugs and alcohol.
“So many of the teens I worked with were right on the cusp of making choices that could define their lives,” she says. “Their friends were drinking and smoking pot around them. They may not have wanted to join in initially — but the pressure was causing a lot of anxiety.”
Today, the clients McCaleb works with are those who are feeling the first consequences of abusing drugs and alcohol. Many of her clients are former college students who had to drop out because of heavy partying.
“Students often tell themselves they’ll be able to stop using drugs when they get ready to,” McCaleb says. “They say, ‘I’ll just go through the summer,’ or ‘I’ll finish college, then I’ll quit.’ But a lot of times, that doesn’t happen. They’ve become dependent on substances and now they need help to overcome addiction.”
While the costs for those young clients and their families are real, McCaleb has the perspective of seeing the advantages they have in treatment.
“If you get sober when you’re 22, and you’re working a program and engaged in your recovery, you are building rich life skills that will benefit you in your work and relationships,” she said. “To get to do this young is such a gift — instead of being 30 years older and having lost your job and your family.”
For someone in their late teens or early 20s to envision a sober lifestyle, it usually means redefining how to have fun and whom to hang out with.
McCaleb says she affirms her clients as they grieve cutting out parts of their life that would pose a danger to their recovery.
“Sometimes it’s clear that going back to a fraternity or sorority is not a good idea,” she said. “Likewise, you may have really enjoyed going to happy hour on Thursdays, and now that’s something you’re having to put down because it doesn’t line up with who you want to be. There’s grief that goes along with that.”
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McCaleb and other therapists at Oxford Treatment Center typically recommend taking a year to focus on building one’s recovery before making any major life decisions — including going back to college.
At the University of Mississippi and on a growing number of campuses around the country, the Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC) movement is providing support and scholarships for students in recovery. A sober college experience is no longer an oxymoron. Still, the normalization of drug and alcohol use among teens and college students makes it a challenging environment.
You don’t want to jump right back in.
— McCaleb says. “If you’re an Ole Miss student, to think you’ll get out of treatment and go to the LSU game the next weekend is not a good idea.
“In early recovery, if you’re in a situation where everyone else is drinking or using, you’re not going to be able to say no. You have to be mindful of that and be intentional about who you surround yourself with. Your early recovery is sacred; you have to protect it.”
At Oxford Treatment Center, young adults who thought they could only have fun while drunk or high take part in therapies that involve painting, camping, kayaking and horseback riding.
The center’s experiential therapy programs help people open up and engage with therapists more quickly than they would in a classroom setting. At the same time, they open the door to new possibilities for enjoying life clean and sober.
Particularly for young people, McCaleb says, those experiences help define the difference between the fleeting fun of partying hard and a deeper joy that lasts.
“Whether or not you were the most popular person at a party is not going to matter to you in 10 years,” she says. “What is going to matter? Your physical health. Having healthy relationships. Learning how to love yourself and take care of yourself. Simply being alive.
“It’s very rewarding to watch a young person enter recovery and be surprised at the happiness they find.”