One of the first collegiate recovery programs three decades ago, the CCRC is one of the best today.
"I saw many people around me die because of substance-use disorders."
One of them, George Comiskey said, was his aunt.
"I watched her get out of her oxygen tent, walk over to her mantel to grab her cigarettes, and we stepped out onto her balcony so she could smoke," he recalled. "Dying of cancer from smoking, she couldn't quit."
It's stories like this that make his work – and the work of everyone at the Texas Tech University Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities (CCRC) – so meaningful.
Comiskey, a licensed chemical dependency counselor, is an associate professor of practice in the Department of Community, Family & Addiction Sciences and associate director for external relations for the CCRC. It's his goal – and the goal of his colleagues – to help college students recovering from addiction so their outcomes can be different.
For many of them, addiction is personal. Their answer to it, however, is communal.
"The disease of addiction is one of isolation," Comiskey said. "Recovery requires a person to stay connected in a healthy, supportive community to get them out of shame and into a thriving place in their lives."
That's what the CCRC does, he explained. It offers a community of support for students in recovery, much like student-athletes and veterans receive on college campuses. With this specialized support, students flourish with low relapse rates, high GPAs and high retention and graduation rates.
While the recovery needs of someone with an eating disorder may be very different than the needs of someone with drug or alcohol dependency, the CCRC specializes in providing what each individual needs – in a community setting.
"The center has staff who help support students no matter what type of recovery they are living out," Comiskey said. "The staff creates avenues of community for the students to thrive in their recovery."
That said, recovery is never an easy process – and whether a person is ever really "cured" of addiction is an item for debate among recovery circles.
"Many will say addiction recovery is like being in remission from cancer," Comiskey said. "As long as the person takes their medicine – that is, they work through the recovery steps, stay connected in their community and give back – they will stay in a healthy place and thriving in their recovery."
But too often, people with substance-use disorders are their own biggest obstacles.
"Denial and unhealthy coping mechanisms are at the core of the false-self required to exist in an addictive life," he explained. "An addict doesn't want to give up their 'best friend' – their addiction. They believe they can't live without it."
On top of that is the societal belief that everyone should be able to solve their problems independently – and anyone who can't is somehow weak.
"There is an enormous stigma to admitting that substances or behaviors have gotten the best of you and you can't control it on your own," Comiskey said. "Addiction counselors, and those who work with addicts, help the addict see the stigma as part of the disease of addiction. It is not weak to admit you need help. Asking for help is the strength and courage it takes to get well."
When Texas Tech's CCRC opened in 1986, it was one of the first in the nation. There are now 131 collegiate recovery programs in the U.S., according to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, and Texas Tech's still stands out.
"Texas Tech's CCRC has the most space and resources for students in recovery," Comiskey said. "Because of the long history here at Texas Tech, our CCRC is able to provide a level of support for students that is not experienced at any other college or university. Students in our CCRC have access to a large, highly qualified and licensed staff; weekly seminars; a student organization; regular trips for service; a safe space in the bottom floor of the center; and the largest cohort of fellow recovering students.
"Many of the students in CCRC came to Texas Tech from other colleges and universities where there wasn't a center like this," he added. "They experienced isolation and shame, which eventually led to a relapse."
Texas Tech's CCRC has thrived for more than 30 years for many reasons – just one of those is its adherence to four core values:
- Clean, Sober & Healthy – Students are urged to focus on their recovery every day, having another person hold them accountable, because a solid recovery is what allows them to be part of the CCRC and have access to an education at Texas Tech. To help them stay on track, the CCRC offers weekly seminars and Celebration of Recovery meetings.
- Connected in Community – To alleviate the isolation of addiction, members are encouraged to "show up" in the community. Anything from stopping in the lobby, saying hi and having a cup of coffee, to being part of a study group or intramural team can help build the relationships that are vital to recovery. The CCRC has its own student organization and a residence hall just for those in recovery, and it offers sober tailgating for select campus sporting events.
- Commitment to Academics – Being in recovery opens the door for CCRC students to further their education, so they are encouraged to commit to their academics. This means attending every class, showing up on time, introducing themselves to the professor, finding a study group and taking advantage of the campus resources that are available.
- Civility in Relationships – The warmth and generosity of Texas Tech's community leads many people in recovery to want to be a part of it, Comiskey said. To get along as a group, it's important that everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
Because recovery doesn't stop at graduation, the CCRC offers a senior seminar for students reaching the end of their time in college. The course gives them an opportunity to discuss what they anticipate after graduating and how they can best prepare themselves to continue to thrive in their recovery.
Thanks to the CCRC and its programs, Comiskey said he has seen more people succeed than he can name – plus it's an anonymous program, he notes. But it's the community that makes it all possible.
"Over the past 30 years of my own recovery, there are so many people I've been around who have stayed sober and inspired me through their recovery," he said. "The miracle of recovery is about giving back what you have been given."