Recovering Out Loud!
The 2023 ARHE/ARS/AAPG Annual Conference & HECAOD National Meeting
The idea of addiction recovery on university campuses is a new one in Europe. As it stands there are only two collegiate recovery programmes (CRP) in Europe: Recovery Connections at Teeside University and Better Than Well at University of Birmingham. The story in North America is very different, since the 1970s, universities in the US have developed and delivered recovery programmes and communities across many diverse university campuses. There are currently more than 140 CRPs in the US and three in Canada. While all these communities and programmes are unique and no two are the same, they all share the same ethos and mission of making recovery available to students studying and living at university.
Every year in late June the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), the Association of Recovery Schools (ARS), Annual Alternative Peer Groups (AAPG) and the Higher Education Centre for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery meet at a US university campus for their annual conference. This year it was the turn of Ohio State University in Columbus Ohio to host the event and the programme manager and students from the Better Than Well programme at UoB were there to represent their community in the UK.
After some significant delays due to weather conditions on the East coast of America, we arrived on the first day of the conference at the magnificent Art Deco style Ohio State Union building in Columbus, Ohio. Our welcome was warm and full of gratitude for our presence, and we quickly realised that we were very much amongst friends and allies. The solidarity and spirit of recovery is a universal phenomenon and wherever you are in the world, there is an instant connection with others who are on the same journey.
Our first session of the day was ‘Recovering Ally training’ delivered by Mackenzie Hogan, Wellness Coordinator at The Ohio State University CRC. Mackenzie took us through the training package that she delivers to staff at the university, initiating them as allies of the recovery movement and educating them on supporting recovering students at their institution. This was a most informative and valuable session for us to be part of as we are planning a similar effort at UoB in the near future. The students in attendance from UoB were particularly engaged with some of the statistics that came out of the presentation demonstrating remarkably good prognosis and outlook for students engaged in CRPs. We had a chance to ask questions on the specifics of how the training is delivered and who attends it. A lot was learned, and we will be taking this knowledge into the development of our own recovery ally training package.
After this session we got to meet with members of US and Canadian CRPs who we have been in correspondence with via email and video conferencing for some time. A particular highlight for me was finally meeting with Dr Noel Vest from Stanford CRP in person. Noel is someone who has been extremely generous with his time and knowledge throughout the development of Better Than Well and someone I have corresponded with regularly for advice, moral support as well as general banter about our beloved sports teams! It was great to finally meet Noel in the flesh and to feel connected from ‘across the pond’ in our mission to bring recovery to higher education throughout the globe.
The second day at the conference began with a hearty American breakfast of ‘biscuits and gravy’ and onto the first session of the day ‘Discovering a New Sense of Self in Recovery’ delivered by Konul Karimova from Washington State University. This data driven session was looking at quantitative results from a sample of young people in recovery and what the findings could reveal about their identity as young people in recovery. There was much that was familiar to us in the UK in terms of the often-difficult transition that students can go through when finding their place in a campus community as ‘students in recovery’. Our students fed back on their own experiences of this to the researchers and offered some fresh perspectives through a UK lens. This research is something we will be keeping a keen eye on through its future development.
Our next session was ‘The Interaction Between Eating Disorders and Substance Use Disorders’ delivered by Leah Young, Clinical Manager at ERC Pathlight. This was a highly informative presentation from an experienced clinical practitioner on the intersections between addictive disorders and eating disorders with lots of pragmatic and practical information on where and how to recognise warning signs that a student may have cooccurring issues. At Better Than Well we have been acutely aware that these areas of experience can cross over and the chance to hear from an expert on the subject has been of great benefit to us so that we can better support our campus recovery community.
After lunch we moved into the main hall for the Policy Keynote presentation from SAMHSA and the ONDCP, delivered by Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use, SAMHSA and Peter Gaumond, ONDCP. Much of these speeches was very specific to the American cultural, political, social and mainly economic dimensions of recovery systems in the US but we were able to understand better the ways in which local and federal government support recovery initiatives through grants and commissioning. The picture is very different to the UK in the interaction between state and federal, but the experiential message of the presenters was very recognisable ‘keep plugging away in what you believe in and be in it for the long haul!’. There is much to admire about the US experience with recovery and it is individuals, often in long-term recovery themselves, who have diligently embedded themselves within the systems that really seem to be the difference between recovery staying on the agenda and not.
Our next stop was an ‘All Recovery Celebration Meeting’, something me and the students are very much familiar with as we have been delivering and attending such meetings for two years now on our own campus. There was a wonderfully reassuring and familiar feeling to the format of the meeting and the similarity in both atmosphere and delivery felt comforting to us Brits and we were made to feel welcome and heard. There were differences too and we picked up on the fact that the US recovery movement has far more distinct identity dimensions to what we are used to in the UK. It seemed that there had been efforts and even struggles in the past for certain identities to be recognised and those who identified with marginalised groups were clear on their dual identities as ‘people in recovery’ and representatives of marginalised groups. There was much to reflect on with this, it seems too easy to say that in the UK we are less concerned with what identity group you come from, if you need support, we are here to help, but we all reflected that there is some truth in this. That being said, it certainly made us reflect on whether we are not reaching marginalised groups on our own campus due to the perceived inclusivity of our own community.
For me, the highlight of the conference came on the next day, the morning session ‘To Disclose or Not to Disclose? Exploring The Politics of ‘Recovering Out Loud’ delivered by Victoria Burns, Associate Prof, University of Calgary and the brilliant Dr Linda Mizejewski, Ohio State University. This invigorating and inspiring presentation from Dr Burns and Dr Mizejewski was informative and insightful from the very beginning and the audience seemed to find it resoundingly relatable. The question of whether to disclose our recovery status in our careers and education is a subject that is ubiquitous amongst recovery communities. In our own ‘All Recovery Celebration’ groups at BTW, it is the subject that receives the most airtime. Dr Victoria Burns shared some of her experience of the good, bad and ugly advice she received during her academic career and the solidarity with her journey was palpable in the room.
Next, we heard from the inspirational and incredible Dr Mizejewski, a woman whose name should be better known in both the worlds of recovery and academia. Dr Mizejewski embodies the pioneering and relentless spirit of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement out of Ohio that I so admire. She was instrumental in taking the message of 12 step recovery to Eastern Europe in the 1970s, behind the Iron Curtain at a time of secret police and phone tapping. She is a Feminist icon in her own right. Her career was marked with the very real fear that any disclosure of her being an alcoholic female in the open would mean instant dismissal, but she nonetheless continued to write anonymously to academic journals, reaching out to others like her in solidarity. After an incident where she saw one of her students in a 12-step recovery meeting, she decided to bite the bullet and come out as an academic in recovery, at a time in the 1980s when this was not the done thing. It paid of and her course ‘Women and Recovery - Feminist Perspectives on Addiction’ has been running now for decades and has received international recognition.
Another highlight on this day was the session entitled ‘Introducing a Socio-Ecological Model of Collegiate Recovery Programs’ by Dr Noel Vest, Assistant Professor, Boston University School of Public Health. As previously mentioned, Noel is a close friend of BTW and someone we have corresponded and collaborated with since the beginning of our CRP. Noel’s bold project to create a socio-ecological framework for collegiate recovery programs was laid out to the audience, a model I find particularly interesting and convincing. This is important work from Noel as it offers vital tools and approaches for recovery researchers in the future. This kind of research is paving the way for a vibrant field of study in years to come. Towards the end of his presentation, Noel spoke about the potential for the learning from this research to transcend beyond the collegiate recovery programmes themselves, that this project is a natural laboratory for recovery systems and technologies in the future, beyond university campuses and into our communities. And why wouldn’t this be the case?! After all we are academics doing recovery, what we learn here can and should be the breeding ground for concepts and ideas of benefit to the whole of recovery throughout the world!
After a highly successful and enlightening conference, the students and I were able to make a pilgrimage to the Mecca of 12 step recovery, Akron, Ohio. The Genesis of the 12-step movement happened at 855 Ardmore Ave, a sleepy suburban road in Akron. It was here that the first meeting took place and where the original manuscript for the AA Big Book was completed and still rests today. It was a truly moving experience to visit this place and pay our respect and gratitude to this man and movement. We tidied the porch and garden as an act of service to a man whose service to humanity is immeasurable.
"Recovery is a journey of self-discovery" - George's story
For the first two years of university, George* had to hide his porn addiction. But finding the Better Than Well community helped him deal with complicated feelings laying under his addictive behaviours:
"Although it is hard to pinpoint when my relationship with online porn started to become addictive, recovery has enabled me to look back in hindsight and realise how much it affected my life. While in active addiction, I was able to compartmentalise my problem, and see it as a private aspect of my life that only I knew about. I knew I had an addiction, whenever I tried to stop it came back quickly. I would resign to my fate, believing that this would be an aspect of my life that will always be present.
"I now realise how much it affected my life. It affected my self-esteem, my self-confidence, my motivation to get out and enjoy life. Although my friends and family didn’t know about my addiction, it affected my relationship with them, as I wouldn’t spend as much time with them. My relationship with pornography held me back from being my true authentic self in all areas of my life, it held me back from connecting with those around me. It perpetuated my anxiety, and I would often be fearful about socialising with new people. I deeply believed that I was unlovable, that no one found me attractive, that I would always be alone, that I wouldn’t do anything worthwhile in my life.
"The first two years of university were monotonous; I now realise that I was subconsciously relying on porn to provide me with a comforting blanket that momentarily obscured these negative beliefs and emotions. I held myself back from getting out there and enjoying university life, contributing to a deep frustration that I couldn’t get myself to live life as fully as possible.
"I started my recovery journey in January after I realised that my addiction was making my emotional state worse; it was not helping me properly process some new and difficult emotions. After a few weeks recovery through willpower alone, I came across Better than Well. Since then, recovery has broadened my life in new and unexpected ways. It has come at a crucial time in my life. I am in my final year at university, with big life choices and changes coming up. Through the support of Luke and Better than Well, I have become equipped with a solid foundation to ensure I stay in recovery in the years to come.
"So far, recovery has been a journey of self-discovery. I can look with hindsight at my life in active addiction and become aware of how much it affected my daily existence. Now, with recovery, I can face life on life’s terms, and embrace all that comes my way. Already, I notice that my experience of life has become deeper and richer. Through BTW, I have made strong and meaningful connections with other students in recovery. Being part of a fulfilling and meaningful community has enriched my life in many ways. The Better Than Well community at university, alongside the 12-step fellowship, has enabled me to speak openly and honestly about my addiction in ways I would not have imagined a year ago. Like many others, my addiction thrived in isolation, so recovery provides me with a deterrent to my addiction taking hold, through connecting with others. I have gained a sense of clarity about my life in new ways, and I know as I continue down this path, I will learn more and more about myself and what life is about. For me, recovery is about truly living, as opposed to the grey and mundane existence addiction provided. Now that I am approaching the end of university, I am hopeful and excited about what life beyond will bring me without addiction holding me back."
*Name changed for anonymity
"Am I even addicted? Yes. I am. And that's okay." - Niall* shares how he came to peace with his addiction recovery.
Better Than Well student Niall took a long time to come to terms with his addiction. But a lot of introspection and attending the program's activities made him realise it was okay:
Addiction is not only substance-related
"Whenever we hear the word "addiction", we might first think about drugs or alcohol - but addiction is not limited to substances. In fact, certain behaviours can become addictive. For me, that behaviour is sexual, and this reality is the same for thousands of other people. Watching pornography, sexting and having casual sex are so normalised in our society that we might not think twice about whether or not our behaviour can be classified as "addiction". I never thought of myself as addicted - until, because of my behaviour, I started losing sleep, falling behind on required work and damaging the way I viewed people.
"Was this an addiction? Or was this something I could simply choose to stop one day? I had to ask myself some very tough questions.
"Am I obsessed over the act? Does it preoccupy my mind for so much of the day? Do I feel compelled by the act? Is my urge to act stronger than my will to resist?
"When I answered these questions, I repeatedly said "yes", and I almost always followed that up with "but it's different, isn't it?"
Denying my addiction has hindered my recovery
"My addiction is nothing like a drug addiction, is it?
"All I need to do is stop acting out and that's it, right?
"Am I even addicted?
"These and many more dangerous questions plague my mind when I'm alone in my recovery, and when alone, it is not easy finding the right answers. In fact, I convinced myself that all I had to do to properly recover was: just stop. I pretended that my addiction was not as powerful as I perceived it to be and that I could simply abstain from now on and never relapse again. It isn't that simple and it wasn't that easy. It only left me more hopeless, more isolated from help and more vulnerable to addiction."
Admitting my addiction has facilitated my recovery
"I had to be completely honest with myself.
"My addiction is nothing like a drug addiction, is it?"
Actually, it is something like a drug addiction.
"All I need to do is stop acting out and that's it, right?"
No, that isn't enough.
"Am I even addicted?"
Yes. I am.
And that's okay.
"I am an addict, so I need to treat myself as an addict in recovery. For me, this means that: I need to attend meetings (as a recovering addict would), I need to talk openly and transparently about how I'm coping with my urges (as a recovering addict would) and I need to build a strong support network of people who understand my addiction and can help me through it (as a recovering addict would). Reaching out to someone isn't for me to just wallow in self-pity; reaching out is to stay away from isolation, to understand my addiction, to ask for advice, to ask for company and to keep myself accountable.
"I am an addict, and I need to act, interact and think in the ways a recovering addict would."
Better Than Well begun my journey to recovery
"Through the University's Better Than Well (BTW) recovery programme, I have been able to behave in the ways a recovering addict would. I am recognising my addiction as an addiction and I am understanding my addiction better than I could do alone by attending BTW's Friday Recovery Celebration meetings and talking one-to-one with Luke Trainor (Project Manager of BTW, and someone who is in a long period of recovery). Importantly, I am building a support network out of the friendships I've made with the recovering students already here at the University.
"The first step to recovery is admitting your addiction, and I'm happy that I'm taking that step here."
*name changed for anonymity
Better Than Well alumni shares how the program helped him pursue his dreams
Chris joined the first cohort of students in BTW in September 2021. In this piece, he shares how his life got turned around thanks to the program:
"I was in my first year at UoB when I started to come to the realisation that I didn't drink or use drugs the same way my friends did. By this, I mean that once I started drinking or using, I could not stop. I managed to convince myself that this was not a problem as I was still handing in my assignments on time and getting good grades even though mentally and physically, I was struggling.
"When second year came around though, it was a different story. I was missing lectures and not handing in assignments as I was drinking and using 24/7. At the time, I felt incredibly isolated and felt like I was the only person at my university going through what I was going through. I was worried about opening up to my friends as I was terrified they would think less of me, not understand, or simply no longer want to be around me.
"At the end of my second year, I went to rehab for the first time. This was the first of three trips to rehab I would go through between 2019 and 2021. I also started going to 12 step fellowship meetings during this time which helped, yet I still had the perception that I was too young for recovery and thus resented sobriety.
"After my first trip to rehab, I decided to take a year off from university to try and get my life back on track however, when I returned to university, I relapsed, and continued to relapsed. I found myself living a horrific loop of relapse, followed by attempts at sobriety, followed by relapse. I pushed away all my friends and loved ones and I had started to lose all hope of having a meaningful life as it felt as though I was trapped in this cycle with no way out.
"In my fourth and final year at UoB, Better Than Well was started. I jumped at the opportunity to join a collegiate recovery community and once I started to become actively involved in BTW, things started to change. #
"On the 16th of November, 2021, I drank and used for the last time. I have been clean and sober ever since. I finally realised that I was far from the only student going through what I was going through. I had found a safe environment to escape the university party culture and amazing people to do it with. I felt as though, for the first time in a long time, I had found a place where I felt valued. Through the rest of the academic year, I was in a much better headspace to focus on my degree and managed to graduate with a high 2:1, which is far, far better than what I was on track for prior to joining BTW.
"BTW also helped destigmatize the way I perceived addiction and recovery and helped me become open and honest with all my friends outside of recovery, therefore, helping me move past seeing addiction and recovery as a weakness or something I would be judged for.
"The love, support and encouragement I received from my friends in BTW was paramount in my decision to pursue my dreams following graduation. I am now living in LA, going to acting school having received a scholarship to attend. Most importantly, I am living a sober and fulfilling life that is incomprehensibly better than it was before. I think it is fair to say, BTW changed my life for the better, and I shall be forever grateful to have been a part of it."
Ramadan from a recovery perspective
Ramadan Mubarak to all who observe it! To celebrate the beginning of Ramadan, Better Than Well student Joseph* reflects how his religious practice and faith are tightly intertwined with his recovery.
"As someone in recovery, balance is a key concept.
"I can lean towards extremes in life in most areas if my program of recovery isn’t implemented a day a time and if I don’t strive to live a life with spiritual principles as its foundation.
"Since becoming a Muslim, (an amazing spiritual gift that recovery has given me) learning the balance between different parts of life, combined with the influence, and cooperation that the parts have with one another has been a challenge at times.
"Ramadan is coming up and I have successfully participated in this holy month of worship and obedience to my creator as a recovering person seven times now, and about to engage in my eighth one.
"An important thing to remember during Ramadan - and any other time of immersion in one’s faith - is that my religion and faith is very unlikely to keep me clean.
"As a Muslim, I believe God has the power to do anything, but God won’t tell me not to go to the hospital if I become very ill.
"We have different resources in our recovery toolkit for different issues. When you have an eye condition you see an ophthalmologist. When you fracture your collar bone falling off your horse you probably go to the hospital and are seen by an orthopaedic consultant. Similarly, for treatment of addiction you see a qualified professional and apply the correct treatment accordingly, and in recovery, our ongoing maintenance is with our peers in the same boat.
"As a Muslim in recovery, prayer is key to my life today and ultimately any healing is with the permission and support of my higher power, but I must access the support and do what is within my power.
"Basically, what I mean is that I believe it is erroneous to think that religious zeal, knowledge and faith will keep me clean.
"I have experienced stepping away from a recovery program. I know how it feels to fully immerse only to find myself on shaky ground when the powerful feelings of faith subside as they do, they ebb and flow and that is the way of my ever growing God consciousness.
"This Ramadan, I will continue to practice honesty with fellows in recovery, I will continue to attend recovery meetings, I will be there for the men I am sponsoring through the 12 steps, I will continue to be ready to take my own inventory as part of the 12 steps, I will admit when I am wrong, and will make any amends required.
"I will also immerse myself in extra good deeds during this special month as Ramadan is a special time for character building and bettering one’s connection with God. I will attend the mosque; I will serve people and take part in community events at university and outside.
"I will do my best."
*name changed for anonymity
BTW student shares how she stays sober through University
Better Than Well student Georgia* started University away from her hometown just three months into her recovery. In this piece, she shares how connection and Better Than Well has helped her sustain her recovery:
"University in my mind has always been an undeniable party hotspot. For some that’s a dream; for others it’s much more daunting.
"I moved away from my support system that I’d just started to create and into my first year of university about three months into my recovery. Newly sober and still trying to pick up pieces of my life, the thought of engaging with events that seemed so centred around drinking and drugs was terrifying to say the least.
"Throughout active addiction, as well as when I first got sober, I thought that I was totally alone and isolated with what I was feeling, that no one else in the world could relate to what was going on. It was a belief system that needed to be picked apart and dismantled, which started with connecting with others who had these shared experiences. A friend of mine likes to remind me that I’m “not that special and different”, and that if I’m willing to ask for some help, there are going to be people who do actually understand.
"I found out about BTW pretty quickly after moving to Birmingham, and it’s played a big part in keeping me connected with other students in recovery and helping me feel a lot less lost in such a busy and stressful time of my life. It’s a student-led recovery group that stresses the importance of having a safe space. Struggling with addiction can be an incredibly isolating experience, but having this help and support available is a great step in the direction of changing that.
"BTW offers weekly recovery celebration meetings, drop in sessions and sober socials, as well as a host of other options for support. I’ve found all of these useful at various stages, and find that looking for strategies to help with recovery in a group setting makes something that can seem very daunting more comfortable.
"Because of the support accessible through the University and the 12-step recovery community I’ve found in Birmingham, my life is now one that’s both manageable and liveable. I’m now well into my second year, and have the opportunity to engage with my degree as well as enjoy socialising with friends both inside and out of recovery. I’ve also made some incredibly genuine and important friends through recovery, friendships I’m able to engage with on a meaningful level.
There are definitely still challenges- I’ve found that life will continue to get busy and stressful for everyone and I still can get incredibly overwhelmed. But I now have places I can go with it all, rather than trying to manage the whole of my life alone."
*name changed for anonymity
International Woman’s Day – Addiction from a Woman’s Lived Experience Perspective
<!> Trigger warning: self-harm <!>
With International Women's Day on March 8th, BTW student Lizzie* shares her own personal story of addiction recovery, and how societal norms affects her differently than her male peers:
"As I write this, I can't help but feel a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach. It's not easy to talk about addiction and self-harm, but it's a conversation that needs to happen. And as a woman who has been through it, I feel a strong obligation to speak up and raise awareness.
"For me, self-harm was a way to cope with emotional pain. It started when I was young, and over time, it became a very dangerous habit. I felt trapped like I couldn't escape the cycle of self-harm and addiction.
"It's difficult to describe the intensity of the emotions that come with self-harm. I was living with unhealed trauma and PTD. I felt suffocated under the weight of it all, but I couldn't talk about it. I couldn't express my feelings to anyone, not even those closest to me. So I turned to self-harm as a way to cope. The feeling of numbness that came with drinking to excess gave me some respite from the constant emotional pain. But even that wasn't enough. I needed to feel to remind me that I was alive. So, I would hurt myself to feel, and it didn't matter that that feeling was pain.
"It's been a long journey, but I'm proud to say I've only engaged in self-cutting once in the last 12 months. That might not seem like a lot, but it's a massive accomplishment. It also means I'm learning to cope with my emotions more healthily.
"My journey isn't over yet. I still have good days and bad days. I still struggle with the weight of my trauma. But knowing that I have a community of people in recovery who understand and support me gives me hope for the future.
"You see, addiction is a disease that doesn't discriminate. People of all ages, genders, races and socioeconomic backgrounds are affected. However, as a woman, I can attest that addiction and recovery are often experienced differently based on gender. Women often carry the weight of societal expectations and cultural norms. We commonly have to balance recovery with other responsibilities, such as caregiving and employment, making it challenging to prioritise our well-being. Women may also face additional pressures to conform to societal expectations of femininity, including pressure to look a certain way or maintain a particular image. The weight of these pressures can cause setbacks in recovery or impede progress towards healing and growth. Furthermore, discrimination and stigma can make it even more challenging for transgender women to seek help and support for addiction and self-harm. It is, therefore, essential to create a safe and supportive environment that meets the needs of ALL women.
"As we celebrate International Women's Day, I encourage you to recognise the strength and resilience of women affected by addiction and living in recovery. But beyond this, we must also acknowledge the work that still needs to be done to break the stigma and provide support for women who are still struggling. Only by working together can we create a world where everyone can get the support and compassion they deserve."
*Name changed for anonymity
Addiction affects women differently than their male counterparts
To celebrate International Women's Day, Better Than Well has compiled a list of three resources to learn more about how women experience addiction recovery:
How I overcame my addiction - BBC
In this seven-minute podcast, two women who have recovered from addiction talk frankly about some of the challenges they faced - and how they managed to overcome them.
30 Recovery Memoirs to Inspire You to Quit Drinking - Tempest
If you want to read more thoroughly about alcohol addiction in women, Tempest has compiled a list of 30 memoirs, most of which being written by female authors, proving that "But wherever that [recovery] journey starts, these memoirs prove that struggle can lead to something beautiful in the end."
The role of social mechanisms of change in women's addiction recovery trajectories by Beth Collinson and Lauren Hall
If you are looking for a research-based resource, check out this academic paper written by two female researchers, including the gender factor in our scientific understanding of addiction and recovery.
Learn more about eating disorders, from a student's perspective
This week (24th February - 2nd March) is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. On that occasion, BTW student Lisa* shares her story:
"Between 1.25 to 3.4 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, the majority of them (but not all) being teenagers and young adults. Eating disorders can take many different forms: anorexia, bulimia (by throwing up, abusing laxatives or exercising to try and make up for confirmation of calories) or most commonly binge eating. Binge eating, despite being the most common, is probably the least talked about, possibly due to the shame around this eating disorder in particular.
"It is a common misconception that eating disorders are mainly suffered by women, particularly teenage girls. Studies show that 25% of people with an eating disorder are male however the real number is probably much higher as men are even less likely to ask for help than women. It is estimated that the same proportion of men and women suffer, except men are less likely to step forward and get help.
"I think a huge fear for people with eating disorders (including me) is that we fear we won't be taken seriously. It's just food right? Why don't we eat a bit less or a bit more? What's the issue? The truth of the matter is food is just as serious as any other addiction or damaging behaviour.
"Eating disorders don’t discriminate and they can sneak up on anyone. Sometimes it is genetic - research suggests that individuals who have family members with eating disorders are more likely to develop eating disorders themselves when compared to individuals who have no family history of these illnesses. They may develop as a result of a trauma in your life such as bullying or abuse. Food can often feel like the only thing we can control in a chaotic world.
"Food problems for me started around 6 years ago when I wanted to lose a bit of weight. Before this, I would say I had a normal relationship with it, didn’t think about it that much, I probably ate a bit too much but it wasn’t a driving force in my everyday life. I lost the weight very quickly and became underweight. This was exhilarating and lonely. Despite being exhausted all the time and becoming mean to the people I loved, I thought I’d tapped into a new way of living and I loved the attention! After a few months, my short lived willpower broke out, and I ate and ate for days on end. I remember my first binge, feeling like it's the best feeling in the world mixed with the worst-guilt and panic over what I’ve just done. After my first binge, I was scared. I knew there were many more to come. The next few years became a boxing match between trying to diet and having huge mammoth binges that could knock me out for weeks. It was ruining my life, I was only going into school once a week, failing exams, getting fired from jobs and losing friends. It wasn’t that I was lazy, in fact when not in the food, I liked to work hard and had a lot of potential. I knew pretty early on this was a problem bigger than just eating a few too many biscuits. When not binging, I was completely obsessed with losing weight and didn’t care about much else. When binging, all my thoughts were "what I can next put in my mouth?". I advanced onto laxatives and would take 20, 30 a day, which has had irreversible effects on my body including seizures and being admitted to hospital. This left no space for friends and enjoyment, my world got even smaller and smaller. I felt jealous of my peers who all seemed to have friends, and enjoy things. Why was I stuck in this?
"Moving to Birmingham University, I thought it would be a way for me to start again - maybe the food problem was “just a phase”. Covid and the freedom of university only exacerbated the situation and I felt completely helpless. This was when I finally felt ready to ask for help. I got to the point where telling people was better than keeping it to myself. I started going to meetings about food and finally heard other people talk about the craziness around it. It was ruining their life like it was destroying mine. I'm certainly not free from the illness but can at least say I'm on the road to getting there. I try and keep everything a day at a time, staying well just for today and keeping things as simple as possible.
"It can be difficult to recover on your own without the right treatment or support group. There are many avenues people take to recover: some go into treatment, some follow guidelines from a nutritionist or the NHS, joining a 12-step group of recover or another similar programme. It’s unfortunately hardly ever a straightforward process-relapses are not inevitable but are a part of many people’s journey to getting well.
"Since finding out about BTW, I was surprised I how much I relate to other people in recovery in the group. A lot of the time, the thought patterns are the same but where others chose to pick up drink or drugs to cope with feelings, I chose food.
"Although eating disorders are not usually characterised as an “addiction”, I am starting to understand that they can be both behavioural and substance-based addictions - we are using overeating or undereating as a way to cope. I have friends who have found recovery by admitting they are addicted to a certain substance (usually sugar or flour) and decided to abstain from that, helping them to relieve the urge to eat more. For them, one bite of their “trigger foods” is already too much and one million never enough.
"Through BTW and other support groups, I am realising it is not my fault I have this illness.
"The main take away from this is to not bottle up and hide away if you are struggling. Although that is a natural feeling to want to isolate and keep this illness a secret, the best thing to do is talk to someone. I’ve found talking to someone who will understand is best, whether that be a family member, healthcare professional, tutor, friend or support group. As soon as I started speaking to people, I was surprised to find it wasn’t just me that struggled with this. I still find it incredibly difficult to talk openly about even though I logically know talking about it and not hiding helps to stay well. Despite our best efforts to hide it, lot of the time, especially people that are close to you do actually have an idea about what going on and they are relieved you finally open up about it. Being vulnerable also allows others to share their difficulties and being completely honest with someone, although it does feel like a leap of faith, has helped me feel connected to people.
"I’m certainly not free from the illness but can at least say I'm on the road to getting there. I try and keep everything a day at a time, staying well just for today and keeping things as simple as possible."
*Name changed for anonymity
"Better Than Well has surpassed my expectations." - BTW student Joseph reflects on the program
Although in his first year at the University, Joseph* has been in recovery for a long time. He explains how Better Than Well keep supporting his long-term recovery:
"Upon joining the University of Birmingham, I was excited to find out that a novel recovery community existed, providing support for people who suffer or have suffered with substance misuse disorder or any other addiction-related difficulties.
Being a person in long-term recovery from disease addiction, I felt a comforting sense that my new academic environment would be easier to adjust to given that this service existed. When I started to engage with the program, it surpassed my expectations, and I have engaged with it as much as possible ever since. Over time, it has become a core part of my continued journey of building my recovery capital while allowing me to give back to others.
Among other kinds of support, Better Than Well offers two weekly recovery-based meetings that I try to attend every week.
One of them is very familiar to me as it usually involves speakers from outside the university coming in to share their experience.
I am a 12-stepper (as in I got recovery originally through a 12-step program) and I continue to engage with it outside university as a sponsor and sponsee. The people who share their stories at these meetings are usually members of different local 12-step groups with a wide range of addiction patterns and journeys, from substances such as Heroin to behavioural addictions like OCD.
I have found that the diversity of the message paired with the inclusivity of the meetings/the overall program is a beautiful way to allow anyone to access the support they need and feel comfortable, catered for, and part of a home group within BTW.
As mentioned above, I feel the BTW meetings make up an integrated part of my core recovery. They are beneficial to my long-term emotional sobriety while adding a different flavour to my already varied program of action.
I have made some close companions and comrades throughout my journey so far with BTW.
Other already existing friendships have also grown and bloomed throughout my first semester at the University.
The leaders of BTW are just frankly amazing. Their unwavering care and support for the service in general and the people within is astounding. They are very passionate about helping us while also trying to extend that helping hand to people who may not be accessing the service yet. They truly care about accessing our often hard-to-reach sufferers who have a difficult time reaching out for help due to obvious stigmas in our society or fear of criminalisation - particularly when it comes to substances.
“The BTW meetings make up an integrated part of my core recovery. They are beneficial to my long-term emotional sobriety.”
I truly hope that the trend of reframing the public and civic perception of addiction can continue to change for the better, and evolve in the same way the approach to mental health has over the last decade.
Addiction is an illness that I have first-hand experience of, through suffering and recovering.
The skills gained through recovery have now become lifelong assets for me. I can see that through connection, understanding and support for sufferers, the cycle of addiction can be broken.
Caught early, years of misery can be avoided, and people can live happier and more fulfilled lives. BTW is helping to reframe this issue of addiction as a health concern once again, like it was in the distant past before it was shifted to a criminal issue during the 20th century.
I sincerely hope that other educational institutions can start to follow suit, and try to catch up with a more progressive and developed nature of addiction recovery on campus, such as US universities have been doing since the 70’s.
I really think that this service must be supported and fought for, in order to continue to change the tide for us recovering people, and for those who haven’t made it and who are still suffering under the radar. We need to prevent the ever-continuing count of people who couldn’t catch the disease early enough, consequently loosing their lives."
*Name changed for anonymity
Bea's story has been featured in the University student news!
On Friday 17th February, Bea* shared her experience of support and community in the Better Than Well addiction recovery program tin the student news. Find her story here!
*name changed for anonymity
Better Than Well at the UoBe Festival
To kickstart the new semester, the University of Birmingham held the UoBe Wellbeing Festival – which of course BTW was a part of. The three events led by Better Than Well were a huge success, attended by more than 700 people in total! Let’s have a look…
Better Than Well held three different conferences during this week:
- The Understanding Behavioural Addiction talk, led by Program Director Ed Day
- The Mindset Masterclass, chaired by Program Manager Luke Trainor in partnership with Tilly Blunkett from The RESET Health Group
- The ‘Resilience’ film screening.
These conferences explored and celebrated recovery through various angles, mixing research, lived experience and practical tools, to break the stigma around addiction recovery.
Understanding Behavioural Addictions
On 24 January, Program Director Ed Day shared his expertise on addiction, debunking the myth that this condition isn’t always substance-related. Gambling specialist Steve Sharman, from King’s College, shared his insight on this, explaining the psychological mechanism behind betting large amounts of money. Sex and Pornography addiction specialist Paula Hall, creator of the Laurel Centre, then join to break the taboo around sex addiction. This conference was attended by 305 people, both in-person and online.
On 26 January, 403 people attended the Mindset Masterclass conference, where RESET expert psychologist Tilly Blunkett explained the brain science behind meditation, and ended her talk by leading a practical breathwork exercise for the audience. Program Director Luke Trainor then shared his lived experience of how meditation changed his life, from his adventures in a Buddhist temple in the middle of Thailand, to his everyday practice in the buzzing city of Birmingham.
Resilience film screening – The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope
This ground-breaking documentary was projected at the UoBe Festival, and explored the topic of Adverse Childhood Experience.
How Better Than Well helped this mature PhD student
Addiction can be hard at any age. But whether you are just fresh from highschool of pursuing research later in life, Better Than Well can help you at any stage!
Hear it from Alex*, a PhD student who was one of the first members to join BTW 18 months ago, and has taken an active part in the program ever since:
"As a mature PhD student, I have a unique perspective on the challenges that come with balancing education and personal struggles. I have struggled not only with addiction, but also with my mental health.
For me, one of those struggles has been with maintaining my recovery from alcohol and medication misuse. I had been in recovery for some time but found myself struggling to effectively maintain it. I was feeling lost and alone, and it seemed like the old habits and triggers were creeping back in. My mental health was taking a toll, and I was struggling with feelings of depression and anxiety.
That's when I found the student-led 'Better Than Well' recovery program and community. The 'Better Than Well' program offers weekly drop-ins, meditation classes, and recovery celebrations and sharing sessions. This program provides a supportive and empowering environment where I can connect with others in recovery and learn from their experiences. It was a great reminder that I am not alone on my journey and that there is a community of people who understand and support me.
The program also offers me practical tools and strategies for maintaining my recovery. It helped me to identify my triggers and provided me with a support system to help me navigate through them. It also helped me to develop a daily routine that supported my recovery, such as meditation. I also found it helpful to incorporate self-care practices that helped with my mental health.
I'm proud to say that I'm now in a much better place, thanks to the support of the 'Better Than Well program. I'm grateful for the help and support that I've received and want to stress that there is no shame in reaching out for help. If you're struggling with addiction and mental health, know that there is support available at the University of Birmingham through the Better Than Well program and other mental health support services."
*Name changed for anonymity
Better Than Well in the news...
Since its launch in July 2021, BTW has been featured in several media outlets. Let's have a look!
The University of Birmingham website gave the spotlight to Program Director Ed Day, where he shared a detailed insight of Collegiate Recovery Programs (CPR) for addictions, and what it meant for Better Than Well, as the first university-led UK CRP.
Shortly thereafter, in August 2021, UoB students were introduced to BTW for the first time.
The Autumn 2021 edition of Old Joe Magazine also celebrated the launch of the first UK Collegiate Recovery Program, in an special feature distributed to all University of Birmingham alumni, where Luke Trainor got to share his inspiring work as the Better Than Well Program Manager.
In November 2021, a Public Engagement event was held at the Exchange, the new University of Birmingham building in the city centre. Prof John Kelly visited from Harvard University and presented his research on the mechanisms and outcomes of Alcoholics Anonymous. The 200 free tickets sold out in 24 hours!
Specialised Collegiate Recovery magazine Heart on Campus also gave the spotlight to Better Than Well in December 2021, letting Luke share his incredibly powerful story about his own personal recovery journey.
In April 2022, Program Director Ed Day shared his expertise on background and theory behind Collegiate Recovery Programs during a Lunchtime Webinar at the Institute of Mental Health. BTW student Chris was also interviewed during this event.
In July 2022, Luke had the honour to be chosen as a baton bearer for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, in recognition of his work for BTW.
He shared his feelings to Capital Midlands News, and what it felt like to be carrying the Queen's baton in the streets of Birmingham.
In 2022, New Philanthropy Capital were commissioned to co-produce a Theory of Change for Better Than Well, alongside our staff and students.
On December 7th 2022, Program Director Ed Day shared his expertise in the "I'm an Alcoholic: Inside Recovery" documentary on BBC Two.
BTW student reached one year of abstinence!
Aleksander is the first student to receive a "one-year" celebratory keyring from Better Than Well.
Read about his recovery story from his own words:
"I am proud to say that I am officially one year clean from heroin. Since becoming an addict 4 years ago, I have never before managed to achieve a sobriety streak this long, no matter how hard I tried. Nothing stuck until I found the BTW community and started going to meetings.
"Joining the group allowed me to talk about how I was feeling in a way I never could before, to people who truly understood in a way others close to me couldn't relate to in the same way.
"Before I knew it, I was able to go from taking it one day at a time, to one week at a time, to one month at a time, to realising I had stopped keeping track and was about to reach one year clean for the first time.
"I consider this the biggest achievement of my life and something I never thought was possible. I thought I was doomed to a cycle of staying clean for short periods and inevitably relapsing, but after joining the group I felt hope for the first time.
There is still a long road ahead of me, but now that I have the strength of a recovery community along with skills and connections I will keep close my entire life, I feel more hopeful about my future than I ever thought possible."