By: Micaela Manganello, Contributor
Thursday. August 25th, 2016. For most, this was probably another normal day. Some might have been enjoying the beautiful weather and holding on to those last weeks of summer vacation. Others might have been at work waiting for the day to pass so they could be closer to the weekend. For me, this was the day that both devastated me and put me on the path that I’m on today.
My cousin David had struggled with mental health issues from childhood trauma for most of his life. As a kid, I never really saw this side of him. I only remember swimming with him in his pool, playing soccer in his basement while listening to his music, and later on watching him play for his high school soccer team. But it was during his adolescence where he began to battle with a Substance Use Disorder. As I got older, I became more aware of the issues he was facing; getting DUIs and totalling cars, smoking weed, and eventually using heroin. He was eventually arrested and spent some time in jail, and tried to enter sober houses and begin the process of recovery. He tried moving to Florida to move away from his past and start fresh with new surroundings and new people. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.
Flash forward to the morning of August 25th, 2016. I was starting my second year as an RA and I was about a week and a half into training. When I woke up that morning to start my day, I got a call from my mother telling me that David had passed away overnight from an overdose. I remember breaking down into sobs and trying to process this information. How could this possibly happen when he was trying to turn everything around? The grief I faced from this loss ended up impacting me a great deal. It affected my school work and even some of the friendships I had. This was the first death of someone who was close to me that I had to cope with, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
One day when I was taking a shower, where most of my great ideas come from, I thought to myself “I want to make a difference and do something so no one else has to go through what David and my family had to. I want to turn this experience into something positive and beneficial.” I remembered two people, Diane Geyer and Anna Gardner, coming to talk to the RAs during training about this new place called the Recovery Oriented Campus Center and how they were looking for front desk greeters. Long story short, I ended up interviewing for the position and I became the first work study student at the ROCC.
Through this job, I’ve learned so much about what recovery means and how to best support someone who is in recovery or seeking it. I remember times where I thought I was helping David with the “tough love” method: telling him that he has to want to make the changes in his life like it was all under his control. I didn’t realize how stigmatizing and wrong this way of thinking was. Educating myself on Substance Use Disorders and understanding that it’s a disorder of the brain that people can’t control, not a decision that someone choses to make and chose to stop when they want to, has helped me change my frame of thinking. I have the ROCC to thank for that.
I have also learned that building connections and having unconditional support can help someone in long term recovery tremendously. This principle is what the ROCC is founded on; being a community based on peer to peer support that helps to foster personal growth and connections within this community. We do this by having fellow students run support groups for students who are in recovery or seeking recovery from SUDs or mental health conditions. Recovery allies are welcome to participate in them as well. We also have trips and events to help bond and form those connections with one another.
Being a part of this community has not only helped me become more educated about recovery, but has also brought so many other wonderful things into my life. I have met so many incredible, inspiring, and supportive people that I am so thankful to work with and know. They have all welcomed me with open arms into their community; not once have I ever felt like an outsider for being an ally and not in recovery. Working here has also inspired me to be a role model amongst my peers as well as pursue a profession in the addiction field when I graduate. I want to help educate people about person-first language and how it can help decrease the stigma around SUDs. I hope to show people that supporting those with an SUD or a mental health condition no matter what situation they are in instead of shaming them, showing them compassion, and treating them like a person and not a problem is incredibly important. I want to keep making a difference in people’s lives and do right by my cousin. As cliche as it sounds, I honestly don’t know what I would do without the ROCC and I am so fortunate and proud to be a part of it.