PORTLAND, Maine — When Andrew Kiezulas first stepped onto the University of Southern Maine campus in 2012, he feared for his life.
It had been less than a year since Kiezulas had tried to kill himself by overdosing on heroin. He ultimately asked for help in his long struggle with alcohol, painkillers, heroin and eventually crack cocaine.
For the former college football player, whose path to addiction started with a back injury and prescription drugs, school was a way forward. But after eight months in a sober-living facility, it was also a return to the threatening culture of drugs and alcohol that is often a defining part of the American undergraduate experiences.
But starting in August, USM plans to open a space on campus aimed at helping students in recovery. It’s the first of its kind in Maine, where a rampant opioid crisis killed a record 272 people last year.
The Collegiate Recovery Center’s mission is to help recovering students to complete already begun degrees and to encourage people in recovery to enroll in classes.
It would be a hub for social, psychological and health care resources — everything from counseling and meditation to healthy eating groups and ultimate Frisbee.
The center will aim to build a community of both students in recovery and those seeking an alternative to the culture of drinking and drug use that often pervades college campuses.
“College is traditionally a very sobriety-hostile environment,” said Kiezulas, the student liaison for the new center, and an incoming senior. “We want to be able to give them that beacon, that lighthouse in the fog.”
There are between 130 and 150 other recovery centers at colleges throughout the USA and the number has been quickly growing in recent years, according to Diane Geyer, who coordinates USM’s substance abuse clinical services.
These centers are opening as the country grapples with how to address the growing opioid problem that stretches far beyond Maine and in 2014 claimed nearly 30,000 lives. Other Maine colleges have already reached out for advice and expressed interest in opening their own, Geyer said.
The space doesn’t have an official home on campus yet, but the university has hired a certified counselor, who will coordinate programs for students in recovery and supplement the school’s existing substance use counseling, school officials said.
Start-up funding for the center and the new staff member come from a one-time $40,000 grant from the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as first reported by The Free Press. USM’s initiative was one of seven schools nationwide to win the competitive grant this year, and the school said it would continue to pay for the program out of its own pocket once that money is gone.
The program has received hearty institutional backing, but it was born of students struggling to find support in their battles with alcohol and drugs.
Kiezulas, who first entered college in 1999 before injury and addiction disrupted his studies, described his early days at USM as panicked. He signed up for counseling, but was plagued by shame over his past and felt lost surrounded by younger students who were drinking and partying. It was only a chance encounter with someone he recognized from a 12-step program that clued Kiezulas in to the fact that there was an alternative to the college culture that he feared would lead him back to using.
“I desperately didn’t want to repeat that behavior, but I know they are a very normalized part of the college experience so I was terrified,” he said. “If I hadn’t come across someone like I did, I would have remained completely in terror.”
Over the next four years, Kiezulas helped shape a small gathering of sober students who hung out in the library into a campus support group, Students and Recovery. In addition to peer support, the group has fought to de-stigmatize recovery and encouraged USM to join the growing number of schools that give recovery a home on campus.
With a year to go before he graduates with a degree in chemistry, Kiezulas took comfort in the fact that new students at USM will have a resource he lacked.
“We’re trying to help people understand that this is just a human condition. It’s treatable. It’s diagnosable. And you can get better from it. People do get better from it,” he said.