Trollhaugen 2017

It’s a StepUP tradition to take our new fall students to conquer the ropes courses at Trollhaugen in Dresser, WI. The goal of the ropes course is simple, get from point A to point B. Of course, most of the course is made up of wooden platforms anywhere from 12 to 48 feet in the air, connected by bridges made of zip lines, tires, ropes and wooden planks. Our new students, their mentors, StepUP Peer Advisors and some StepUP staff suited up in safety equipment and took to the trees to kick off the new school year!

Two StepUP Counselors standing on a wooden platform attatched to a pole.

On the bus ride there, emotions were varied. Among the attendees we had hikers, mountain climbers, and people with a serious fear of heights (and everything in-between). “Not every fear needs to be conquered”, new student Tommy told me as the coach bus pulled into the parking lot. I told him that conquering a fear with no significance in your daily life may seem pointless, but it’s a good workout nonetheless. I say that now, but when I came to Trollhaugen last year as a new student, I convinced myself that we hadn’t enough time left to try one of the more difficult courses (we did), and that I wasn’t skipping it because I was scared (I was). This time I was on a mission: successfully complete the most difficult route.

A photo of the ropes course from below

After a quick run through the intermediate blue courses, another student and I approached the elevated platform that led to either the secondary blue course, or the black. We both decided to just hop up the ladder to the black before we could talk ourselves out of it. The first obstacle was a short set of monkey bars, 48 feet in the air. Even with the nearly fool-proof safety equipment, dangling from that height by our fingers was quite the barrier to entry. Ahead of me were two new students, Foster and Sophie, and behind me was another new student named Moses. While waiting for Foster to swing over to the next structure,  I was able to divert some of my own anxiety by delivering a pep talk to my apprehensive new friends. The four of us all made it over and we were on our way.

About halfway through the course, Sophie had her first anxiety inducing moment. She wasn’t particularly afraid of heights, but bees were a different story. The two of us were sharing a tiny platform on a nearly 50 foot pole when a wasp took a keen interest in her. The only escape was to zip line across about 25 feet to the next platform, but she would have to wait until Foster was finished clipping to the next “element” of the course. After a couple tense minutes of buzzing, she finally launched off of the platform under siege, and on to the wasp-free one.

Two people climbing on the ropes course

After the four of us completed the course, I met back up with Tommy, the new student with a serious fear of heights. He told me that yes, he had completed the course. When I asked him if it felt great to conquer his fears, he chuckled and told me no, it didn’t feel that great. I suppose that is the reality of pushing your boundaries of fear and proficiency. Sometimes you don’t get a pleasant rush as a reward. But it does often make it easier to approach something threatening next time, even in a completely different domain, like applying for a high status job, or being honest and vulnerable in a relationship. When I came to Trollhaugen as a new student, I thought I already knew my own competence and ability. My experience shows, however, that I have absolutely no idea what I’m capable of until I’ve measured my expectations against reality. That is- just try it. It risks sounding like a platitude, but most of the students I talked to had a similar experience on the ropes course. All of us had some expectation of what it would be like, and how we would perform. And to some degree, we were proven wrong. Here’s to carrying that memory into our recovery and our educations.

 

How Media Hype Can Hurt Addicts

We are once again falling into the trap of waging war against inanimate substances. And we will continue to lose.

It was about three months after I had a major surgery, and I had just stumbled upon the surplus Percocet tucked away in my parent’s bathroom closet. The surgery was called the Nuss procedure, which necessitates the controlled fracturing of the entire sternum and most of the upper ribs. Pain management is a serious concern. Oddly enough, my pediatric surgeon sent me home from the ICU with exactly double the amount of oxycodone that my painkiller regimen actually called for. He also made a cheeky joke about “being careful” because these “sell for a lot on the street”.

I imagine it was just a miscalculation of the sense of humor a 15 year old might have. But I knew the truth behind the quip. I had already experimented with numerous drugs at that age, but never an opiate. Opiates were the forbidden fruit. I fancied myself an “educated” drug consumer, and all of the others like me that I had met online repeatedly said never to play around with benzodiazepines, methamphetamine, or opiates. Too risky. When I found the bottle of 30 five-milligram oxycodone tablets in that closet, my first thought was “well, I better just be very careful”.

That is how I found myself googling the proper dose for a first time recreational user of oxycodone. You see, I was very methodical about it all. I was certain that addiction was a consequence of carelessness, and could be avoided with the prerequisite knowledge and planning. Two friends of mine and I took 15 milligrams of oxycodone that summer before high school, and I ate the fruit.

Those three white tablets were the final handshake I made with the devil. When I felt the first wave of euphoric bliss pass over me, I had the keen sense of making a secret agreement. The feeling of relief from existential angst, depression, soreness, embarrassment, and insufficiency was so profound that my barely developed brain absolutely folded in submission.

I tell stories like this to other addicts seeking recovery, because it highlights a type of powerlessness over substances that I have found crucial to recognize in my own recovery. In the wrong hands however, stories like this throw gasoline on to a media-hype inferno that can contribute to policy decisions that hurt addicts. I spend a lot of time reading news and editorials on the opioid epidemic, and I am continually unimpressed. There is something about the narrative surrounding it that is eerily familiar. I’m just old enough to remember the last drug epidemic: crystal meth. There was a blueprint for writing about it:

  1. A (not-so) new drug- crystal methamphetamine
  2. A new demographic being ravaged- rural Midwestern communities (which is supposed to be shocking because it is not the inner city)
  3. Someone to blame – first clandestine meth labs, then imported Mexican cartel meth.
  4. Subtle support for the status quo – “crack downs”, raids, new laws.

If you have read any reporting on the opioid epidemic, you might recognize that pattern. We have a not-so new group of drugs being pitched as a new scourge on society, a new demographic being effected, an evil cabal of pharmaceutical companies fueling the epidemic, and some status quo interventions being marketed as revolutionary.

So I ask myself, is this a case of an evil drug, or just a continuation of a general addiction epidemic that responds to demands for different substances from decade to decade? I think it is almost certainly the latter. Dr. Joseph Lee of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation agrees. In an interview with MinnPost he says “Addiction has never really been about drugs. Addiction is about the people who are at high risk for becoming addicted to those drugs.” Dr. Lee, a psychiatrist and expert on addiction, thinks the focus on specific drugs or classes of drugs is completely misguided and will lead to more panicked tail chasing while people continue to die. “If we invested in people as opposed to focusing on drugs, I think we’d have a much, much smaller problem on our hands”, Lee explains.

The focus on opioids in isolation is not exclusively the product of ignorance and hype. The fact is, someone that becomes addicted to heroin is at a much higher risk of an early death than someone addicted to cocaine. This is just a function of the physiological effects of opiates (overdose, combining with other respiratory depressants). Despite my concerns, the urgency of watching a rising death toll has been put to good use. As far as I can tell, there has never been so much media and political attention on recovery and addiction treatment. Public acceptance of Narcan distribution is incredible. There have also been real crimes and failures of foresight in the medical industry that needed to be brought to light. But along with the good, there is some bad. Besides addicts, many people get caught in the crossfire. Legitimate pain patients have a harder time getting effective medication and impoverished neighborhoods get more dangerous as the drug war increases in intensity. We are once again falling into the trap of waging war against inanimate substances. And we will continue to lose.

When I took those three tablets, and felt all of my teenage discontent vanish, I was having an entirely different experience than my two friends. My brain was primed for addiction long before that day and no single person or entity is to blame. We can do better when engaging in public discourse about addiction. Well known recovery writer and researcher William White recently published a piece spelling out just how we can do that. To him, the one-at-a-time method of talking about drug addiction does not work, never has worked, and never will work. The blind spots we produce when talking about addiction that way turns drug policy into a game of whack-a-mole. Bill says “As the opioid epidemic evolves, all of us involved in the front lines of policy responses and clinical or recovery support interventions should remain aware that it is more than an opioid epidemic and that we must be prepared to respond as it continues to evolve in ways not yet clear. “

When the media subtly anthropomorphizes heroin and other opiates as predatory agents in society, it props up the narrative which justifies the draconian, misinformed and (most importantly) failing policies of the war on drugs. Nobody has been more thoroughly failed by these policies than the addicts themselves. Approaching addiction this way is myopic, and will once again catch us by surprise in the next decade when a different drug becomes popular. Whether we are using the framework of hereditary predisposal, economic despair, corrupt pharmaceutical giants, or spiritual maladies, we must never forget what we are actually talking about when we talk about addiction: human beings.

 

ARHE/ARS Conference 2017

I became convinced that recovery schools and collegiate recovery programs were the future of substance use disorder treatment and stigma reduction.

Having pretty limited experience with airline travel, I was a bit nervous on my way to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport. “I feel like something will go wrong”, I confessed to my girlfriend on the way to the terminal. I was on my way to Washington D.C. for the Association for Collegiate Recovery in Higher Education’s annual conference. The opportunity to travel for work and school was an exciting prospect, not to mention being able to leave Minnesota for once without bleeding out my bank account. So despite my apprehensions I was in good spirits as I was herded through security.

Everything went perfectly fine until my flight got delayed twelve hours. Attempting to sleep on the floor of the terminal was completely futile. It was a rough night (Shout out to the old man that brought me a blanket and pillow). Eventually I made it back on the plane and left for D.C. I wasn’t exactly bright eyed and bushy tailed, but my excitement for the conference was not completely crushed.

Once I was all checked in and got my little name badge with the bright red “first timer” ribbon adhered to it, I checked the conference schedule to see where I ought to be. I was somewhat anxious that I would fall through the cracks and miss something important, fueled by the fact that I was there by myself and everyone in this city walked with a sense of purpose and had somewhere to go. The schedule said that there was a recovery meeting ten minutes out and I was already in the right building. Perfect. Of course I should have been looking for a meeting already. Staying in an airport full of bars, stressed out, by myself for 12 hours wasn’t tempting exactly- but it was spiritually exhausting.

There I met Abby Foster of Heroes in Recovery, an organization that interviews people in long term recovery about their experiences, and hopes to reduce stigma surrounding substance use disorders. We had already been in brief contact about doing an interview for the website. Abby was one of the many people I met at the conference that exemplified the hard work behind the nationwide recovery advocacy and collegiate recovery movement. After the meeting and being interviewed, my exhaustion subsided a bit and I became more aware of the big picture of what we were doing here in D.C. Here were hundreds of clinicians, professionals, students and professors all with the express goal of placing a collegiate recovery program in every school in the country.

It didn’t take long to get swept up in the excitement. I started to make plans for next year. StepUP ought to bring more students, we ought to host a presentation on student leadership in a CRP etc. In the swampy July heat of Washington D.C. at George Washington University, I became convinced that recovery schools and collegiate recovery programs were the future of substance use disorder treatment and stigma reduction.

This conference was the first time I had seen so many intelligent, capable and passionate people all working towards a common goal. That could be due to my limited experience in the professional and academic world, but I do think the ARHE and the schools involved are special. The ARHE and Hazelden Betty Ford sponsored town hall on the opioid epidemic was a powerful thing to be present for (video link below).  If you ever have the chance to be a part of recovery advocacy on this level, please do. My involvement in StepUP has a new significance in my mind now. This isn’t just about Augsburg, this is about recovering young adults all over the world getting the same chance at an education that I did.

Opioid Townhall Video – Live from George Washington University – can be found on our Facebook page.

ARHE Website
ARS Website
Heroes in Recovery

A Strange Alliance

black metal folding chair photo

We take for granted the alliance between the present day treatment establishment and the grassroots, barely organized twelve step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, but in fact their cooperation is a bit more perplexing than it may seem at first glance. Compared to modern medical and psychological science, the twelve steps seems antiquated. The language of the Alcoholics Anonymous text is sentimental and romantic when compared to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s or APA’s description of substance dependence. I would like to explore some of these contradictions, and the ways they might play out in the future. Can a philosophy centered on transcendence and “fourth dimensions of existence” play nice with treatments grounded in the material world?

The popular image of substance use recovery is the circle of metal folding chairs in a musty church basement. The chairs are filled with sympathetic (if slightly pathetic) characters who say “Hi I’m Jane, and I am an alcoholic/addict”, and everyone responds “Hi Jane”. Media representations will sometimes include the concept of salvation from the given vice through belief in a higher power, while some may lean toward a general group therapy model. This image is borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA, and the twelve steps in general, is by far the most common approach to treating alcoholism and addiction. It is an abstinence model, and is founded on the principles of a Christian fraternity called the Oxford Group. Founded in the 1930’s, AA is an early sort of “moral psychology”, which attracted the interest of people like Carl Jung. The description of what chemical dependency is in the Alcoholics Anonymous text, is beyond simply a physical or mental illness. Its authors describe what they call a “spiritual malady”. Generally, they see alcoholism’s symptoms as so far reaching and totally consuming, that only quasi-religious terminology can accurately conceptualize it. The book raises some strange paradoxes. They assert that alcoholism is not a moral failing- but a disease; paradoxically, alcoholism can only be cured by a complete moral renovation. It is not a moral pathology to start with, but its treatment is moral in nature. The idea of alcoholism being a disease was very progressive for its time.

Compelling evidence exists that spirituality is an important contributor to success in recovery, and so far, no competing treatment has come anywhere close to achieving the institutional credibility that the 12 steps have. I often wonder about whether this credibility is based on merit and treatment efficacy, or historical inertia and lack of worthy competition. To be fully transparent, my own recovery from addiction has been primarily through the twelve steps, and I generally have a high opinion of them.

There is a peculiar contradiction that becomes apparent when integrating modern mental health care techniques and the twelve steps. Modern mental health care relies mostly on strict diagnostic criteria, with evidence based treatments based on that diagnosis. Often times the treatments are multi-faceted: psychological, pharmacological, spiritual, and physiological. You may receive a diagnosis for major depressive disorder based on some agreed-upon criteria, and be recommended cognitive behavioral therapy, psychiatric medication, mindfulness practice and regular exercise- all as part of a holistic treatment plan. The twelve steps, as far as I can tell, fall almost exclusively under the spiritual category (with some prescriptive behaviors that are similar to therapy techniques, e.g., the fourth step). The stated goal of twelve step programs is to facilitate a spiritual awakening through reliance on a higher power that will relieve you of the selfishness that would inevitably return you to your vice.

Furthermore, many twelve step group members see behaviors and mental states that some might consider co-morbid mental health issues as just additional symptoms of alcoholism and addiction (as in, unfinished step work). I do not mean to misrepresent AA as such, the actual Big Book of AA fully recognizes the importance of mental health care:

“though God has wrought miracles among us, we should never belittle a good doctor or psychiatrist.” (Alcoholics Anonymous 4th edition, p.133)

But often times the unorganized content of AA or other 12 step meetings does not reflect this. Therese J. Borchard discusses this in her article Competing Models: When Mental Health Recovery Clashes with Twelve-Step Programs. She quotes from her book Beyond Blue

“[Because] complaining is considered whining to most twelve-steppers — “poor me, poor me, pour me a drink” — but as a smart disclosure of symptoms to mental-health professionals. Because many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are not educated about mental illness, a lot of bad advice is doled out at meetings and/or social hours.”

I wouldn’t paint with such a broad brush as “most twelve steppers”, but I am familiar with the scenario. To its credit, AA has released pamphlets making their stance on mental health very clear, and dissuades AA members from dishing out unqualified medical advice. The APA defines addiction as “a maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress”, and goes on to describe the ways in which that may manifest itself. Parts of the AA criteria for an alcoholic aligns neatly with this, but in the process of describing its treatment, the definition takes on a different shape. Through describing how alcoholism ought to be dealt with, the malady is defined as one that encompasses the whole being, which is ultimately impervious to medical interventions or management by self-will.

If it isn’t apparent from the preceding paragraph, the contradiction is this: modern mental healthcare is almost entirely secular, holistic and individualized, but when it comes to addiction, its best tool is an almost 80 year old spiritual movement that purports itself to be the only effective solution for alcoholism and addiction. This creates a strange situation where two entities working as partners have fundamentally different definitions of the problem they are trying to solve. To the world of medical science, addiction is basically a pathology of our reward circuitry- something makes us feel good and we want to repeat it. For some people this becomes so powerful and self-perpetuating that their personality and behavior changes to facilitate further use. So it follows that treatment for addiction will be based on breaking cognitive patterns, forming new habits, and treating the mental and physical damage from the use. This, on the surface at least, seems to be quite a departure from the Alcoholics Anonymous description of alcoholism. I say on the surface because it is possible to extract a blueprint for cognitive restructuring from the steps, but I would argue that many twelve step group members would object to that and consider it reductionist (although not in those words). AA’s description seems to be more akin to the idea of original sin than a medical diagnosis. Basically, we alcoholics are spiritually bankrupt- broken to our very core. Our problem is not necessarily an addiction to alcohol, but an addiction to ourselves. We are self-seeking, afraid and self-pitying- this is the true cause of the destruction in our lives, and alcohol (or drug) abuse is but a symptom of our selfishness. If you are a dogmatic believer in that definition, the idea of therapy, yoga and Prozac being a suitable solution seems insane (a sentiment often repeated in meetings).

If you are a dogmatic believer in that definition, the idea of therapy, yoga and Prozac being a suitable solution seems insane

And maybe it is insane. The reason the text of Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve step recovery groups resonates with its afflicted readers so well is because the subjective experience of addiction is perhaps best described by the almost mythological language used in the Big Book. It really does feel like a battle between good and evil, perhaps even like being possessed (although the closest the Big Book comes to that specific comparison is the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). It would be easy to dismiss the archaic and somewhat romantic language used by the creators of the twelve steps if it turned out that the newer, entirely secular treatments, were significantly more effective. But that is not an obvious conclusion from the available research (Moos, R., & Timko, C., 2008).  Adherence to twelve step ideology and attendance to twelve step meetings has been shown to predict future abstinence. So have other treatments, but not so much more effectively that it would render the twelve steps obsolete.

So what does the future hold? Will new evidence based treatments eclipse the twelve steps and usher in a new era of addiction science? Perhaps new research will shine a light on just how complicated addiction is, in a way that would substantiate some of the claims made by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous that are currently light on material evidence. Maybe we can better articulate how the twelve steps work so that less people are immediately scared away by its dated religious vocabulary (and sexist content, such as the chapter To Wives). As it stands, the twelve steps and the fellowships around them seem to be a form of embodied knowledge, shared through action. I do not consider it sacrilege to criticize the program that helped save my life, in fact I believe criticism of this sort prunes away the dead branches of my recovery and helps me better communicate these principles to others. In fact, there are enumerated traditions in multiple twelve step fellowships that would suggest being too cozy with the treatment industry is to their detriment.  Although the alliance between the twelve steps and current psychological practice may seem a bit “duct taped together”, it may very well be the seed of the next wave of addiction treatment.

-Anthony Simons

 

Reference List

Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition. New York: A.A. World Services

Borchard, T. (2010). Competing Models: When Mental Health Recovery Clashes with Twelve-Step Programs. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 8, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/04/18/competing-models-when-mental-health-recovery-clashes-with-twelve-step-programs/

Moos, R., & Timko, C. (2008). Outcome research on twelve-step and other self-help programs. In M. Galanter, & H. D. Kleber (Eds.), Textbook of substance abuse treatment (4th ed. Pp. 511-521). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Graduation 2017

Banner graphic of multicolored sand

 

April 28th 2017 was the StepUP graduation celebration. Thirty students graduated the StepUP program this year, seventeen of which graduated Augsburg College. The event was opened up by Vice President of Student Affairs Ann Garvey, who gave us a wonderful introduction to the students who are moving on. She reflected: “And of course, while we planned on you arriving at this point: from using, to treatment, to recovery, to Augsburg, to graduation- it’s a little sad to see some of the faces out there.” Indeed it is, but as she later mentions, StepUP has a constantly growing network of alumni. Our spirit of service and community will keep graduated students in contact for years to come. After Ann finished her introduction, we heard from StepUP Director Patrice Salmeri.


Patrice pouring ceremonial sand

Patrice introduced the staff, and guided the parents of the graduates through a “trip down memory lane”. She asked them to remember their son or daughter as just a kindergartner, and then an elementary school student- full of potential. To remember how things started to change in junior high or middle school, when they discovered a new friend in drugs and alcohol. How a distance started to grow between themselves and their child. The purpose of this reflection was to introduce a powerful idea: the child in front of them now is the same child they saw back in kindergarten- a child they once feared was gone forever. Patrice asked the students to relish in who they had become, the family they had become through conquering their fears, the shared grief, and their individual accomplishments. Most recovering people will acknowledge that humility is essential in facing the challenge of continued abstinence and healing. That day some pride was well deserved and appropriate.

We then heard from the first student speaker of the night, Alex A. Alex shared his story as a person in recovery and his unsuccessful attempts at school before finding sobriety. He eventually found his way to StepUP from some of our outreach to treatment centers. Despite being older than most of the other students on campus, he dealt with many of the same struggles. He wanted to make friends, be liked, and to succeed academically. For Alex, StepUP was the best possible solution. Here was a program with dozens of other students going through the exact same thing. The community he entered was incredibly welcoming, “there was always something going on” he said, and he was always included. He distinctly remembers a serendipitous moment where he realized a new friend of his in StepUP was the son of his arresting officer back when he was using.  “I knew then I was in the right place” he said with good humor. Since that first orientation, Alex has faced all of the fears he entered StepUP with through the help of this community:

“StepUP- it’s changed my life. It’s changed the person I am.”

Photo of Alex A

During the first medallion ceremony, Patrice gave a brief introduction to some current and graduated StepUP students that are now graduating Augsburg College. After telling us the degree they earned, and honors they received, she presented them with a beautiful medallion to commemorate their graduation from the StepUP program. Later in the program, each StepUP counselor brought the students they had been working with on stage and did the same.

Photo of StepUP Graduation Medallions


The Graduates

(asterisk denotes Augsburg graduation)

Alex A Jordan B*
Michael B* James B*
Judd B* Audrey C*
Ian C* Taylor D
Kate E Blake H*
Isaac H* Maggie H*
Madeleine H Farris H
Connor J Alex J
Christian J* Matthew J
Connie K Matt K
Jordan L Sara M*
Collins N Neil O*
Matthew R* Adam S
Nicholas S * Ricky T*
Payton T Devin W*

The second student speaker of the celebration was Audrey C, both a StepUP and an Augsburg graduate. She reminisced about the one-trip move she made into Oren Gateway center, with the help of another StepUP graduate- Sara M. She remembered studying late night in coffee shops and diners. Audrey reflected on the challenges she faced when she started off her college career saying “yes” to everything, favors, jobs, and people. Augsburg and StepUP taught her how to take healthy risks and be engaged, but a balance was necessary, and boundaries needed to be set. That’s how Audrey decided that the three most important words of her college experience were “Yes, No, And”.  Audrey was the editor of the  Augsburg newspaper The Echo for two years, and designed the annual art and literary magazine Murphy Square for another two years. Artistic expression and freedom was a significant shaping force in Audrey’s four years. Her peers and counselors taught her how to love others unconditionally, and without reservation. Audrey says:

“Today I say no to compromise, I say no to settling for the comfortable, I say no to work for experience, I say no to fear and dishonesty, I say no to giving up, self-doubt, and insecurity, I say no to the societal message that I couldn’t do this because I am a first generation college student and a woman, I say no to the chaotic head-space of living in the past and the future at the same time.”

 


Photo of Audrey C. Speaking at the Podium


Today Audrey says yes to all the challenges she can handle, but no more than that. She explained how she adopted a legacy of values from StepUP, and hopes to leave a piece of her own: “When I came to StepUP I tried to be everything that I was not. So thank you for helping me find out who I am”.

After Kristin Wilcox presented her students with their medallions, the audience enjoyed a slideshow of the graduating student’s journey through StepUP. After all the sighs and chuckles from the photos captured over the years, Shane Jensen brought up his students for their medallion ceremony.

Blake Halvorson was the third and last student speaker of the night. Blake charmed the audience with his usual combination of dry humor and genuine disposition when he described his first attempt at college: “I lasted quite a while- about a semester. I picked up some credits there, as well as a drug habit”. He told us about how he went through cycles of attempting school, but not quite making it. Blake’s poignant description of how we abandon our pre-using plans for our futures after repeatedly failing at smaller and smaller commitments exemplified the strength of a program like StepUP. It can turn someone absolutely devoid of hope, like Blake was, into someone with more prospects than they can count, like Blake does. When he first started at StepUP, he dove into service and academics without reservation. Working in the StepUP office quickly got him connected with the other students. Blake speaks on his transformation:

“I’ve been able to develop into the man that, as a kid, I wanted to be- that my family knew I could be.”


Photo of Patrice introducing Blake H. to the stage


After giving a brief acknowledgment to all of the people that helped him succeed, we moved on to the medallion ceremony for Thenedra Root’s students.

The last of the evenings programming was the sand ceremony. For the past nine years, StepUP graduates have been pouring colored sand into a glass cylinder. Why the sand ceremony? Patrice explains: “As I pour the sand- and you can see the sand that’s been poured over the past nine years- you can’t separate grains of sand from one another. Just as you can never separate yourselves from the experiences you have here. The sand will stay forever.” She adds “You are adding to so many groups of students who have gone before you, the legacy piece. It’s about the community of people coming together, and holding a space for each other. It’s about how StepUP will always be a space for you. And you can never separate yourself from that.” Each student then poured their little portion of yellow and purple sand (this year’s StepUP colors).


Photo of glass cylinder full of multi-colored sand


Patrice gave some closing remarks to wrap up the graduation event. She told us StepUP is 20 years old, and has served exactly 800 students so far, which definitely earned its hearty round of applause. Patrice turned the focus on the students, and spoke about how they have impacted her life. Through the ripples of interactions with the hundreds of students over the years, she could not possibly avoid being greatly affected. What moves the students, moves her. Through teary eyes, she recalled how impressive it is that Augsburg had the forethought to start this tiny pilot program, when other schools said “we don’t wasn’t those students on our campus”. Looking back, Patrice says confidently “Well you are those students, and I would take you anywhere with me”. Near the end of her remarks, she thanked the alumni for providing support and hope for current students, and shared how excited she was to be working with alumni across the country as part of her new position as Executive Director for Recovery Advancement. Patrice commended the StepUP staff for taking on the noble task of creating a space for people who really needed it. She left the students with the following: “Don’t let the noise of others opinions drown out your own inner voice. You have found your voices here. Most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition, and as Ian would say- your logic. Because somewhere, inside your heart, intuition and logic- they somehow already know who you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”


Congratulations to the thirty students who graduated, and thank you for the legacy you left behind.

Photography by Neil King

Mission Manor with New Students

Moving to a new school can be overwhelming, especially if it is your first college experience. For students in recovery, this stressful transition involves more dimensions than just “moving away from home”. Many of us had only been living outside of a structured institution for a short time. We had daunting financial difficulties that made us break a sweat when we saw the loans we would be taking out. Perhaps most importantly, most of us have only known school by its frequent associate: failure. When I moved into StepUP, I had been living in a sober house for almost a year and a half. I had gotten used to working, budgeting and cooking my own meals, but was still dealing with emotional and material obstacles that existed as a consequence of my using. I had barely graduated high school, my first attempt at college had yielded me three credits over an entire year, and I had delinquent loans from that kept me from taking out new loans for Augsburg.

Having a mentor when I moved in was immensely calming. In my case, I already knew my mentor, he was one of my best friends. He had already successfully overcome many of the obstacles and fears I had regarding my new college career. I needed to know what the heck a “flex point” was, how many hours I could manage to work during the semester, and how to nurture a social life in StepUP and the greater Augsburg campus. Along with things they would never cover in orientation, like which professors I ought to seek out. Now, with my first year in StepUP behind me, I joined the team of volunteers to mentor new incoming students for 2017. What better way for us to get to know each other, than to be locked in a room together?

Photo of the Countdown Team
“Countdown” team

StepUP welcomed 13 new students on Friday with an escape room outing at Mission Manor in Northeast Minneapolis. The new students, along with us student mentors, were locked in haunted asylums, dusty mansions and ticking time bomb scenarios, with only our wits to get us out. We had escape room rookies and experts alike. Everyone escaped successfully within the one-hour time frame. We have a bright group of problem solvers this year in StepUP.  I was in the group challenged to defuse a bomb that some ne’er-do-well planned on using to destroy the Twin Cities.  This room, titled “Countdown”, is the most challenging room of the three. It took some serious teamwork and head-scratching to figure this one out. I can’t spoil what any of the puzzles were, so you will have to come with next time if you are curious. We escaped and saved the city with only three minutes to spare, finishing shortly after the Asylum team.

Photo of Asylum Group
Shortly after completing the “Asylum” room
Photo of the Inheritance Group
The “Inheritance” team

One of our new students, Quinn, had this to say about the event: “It was definitely a cool experience. Everyone was very welcoming to the new students. It was nice to have a team building exercise with old and new students. Having to work together was a great icebreaker.” Sounds like a great attitude to have starting your StepUP experience, Quinn.  Scott A. said “It was a ball!” With such rave reviews, hopefully we can make this a staple StepUP activity. After all three groups completed their respective rooms Patrice showed up with some well-deserved pizza, and the wonderful staff at Mission Manor took some celebratory photographs. Big thanks to them for helping us organize this kick off to a fun summer. Congratulations to all of the new students, and thank you to everyone that volunteered to be mentors.

Farewell

Well, my time as the StepUP student worker has come to an end. I received an offer for a new job, which I accepted. I am excited to start the new position, which is more related to my intended major. On the other hand, I’ve been working here in the office since June, and it is a big transition.

I’ve appreciated how much this position has supported my creativity; it’s the hardest part about letting this job go. After writing a few times for the StepUP newspage, someone suggested that I start writing for the Augsburg newspaper, the Echo. I’m grateful for that suggestion, because I’ve truly enjoyed adding my input to the school newspaper.

I’ve also sincerely appreciated everyone who has supported and offered encouragement for my articles and blogs. It may not seem like much, but when I get discouraged I bring those kind words to my mind and try to think about your thoughts more than my own.Drawn Image of face with a thought bubble reading, "Farewell."

In parting, I’d like to share some final thoughts; some ideas I’ve reflected on during my time working here. Remember to always be compassionate. Be compassionate to everyone, especially the people that are hardest to be compassionate towards. In my experience, people that hurt others are the pe
ople who are actually the most hurt, and they need compassion the most.

When you see an opportunity to help someone, no matter how small the opportunity, help them. Little acts of kindness can mean more than you think. I can think of an example that happened just recently. I was walking out of the grocery store and one of my grocery bags broke and everything fell on the ground. An elderly man walked to his car, emptied one of his bags, and brought it to me. It almost brought me to tears. It  gave me hope that amongst all the hate and hurt in this world, there is still so much love. One of my lifelines has been the kindness that has been offered to me by strangers.

Share your thoughts, ideas, hopes, and experiences with people. If you are genuine in this, people will learn from you. You will also learn from people during these conversations. All we really have is eachother, and everyone has something new to offer. Listen with attentive ears, and ask questions. Others’ opinions are just as important as your own. Listen and learn as much as you can in this lifetime.

Be humble. Do what you do to help others learn and grow, not to boast. The universe knows the good you are doing, and will send positivity accordingly. The more you devote your actions to others, the brighter your life may be. Always remember what the activist and leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had to say, in the midst of desegregation, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

 

-Connie K.

Truth

 

Through my recovery process, I’ve gained an interest truth and honesty. Those ideas have specifically been brought to my attention recently, which gave me the idea to write this post about my experience with the topic. I initially had a difficult time articulating my ideas in a typical article format. The format I switched to loosely follows my train of thought when thinking about truth, and how I’ve grown in my experiences with it.

 

Gloomy photo of waves crashing on the shore.

 

Failing to voice your feelings and concerns

Is dishonest

Omitting truthful information to convince others

Is dishonest

Wishing something was true and telling others it is true

Does not make it truthful

Do not speak to sound intelligent

Speak to be intelligent

Honesty is intelligence

Recognizing situations where you have not been honest,

Recognizing automatic tendencies

Of your own

That are not honest

Is key to living in the truth

Insight is power

A soul’s deepest desire may be to live parallel with the truth

To be fruitful with honesty and love

To be honest with others

And with ourselves

So that we can be free

When we choose to focus our attention on a topic

The universe sends us insight

When we use the insight to live a better life

A light starts to shine

People notice the light

And where it came from

And they want one for themselves

So they focus their attention where they see you have focused yours

And their light starts to shine

And the world gets a little brighter

Because of your decision to live in the truth.

Constance Klippen, on the Importance of Truth

 

Gloomy photo of waves crashing on the shore.

 

Quotes that sparked interest in the Importance of Truth:

 

You must not always believe what I say. Questions tempt you to tell lies, particularly when there is no answer.

Pablo Picasso, Picasso to Pignon in a conversation about art

 

Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness… Give me truth.

Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

 

Gratitude

Gratitude is an important part of the road to happiness. Sometimes a friend and I exchange daily gratitude lists. We both agree that it has been helpful. It’s increased positive thoughts, decreased negative feelings, and made me feel better.

Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. One of their findings indicates, In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.” It goes on to state, “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

Harvard Medical School published several ways to cultivate gratitude, including writing a thank you note, mentally thanking someone, writing gratitude journals and lists, praying, and meditating.

Below is my gratitude list for today. I challenge you to make one today, too!

My Gratitude List: Just For Today! 1. I get to watch y little brother grow up. 2. I have somewhere to call "Home." 3. Family. 4. I am sober. 5. I have the best grandma ever. 6. I went to a very insightful women's meeting last night. 7. I have the ability to be creative and choose to take advantage of it often. 8. I get to spend time with an old friend this weekend. 9. I'm in the middle of a really good book. 10. I've found a sponsor I really connect with and she's helping me through the steps. 11. My family in California and all my beautiful memories from there. 12. The desire to learn and grow spiritually. 13. Having beautiful people to love, and beautiful people to love me. 14. The motivation to be healthy and kind to my body. 15. Music makes me happy. 16. The opportunity to be in college and to learn. 16. My relationship with the universe. 18. My relationship with myself. 19. The ability to be compassionate.

 

-Connie K.