The Truth of Substance Free Life

In that first semester, I forced myself to go to parties, because, for once in my college career, I wanted to appear to be normal.

So I sit there as everyone gets trashed, rocking back and forth in a chair, chain smoking and chugging my Redbull, nervously staring at the alcohol around me. Eventually, someone will come up to me and ask “Hey, why aren’t you drinking?” or “You alright?” And what do I say to them?

No, actually, I have spent years destroying my life with all this shit and have just started to get my act together. I’m forcing myself to be here to appear normal for one second, but no, actually, besides all that lovely stuff, I’m just dandy.

No, instead of that, I opt for the Oh. I’m sick. Can’t drink. or Yeah I’m fine. It’s totally normal to be the grouchy old man in a freshman dorm party with kids drunkenly dancing to crappy Calvin Harris remixes, right? I stopped doing that after the first month and the fourth time I helped someone walk back to their dorm room/throw up in a sink. At parties, there is the hope of meaningful interaction, where I might meet some like-minded, intelligent peers, but that goes right out the window as soon as the bottles come out. So I’m left there alone as everyone drunkenly parades around me as I contemplate my life choices and whether or not I should pick up one of the dozen of drinks in front of me. Why did I put myself in that position?

Being a substance free student can suck. I walk around campus knowing that at least three times in any conversation I have with other students drinking, smoking or parties will come up. I just have to shrug it off and pretend I don’t partake, so the other kids don’t get freaked out. Smelling pot all over campus doesn’t help, walking around unable to escape other students indulging. Furthermore, for a school that claims it’s so inclusive, understanding and willing to help, there are only a handful of people who have asked me if I’m substance free or not before going on a 10-minute rant about how “totally wasted” they got last weekend. For the most part, I can only really hang out with the other substance-free friends I made during orientation because a lot of substance-free kids tend to isolate themselves. I know, I’m one of them. Sure, there is the casual conversation in the kitchen/lounge, but it never goes anywhere outside of what classes they are taking. Even when pushed with more insightful questions, asking about who they are as members of society, they stare as though I’ve just killed a cat in front of them.

The dorm life isn’t much better. Walking on the third floor of New Pembroke 3, the worst smelling dorm on campus is much like walking around in a ghost town minus the occasional interaction when I’m on the can, and someone tries to barge in. Then there is also the problem of the people living in the sober dorm not actually being sober. The fact is, I know at least once a week my hall is going to stink of low-quality weed and that on most Saturday nights I’ll see crushed up Pabst Blue Ribbon cans outside the front door.

Then when I’ve finally had too much of it and blurt out that I am substance free, I will get one of two reactions. The first being complete shock and awe, which is instantly followed by the kid I am talking to questioning their life, how much they drink and if they are nearly as screwed up as I am. It’s silent for a few moments, and then they say they have class or something so they can essentially run away and don’t have to be confronted with my plight. The second is complete respect and understanding, which can even come with a hug or pat on the shoulder. That is a rare one though, so generally expect the first. I don’t want to scare other students, I don’t want to be some freak to them, but I can’t change how they react, so I hide within myself.

I’m not trying to put down all the kids who do partake, but I’m frustrated. I’m tired of spending all of my weekend nights in movie theaters instead of having actual meaningful conversations and getting to know people, which is impossible at a party where everyone is gone. As a sub-free student, I feel severely limited in how I can lead my life. I spend most of the time I have avoiding situations rather than joining in with them.  

   There are upsides to being substance-free, though. Walking into school, there is a built in community of people around you who inherently don’t want to escape, who want to experience life without a tinted lens. Sure, I really had to search outside my dorm to find other sub-free students, but all of those relationships have paid off in the end. Those are the genuine people I surround myself every day and having them in my life is worth all the bullshit I go through on a daily basis because I choose not to drink.

 


Basking in the Moonlight

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Moonlight is an astonishing movie. Under the careful direction of Barry Jenkins it effectively tackles the subjects of life in poverty, drug addiction and closeted homosexuality, all while making you feel as though you are eavesdropping on real life events. I left the theater floored.

Moonlight tells the tale of Chiron, a young Black man growing up Liberty Square, Miami through 3 stages of his life: youth, teenager and adult. Each chapter is integral in Chiron coming to finally accept who he is, conquering some of the issues he faced throughout his life, culminating in realistically satisfying ending.

Barry Jenkins’ direction is impeccable. Each scene is essential. There is not one moment that is filler or out of place. The way in which the film is edited is even more remarkable, as evidenced by the transitions from chapter to chapter. Time doesn’t cut during standard events such as a holiday or birthday, rather in a key conversation or a character being sent to prison. Jenkins has a way of using tension, silence and subtlety to push the story forward. He never panders to the audience. There are moments in the film that defy immediate comprehension but later become clear. As a viewer you put your trust in his direction, and it completely pays off. When conversations about Chiron’s mother’s addiction or his sexuality come up, they aren’t presented to us in grand Shakespearean monologues, but rather in the actors subtle eye movements, which are testaments to the direction and acting capabilities on display.

When it comes to the performances of the all Black cast, everyone shines. All three actors who play Chiron in different stages of his life, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes beautifully capture this one character’s mannerisms and awkwardness in a believable and continuous way. When you see them on screen, you do not doubt for a moment they are all the same person. Naomie Harris gives a desperate and explosive performance as his drug-addicted Mother. Marshela Ali, from the recently release “Luke Cage,” does the same as Chiron’s unlikely father figure. Yes, the various actors who play Chiron stand out, but the fabulous supporting performances push it to a new level.

This film is not for the faint of heart. With graphic scenes of verbal and physical abuse, it takes it’s toll. I remember having to take a deep breath before heading back to my dorm from the theater. But that said, right now there is no movie playing that requires your attention as much as Moonlight.


Taking in ‘American Honey’

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Walking out of a screening of the visceral of “American Honey,” I wasn’t sure what to think. Few films this year are comparable visually and in terms of character analysis. That being said, despite its excellent direction, acting and visuals, the film had a number of flaws.

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There’s a new dean in town (kinda)

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Helping students with the varied academic issues they encounter has been Dean Shannon O’Neill’s job as the Dean of Juniors and Seniors, since she came to Brown in 2015. This past spring, her role has grew to include handling students’ struggles around substance abuse and sobriety.

For many the title Dean of Chemical Dependency will arouse confusion or curiosity, maybe even eliciting a snort or a chuckle. But, as college campuses are often filled with vibrant and at times destructive party scenes, the position makes sense for a lot of people. The Dean of Chemical Dependency has a job that differs from that of any other Dean because they face the trials and tribulations of students and faculty striving to remain sober. To simplify things, let’s call O’Neill the Sober Dean.

Surprisingly, this title is not new. According to Maud Mandel, Dean of the College, this job has a long standing history, having gradually evolved into what it is today. It started in the 1970’s with Associate Dean Bruce Donovan, whose passion for this kind of work filled a void on campus. As Mandel put it, the position, “was unique across the higher ed landscape.” Dean Donovan initially worked alongside Health services with the intention of aiding faculty in recovery, or those with family members or friends dealing with the disease. The support services began branching out to students and by the 1980’s supporting students’ became the primary focus.

When Donovan retired in 2003, Mandel explained that, “a number of people on and off campus that he had been working with, including alumni, endowed a position to keep the work ongoing and that’s when the position of Dean of Chemical Dependency took shape.”

This position might seem redundant when CAPS and health services already provide support in this realm. Dean Mandel clarified that the intention of the position “was for students going through recovery to continue to be successful academically, which is what the office of the Dean of the College is focused on. There was a concern that students who were still using or in early recovery might not be successful academically, so linking academic advising with chemical dependency support was intrinsic to the thinking of this position.”

Mandel had nothing but praise for O’Neill, describing her as “wonderful” and looking ahead at the work she will be doing said, “she’ll do this in her own way…and I am very supportive of that.”

O’Neill has big plans to support students in recovery going forward, in addition to what has already been done. “Historically, Brown has had a once a week, hour-long group meeting of students in recovery who are committed to abstinence from substance use. I would like to expand that to include monthly outings, social events and workshops with guest speakers, as well as provide a bi-weekly group session with a counselor. I also hope to secure a residence on campus with a lounge for meetings and hanging out. My role has been to provide academic and social support support and, help navigate the institution. I think we can build a more robust program, especially if we look at what’s been happening in the field of collegiate recovery in the last ten years.”

The struggle of an addict or alcoholic is not one everyone can understand, but it is not an uncommon affliction. The necessity of this position and the impact it has on recovering students and staff was deeply underscored by Deans Mandel and O’Neill. Having an individual always there to help a student in crisis is essential to a university campus.