I Don’t Do College … or Do I?

August 27, 2015 by Dr. Judi Bessette

When people ask me what I do as a therapeutic educational consultant,  I explain that I help families find treatment programs when they are dealing with the chaos, anxiety and turmoil caused by having a teen or young adult who is experiencing emotional problems, behavioral issues and/or learning differences.  I then typically say “I don’t do college.”

So, why did I just visit Texas Tech?  I went there on a tour of Texas programs that serve young adults who are seeking treatment for serious substance abuse addiction.  These are programs that help emerging adults get clean and sober.  What I saw at Texas Tech was an outstanding example of a growing national movement of college-based programs designed to help students stay clean and sober.   Supporting students who are continuing and completing their college studies, these program are referred to as CRPs (collegiate recovery programs) or CRCs (collegiate recovery centers.)

For many families I’ve worked with who have oh-so patiently “hung in there” with their teen or young adult in the process of becoming sober, college can be a scary proposition.  Generally speaking, college has been seen as an “abstinence averse” environment. CRPs are out to change that!

By way of background…over thirty years ago, Brown University and Rutgers created the first college-based recovery support programs.  In the late 80s and 90s, these two schools were joined by Texas Tech and Augsburg College.  Designed to support recovering students’ needs, these program generally offered sober housing, 12-step meetings, and a “recovery-friendly” space for students to create community.  Research has shown that becoming part of a sober peer group is especially important for emerging adults in maintaining sobriety.

Since 2000, the number of CRPs around the country has grown dramatically.  Leadership at several of these programs came together and created a membership organization, ARHE, the Association of Recovery in Higher Education.  The last time I checked, collegiate membership was at 40….but growing every day!  Membership is open to schools as well as interested individuals, including students and faculty.

In the past five years, the Stacie Mathewson Foundation, through its non-profit arm, Transforming Youth Recovery (TYR) has made numerous grants to colleges and universities interested in starting CRPs.  These $10,000 grants are often the way interested faculty at a college or university can get the ball rolling.  TYR also offers advice and counsel, based on their expertise in developing CRPs.

There is no one model for CRPs.  Most require some period of sobriety between 3 months to a year.  Some offer housing, some just a safe place to hang out.  Almost all sponsor 12-step or other recovery support meetings.  Some offer counseling but more often than not, it’s the recovery-friendly space they offer and the community that gets built there that is their hallmark.

An especially important aspect of CRPs is having staff that can translate a seemingly disastrous transcript (or often several transcripts) into a format that the more traditional admissions office can understand.  Often, these students have had failing grades, expulsions and periods of missing school and not working…all connected to who they were before getting clean and sober.

There are several ways to learn more about CRPs. Take a look at the website for ARHE at collegiaterecovery.org.  In addition to membership material, identifying leadership and the ARHE blog, the site offers a more complete history than I’ve mentioned here…as well as links to a significant amount of research that has been generated.  As an example, a 2007 study of 29 CRPs demonstrated that “program participants’ academic achievement (GPA and graduation) surpassed the host institution’s overall outcomes.” Even more importantly, the ARHE offers valuable information on how to start a CRP.

The AHRE annual spring conference is another great way to learn more about this movement…and to meet both students and faculty from CRPs across the country.  The 6th Annual National Collegiate Recovery Conference was held this year at the University of Nevada – Reno and featured nationally prominent speakers in the field of addiction as well as bestowing awards on exemplary student leaders at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

A third valuable resource is a magazine, Recovery Campus (recoverycampus.com) with both print and digital formats as well as a digital newsletter.  There are feature articles on campus programs as well as moving stories recounting various individual’s journey on the road to recovery.

CRPs exist is to insure that students can have a quality educational opportunity alongside recovery support to ensure they do not have to sacrifice one for the other.

While I’m never likely to know what college a student interested in aviation finance or fashion design should attend…nor would I be good at helping high school students write essays, having recommended CRPs to several clients, I guess I have to stop saying “I don’t do college!”

We All Fall Down

May 14, 2013 by Dr. Judi Bessette

Well, I’ve done it!  I’ve finished Nic Sheff’s latest book, We All Fall Down.  Last month, I wrote about his first book, Tweak, which chronicled Nic’s “rollercoaster ride through his days as a crystal meth and heroin addict.”  I also wrote about his father’s book, Beautiful Boy, a memoir about his son’s addiction, which began in his early teen years.

We All Fall Down, published about a year ago, takes the reader on another rollercoaster ride…this time through a seemingly unending series of rehab centers in Nic’s desperate attempts to stay clean.  The book also describes several unhealthy, co-dependent relationships with women every bit as needy as Nic.

Chapter 14 captures Nic’s desolation and desperation as a twenty-something year old as he experiences a harrowing plane ride…a plane taking Nic off to yet another treatment center.  For several minutes, the plane is caught in some very severe and frightening turbulence.  While other passengers are “panicking and praying for life,” Nic’s thoughts are about “praying for a chance at a good death…no ODs, no sexual violence, no suicide or disease.”   While the plane stabilizes and regains altitude, Nic’s mood plummets as he reveals his belief that he simply has no reason to live…and doesn’t understand why anyone else does, either.

And yet, hope does spring eternal as Nic tries and tries again…finally facing the truth that while he has stopped using cocaine and meth, that he has continued to abuse marijuana and alcohol.  Having re-established a relationship with his family as he and his father spend months on the road doing book tours, in a gentle and loving way, David Sheff confronts Nic about his mental health needs beyond his addictions.

The fact that Nic’s epiphany…to seek treatment for his bi-polar disorder…a condition he has ignored for two or three years…doesn’t come until Chapter 34 is testimony to the incredible, lengthy struggle addicts face…first, the struggle to get clean and then the struggle to stay clean. His reunification with his father speaks to the love that families have, in spite of the many, many bumps on the road to recovery.

In Beautiful Boy, the senior Sheff articulates…most eloquently…that he did not cause Nic’s addiction, he cannot control it or nor can he cure it…a mantra familiar to anyone who’s spent much time at Al-Anon meetings.  This is David Sheff learning to accept the irrefutable truth that recovery is something Nic must do for himself.

With similar grace, Nic ends his latest book by writing…

No matter how many times we stumble,
No matter how times we all fall down,
If we just keep holding on, man, we will make it through.
I just know we will.


To paraphrase Johnny Weissmuller, the best known of all actors to play Tarzan in the movies…“the most important thing is – don’t let go of the rope!”

Keep holding on Nic, keep holding on…and you…and so many others struggling with addiction…will make it through.

When is a Young Adult an Adult?

January 22, 2015 by Dr. Judi Bessette

18 is the new 14, 24 is the new 18…

Many of us first heard the phrase failure to launch in 2006 when Hollywood brought us movie with that title…telling the laughable story of a 30-something-year old man (Matthew McConaughey) still living with his parents. It’s no longer a laughing matter but a widespread phenomenon.

Today’s story stars a pudgy, unfit and unkempt 22 year-old college drop-out living in Mom’s basement…immersed in World of Warcraft.  He prefers to eat frozen pizzas and hot pockets rather than take time away from gaming to eat with the family.  And a job would certainly interfere with his screen time!  This is a reality show…and it’s far from funny.  While this example is extreme…what has happened to the notion of becoming an adult at 18 or even 21?

Jeffery Arnett, PhD, is a psychologist at Clark University who has done leading edge research for more than two decades on what he calls “emerging adulthood”… the life span between adolescence and full-fledged adulthood….ages 18 to 25 or even 30.  Arnett argues that this has become a legitimate developmental stage…akin to the emergence and recognition of adolescence about 100 years ago.

I’m not going to be able to write all there is to be said about emerging adulthood in one blog…but I would like to attempt to define it and give you some ideas of what’s behind it.  Food for thought, if you will.

In the early 1960s, the average 21 year old in this country was married and starting a family.  If schooling wasn’t finished, it soon would be…and John would be moving into his career and Jane either was or was about to be a full-time mother.

Just fifty years later…things have really changed!  The typical 21 year old is 6 or more years away from parenthood…and may be considering marriage or at least a committed relationship…that 4 year undergrad degree may take 6 or more years to achieve and grad school may be on the horizon…job changes are frequent…and both men and woman want to be paid well in a job they like…and that is fulfilling.

Arnett points to four major cultural changes that support this shift and that begin to explain how this new developmental period – emerging adulthood – has come  about.  He cites the Technology Revolution and the Sexual Revolution as well as the Women’s Movement and the Youth Movement as keys to this shift.

The Technology Revolution changed us from a society that made things to a society that uses information; in other words, we’ve shifted from a manufacturing economy to a service economy…and this shift has made higher education a must for many.  The advent of the birth control pill created the Sexual Revolution…and allowed young people to be sexually active with far less concern about pregnancy…and that, in turn, has pushed marriage and parenthood farther down the road.  The Women’s Movement dramatically increased young women’s job options from secretary, nurse or teacher…and pretty well erased the notion of seeking the once coveted MRS “degree.”  Women are now in careers ranging from astronaut to zoologist…and careers for every letter in between A to Z.  Finally, the Youth Movement (are you old enough to remember – never trust anyone over 30?) made the notion of “settling down” at an early age far less attractive.

Taken together, these four cultural changes undergird the features of emerging adulthood — identity exploration, self-focus, and instability – in work, love and even in residence – coupled with the notion that anything is possible dominate these years.

Arnett maintains that self-sufficiency is what now marks the transition into adulthood.  He defines the term as follows:

1. taking responsibility for yourself,

2. making independent decisions, and

3. becoming financially independent.

Arnett sees this transition happening somewhere between the ages of 25 to 30…just about the time brain researchers now tell us the command center of the brain – the prefrontal cortex matures.  Probably not a coincidence!

While the example of the kid in the basement at the beginning of this blog is extreme…so much so such that he will likely need some sort of therapeutic intervention, Arnett believes, in the main, that emerging adulthood may well lead to more insightful and content adults.  So…the longer road may well be the one that should be most taken!

If the notion of this new developmental stage intrigues you, get a copy of Arnett’s book,
Emerging Adulthood:  The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties 

 It’s an interesting read!

Happiness is the Truth ...

September 10, 2014 by Dr. Judi Bessette

In the fall of 2103, Pharrell Williams released Happy…which has become one of the hottest-selling singles world-wide.  So, what is all this fascination with happy?

For years, psychologists were focused on correcting problems like depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder…in a sense, studying how to fix ailments that made people sad.  About 25 years ago, Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist who wrote Learned Optimism, had an epiphany…and began studying what makes people happy.

Seligman’s epiphany has since interested literally thousands of researchers in taking serious look at the essence of happiness… studying what we now call Positive Psychology.

Positive psychology is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives…it’s what Aristotle, in ancient Greece, referred to as the good life…a life well-lived and happy.  And, it’s what Bobby McFerrin said more recently – 1988 to be exact  – don’t worry, be happy.

So, why be happy?  Well, there are actually a number of reasons to work toward living a meaningful and fulfilled life.

Research tells us that it isn’t just about “feeling good” but rather, that happy people are more social and energetic…more charitable and cooperative.  They are more able to overcome fear, anxiety, stress and depression.

Turns out, happy people tend to take better care of their bodies and they are active and exercise more.  A recent study showed that people being treated with anti-depressants can often lower the dosage – if not totally eliminate – their medications by adding a regular exercise program to their weekly schedule.

Being happy leads, not only to better mental health, but also to better physical health…

  • fewer cardiac problems,
  • less risk of cancer,
  • a stronger immune system,
  • and even and better surgical outcomes.

Being happy leads to more creativity, better relationships and increased productivity.

A number of studies have determined that happiness is 50% hard-wired…that 10% is related to life circumstances…leaving 40%…the part you can control through your attitude.

So…how can Debbie Downer develop a positive attitude?  Well, whether you read Seligman’s work, or that of Dr. Sonya Lyubomirsky or Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar – they all agree that cultivating gratitude is the single most important element in developing and sustaining a positive attitude.

While acts of kindness boost happiness levels, and giving a positive shout-out to someone every day and mindfulness are all important…gratitude is more so.

So, what is gratitude? Well, it is many things to many people…

  • it’s wonder,
  • it’s appreciation,
  • it’s looking at the bright side of a setback,
  • it’s fathoming abundance,
  • it’s thanking someone in your life,
  • it’s counting your blessings.

Some of the more heady research reports that the expression of gratitude is a meta-strategy for achieving happiness.  Simply put, developing an attitude of gratitude will serve you well.

So, pay attention, Debbie Downer…developing that attitude of gratitude involves a focus on the present moment, on appreciating your life as it is today…and on recognizing what has made it so.

Like many things in life, we need to practice feeling grateful in order to make it habitual.  And the best way to practice is easy!

It is as simple as creating a gratitude journal … and writing down three to five things for which you are grateful….every day…or at least three times a week…then taking a few minutes to re-live some of these moments in your mind….remembering what you saw, what you heard, and how you felt.

Hopefully, you’ll come to believe what Pharrell does…that happiness is the truth!

This blog is a condensed version of the keynote speech Dr. Judi gave at the 14th graduation at Auldern Academy on May 31, 2014.  Auldern is a therapeutic girls boarding school in Siler City, North Carolina. Judi was honored to be asked to participate!

Finding the Road to Recovery in the Woods

March 09, 2014 by Dr. Judi Bessette

Recently, the parents of a young adult client with a serious opiate addiction asked me to explain why wilderness.  They wanted to know why I see wilderness programs as a viable alternative, and in some respects, preferable for young adults than the more traditional 30-day (even 60 or 90 day) primary treatment programs…especially if the young adult is taking his or her first steps on the road to recovery.




A cautionary note from Dr. Judi…whether the first step on the road to recovery starts in the woods or in a treatment center…please know both represent just that…the first step.  Research tells us these young adults need between 12 and 18 months of treatment to be successful in their recovery.

As a result of their question, I spent some time over the past several weeks talking to colleagues in the addictions treatment world.  Here’s some of what we discussed…

There are some obvious differences between wilderness and more traditional substance abuse treatment programs.  There’s a big difference between being a dozen miles or more from nowhere versus living in a community setting.  In a wilderness program, there’s no access to phones, computers, I-Pads, TV, or movies.  Living for 6 to 8 weeks in the serene out-of-doors in the healing arms of Mother Nature…well, there’s a healing that comes with being immersed in nature that just doesn’t happen in a building…both for body and for soul.

There’s also often a difference in terms of cost…wilderness runs about $350 – $400 per day…with more traditional programs running 3 to 4 times that amount…and some programs…even more!

The experiential component of wilderness is integral to its success.  Carl Rogers, the famous psychologist and, along with Maslow, the co-founder of the humanistic psychology movement, wrote,

Experience is, for me, the highest authority. The touchstone of validity is my own experience. No other person’s ideas, and none of my own ideas, are as authoritative as my experience. It is to experience that I must return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming me.  On Becoming a Person, 1961.

While more traditional programs offer therapy and help develop new life skills and sober leisure-time interests, that experiential piece is seldom there…certainly not to the degree that it is in wilderness.

For addicts to have any hope of letting go of substances that they have come to believe are working for them – either to produce good feelings or offer relief from negative feelings – they must find alternative activities and behaviors that do what the drugs have done in the past.  The outdoor model aims to change a person’s experience of themselves and of the world around them to prepare them to tackle the questions what’s nextand how do I maintain this good feeling.

Nearly every one I talked with mentioned the importance of learning new ways to cope with stress.  Living sober long-term requires a high degree of stress tolerance.

Wilderness unburdens one of the trappings of life that have been part and parcel of becoming addicted.  There is no self-soothing with technology…but there is learning about creating inner peace.  Instant gratification and entitlement fall away in large part because of the complete change of environment…a scenario just not possible in more traditional treatment settings.

The inherent challenge of more primitive living creates opportunities for participants to evaluate stressful situations and practice skills that develop tolerance.  The notion of skill building for increased stress tolerance is rooted in many psychological theories including Systematic Desensitization – Joseph Wolpe; Stress Inoculation Training – Donald Meichenbaum; and Shadow Work – Carl Jung.

Wilderness is also a place to experience to true personalization of several of the basic tenets of the 12 Steps.  Certainly one can begin to understand the 12 Steps in traditional treatment…but they are embodied in wilderness.

One wilderness program director, in recovery himself, talked very specifically about wilderness and the first four steps.  He explained that wilderness is the optimal opportunity to evaluate the powerlessness referred to Step 1.  It’s important to recognize that powerless does not mean one is helpless.  “I am powerless to stop a rainstorm…but I can put on a rain coat!”  Powerless…not helpless.

He went on to say, “Through the beauty, peacefulness and serenity of nature; the loneliness and solitude, coupled with the removal of societal distractions, one can experience the notion of a higher power…the guiding principle behind Step 2 and Step 3.”  A higher power – something larger than oneself.

In many programs, before leaving on expedition, participants go through their backpacks and take stock of what is there…figure out what is needed and what is not.  In Step 4, participants examine their emotional backpacks and take a moral inventory.  Wilderness – filled with metaphor.

I heard the following three themes from nearly everyone…

  • Wilderness exposes the client to healthy levels of stress.  Without access to substances that self-medicate, it forces the development of alternative coping skills.
  • Wilderness combines healthy diet, regular physical activity and regular sleep patterns, along with integrated, supportive, strength-based individual, group and family therapy…providing the opportunity for the client to process emotionally, think more clearly and help the mind and the body recover physically.
  • When drugs and alcohol have taken control of the client’s life, the out-of-doors provides countless opportunities to reflect on core identity, create a relationship with a higher power and participate in self-esteem building activities that increase self-efficacy.

Two closing thoughts from my conversations that really resonated with me…that, in shorthand, answer the question why wilderness

First…that healthy nutrition, regular exercise and proper sleep are the best antidepressants on the market….and second….that wilderness offers a complete break from life to give the soul room to breathe.

First, kill the lawyers … and then take smart phones away from 2-year olds

August 18, 2013 by Dr. Judi Bessette

CBS News reported recently that 25% of all 2-year olds in the US have their own smart phones. That’s right…25%. That’s nearly the same percentage of young adults estimated to meet criteria for technology or “screen” addiction. I find both statistics alarming. A screen addiction is defined as “excessive or compulsive use of anything with a screen – cell phones, tablets, portable game consoles, portable video players, laptops, smart phones – that interferes with a person’s everyday life.” Signs of screen addiction in young adults include isolation, depression, low self-esteem, lack of social skills, weight gain or loss, inattention to personal hygiene, and neglecting personal responsibilities without regard for the consequences. A recent Visit Report at strugglingteens.com illustrates what this looks like in young adults… “Often the young adults have “failed to launch,” which is a common concern, but they also lack motivation to get out of the basement (or off the couch) or to do anything in life. They stop attending school; they quit their jobs. Often they begin to gain significant weight because they order pizzas and coke (or other convenience foods), rather than taking time away from their games to cook anything. Their surroundings are often in shambles and sometimes they haven’t changed their clothes or bathed in weeks to months. They have sleep issues. They also display an inability to create/ maintain appropriate relationships with other people, and seldom do they have boy/girlfriends.” Hilarie Cash, PhD, is trying to combat this new addiction. She is a psychologist and the co-founder of reStart, this country’s only young adult technology addictions treatment program exclusively serving this population. Restart is located just outside of Seattle …ironically…in Microsoft country. (I say this country because South Korea, Hong Kong and China are well ahead of the US in creating treatment opportunities.) The reStart program starts out with 45 – 60 days of complete abstinence from screens – even “old-school” flip phones. In this phase of the program, up to seven students live in a rambling, comfortable home surrounded by serene woods. In the second phase of the program, the participants move to apartments and begin to re-enter the real world – to restart a sustainable lifestyle ~ disconnect and find themselves. In today’s world, it’s almost impossible to avoid technology. Unlike treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, abstinence is not a long-term solution. While the initial phase at reStart serves to break the cycle, the life-long lesson at reStart is all about management. For those of you who don’t know (I didn’t before my visit), most technology addicts are gamers…and gaming comes with its own pot of alphabet soup. There are RPGs – table-top role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons…and MMORPGs – massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft (WoW). Those two games account for over 50% of the market in their respective game worlds. And, it’s big business…WoW’s profits last year were estimated at over $1.7 billion. This addiction is not limited to gaming. It includes texting, internet surfing, hyper-focus on social media or specific sites like www.reddit.com. Older forms of the addiction include internet gambling and pornography. Unfortunately, they are still alive and well. Why is this so compelling? Cosette Dawna Rae, MSW, LSWAIC, who also helped co-found reStart is especially good at explaining it. After her somewhat wild and crazy teenage years, Cosette settled in to a successful position as a technology developer. Over time, she realized that her life was consumed by her computer work…that being the first in to work each day and the last to leave often well after dark , then lying awake trying to designing websites and the like wasn’t healthy…and that she needed to change. She went back to school, reinvented herself as a clinical social worker and is passionate about helping young people. The current research indicates that the pleasure center of the brain reacts to gaming much the same way as it reacts to cocaine. It feels good, it’s habit-forming and it’s addictive. Parents sometimes feel that with little Johnny in the basement, he’s safe. “At least I know he’s not out doing drugs!” they’ll say. Well, in a very real sense he is…technology has become his drug of choice and his brain is getting re-wired in all the wrong ways. And speaking of the brain, let’s go back to the 2-year olds with smartphones…One major reason why experts are concerned is that this type of smartphone use, at such a young age, may impede early brain development that might impact the child for the rest of his/her life. So, let’s skip the killing lawyers and instead, take the smartphones away! From our 2-year olds and our young adults…and perhaps you and I should put them away, too…at least some of the time.

For the Love of Books

April 09, 2013 by Dr. Judi Bessette

In this high-tech era…I still love books. While I like having books to read on my  iPad, especially with all the traveling I do to see schools and programs, I still love a good, old-fashioned book. The feel, the smell, the whole experience of a book…I love it all.

The other day, I was looking through the bookcases in my office and my eyes fell on two books I haven’t thought about in some time…Beautiful Boy by David Sheff and Tweak, written by his son, Nic Sheff.

If you’ve got a friend who’s dealing with an addicted son or daughter…or if it’s your own child…Beautiful Boy is required reading. David Sheff, with published articles in Rolling Stone, Fortune, Playboy and Wired, uses this memoir to trace his journey through his son’s addiction to crystal meth. The book expands on his article, “My Addicted Son,” that first appeared in the New York Times Magazine. The article won an award for “Outstanding Contribution to Advancing the Understanding of Addictions” from the American Psychological Association.

A companion book, Tweak, was written by Sheff’s son, Nic. Also a memoir, it is the young author’s recollections of growing up on methamphetamines. Now in his early 30s, Nic battles daily to stay clean and sober. Nic is also a writer for The Fix, an online recovery resource, and has had articles published in Newsweek and the San Francisco Chronicle.

These two books paint a powerful, albeit painful, picture of addiction and its effects on both the user and on the entire family. Reviewers have described the books as honest, harrowing and heartbreaking…but not devoid of hope.

Asked for some words of advice in an interview that appeared in US News & World Report, David said, “There are many things I wish I could redo as a parent. Talk to your children about drugs. Have an open conversation with them. You need to prepare them for what will probably happen.”

Nic added, “If I could just tell young people, if you feel insecure and scared, that’s ok. It’s a burden, but nothing that you ever look for outside of yourself is ever, ever, ever going to fill that hole.”

Look for more about the writers Sheff in upcoming editions of the Compass Reader. Last April, Nic’s newest book, We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction was pubished. I’ve just started it…and I need to finish…because this month, David Sheff’s newest book is coming out, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. I can’t wait!

(NOTE: Did you know that blog is short for web log? It is defined as “a web page that serves as a publicly accessible personal journal often reflecting the personality of the author.” The blog is a noun but becomes a verb when the author is adding to or updating…blogging. The Compass Reader is now my blog…feel free to let me know what you think!)