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September 21, 2014

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Students recovering from addiction find a place to fit in

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Sam Morris

Omid Mahban, left, and Michael Fildes talk during a meeting of the UNLV’s NRAP recovery support group Wednesday, April 30, 2014.

It’s Mack’s turn to talk about his past.

He stares down at his hands as seven young adults he has just met wait in silence to hear how he is recovering from addiction.

He has attended dozens of programs to help him overcome drug abuse and alcoholism, but this is his first meeting on a college campus.

For a few seconds, only the faint pings from cellphones break the silence. But then Mack, who asked that his real name be kept confidential, makes his breakthrough.

He looks up to meet the gazes of other UNLV students gathered in the university’s recreation center to share intimate details about how they try to stay sober. He takes a deep breath and runs his hand through his slicked-back brown hair, exposing a tattoo of the Virgin Mary’s face running up his arm.

“Hello. I’m Mack, and I’m in recovery,” he says.

• • •

The group was founded two years ago to help students resist drugs and alcohol after undergoing court-ordered or private treatment for their addictions. It’s the UNLV chapter of HYPER, Helping Young People Experience Recovery, a Southern Nevada program that was started in 2011.

The members meet in a room across from UNLV’s Student Health Center, sharing their struggle to escape their personal demons while trying to find normalcy as recovering addicts now in college.

One student can’t risk taking a Valium during finals week. Another knows drinking alcohol at a party might lead to another relapse. Saying no to their friends makes them the odd one out.

Within this group, though, that’s not the case. This recovery support group “eliminates most of their perceived fears of ‘Am I going to be able to fit in?’ and ‘Am I going to be able to do this college thing while I’m in recovery?’ ” said Michael Fildes, president of the campus group. “Just seeing a place for them and meeting peers who have been through the same experience lets them have almost automatic friends.”

Indeed, the 10 members have become fast friends. Leaning back in their chairs, they laugh as some reminisce about not having money for gas or food because they’d spent it all on drugs.

They can afford to laugh now because they’ve traded that life for a college career some hope will get them into law school or the medical field.

It’s through HYPER that Mack, 31, finds time to slow down in between taking three classes toward a business degree. He also supports young adults in 12-step programs, fielding late-night calls to talk them out of driving to a bar or popping a pill.

He has stayed sober for almost four years — a remarkable achievement for someone who spent 13 years getting high and drunk and now spends his time among 30,000 students in a city where parading beer bottles and smoking weed at concerts on the Strip is the thing to do.

• • •

Mack dug through a friend’s parents’ dresser drawer until he found the marijuana pipe. He was 14 years old, a freshman at Bonanza High School.

The two teenagers went to the next room and puffed. Watching the white spiral of smoke, Mack was convinced he had found the perfect cure to his anxiety.

“The first time I did drugs, I thought, ‘This is awesome,’ ” he said. “I fell in love right away.”

Cars and homes became a cash mine to pay for his highs. Along with friends, he smashed car windows and pried open sliding doors in his neighborhood, grabbing any valuables worth selling. He stole money from his parents to make sure he had enough cash to keep smoking. Weed in hand, he spent days kicking back in his friends’ living rooms, sometimes without the knowledge of their parents.

A few months into selling weed, Mack’s dealer upped his game and started selling methamphetamine. Mack became a regular customer for both drugs.

By the end of his freshman year, he was snorting and smoking cocaine, meth and weed, while downing booze regularly. They were the only things that helped him forget his insecurity.

He managed to graduate from high school but then spent years wallowing in a life of drugs and alcohol.

• • •

Mack’s experience echoes that of many high school addicts, said Jamie Davidson, UNLV’s associate vice president for student wellness. He said the young adults he has counseled usually blame their substance abuse on peer pressure.

The problem is especially prevalent in Nevada, which has some of the highest drug use among 12- to 17-year-olds, according to the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Agency, an organization of the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health that tries to reduce substance abuse in the state.

Davidson said the teenagers bring their addictions with them to college. Oftentimes, their dependence on drugs worsens.

“There’s a reason people use substances,” Davidson said. “They do get gains, whether it’s socialization or numbing pain.”

Angelo Mandell, co-founder of Southern Nevada’s HYPER program, said stress in college is one of the top reasons students can’t kick the habit. Now a community leader who helps young people try to keep clean, he said drugs sometimes become the key to acing a final exam.

“Most addicts or alcoholics tend to be perfectionists, and we want some aids,” Mandell said. “It’s very stressful to work and go to school and get A’s. So we take the drugs.”

Dr. Mel Pohl, medical director of the Las Vegas Recovery Center, said young adults often feel inadequate if they experience any kind of distress.

“I think the acceptability of medicating feelings starts young,” Pohl said. “The result of that is certain people start taking drugs to relieve the symptoms, and before they know it, they’re using more and more over time.”

It can be particularly difficult to turn down alcohol and drugs in Las Vegas, even if young people go out to clubs with the intention of having innocent fun, he said. For instance, the number of Las Vegans in treatment for alcoholism and most illicit drugs such as heroin and meth topped the national average in 2008, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“It’s a 24-hour town,” Pohl said. “Drinking and entertainment are highly connected. We have a club environment. We have a feel-good environment.”

• • •

Mack stared at the glass of liquor in his hand. It was 9:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2009. He was homeless.

Only St. Vincent Catholic Charities at Main Street and Owens Avenue offered him a place to stay. But because it was the holidays, his parents allowed him to visit.

But a night of reuniting with family after being estranged from them because of his addiction ended with him sitting with his brother and a friend at the Lodge, a bar on Cactus near Decatur.

Mack already had admitted himself to a 12-step program and got a sponsor, hoping it would be his ticket out of homelessness and addiction. It wasn’t. Even at St. Vincent’s, he found ways to sneak in alcohol, all while telling his sponsor he was sober.

“Here I am forming a relationship with my sponsor based on a lie,” Mack said.

He continued the lie one last time that Christmas Eve, when he ordered a double shot of rum and Coke. Then, reality sunk in.

“I had one drink and after that drink, I saw the truth about what I was – that I couldn’t stay sober,” Mack said.

The next morning, he called his sponsor.

“I relapsed,” Mack told him. “I need to change my sobriety date.”

For the first time in his life, he admitted that he needed help. He began his road to recovery, including enrolling at CSN, where he earned his associate of arts degree before enrolling at UNLV in pursuit of a business degree.

Mack now hopes to enroll in law school. He has completed his first year at UNLV, which he characterizes as an exceptional accomplishment.

Seeing members in HYPER complete college and aspire to be lawyers gives him the sense that reaching his goals isn’t impossible.

“To see proof of that on a weekly basis and to know there are people who have suffered from addiction and have gone past, that is huge,” he said. “I find a lot of strength in that.”

Every week, he can share his overwhelming dread of math classes. He doesn’t have to find solace in lines of cocaine or bottles of brandy and scotch.

“For years, when I’d get scared, I’d drink and use drugs,” Mack said. “Today, when fear creeps up, I have a means to get through it.”

• • •

In this room where he no longer is a stranger to the nine others, Mack finishes talking about his past. He turns to one HYPER member, who just marked his sobriety date a few days earlier.

“Congratulations, man. That’s really cool,” Mack says.

He pauses before looking at the faces of fellow students one by one, backpacks and textbooks sprawled behind their chairs. As he leaves his first meeting, he waits by the door for a few students.

“Hey,” he says, shaking hands with one. “I’m Mack.”

He puts his sunglasses on and heads out the door, turning to look at the room where he’ll share more stories.

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