Addiction survivor plans campus outreach

AMS Social Issues Commissioner Jennifer Holub and Kyle Brohman, ArtSci ’06, are trying to bring support to campus for students who suffer from addictions.
AMS Social Issues Commissioner Jennifer Holub and Kyle Brohman, ArtSci ’06, are trying to bring support to campus for students who suffer from addictions.
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Kyle Brohman, ArtSci ’06, has spent the past six years locked in the endless cycle of craving and gratification that is the reality of an alcoholic.

“It’s like realizing you’ve cut your leg open and it’s bleeding, but ... no matter how many Band-Aids you put on it, it’s not going to heal,” Brohman said, describing the first time he realized what alcohol abuse had done to his mind and his body.

He is currently working with AMS Social Issues Commissioner Jennifer Holub and other members of the University community to establish a network to help others facing the same challenges.

Brohman said he started drinking when he came to Queen’s six years ago, which has extended the time it’s taken him to earn his degree.

“[I] liked [alcohol] a lot, had an addictive personality, and was kind of unaware of its problematic nature with my daily life at the time,” he said, adding that over the past two years, the constant need for alcohol began to have a serious effect on his day-to-day life.

He described how, for the last six months, he would wake up and call Dial-a-Bottle from his bed, ordering the three bottles of wine that would allow him to face the world.

“I would be shaking ... tremoring basically,” Brohman said.

“Sometimes [the delivery person would] come to the door and I wouldn’t know what to do because I would sometimes feel like I would pass out. He would come to the door [and] I would sometimes be on my hands and knees pretending that I’m fixing something by the door just so he wouldn’t see something wrong with me.

“Usually two or three bottles of wine later ... I’d be able to socialize with people on a different level, so they wouldn’t notice something was wrong, even though I think I was really just fooling myself.”

Brohman said alcohol became the only thing he could think of, causing him to lie to family and friends in order to cover up his problem and feed his $2,000 per month addiction.

“If you have one bottle of wine left, all you can think about is where that next bottle of wine is going to be,” he said. “[The alcohol] controlled every facet of my life, from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed.”

Brohman said that in the fall of 2004, he finally admitted to himself that he had a serious problem. He moved out of his home in the Ghetto, trying to start fresh. But the addiction followed him.

“I tried numerous, numerous things ... changing where I live, changing who I hang out with, changing the way I drink. Thinking if I drink beer a couple days a week, then it won’t be as bad.”

It was not until July 2005 that Brohman said he resolved to take action against his addiction.

“I was just sitting on my back porch, it was a Sunday afternoon, and I poured my last drink, and I said, ‘This is it, I don’t want to have another drink,’” he said.

He added that he finally admitted to himself that he wasn’t able to overcome the addiction on his own. He sought help from his mother and doctor, and by mid-August checked into Homewood, an intensive in-house mental and behavioural health facility in Guelph.

“At first it was nerve-wracking,” Brohman said. “You’re leaving your comfort zone, you’re leaving your peers, you’re leaving your friends, you’re going to something that, you know, it’s like a black hole. You don’t know what to expect.”

Brohman said he was surprised at how quickly he could connect with the other patients at the centre.

“When you sit down and start talking to the people, you realize that every single person is just like you,” he said.

Brohman said his doctor told him his condition was serious enough that, after two to three more years of the same rate of drinking, he would have developed cirrhosis of the liver, giving him about 10 years to live.

“I quickly realized that I was living with a terminal disease that I did not know about,” he said. “[The doctor] said that I had one of the most serious cases of alcoholism that he had seen since he’d been there, for someone my age. He described [me as resembling] a 60-year-old man that has gone through a midlife crisis that has no reason to live.”

Brohman said he also learned that, because he has an addictive personality, anything—from Nyquil to painkillers—might make him dependent.

The program at Homewood lasted for 28 days.

“It was challenging, it was frustrating, but I got a heck of a lot out of the program,” he said.

An especially difficult part of the process, Brohman said, was realizing the effect his disease has had on those closest to him.

“I was talking to my ex-girlfriend when I got back from the treatment centre. [She is] a non-drinker, [and] I think her words were to me, ‘Alcohol is such a dominant part of my life and I don’t drink,’ ” he said, adding that one of the hardest things to deal with was his mother’s loss of trust in him.

When he came out of the centre in mid-September, Brohman said he was struck by how lucky he had been to have gone there, and how few people in his position would have had that option open to them. He said that at Homewood, only four out of 87 beds are paid for by the government.

“I was fortunate enough to have a parent who was in a financial situation that could pay the money for me to go,” he said, adding that many students are not so lucky. Homewood costs $8,000 for a month of treatment.

When he came back to school, he said, he was determined to do something to help other students dealing with addictions.

“I believe that it’s not the AMS’s or the University’s responsibility, but it’s maybe a moral obligation to a fellow human being that if someone’s willing to cry out for help, [we help],” Brohman said.

Over the past couple of weeks Brohman has spoken with numerous people from the University, who he said have been very supportive.

Rector Grant Bishop said he thought Brohman’s proposal was a terrific initiative.

“What he suggests really hit upon some issues that our community has not dealt with the way we should,” he said. “Students have to take ownership of our community in all ways.” Diane Nolting, health educator at Health, Counselling and Disability Services, was one of the staff Brohman met with. She said there are already numerous resources for students with alcohol problems. Among these are Alcoholics Anonymous and Options for Change, a Kingston addiction centre that’s open to the public. While these services are free, residential care is not, she said.

Nolting acknowledged Brohman’s concern regarding options open to students without the monetary resources to afford the cost of an in-house facility.

“His concern is of course, if you’re not [covered], what happens?” she said. “If you’re able to access private care somewhere, whether in Canada or the States, then that’s what you do ... there is two-tiered health care.”

Nolting said the main issue to be addressed is awareness, explaining that people need to understand how destructive an addiction can be.

“I think a discussion of the impact of excessive use is always valuable, because it brings to life issues that people don’t generally think about,” she said. “And I think that people’s experiences are valuable in this regard ... it puts a human face on it, and that’s a good thing. It helps to de-stigmatize.”

Nolting said that in the latest Canadian campus survey, one in 10 students reported both elevated distress and harmful drinking patterns as defined by the alcohol use disorders identification test (AUDIT). Nolting said this classification would include both students with milder drinking problems as well as those with more severe addictions.

Brohman said raising awareness is important.

“The important issue here is the awareness factor,” he said. “We’re dealing with an issue that has a stigma, a taboo, put upon it.”

Brohman has approached Holub, who said she is very supportive of this initiative. She said she and Brohman will be looking at the current AMS’s insurance plan to see if covering students for intensive treatment would be feasible.

Shiva Mayer, AMS VP (university affairs), said any changes to current AMS Health coverage would have to be looked into further.

“That would almost certainly require a renegotiation of the terms of our insurance,” he said, adding that while the AMS’ insurance provider might agree simply to change the current contract to cover addiction treatment, he doubts this is a plausible option. Rather, Mayer said, there would have to be some sort of change in current fees, which may or may not be a referendum issue.

As well, Holub said a committee—possibly modeled on Educating Students on Substances, which was disbanded last year—should raise awareness of alcoholism and addiction, and act as a support network within the Queen’s and Kingston communities.

“One thing we’d like to do is find allies within the student community and find the people who would be interested in supporting each other,” she said. “I think it would be really important for students who think that they’re alone with their disease and their struggles.”

Brohman said having other former addicts as support would be very valuable for students currently struggling with these problems. He also said that he hoped other former alcoholics would contact him to be a part of this project, although he doesn’t know of any as of yet.

Other aspects of the initiative, Holub said, would be to promote responsible drinking and continue to provide non-alcoholic events on campus, such as Capture the Faculty.

“There’s a move towards promoting events that aren’t driven by alcohol, and I think that that’s really important given the younger demographic of our incoming students as well,” she said. “We simply have to identify [addiction] as a problem on campus.” Brohman also said he wants to take some emphasis away from alcohol as a major recreational activity for students.

“Alcohol is seen as an extra-curricular activity that we partake in on a daily basis,” he said. “[As students], everywhere you go, alcohol is there.”

Bishop agreed, saying that the University currently has an ambient culture of drinking that may make students feel pressured to drink.

“Whenever we’re going out and engaging in social activities, alcohol is viewed as a mandatory thing,” he said. “Part of the university life should be mentorship on how to consume alcohol in a mature and safe way.”

Bishop added that campus pubs should help to foster a constructive social environment in which alcohol can be consumed but doesn’t have to be.

Holub also suggested making resources such as Alcoholic Anonymous more accessible to students by holding meetings on campus.

“Once we get the word out there that we are examining this ... I’m suspecting that students will come forward with other substance abuses,” Holub added. “So I think it would be a good idea if we were accessible to all substances.”

Brohman agreed.

“A lot of addicts are cross-addictive,” he added. “If you’re an addict you’re more predisposed to become addicted to other stuff.” Brohman also said an initiative like this could improve the University’s relationship with the Kingston community.

“[This would] show, as well, the community that we live in ... that students are taking a proactive approach to things like alcohol as well, so you can mend the relationship that has been hindered within this community.”

Brohman said he was committed to making his addiction support initiative as comprehensive and helpful as possible. He added he estimates about 10 students at the University suffer from alcoholism comparable to his own.

“[This is] a big commitment,” Brohman said. “It’s not something you can start up, kind of get your feet wet, and then run away from.”

For more information on this initiative, please e-mail Jennifer Holub at siccomm@ams.queensu.ca or Kyle Brohman at 9kjb3@qlink.queensu.ca

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