Rebuilding Our Lives: Going Back to School in Recovery

Many of us who have recovered from alcoholism or drug abuse reach a point when we are struck by a strong urge to re-build our lives and make up for time lost. For some, this leads to a decision to go back to school. Perhaps to finish that degree program we dropped out of, perhaps for the first time since childhood. Education seems like the next right action, and we are ready to get to work and contribute to society. Of course, there are times when this impulse can feel like a frantic, panic-driven effort to regain lost ground and make something of ourselves. Or demonstrate to others that we are new and worthwhile people now. If the latter is the case, it can be helpful to slow down. Many of us had to examine our motives for undertaking big endeavors like enrolling in college or university. After checking our instincts, and running it by a few people, we may decide to take the plunge.

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Personally, I was struck by a consummate panic to go back to school very early in recovery. It wasn’t so much that I knew what I wanted to do, or was eager to contribute meaningfully to society, but more a sheer panic over time wasted, and a deep desperation to make up lost ground. When I first explored enrolling in a higher education program, I hit wall after wall. Even the paperwork was unreasonably daunting, and I didn’t get very far. Thank God for doors left unopened. For me, it turned out that going back to school later in sobriety was a more sane and sound decision. It was essential that I established a solid foundation in recovery and learned how to show up to commitments with integrity. Then I jumped in wholeheartedly.  Here are a few things I picked up along the way:

Where to Start

Picking the right program can feel overwhelming. We are often just getting to know ourselves again, and exploring what we are good at and like to do when not drinking or using. So take your time. Use your gut. If you pick something and it doesn’t work out, just try again.

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How Much to Take On

Another painful mistake many of us make is taking on too much, too soon. Signing up for a full load of courses while also balancing recovery activities, home life, work or other commitments is a recipe for burn out, or feeling guilty over not being able to fulfill your obligations as well as you’d like. Some people find it better to start slowly and get a feel for what daily dynamics will be like before going full steam ahead. You’ll finish eventually, and better to have been sane and happy for the journey.

Critical Skills

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Many of us also discovered that we needed to hone some basic skills. Not knowing how to study effectively has thwarted many a new student. Asking others what works for them is a great place to start. Here is a technique that worked for me: set a timer for 45 minutes, and for that stretch do nothing but focus on the task at hand. No checking the phone, opening emails, getting up for a drink, or even using the bathroom. When the timer goes off, take as long of a break as needed. Then repeat. I found that I could get more done in a 3-hour stretch of focused attention than I could in 6 hours of distracted dabbling.

First Things First

Finally, and perhaps most critically: making sure recovery stays central. Having the wherewithal to go back to school was a gift of sobriety. I discovered that I was a much more effective student when I was active in my program, and making time for my spiritual wellness. But we don’t get sober only to live in a 12-step program. We get sober to get back out into the world and live full lives. In this way, we make sober living attractive to the still suffering alcoholic or addict—they see that there is life after drinking and using, and an unimagined future awaits them.