March 26, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 40°F


Calling the shots

In March, senior Kyle Mullen had to leave Ithaca College. As other students were arriving back from spring break trips, he was packing up to go to New Horizons Chemical Dependency Treatment Program, an inpatient rehabilitation center in Binghamton.

Senior Kyle Mullen sits on his porch Tuesday with his dog, Omar. Mullen, who has been sober for seven months, said getting a dog is a mark of how much more responsible he is now that he is not drinking. Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithacan

“Walking in, it was really surreal,” Mullen said. “I was giving myself up to an institution. But once I got in there I really got into it. I really embraced everything they were trying to tell me.”

Mullen was ordered to go to rehab after failing a drug test while on probation for a DWI charge. He said by this time, he was looking for a change.

“No one can make you want to get sober,” he said. “You have to want to get sober.”

Since his two-week stay at New Horizons, Mullen has been clean and sober. There, he attended 12 hours of counseling a day, in which he said he talked about everything, from relationships to anxiety issues. He plans to graduate at the end of the semester after five and a half years at the college.

Mullen, like many students, came to college and found alcohol and drugs accessible and prevalent. By his junior year, his partying was out of control.

“When I was drinking and I was using, I couldn’t get up to go to class,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to sit around. I just wanted to party. I was just a waste of life.”

When he came to college, Mullen said, he had already smoked marijuana and drank alcohol, but it was not yet a problem.

Nancy Reynolds, health promotion center program director at the Hammond Health Center, is the director of IC Basics, a program in which students meet with Reynolds for one-on-one educational sessions on addiction. She said she sees many students who find college’s free atmosphere difficult to cope with.

“[It’s] the combination of young people getting into an environment where they’re on their own for the first time and that alcohol and other drugs are pretty accessible in our society,” she said. “The freedom is challenging.”

According to a report published in 2007 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, about 1.8 million college students met the criteria for substance abuse or dependence in 2005, nearly two and a half times the national level.

Mullen said his abuse was something that worsened over time.

Margaret Carpenter, a graduate student, has been his friend since their freshman year. She said she could start to see what alcohol was doing to him.

“He was just not in a good place,” she said. “He would get really drunk at parties — we all would — but Kyle was always noticeably more drunk. He used to be so much happier and he just wasn’t. He was so angry, and a lot of it was the drinking.”

Jane,* a senior, had a similar problem with alcohol when she was 13 until she got sober at 14. She is now involved in Alcoholics Anonymous at the college. She said though her experiences with alcohol were earlier in life, her struggles were the same as those of college students.

“My life had become completely unmanageable and drinking wasn’t working for me anymore,” she said. “It wasn’t fun. I couldn’t do it, just socialize and hang out or just drink on the weekends. Drinking just became my life, and it wasn’t even fun to drink anymore.”

Jane started attending Alcoholics Anonymous and got a sponsor to help her through the program’s traditional 12 step program. She said she found the support helpful.

“It’s hard at the beginning to get sober, but it’s the most amazing reward of anything I’ve done,” she said. “I don’t think about drinking every day now. … It was the entire process. Every step of it was just as important, was just as trying, just as rewarding.”

Sarah,* an Ithaca resident who graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2005, said she started drinking in college and developed a problem that continued into early adulthood. Through AA and group meetings at the Alcohol and Drug Council of Tompkins County, she got sober in 2008 at 25 years old. She said when she started drinking in college, she liked the confidence she felt.

“I always felt like my skin didn’t fit, that something about me was wrong, and when I had that first drink, my skin got a zipper on it, and I was able to get out of myself,” she said. “It just really helped me feel like I was everything I wanted to be.”

But the feeling quickly faded.

“I actually hated being drunk,” she said. “I wanted that warm, relaxed feeling I had that first night, but it just never came back.”

Mullen said he realized he needed to get help after he spent a full weekend, from Friday night to Monday morning, drinking and doing drugs, including ecstasy and cocaine.

“I woke up that Monday afternoon, and I just felt awful,” he said. “I felt terrible about myself, about everything that was going on. I slept through my classes. I was just like, ‘What am I doing? Why am I still doing this? I am 23 years old. Why am I still here?’ I look back on it, and I am just thankful that I never did that again.”

Reynolds said incidents like these are good indicators of whether or not a person has a problem.

“Think about: ‘What happens when I drink? Looking back on the nights that I drink, what happens during the night and what happens the next day, physically and emotionally? Do I feel good about my behavior the night before, or do I feel not so good about what I did or said?’” she said.

Though his drinking caused many problems, Mullen said he still sees positive aspects to drinking socially.

“I would like to sit here and say it was all bad times, but it wasn’t,” he said, “I had a lot of fun. I met a lot of cool people. I did a lot of cool stuff. But I really look back on a lot of the things that I did, like I embarrassed myself. I burned a lot of bridges. I cringe now at some of the stuff I used to do.”

Now that he is sober, Mullen said his weekends are much quieter. He said sometimes he misses his partying days, but the feeling is fleeting.

“I get this kind of half an hour lull where I am just like, ‘Oh man I wish I could go out and hang out with everybody and get in on the fun that’s happening downtown,’” he said. “I feel that, but it passes.”

Mullen said though his life is less exciting without going to bars or parties on the weekends, he doesn’t feel like he is missing much.

“I feel like I have lived three lives in one life,” he said. “At this point, I’m not missing out on anything. Anything I’ve ever wanted to do, I’ve done. At this point, it’s in the past for me. I’m getting past that stage in my life.”

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.