This is a part two of a two-part series on substance abuse, addiction and recovery. Read part one here.
Olivia Kabat remembers the pain, straddling two separate worlds.
On one, her sobriety. A stronger relationship with her parents and younger sister, Rose.
The other led back to darkness, life before treatment. Going out three to four nights a week. Hopping between Midtown and downtown bars. Abusing friendships to get a hold of just one more drink.
“I really did become a person I never wanted to be, I don’t know that Olivia anymore,” the 22-year-old UF telecommunication fifth-year said. “Anything I cared about sort of went out the window.”
It started for Kabat back in her freshman semester, Summer B 2013, she said. The very first night of the term, she and her roommates walked out of their Springs Residential Complex dorm and made their way to a party they heard about on Fraternity Row.
Kabat said she had alcohol before, back home in Land O’ Lakes, Florida, with high school friends at sleepovers and hangouts — but never before like that first Summer night, never drunk, she said.
That’s when she felt the rush, the closure she sought being away from home and not knowing anyone at UF.
“I went from zero to 100,” she said. “I felt like, ‘Holy crap, I found it.’ My social anxiety vanished, I just felt good about myself.”
From there, the cycle continued through freshman and sophomore year. She quickly began to suffer from the disease of addiction, she said.
Though she denied it to herself at the time, deep down she feared she couldn’t stop. She saw herself missing class the morning after a night of being out and losing touch with old friends and family back home, she said.
She tried confronting herself in the Summer of 2015. With a tiny blue planner she bought to organize her thoughts and ambitions, she set her first goal.
“Try to stop drinking for 30 days,” she wrote.
But it wasn’t enough, she said. She needed help.
Weeks later her parents gave her an ultimatum after she had a particularly bad episode drinking one night and set her up for treatment at the UF Health Florida Recovery Center, located at 4001 SW 13th St., where she stayed in rehab from July 2015 to January 2016, taking a break from her studies.
“The saying goes when you suffer, the whole family suffers,” she said. “I put them through the ringer.”
At UF, alcohol is the No. 1 substance students are using, but that’s not necessarily reflected at local recovery sites, said Larry McGee, a drug counselor at UF Health Florida Recovery Center.
It’s rare for students to admit to an alcohol problem, said McGee, who had his own struggles with a cocaine addiction between 2002 and 2007. People usually confront problems with alcohol much later in life, after being settled in their careers and marriages, sometimes as late as 50 to 60 years old, he said.
“In a college town certainly, more kids are abusing alcohol than anything else, but it doesn’t reach a level yet unless they get in some kind of trouble that they are willing to get some kind of help,” McGee, 58, said. “You try telling a young kid or college student that they’re an alcoholic — they don’t believe it.”
About 1,825 college students die an alcohol-related death nationally each year, primarily due to alcohol poisoning and car accidents caused by driving under the influence, said Dr. Jamie Smolen, a UF associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry.
Smolen, a practitioner at the UF Health Recovery Center, said the real source of danger for students drinking isn’t even the alcohol itself, but rather the binge drinking many students will engage in. About two-thirds of nationally surveyed students who said they drank in the last month reported binge drinking, he said.
“For some college students that’s no big deal, that’s routine for them,” he said. “They don’t even consider that to be dangerous or harmful to their brain or ability to perform well as students.”
McGee said kids don’t respond well when you try to frighten them about drugs. They need role models close to their age to not only show them the right way but to show support when things go bad.
“The scare tactics don’t work with the kids,” he said. “You can be cool, you can have a lot of fun without the dangers that lie with these (drugs).”
Recovery wasn’t a straight shot for Kabat.
She cried seeing students pass between classes when she walked on campus for the first time since she left rehab in January 2016. While life continued for the students around her, for Kabat, doubt engulfed her. Her rehab program had taught her to change her settings — the people, places and things around her. She felt she was abandoning her past life, the way she used to have fun at night, the people she used to hang out with.
On July 1, 2016, after being out of rehab for 6 months, she relapsed.
It was that night when she finally came to terms with where her addiction could lead her, even in the span a few short hours. It was that night she said she knew for sure, even after rehab, if she had a drink in her hand, she wasn’t in control. She said she’d never forget that date.
“That was the catalyst that finally got me to accept my truth,” she said.
Now, 14 months later, life for Kabat means keeping her family and friends close, reaching out to others she knows who may be falling on hard times and fighting back against the stigma that people with abuse disorders are bad people.
Recovery is not as easy as just going to rehab, she says openly.
She still calls her counselor. She still goes to meetings. She still uses her 12-step program and the recovery center regularly to help stay sober and in good health.
That’s why she said she’s so open about her own story, for the other young girls or students who may be suffering in the dark.
“Hope is alive, a new way of life is possible,” she said. “You just have to want it and let others help.”