Trauma and Addiction in College
If you didn’t know how I spent the last four years of my life before returning to finish college, you probably wouldn’t have looked at me and thought, “she’s doomed to become addicted to heroin.” I had good grades, despite being a single mother—mostly As and a couple Bs. I was active and interested, even staging an original play in my free time. When I submitted several poems to the literary magazine they did not argue over whether to publish my work, but rather over which piece to publish. At the start of my senior year, I was elected president of the Seattle University Literary Committee, though my duties would fall to the wayside as addiction gradually consumed my life.
Home was another story. At home, I found myself drifting from my studies to contemplate suicide. At home, I spent less and less time with my son, opting to send him to family while I lost myself and my memories in a bottle, a pill, or a tin foil of heroin. At home, and in class, and everywhere, I felt the weight of the last four years bearing down on me with a suffocating and seemingly intractable force. I spent those years with my son’s biological father, and I experienced sexual abuse, beatings, seizure-inducing strangulation, kidnapping, lies, and constant fear. Without opioids, I was drowning in those four years. On opioids, I was—for a few moments—free.
I must have been an outlier, right? College culture might be flooded with alcohol and marijuana and maybe a line of cocaine here and there, but heroin? That’s not something we associate with kids smart and driven enough to get into college. But empirical evidence has repudiated the notions that drug use and addiction are indicators of low intelligence, moral failure, or mental weakness, despite the stereotypes. Addiction to heroin and other opioids is, instead, strongly correlated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and similar mental health issues. An estimated 67 to 84 percent of new college students have a history of trauma, with some studies finding as many as 17 percent with signs of PTSD. That’s not including students with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or a personality disorder; all conditions that have a high comorbidity with substance use.