When is the right time to return to college in recovery?


When is the right time to return to college in recovery?

After getting sober, one’s world opens up with possibilities. This can be an overwhelming experience in trying to determine what direction to head now that a multitude of avenues are available. Some people have a clear idea, but most of us have at least some level of uncertainty. In my opinion, this is one of the most important struggles that one goes through in early recovery. Now that I’m sober am I going to find a direction that I can feel passionate about working towards or is just getting sober enough?  In my experience, just getting sober is not enough to keep one on the path of recovery for the long term. We are either moving forwards, or we’re going backwards. There is no standing still. For me, deciding to go back to college in early recovery was a significant milestone in finding my own sense of direction and purpose.

To some, getting a degree may be the primary goal, and to others college is a stepping-stone to something they envision further ahead. In any circumstance, when returning to college in recovery, one always runs into the question of when is the right time to return to college? More specifically, am I ready, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally to go to college? As with any major life decision in early recovery, this is a complicated question to answer.  There are many factors that must be taken into account before taking this step. Some of the questions that need to be asked along the way are, “How will college affect my recovery program?”, “Will I have the necessary supports and community around me to help me when I have struggles?”  and “Do I have the skills needed to be successful in an academic setting?” The last question may be the most difficult one to answer. In much the same way that chronic substance use affects emotional development, one’s cognitive development has likely been affected too. This includes the ability to plan, make judgments, and be mentally flexible; skills that are essential to being successful in an academic environment.

Cognitive skills, often referred to as executive functioning, will return to a natural rate of development as a result of getting sober and working a recovery program. Most therapeutic interventions related to substance use also facilitate executive functioning development. If one has indications that they are still struggling cognitively, such as having difficulty planning or being overly impulsive, it may be wise to give oneself a little more time before staring college.

Personally speaking, I made the decision to go back to school when I was around six months sober. I had cultivated and become a part of a recovery community that was supportive of my growth and development as a person, and held me accountable. I felt the need to return to school and get a degree in Psychology, as the disease of addiction and working with people suffering from it was something that interested me greatly. I proceeded to seek feedback from the community around me. It was advised to me that I start with no more than two classes so as not to overwhelm myself and ensure that cognitively I was able to handle it. I followed this advice and have not looked back. College, though challenging, has opened up so many doors for me and helped me to grow and develop as a person. I know I would not have succeeded without the support of my community of peers. Balancing school and recovery is no easy task, and I was certainly not perfect at it. However, having the support, and accountability, of my brothers in recovery enabled me to succeed despite the challenges. Seeing me go back to school provided a catalyst for some of my friends to make the leap into academics.

The decision to return to college is a deeply personal one, and it is a decision that I would encourage every recovering individual to consider. Although we must rely on guidance from those around us when making this decision, most of us will already have some idea deep in our hearts as to whether it is the right move for us. “…we may face indecision. We may not be able to determine which course to take. Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision. We relax and take it easy. We don’t struggle. We are often surprised how the right answers come after we have tried this for a while.” Big Book, pg 86.

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