At 18 years old, UCF student Alexander Lewis tried heroin for the first time, although he had already started using other drugs at the young age of 14.
“One of the guys lived in my neighborhood, and we would smoke pot and drink [alcohol] together,” Lewis said. “Eventually we got into snorting pills, which led to learning how to use a needle on my 16th birthday — shooting pills and then heroin.”
Lewis, junior psychology major and president of Sober Knights, describes being addicted to heroin as “hollow” and “hopeless.” He said while he was on drugs, he was “brain piloting a person.” It didn’t matter what happened to his body as long as he got high. That is the feeling he remembers most vividly from his days of addiction, he said.
Sober Knights is a social gathering at 8 p.m. on Thursday nights at Research Park for students who are either in recovery or prefer not to be around substances or others under the influence.
“All of my friends stopped associating with me toward the end of high school because it started to get extreme," Lewis said. "I was shooting up at school and nodding out in class."
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, 37 percent of college students have used an illicit drug in college.
Besides heroin, other mind-altering substances like alcohol and marijuana play a large part in substance abuse among college students as well.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that four out of five college students drink alcohol, with three-quarters of this population being under the legal drinking age. According to a survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and written about in an article by Foundations Recovery Network, 47 percent of college students have tried marijuana at least once, with 30 percent admitting to using marijuana in the past year.
Jason Ford, an associate professor in the sociology department at UCF, researches risk factors associated with the use of alcohol or binge drinking among college students.
Ford said he has discovered a few main trends of substance abuse. On average, males drink more alcohol than females, and white students drink more alcohol than nonwhite students, he said.
Ford also found that binge drinking is more common among students involved in fraternities, sororities and athletics than those not, while students who binge drink are more likely to use other drugs and engage in a variety of health-risk behaviors.
"[Substance abuse] is not necessarily a measure of drunkenness," Ford said. "Rather, it is a pattern of drinking that increases the risk of negative outcomes, such as criminal involvement, criminal victimization, unintentional injuries, bad grades, arguments with friends or family and sexual risk-taking."
According to data from a 2017 study done by Monitoring the Future, roughly 33 percent of college students reported binge drinking at least once during the past two weeks.
Thomas Hall, associate director of the Medical Health Administration with Student Health Services, works with UCF's College of Medicine to develop substance abuse prevention strategies, according to Student Health Services.
Hall said the media plays a significant role in stereotyping substance abuse, which can lead students to view substance use as beneficial or fun.
“Ironically, on one hand the media and popular culture stigmatizes substance abuse as a moral failing," Hall said. "The public is familiar with depictions of disheveled or dangerous 'addicts.' On the other hand, references are easy to find that portray drug users as edgy, cool or sophisticated.”
Hall also said stigma and bias play a role in addiction and recovery.
“Alcohol has less of a moral or criminal undercurrent when compared with illicit drugs," Hall said. "And dependence on prescription drugs is less stigmatized than heroin or cocaine.”
As substance abuse continues to be a prominent issue in the lives of college students, the effort to reduce and prevent student substance abuse has increased, according to the Center on Addiction. Methods for prevention include the banning of smoking, inclusion of drug screenings, education in substance abuse and substance-free recreational events.
Lewis said the recovery process for him started after hitting rock bottom.
“I did not plan to live past 21," Lewis said. "And I lived my life as such.”
Lewis said he was sober for four months before he decided to give recovery a shot. In January 2014, he went to jail three times in one month and spent about 40 days there combined. Lewis said after jail, his judge would only release him on the condition he went “door-to-door” from jail to rehab, entering recovery as soon as he was released.
“For my entire stay in jail, my 30 days in the first rehab [center] and about 30 in my second rehab [center], I was trying to get high,” Lewis said. “Night and day, I would try to get any kind of substance I could just to not feel like myself.”
Lewis said 30 days into his second shot at rehab, he was robbed for $20 while trying to buy heroin in downtown Orlando on the street.
“I sat on the curb and realized that while I did not want to live, pursuing drugs the way I did made me stupid, and I couldn't handle that,” Lewis said.
After getting robbed, Lewis started to attend 12-step meetings and entered into recovery. His clean date is the day of his last arrest — Jan. 23, 2014. Lewis’ rehab program lasted nine months. He said he has come a long way since then.
“Long-term recovery from addiction is built on honesty and courage,” Hall said. “Listening to the stories of people in recovery and trying to understand their experiences through their lens is not only more supportive, but [also] demonstrates efforts to overcome an inherent sense of privilege.”
Other resources UCF offers for substance abuse include Collegiate Recovery Community, thePoint After Dark and Compass. ThePoint After Dark is a weekly party for students that offers an alternative to going to bars or clubs, while Compass is a meeting for students in the Collegiate Recovery Community to discuss their recovery process in their everyday lives.
The UCF chapters of Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon provide safe spaces for students in recovery — as well as their families and friends — to discuss substance abuse.
Lewis said on an institutional level, he is working on a professional mentorship program for students in recovery along with a book scholarship that will help students pay for textbooks. He said he hopes Sober Knights can be a powerful support network and encourages students struggling with addiction to overcome feelings of shame.
“You aren't as bad a person [as] you think you are, and you deserve a life worth living,” Lewis said. “Don’t let your addiction define you.”