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Staying Sober, Reinventing Fun

Hillary Frank

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For some Americans, making holidays merry involves drinking beverages that make them feel more, well, merry. But for people in recovery, the holidays are sometimes a difficult time of hard earned sobriety. Some of those recovering from addictions this holiday season are young people. Augsburg College in Minneapolis has one of the country's few on-campus drug and alcohol recovery programs. It's called StepUP. The students don't just stay away from drugs - they have to make grades, go to 12-step meetings, and keep their residence hall clean. The idea is that relapse gets less tempting if recovering students can operate as a community. A few months ago, Weekend America's Hillary Frank brought us the story of one of StepUP's students. He asked us to use only his first name, Sam.


When Sam was applying to college, he filled out just a single application. And he chose Augsburg College in Minneapolis for only one reason: It was near his dealer.

Let's back up a bit.

Sam fell into addiction the same way they warned you about in junior high. At 11, he and his friends were sneaking beers from their parents' fridges. At 13, he started smoking marijuana with the older kids next door, then by himself before school. And at 17 things really escalated.

Sam was playing video games at his friend's house one day and his friend had some powdered cocaine. Sam looked at it, thinking, "I know it's bad, but when I see it right there, it looks pretty harmless to me." He and his buddies decided, let's all take our first bump. And as soon as that powder went up Sam's nose, he says, "It was just like, this is what God wanted for me."

With drugs, Sam could be dark. He was the sullen guy carving the Nine Inch Nails insignia into his desk. He was the guy who wrote deep, messed-up poetry. But he pretty much kept that side of himself secret. On face value, Sam was a jock: a football player, the captain of the basketball team. It was thrilling to think he had everyone fooled -- well, everyone except his mom. By the time he was in college at Augsburg, she knew something was terribly wrong. One day after a football game, she asked him to stop lying. He stared her down with what he calls his "cold eyes" and told her he wasn't lying. She started to cry.

Sam didn't want to deal with his mom. He had a party to go to with the other jocks. He was a big hit with them because he knew how to hook them up with whatever drugs they were into.

I wanted to see what Sam's old jock parties were like. So on a Friday night I headed to a house off campus, where I was told some Augsburg football players lived. The scene was pretty much what I remember of frat parties back when I was in college. Some girls in the living room were dancing -- and eventually falling over. Around them were some guys on couches, totally zoning out. A scrawny guy came up to me with an Absolut Citron bottle and offered me a "pull." Another kid put his arm around me and the football dudes pried him off, then tried to boot him out.

The next day I met up with Sam. I asked him where he would have fallen into the mix if he were at that party.

He thought about it for a minute, then smiled and said: "You know, the people falling over on the dance floor, the people sitting on the couch, the people throwing their arm around you? That could've very well been me in all those situations."

At first glance, Sam back in his drinking days might look exactly like your average college binge drinker. But there's a big difference between an addict and a non-addict, or "normie," as the addiction community calls them. A normie can walk away from a substance at any time, with no symptoms of withdrawal. But an addict keeps needing more. By sophomore year Sam was into prescription drugs like Vicodin and Adderall. He was doing poorly in school. But he perked up in his psychology class when his teacher brought up the concept of state-dependent learning.

Basically, that means if you learn something when you're intoxicated, you'll remember it better when you're intoxicated. One day Sam raised his hand and asked, "Wait, so does that mean if I study when I'm drunk, I should take the test drunk?" The other kids laughed, but Sam was dead serious. He did a little research and decided, yes, that's exactly what it means.

That's when Sam went nuts with Adderall.

"It was like, 'Oh, I don't need to sleep anymore,'" he told me. "'Oh, I can type 10-page papers the night before.'" Adderall also allowed him to smoke a huge amount of weed, which normally would have put him to sleep. He was high pretty much all the time.

And then, something happened that turned Sam's life around: Play Station 3 came out.

That's right, Play Station 3. There were some students at Augsburg offering people $250 to camp out at Best Buy for three days and wait for the systems to arrive. It was November. Single-digit weather. Sam showed up in a thin jacket and jeans. He didn't bring anything to sleep on.

The other thing Sam wasn't prepared for was the first 20 people in line being in StepUP, Augsburg's addiction recovery program. Sam knew about StepUP. His R.A. had once tried to get him to join the program after busting him for having a party in his room. At that time, Sam was not interested in sobriety -- he didn't even believe it was really possible.

And now, standing outside Best Buy, these StepUP kids were freaking him out. He was afraid they'd try and brainwash him. He'd go on little walks by himself and come back red-eyed. He'd down booze out of a Pepsi bottle.

Finally, one of the StepUP kids approached him. "Everyone knows you're high," he told Sam.

"What're you talking about?" Sam shot back defensively. "I'm not."

"Don't worry about it," the guy told him. "No one cares."

Sam looked at the StepUP kids. They were laughing, having barbecues. It was as if they were on vacation from school. Then Sam looked at himself. He was miserable. And he realized: "You know, these people are just like me. They're addicts and they're sober and they're loving life."

A couple months later, Sam went to the StepUP office. The director told him he'd need six months of sobriety before he could join the program. That meant another semester of living with his jock friends. Which gave Sam the rare opportunity to look in on his old life from the outside.

"I'd wake up and smell pot," he says. "Beer cans everywhere. Obviously someone puked in my sink. People were just lying half-naked on the floor."

Sam was appalled. But if this wasn't how he was going to spend his free time, what would he do instead? His new friends in StepUP gave him some advice. For starters, they said: "Don't hang out in your room."

"Well, where else would I be?" Sam wondered. Then it occurred to him: "Oh yeah, the college has a library. I've never been there before."

Sam spent a lot of time in the library. And getting tutored by teachers. Remember state-dependent learning? Sam had been intoxicated when he'd learned how to be a college student, even a high school student. Reading, writing, studying -- he had to re-learn all of it sober. He says his proofreading skills still aren't where they used to be when he was high.

Sam had to re-learn how to have fun, too. He started getting into new things. Things the old Sam would've thought were totally lame. Things like classical music.

When Sam got sober, he got a job stacking dishes in the school cafeteria. After work, he'd go over to the out-of-tune baby grand in the dining hall. He has no musical training, but he taught himself to play the first nine measures of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." The way he did that is pretty remarkable. He'd put one ear on top of the piano, have an earphone from his iPod in the other.

The activity that takes up most of Sam's time now, the thing he loves to do most, started as an attempt to fight off a craving. Someone he knew was going to see a play called "Circle Around the Island" at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Sam figured: "Why not? It'll keep me distracted."

Back then, Sam had trouble focusing on anything for very long -- but he completely lost himself in this play. As soon as it ended, he shot up out of his seat and applauded like crazy. He was hooked.

Since then, Sam has gotten a job as an usher at the Guthrie. He figures he's seen around 80 plays since that first one. He especially likes tragedies, like Chekov's "The Seagull."

"I was depressed into my toes in that show," he told me. "And it's just like, there's this powerful, powerful feeling that brings me right back to the most wretched times in my life."

Sam knows it sounds strange to say that he loves tragedies because they make him feel so horrible.

"But at the same time," he says, "to see the curtain fall, the lights to black out, it's just an instant sense of relief. It's a beautiful reminder that that's not my life anymore."


Hillary Frank's original story about Sam ran on our March 29, 2008 show. Since then he has become a senior at Augsburg College. Hillary Frank checked in with Sam to see how life was going.


Hillary Frank: I understand you're an RA now in the sober dorm at Augsburg.

Sam: Yes.

Frank: Since you're living on a recovery floor, you're probably not dealing with raging parties. But I know you used to be the source of those raging parties in other dorms. And RAs, I think, used to be your nemeses. What's it like to be in the shoes of your former nemesis?

Sam: It's taught me a lot of humility. And I try to be the leader I wanted to see. If I was in their position, how would I ask the RA to deal with me? It's something I'm working on. Because give an alcoholic a little bit of power, they'll take it a long way. As much as I used to hate the man, I'm kind of becoming one.

Frank: Are you still really into tragedies?

Sam: I'm writing a tragedy, so yes. But I've also learned that as I've matured I don't need as much tragedy on stage or in my life. Because I would watch a tragedy ten times at the Guthrie and lately I've found two will suffice. I don't need to feel heartbroken like that too many times.

Frank: When is your two year anniversary of sobriety?

Sam: God willing, I'll have two years of continuous sobriety January 7. And I'll be in New York City for that time.

Frank: So it's really soon.

Sam: Yeah.

Frank: Do you plan on celebrating any particular way?

Sam: One thing I'd like to celebrate for myself is to reflect. I'm a daily journal writer. I like to turn the pages back in my journal. It's this very humbling experience to turn the pages back and be like: This is where you were at 12 months ago, this is where you were at 18 months ago.

Frank: So we're coming up on New Year's Eve, the drinkiest day of the year.

Sam: I imagine.

Frank: And it's just a week before your two year anniversary of sobriety. How do you feel about New Year's Eve?

Sam: Well, it's no coincidence that my sober anniversary is a week after New Year's cause that was the resolution, and it took me a week to start it in 2007. I mean, I don't want to put New Year's Eve on too much of a pedestal. But it's something to take into account. It's like, what is my motivation putting myself in Times Square on New Year's Eve?

Frank: That's where you're gonna be?

Sam: That's where I'm going to be.

Frank: Really?!

Sam: Practice what I preach, right? But yeah, there's drinking every night of the year. Especially on New Year's, I agree. But if I'm in the right headspace, and with the support of other recovering alcoholics I think I'll be all right.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Lynn Mari

    From MN, 09/09/2010

    A fun place to go dancing or hang out that is TOTALLY alcohol-free is the Spirit of Sobriety (SOS) Social Club in Oakdale, MN. SOS offers weekly AA meetings, dance classes, karaoke, pool, potluck and dance parties on the weekends. Its open to all ages, most events are family friendly. They have a great selection of music to dance to and the volunteers are really friendly.

    You can find SOS at: 1417 Helmo Ave North...Hwy 694, 10th St Exit, behind the movie theater in Oakdale Plaza or http://www.sos2400.org. (651) 735-2400.

    I really love SOS, its a great place to hang out and meet new people...while staying sober :)

    By Alice C

    From Berkeley, CA, 01/24/2009

    I'm never one to leave comments, but I really want to tell Sam... Kudos my friend! Your courage is beyond my imagination. Best of luck with everything, especially the tragedy you're writing.

    By Rina Joye Bly (Finley)

    From Lewiston, ID, 01/09/2009

    I'm so happy for you. My alcoholic father abused me as a child and for many years I gravitated toward men with alcohol and drug addiction. It's hard to watch the self-destruction especially when you care about the person. Just knowing you need to change is great and to come out on the other side like you have is amazing.

    By Laura Fenske

    From Dover, MN, 01/07/2009

    CONGRATULATIONS SAM.......we are all proud of you down here in Eyota....you know who I am talking about!!!!!!!!!

    By Malory E

    From Eyota, MN, 01/07/2009

    Can't tell you how proud and excited I am for you! I would love to get to know the new sam!! ::prayers:: buddy :)

    By Elizabeth Patten

    From MN, 01/05/2009

    I went to high school with your sister. I just commented on her blog that I am praying for you as you approach your 2 year mark! I am so glad that you realized that you needed to change. And life will be so much sweeter for knowing where you could have been. Sunshine always looks brighter when it breaks through the clouds. Stick with it. Stay sober and clean and Enjoy life!

    By Nate M

    From Eyota, MN, 12/31/2008

    Here's one thing he would never expect to here from me. Congrats man. You do what you need to do. I've known you for a good long while I would say. Maybe we think a little different. I still support you 100%. Keep going man.

    By Callie MacDonell

    From Minneapolis, MN, 12/28/2008

    Congrats on almost 2 years of sobriety Sam! I'd love to read some of your tragedies. I'll see you at the Guthrie. Have fun in New York!

    By Cody L

    From Oceanside, CA, 12/27/2008

    I grew up with Sam since pre-school and haven't been able to see him except for once or twice since we've graduated but we keep in contact. I am very proud of what he has done for himself.

    By Levi L

    From Minneapolis, MN, 12/27/2008

    Nice story man. I remember coming back from winter break two years ago and you said you were sober, and I was like,
    Even for us non-sober folks it can be a point of interest.

    By Dominic Schaeffer

    From Saint Louis, MO, 12/27/2008

    You sound really good, Sam. Fresh enough to sobriety to revel in the gifts it brings (which are plenty), but strong enough to realise that, where ever you go, booze and drugs are probably close by, and that New Years Eve is indeed just another night.

    Thanks to being sober, there is NOTHING you can't do!

    I'll have 21 year "under my belt" on Jan. 1st 2009 but I still remember the emptiness I felt that NYE in 1988 that made me say-"I'm done!" and attend my first AA meeting the next morning.

    Even today if my head hits the pillow and I haven't taken a drink or drug- even on the worst of days- I have been a success.

    You have a lot of great days ahead of you, Sam... Enjoy!

    By sober dood


    Yo Sam, Im proud of you man, Ive been sober for 2 months, and have been a drunk drug addict for twenty years! Its stories like yours that keep me going towards my new life of sobriety!! One Love and Peace.

    By Deanna Constans

    From Eyota, MN, 04/11/2008

    I live in Sam's hometown. I hope he continues to work towards recovery. This is an inspiring story and I wish more students would hear about the where the life of drugs and alcohol can take you. Keep up the good work, Sam.

    By Joshua Groll

    From Minneapolis, MN, 03/31/2008

    I live at that house that you were at and remember speaking to you. It is quite impressive the turn around that sam has made. I have known him since before he went into step up and the turnaround has been incredible. However, i would just like to defend my house because i feel as if we were made out to be a bunch of druggie alcoholics. That is not at all the case. We simply like to have a good time, but none of us take it too far. Truthfully, most of our parties involve guys sitting around having a few beers watching sportscenter while the girls all play drinking games together

    By Leah Omar

    From Brooklyn Center, MN, 03/31/2008

    So proud of you Sam.

    By teresa olson

    From IL, 03/31/2008

    OH Sam, if I had known of this I would've hugged you extra hard at Easter! thanks for sharing your story -as a mother of someone your age I am always anxious for my son and his friends. Peter(your cousin) will read this too, and think about it ALOT. Love and hugs and prayers to you, Aunt Teresa

    By Taylor Olson

    From Winona, MN, 03/30/2008

    My dad had me read this article and I had no idea who this Sam was until i read my uncle's comment (Mark Olson). Sam is my cousin and I had no idea about it either until now. Now I know why he always would tell to me dont do drugs.I thought it was odd because thats not a thing your cousin would always come up to you and say. But, good job Sam.

    By Boomer Olson

    From Winona, MN, 03/30/2008

    I heard the story on MPR yesterday and did not make the connection to you.What struck me most while listening was your comment that drugs were "What God wanted for me" We all have our demons that we battle. For the first time in my 54 years I am reading the bible from cover to cover to help me understand what "God expects from me". Life is indeed a challenging journey and I pray you are now on the right path. Take care. Love Uncle Boomer

    By Mark Olson

    From Hilo, HI, 03/29/2008

    Sam is my nephew. I didn't know of his struggles, but I've been there myself and know the journey. He seems to be well on the way and I can only offer encouragement and support for the journey.

    By m lisa


    Interesting story, however, it's "Adderall" not "Adirol"

    By Every mom

    From Eyota, MN, 03/29/2008

    I speak for every mom - we know when our children are in pain. I raised my children to 'know your true north' Sam has found his and has a wonderful future ahead of him. Congratulations.

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