Some of the names in this article have been changed to ensure the privacy of the individual
The room is silent, a circle of chairs sit facing each other. In them is a variety of faces. Male, female, older, younger. Suddenly, a voice emerges to break the deafening silence. This person speaks with confidence and poise, but the subject matter is far less comfortable.
Their name will remain anonymous but their identity is not important. Their message should be what commands attention because it is a far too common one. After finishing their thoughts, another voice is quick to chime in and offer support and an anecdote of their own. The struggle being passionately described does not choose sides or discriminate. Alcoholism exists everywhere and it can be a in the life of anyone.
The event described here is an average weekly meeting that takes place in Naugle Hall at Shippensburg University. If you have never heard of these meetings, you are not alone. The group did not start meeting until the spring semester of 2017 and has only grown slightly since then. They do not have many methods of advertising, but you might be familiar with their unusual 10:37 p.m. meeting time.
Thomas T., the chairman of these on-campus meetings, understands that the group is not well known. Ever since committing his life to recovery, Thomas has been focused on providing his fellow students with an outlet if they find themselves in a battle with alcohol addiction.
“All of the meetings I went to in the beginning were all in town,” Thomas said. “That worked great and it still does, but I just thought there should really be something on campus for other students going through what I was going through.”
This desire to help is not exclusive to students, however. Just like any other meeting, the on-campus group is open to non-students.
Tyler said most people in recovery will choose to attend a handful of meetings during the week. The on-campus meetings take place every Friday, but there are others that can be found throughout the week in Shippensburg.
Even if the meetings are not exclusive to students, there are benefits to having a mixed crowd. Thomas discussed the convenience of having a few AA veterans around when he was trying to get his meetings off the ground. Just because the meeting was created to help students does not mean they are the only people who can attend.
The older attendees provide some much appreciated guidance and a mature perspective for the younger crowd, which might be new to sobriety. However, it is clear that nothing separates an 18-year-old and a 50-year-old when you step foot into a meeting. Everyone understands that they are there for similar reasons and that they can help each other navigate the journey to sobriety.
After taking about half a semester to get off the ground, Thomas’ meetings have been running smoothly but increasing attendance is still one of the biggest points of interest.
“Maybe people just didn’t know about it,” Thomas said in reference to the meetings. “Or they were just like me and they kept pushing it off thinking ‘maybe I can do it on my own.’”
Either way, Thomas just wants anyone out there who may be struggling to know that these meetings exist.
There are a few factors contributing to low attendance, but Thomas believes that a negative stigma surrounding students and alcohol is partially to blame. Many students with drinking problems will ignore resources like an AA meeting because they have been told that excessive drinking is just a part of college.
“I saw a lot of people making the same mistakes I was [in college] and that kind of helped me continue,” Thomas said. “I thought everyone was doing it and that kind of mindset can be dangerous for someone like me.”
Overcoming this stigma will not be easy, and Thomas knows he will not be able to help the Shippensburg community conquer it any time soon. Yet there are some encouraging signs elsewhere on campus. The biggest is the Etter Health Center, located in the same building as the on-campus meetings.
Dayna Geary is one of seven certified staff counselors at the Etter Health Center on campus who provide support to the university’s student population. When it comes to the negative stigma described by Thomas, Geary said she can see that in her line of work.
At the same time, the student counseling center exists to combat that stigma.
“Students do come in often,” Geary said in reference to the frequency of patients. “But they are experiencing other problems academically or within their relationships.”
Geary said a good number of students with addictions do not come in exclusively looking for help with substance abuse. In her experience, there are more students who will come in for an unrelated issue but discover that alcohol or drugs are only exacerbating the problem.
Since moving into their current location in Naugle Hall in 2013, the counseling center has seen a steady rise in patients. This past spring semester saw more than 350 different patients walk through the center’s doors. Not all of them are there for help with an addiction, but this increase shows that Shippensburg students are willing to seek professional help instead of just trying to deal with it on their own. In time, the on-campus AA meetings could see a similar rise in popularity.
“We are always here,” Thomas said. “And the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking.”