Editor's Note: This is one part in a series about students and mental health. To check out the other stories, click here.
Benjamin H. Batjer barely survived his heroin addiction. Now, nine months sober, he gets good grades as an economics senior at St. Edwards, has a job at a life insurance company and enjoys getting dinner with his older sister once a week.
“My life is good — a lot better than it was a year ago,” Batjer said.
This time last year, Batjer woke up in the hospital with no idea of how he’d got there. He was surprised to see his parents, who told him he had suffered a seizure due to heroin use and was lucky to be alive.
They laid down an ultimatum: Batjer could commit to a rehabilitation program, or they were cutting him off financially. He chose to go to a sober living home, a housing facility free from alcohol or drugs where people trying to maintain sobriety can live for months at a time.
Even after Batjer underwent detox and lived in the sober living house for three months, he still didn’t feel prepared to cut his substance abuse habits.
“I wasn’t ready to be there yet,” Batjer said. “I ended up getting some more heroin, thinking I could do it a couple times and everything would be fine.”
Batjer’s persistent habit did not form overnight. As a teenager, he became addicted to prescription medications such as Vicodin and Xanax. When Batjer was 20, he found a cheaper alternative — heroin. Batjer’s trajectory is not unusual; Nearly half of young adults who inject heroin said they were initially addicted to opioids, which doctors use to treat pain, before using heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
While he was addicted to heroin, Batjer said he felt completely isolated. He said he got high in order to go to school then came immediately home afterwards. He had no friends and felt alienated from his family. His life revolved around drugs.
“I lived in my own little fantasy world,” Batjer said. “Every day, I was calling my dad coming up with the stupidest excuses, trying to get money to get some drugs. I think he knew.”
It was only after Batjer ended up in the hospital again that he finally wanted to stop his drug use. He said that once he decided to stop, quitting felt relatively easy.
“I realized there was a better way to live,” Batjer said. “I didn’t want to be the 25-year-old guy who doesn’t wake up from a heroin overdose.”
To recover, Batjer had to make lifestyle changes only partially related to his heroin use, such as attending the UT Center for Students in Recovery. Most rehabilitation programs recommend patients avoid all addictive substances, including alcohol, after going clean. Batjer said his biggest struggle was not giving up heroin but accepting that he would not be able to go downtown and drink.
“That was the hardest thing about it — trying to make the decision that I can’t just be a normal drinker. I can’t just be like everybody else,” Batjer said.
Sierra Castedo, the director for the UT Center for Students in Recovery, said scientists can easily explain the physiological roots of addiction, but there is relatively little research on addiction rehabilitation.
“We know a lot about how addiction works in the brain and the consequences of long-term drug use adjacent to addiction,” Castedo said. “We don’t know a lot about what happens in that healing process.”
One theory is that as young adults begin to take on more responsibilities, such as committed relationships or employment, their attitudes toward drugs begin to change. They are more likely to seek help for their addiction problems and less likely to act impulsively, according to a study in the American Journal of Sociology.
While no one knows exactly why this shift occurs, Batjer said he is grateful for it.
“Everyone around me is saying how proud they are of me, which is great,” Batjer said. “But when I got back to Austin about six months ago, I was driving to work one day, and I just started laughing. I realized that I was proud of myself.
If you or someone you know would like to talk to someone about addiction or other mental health concerns, contact the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center at (512) 471-3515 or click here to find out more about CMHC's resources.