Garrett Hendrickson places a photograph of a 23-year-old man on an altar filled with drawings, letters and a Care Bear. The friend in the photo died last December from a heroin overdose and is now one of the people being commemorated through this ofrenda.
Hendrickson, a neuroscience junior, is one of several UT students who has contributed to the ofrenda in the Center for Students in Recovery office, not only memorializing his friend, but also remembering his own life before sobriety. CSR program coordinator John Harris set up the office’s first ofrenda to celebrate Dia de los Muertos on Nov. 1.
“This ofrenda gives us an opportunity to not only remember those that we may have lost to addiction and drug and alcohol abuse, but it also gives us an outlet to pay tribute to the fact that for most of us, giving up drugs and alcohol went hand in hand with basically changing [our] whole [lives],” Hendrickson said. “I had to change the people I hung out with, the places I used to go — it was really just starting a new life.”
Harris used to teach at a school predominantly comprised of students of Mexican heritage, many of whom celebrated Dia de los Muertos by decorating sugar skulls and making ofrendas. After leaving the school, Harris decided to bring the tradition to CSR.
“[This] kind of reminder about who we were before we were able to break the bond of addiction reinforces why we are in recovery,” Harris said. “It’s a reminder of what it was like and how far we’ve come and how much progress we’ve made — who we are as people now versus who we were then.”
Hendrickson struggled with addiction while at UT and dropped out of school. Eventually, he was able to go into recovery and re-enroll at UT.
“It was really just the flip of a coin that it was him and not me,” Hendrickson said. “Having that as a visual representation on the ofrenda and seeing it every time I go by CSR really helps me grasp how grateful I am that I’m back at UT and back in school and that life is good today.”
According to Harris, it’s rare to find someone that’s in recovery from addiction that doesn’t know somebody who has died as a result of it. Like Hendrickson, UT alumna Milo Merritt also lost a loved one to addiction. She contributed a letter, a drawing and a plush Care Bear to commemorate her ex-boyfriend, who passed away from a drug overdose four years ago. The objects help her remember his life and their relationship.
“As far as this duality of before and after, I don’t see it as necessarily you becoming an entirely different person,” Merritt said. “You’re still having to reconcile with your past self, having to make amends, having to kind of renegotiate your life in sobriety. It’s definitely important to honor that part of yourself and that’s something that I try to do all the time. It’s part of who I am, it’s part of the journey that got me to where I am today.”
Hendrickson said the CSR helps him with his recovery process.
“It really gives you some mind support when you realize that you’re not alone with your drug and alcohol issues,” Hendrickson said. “I have a place that I can go where I know there’s going to be other people there who are dealing with similar issues.”