Young and sober: A thriving movement provides support for clean living in Madison

On a frigid December day in 2004, 17-year-old Aaron Meyer came home from drug and alcohol treatment. He'd already been to hell and back in his short life, but things were going to be different now. He felt alive with hope and possibility.

Inspired by what recovery looked like, Aaron's dad, Tom, quit drinking too. The two talked about what Aaron would do next, and he realized he was too old to live at home. But as a recovering addict, he was afraid to live alone while his friends partied their way through college. He talked about renting a house to live with other guys in recovery, where they could still feel a part of that post-high school experience but have each other for support.

Just five months later, Aaron -- clean and sober -- was killed in a car accident while driving to pick up a fellow recovering friend for a job interview.

"I was broken," Tom says, quietly. "Absolutely broken."

Tom was left robbed, raging and grieving -- but he was barely five months sober himself, and so he knew he needed to keep moving forward because his own life depended on it. The lives of Aaron's mom and brother depended on it. And one way he could keep Aaron's spirit close was to take that horrific end and make it a beginning for the sake of all the other recovering guys like them.

On Aug. 15, 2007, Aaron's House opened its doors. It was a result of efforts by Tom; Aaron's mom, Cathy; a newly formed foundation; and volunteer labor. Located on the near east side, Aaron's House has since been home to more than two dozen young men, four at a time, and only after they've achieved at least 90 days of sobriety. These guys are free to come and go as they please, but they must work with the live-in house mentor on their customized "lifestyle plans," which incorporate education, work, service and recovery meetings. It's neither a treatment center nor a halfway house; it's a place for young men in transition who are committed to living a life of recovery but need each other to get it done.

"We're the ones who can help the person who is ready to help themselves," says Tom. "It's a person who says, 'I value my sobriety and I will go to any lengths.'"

In the midst of a terrifying heroin epidemic and Madison's notoriety as one of the worst binge-drinking college towns in the country, it's easy to overlook the trend of young adults living clean and sober lives here. But Aaron's House has proved a successful model, and the local recovery movement is thriving.

In August 2013, Connect House, an unaffiliated women's residence, opened its doors nearby. This fall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Pres House apartments will launch Next Step Recovery Community. Over on the church side, Pres House hosts a brand-new 12-step meeting started by a fledgling student group called Live Free. Right out of the gates, at Tom's urging, Live Free secured a $10,000 grant from the Stacie Mathewson Foundation, a nationwide organization dedicated to creating "collegiate recovery" communities.

Each of these mini-movements is independent and separate, though the key players' paths cross regularly in critical ways. And almost always, Tom's -- and Aaron's -- footprints are right there.

Working on Aaron's House -- cleaning, painting, rebuilding, moving guys in -- gave Tom a productive way to sweat through some of the worst of his unimaginable grief. It also lit a spark in him. Although he in no way intended to make Aaron the poster child for any kind of recovery movement -- that's not what Aaron would have wanted then and that's not what Tom wants now -- he was chillingly aware of just how common their family's struggle was. And he wanted to be part of finding a solution for others.

Already in recovery

"It's been an intense time around this field of work lately -- boy, whew," says Shelly Dutch, founder of Connections Counseling, where UW-Madison refers students it identifies as having a problem with alcohol or drugs. "Just a lot of people struggling."

Dutch knows stories like Aaron's all too well. Actually, she knows Aaron's story intimately -- he was once a student at Horizon High School, where she is a founding board member. Horizon is one of only two "recovery high schools" in Wisconsin. Complete with a director, lead teacher, alcohol and drug counselors, and part-time outreach director, the school opened about 10 years ago and now sits just down the block from Connections on University Avenue. It has contracts with Madison, Middleton and other area school districts.

"The reason we started Horizon was that kids would go to inpatient treatment, then come back and try to mainstream into the university or high schools, and it was such a tough transition," says Dutch. "Recovery is hard enough when you're an adult and you have some support."

What's apparent to Dutch is that, while UW-Madison has systems in place for assessing students in need, there wasn't much for those who arrived on campus already in recovery. University Health Services' Amy Margulies agrees.

"We provide prevention, intervention and referral services. When somebody presents us with a real need for treatment, we're going to get them connected as best we can," says Margulies. "But we don't currently have services we provide to students who are in recovery."

But University Health Services listened when Tom Meyer, members of Connections Counseling and a handful of students got together to talk about potential solutions in the spring of 2013. From there the Live Free student organization was born. An official group like Live Free is a big deal, says Margulies, because the natural ebb and flow of students has made it hard to sustain recovery efforts.

"It really validates the fact that Madison is a great city for people in recovery, despite Wisconsin's reputation for excessive substance use," says Margulies.

She credits Meyer and other recovering adults for helping spark these efforts, but she stresses this movement is student-led -- a critical distinction that Dutch values as well. When Dutch started Connections Counseling 20 years ago she served no college students, only teenagers. Now her staff of 25 works with approximately 300 adults, aged 18 to 30, many of whom stay on to mentor other recovering young people.

"These kids, who are so cool and awesome, really embrace their own recovery," Dutch says. "They're reaching out more, they're dispelling the myths, and they're celebrating recovery. I think the energy right now of young people is probably prime to keep taking this to the next level where we increase housing, we increase services, we increase groups on campus and social activities, as well as service opportunities in recovery."

Connections Counseling uses a mentorship model because it works so well. One of their mentors, Alan Nyberg, is also the Wisconsin chapter leader for a nationwide movement called Young People in Recovery and now the live-in mentor at Aaron's House. Another chapter member and Connections Counseling mentor is 32-year-old Caroline Miller, who, after attending sober events at Aaron's House, thought: "There needs to be a home just like this for women."

A house of their own

Caroline Miller suffered from drug and alcohol addiction in high school and had already been through treatment by the time she arrived at UW-Madison. There she continued to struggle with maintaining sobriety in part, she says, due to a lack of recovery support on campus.

"I tried to stay sober through college here and really struggled. I felt very alone," she says. "I had no idea that there were other young people who wanted to be sober and were in recovery. I had no idea about the resources out there. I certainly didn't have a place to live with other women in recovery, and I felt really isolated. Now I want to be able to help provide what I didn't have."

About three years ago, Miller got involved with Connections Counseling, attending support groups there and mentoring others. Then, impressed by the Aaron's House example, Miller let Dutch know she wanted to create something similar for women; Dutch told her about another woman looking to do the same thing.

In October 2012, Miller, Elisabeth Rice Lex and Heidi Hastings began seriously planning a sober living facility based on Aaron's House. In August 2013, Connect House was born.

"We really want to be more than just a place for people to live in sobriety," says Miller. "We want it to be a transition point, a place where women can grow and really examine 'What do I want out of my life? What are my goals? What do I need to get there?'"

Jenna and Amanda, who asked that their last names not be used, are two of the current Connect House residents. It's a five-bedroom house off campus like so many others, made cozy with plants, space heaters, afghans and camaraderie.

"I didn't want to live alone because I was afraid I wasn't going to stay sober if I did, but when I was looking into other halfway houses, they seemed really rough," says Amanda, who is not a student. It's important to her that people know this, because so many of the people she partied with at her worst were young, non-student Madisonians.

Amanda finds the home healthy and nurturing. "It feels like the board and the staff really care and want us to succeed."

For Jenna, a UW student, her past life on campus was a chaotic blur of blackouts and detox. Yet, at the time, it never occurred to her that her problems revolved around alcohol and drugs.

"Alcohol was definitely everywhere, and every weekend there was somebody to go out with, and it just seemed so normal," she says. "And I couldn't even tell the difference between an alcoholic and a normal drinker. That just wasn't on my radar."

Both girls are now more than a year clean and sober, and they're increasingly aware that there are others out there like them. Both regularly attend recovery meetings, and Jenna was one of the founding members of Live Free on campus.

"Getting involved in campus life when you're an addict or an alcoholic, or whatever you want to call yourself, is not easy," says Jenna. "This is about having a known community that generates interest and gives people a safe place to go and learn about recovery." It's also a place to learn about resources in the area, she adds.

Ginger Morgan, director of residential community at Pres House apartments, first read about Aaron's House in Brava magazine and took Tom Meyer out for coffee to ask if he thought more recovery housing was needed. He said yes. Morgan pitched the idea to her boss, who secured a private donation for the program. Next Step Recovery Community will open in the fall semester at Pres House apartments.

"I do think that students in recovery at UW and area colleges may have felt a certain kind of invisibility," says Morgan. "And with community partners, both the university and nonprofits, stepping forward, the students have since felt an increased level of confidence and excitement about Madison becoming a place where students in recovery would consider coming. Because there's a vibrant and vital community here to support them."

Visible sobriety

Vanessa is a 26-year-old UW student in long-term recovery, finally set to graduate this December with a double major in communications and gender and women's studies. It's still crazy for her to think about the way she once lived, the depths to which she sunk and the hopelessness she thought she'd never escape. But she's now immersed in the local recovery movement and fired up to help push it forward.

"For me, what's at the heart of it is awareness-raising and stigma-reduction," says Vanessa. "And hopefully advocating for more resources for people who find themselves in this situation."

A partier in high school, Vanessa became addicted to oxycodone before she even knew what it was -- essentially, expensive heroin in a pill. When her parents drove her from her home state of Massachusetts to school at the UW, they had no idea she was detoxing, trying so hard to quit on her own. It didn't take.

"I really struggled through my freshman year, drinking copious amounts and using opiates when I could. Just not knowing that there were other people like me. I felt very, very alone."

Over the next five years, Vanessa bounced in and out of school, unable to get solid footing on her addiction. Twice University Health Services referred her to Connections Counseling, where she at least got to know a few other kids her age in recovery. There's so much she can't remember now, but she remembers vividly how hard it was just to get started. Today, sober 15 months, Vanessa devotes a solid portion of her day-to-day life to recovery.

"I think a shared goal for a lot of us is to have a mentorship situation, where we can be that person who will sit down with someone who's just coming out of that dark place," says Vanessa. She says it's helpful to accompany others to meetings and counseling appointments.

"I really needed handholding at that time," she recalls. "I really felt like the bad kid. I felt like I had this secret."

Things took off for her when she got a phone call from Caroline Miller, whom she'd never met, asking if she'd like to join Young People in Recovery. The two women, along with Jenna from Connect House, started writing the constitutions and bylaws and created the registered Live Free student organization. For Vanessa, the student group can not only provide support, but also remove some of the shame and secrecy that so often shrouds recovery efforts.

"Visible sobriety is something we really want to be a part of," she says. "Just being able to be out there, as sober people. I didn't know that recovery happened. And maybe I wouldn't have even wanted it back then, but here's the thing: It plants the seed for somebody."

And one seed can be powerful.

"It was [Aaron Meyer's] idea to live with other guys in recovery, go to school or their jobs, see their counselors," says Miller. "And from Aaron's idea came this wonderful model for peer support, and now there's Connect House, Pres House and all of these things unfolding. So really, the impact one young person in recovery can have is just unbelievable."