Junior Syd Danziger vividly remembers the day they decided to stop drinking alcohol, only a few months before they started school at Elon University in fall 2020.
Danziger, who uses they and them pronouns, sat alone in their bedroom closet and drank a bottle of wine, which led to a blackout and a broken rib. This was the turning point for Danziger — who now serves as the president of Elon’s collegiate recovery group, Phoenix Free.
“It only took a couple binge drinking moments to realize that I wasn’t going to live. If we were going to be in lockdown for weeks and weeks and months, I wasn’t going to live through it,” Danziger said. “I was going to end up dying, and I no longer wanted to do that. I wanted to live, and I wanted to live differently.”
Danziger said they began using alcohol and drugs as a teenager to escape trauma and bipolar disorder that wasn’t diagnosed until later in life.
They got sober at 20 years old and have never had a legal drink of alcohol. When they came to college in the fall of 2020, they were only four months sober.
“I didn’t know how to live, I didn’t know how to be sober and do well at school. I had to hit the ground running,” Danziger said. “I think that the only reason that I stayed was because I had to believe that there was something better.”
They found that through Phoenix Free, Elon University’s collegiate recovery group on campus, which welcomes students recovering from issues such as eating disorders and substance abuse. The group meets every week to discuss recovery and the challenges they face on campus.
Danziger said one of their biggest hurdles on campus is feeling isolated because they don’t drink.
“It can be a lonely existence to some degree. I think there’s a culture on Elon’s campus that in order to exist on the weekends, there must be a level of intoxication,” Danziger said. “I’ve definitely found healthier solutions for myself, but I feel like the odd man out. It’s a lonelier path to walk.”
Elon issues an annual policy notification to comply with Part 86 of the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act, stating the university recognizes the negative effects of alcohol misuse on the community, provides treatment resources and expects employees and students to abide by local, state and federal law.
Danziger said while Phoenix Free has provided them with a community of like-minded students, their social experience has been limited at times because of Elon’s drinking culture.
“It’s definitely something that I think it’s not for the faint of heart to be on Elon’s campus and to be recovering from substance use disorder or to be in a position where you just aren’t interested in drinking or using. It’s isolating,” Danziger said.
With a background in college-specific health and wellness, including sexual health and substance education, Collegiate Recovery Community Program Director Charlotte Williams said the issues that Elon students face are not unique to this campus, but access to substances may be more prevalent at Elon.
“The more financial means you have, you have more access to purchasing, not just anything, but in particular substances because that can be kind of a luxury to be able to afford, whether it be alcohol, drugs or other substances,” Williams said. “There’s just that pressure of fitting in, belonging and being able to do so in a way that you don’t have to be under the influence to make friends or to be in relationships or to connect.”
Williams said solving this problem starts with decreasing the stigma with allyship training for faculty and staff. She said stigma is prevalent when it comes to mental health. This includes substance use disorder, a mental health disorder that affects the person’s brain and behavior and causes an inability to control your substance use, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
In 2020, 24.4% of 18 to 25 year olds — 8.2 million people — reported having a substance use disorder, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Looking ahead, Williams said she hopes to have a campus that is recovery friendly and stigma free. Currently, she said there is still work to be done to grow Phoenix Free and educate the campus community about recovery.
She also hopes students in recovery can have a dedicated space where they can go to do homework, chat and feel comfortable in a sober environment. Danziger said this can help those in recovery avoid triggers, such as students discussing heavy drinking and hangovers.
“When someone’s trying to practice active recovery, saying no to a drink is huge and it’s scary and it’s hard,” Danziger said. “I’m faced with that all the time and that’s part of why I put my sobriety on blast, so to speak, so that hopefully I don’t have to deal with those awkward interactions, but it goes deeper too. There’s a lot of situations where the culture on Sunday mornings is how hungover are you?”
Danziger said they want to keep fighting to change the traditional narrative that college is only for those who drink. Their personal goal is to continue to translate their passion for recovery and make it their career.
“I plan to become a therapist eventually. And I think anything that I can do as a student to facilitate that open conversation, releasing of the stigma, creation of health and healthy, safe conversations,” Danziger said. “That’s crucial for me as a person, or I’ll shrivel up.”