On-campus rehab center provides second chance
For students like Bobby Qualters, their road to graduating from FAU involves beating substance abuse as part of an on-campus program.
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Bobby Qualters was on the verge of pitching his first game for the Bentley University Eagles as a freshman on the Boston-area school’s baseball team. But he never took the mound.
Qualters was at an upperclassmen apartment party during his freshman year the night before playing drinking games. He does not remember much of what happened next, other than his friends carrying him back to his dorm and placing him in a chair with a garbage can nearby.
“It was the night before my first college baseball game, the first one I was pitching in and then I just got so absolutely hammered, mixing drugs and alcohol, that my heart stopped for a bit and I had to get shot up with adrenaline and pretty much was saved,” Qualters said.
Qualters woke up in the hospital several hours later.
“I woke up … and I was like, ‘What the fuck happened?’ and obviously my parents came to get me, they were super worried about me,” he said.
The now 23-year-old recovered from his near-death experience but remained addicted to alcohol and drugs, until a trip to Boca Raton provided him with a place that would later change his life and give him a job and stability.
That place was Life of Purpose. Founded in 2013, it is located at 3848 FAU Boulevard in the research park on the Boca Raton campus.
Chad Koeller, the executive director of the organization’s sole Florida location, said the program offers something for college students living with addiction that no other place in the entire United States is doing: allowing them to continue their education while receiving treatment.
“Really what makes this program different from any other program in the country is that even in this primary level of care, they can be in school,” he said. “The thought behind most programs down here if you’re a college student and you’ve had your education disrupted by a substance abuse disorder, it’s like, ‘Hey man, take a year or two off, just focus on your recovery.’”
With its first location in Boca, Life of Purpose later expanded to Texas and Tennessee.
The program offers three separate levels of recovery for students to go through, starting with the partial hospitalization program and followed by an inpatient and outpatient program.
Students are assigned an academic case manager to help them manage their schoolwork and a therapist to work with. Both stay constant through each level of care.
Most of the students live either at local halfway houses or the organization’s Life in Progress house on 20th Street, which sits within walking distance of campus and has room for up to 40 people. Students who live there have 24-hour supervision and participate in things like movie nights led by the on-staff behavioral health technicians.
“I want to say it’s like a fraternity for sober kids,” Qualters said. “ If you go there, no one even knows that it’s a sober-living house, because it doesn’t look like that at all. You’ll see kids out on their balconies playing guitar, messing around with each other, wrestling in the parking lot.”
According to the senior political science and business double major, one wouldn’t recognize that any of the students had a problem with drugs or alcohol by appearance alone.
“They all work, they all go to school. You wouldn’t know that because they’re legitimately happy,” he said.
According to Qualters, he grew up playing baseball and lived a mostly average home life in Winter Park, Florida. Around his freshman year of high school, he started drinking and smoking weed, which he said was mostly limited to the weekends.
“Once you kind of realize, ‘Hey, pot isn’t that bad,’ then you realize, ‘Oh, I wonder if they’re lying about everything else,’ and then you go down that road,” he said.
During his senior year, he became a merit scholar while playing baseball for Lake Highland Preparatory School.
In 2012, Qualters rode his academic standing and athletic talent to a baseball scholarship at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Once there, his habits did not mesh with the program.
“That was when shit just got real,” he said. “I went there to play ball, but it didn’t go well my first day. Got yelled at for having a beer, didn’t know that wasn’t allowed. I was like, ‘Goddamn, nobody told me this.’ I was already a little miffed about that then just kind of gravitated towards the other people that were partying right away.”
According to Qualters, it was that mindset that got him arrested two weeks into the school year for public intoxication.
“I was just being super ridiculous, swearing at cops,” Qualters said. “They tried to get me to the hospital because ‘This kid’s not OK’ and apparently I just refused. I said ‘I don’t need to go to the hospital.’ I was being super obstinate about it.”
Qualters said that he would drink and abuse drugs heavily at the time to ease his personal anxiety from being away from home.
“The only way I knew how to get outside of that social anxiety of being thousands of miles from home was to self-medicate to the point of not knowing where I was,” Qualters said.
After being pronounced dead and then brought back the night before his first game, Qualters went home to recover and work his way back into school. He later went to Bentley for another year, where he joined the fraternity Sigma Gamma Delta and continued his partying lifestyle.
“Some people can handle it, I knew plenty of people who I assumed were going as hard as I was and are completely fine. Some have great jobs in the city of Boston and New York, they’re financial planners, getting hedge funds,” he said. “For me that did not end, I had no off button. There was no time in which I was like, ‘I need to bear down or I need to study.’”
Qualters transferred to Valencia College in Orlando, Florida and then the University of Central Florida for a year and a half, where several problems forced him into a deeper hole with his drinking and drug use.
“I had things go wrong with a girl, we were best friends from high school and I just had a bunch of things go wrong at once,” Qualters said. “Once you don’t have anything to feel good about, there it be a girl, school, life, how you’re doing with a job, self-esteem, anything, it makes it easy to go down that path.”
Without his former fraternity, his baseball career or his girlfriend, his drug use began to affect his health, which forced him to ask his parents for help addressing his addiction.
“For me I had to wait for it to get bad for me to ask for help, literally my health was declining, I was throwing up blood, just not doing OK in general,” he said. “I dropped out of all my classes and it was just miserable every single day.”
While doing his inpatient care at another center in South Florida, Qualters was attracted to Life of Purpose.
“The main thing that drew me there was the college experience. I knew I needed to finish college. I’m planning on going to law school after this and I knew there was no way I’d be able to do what I want with my life without going to college,” Qualters said.
Qualters eventually beat his addiction through treatment while staying at the Life in Progress house, going to school and working toward rebuilding his life.
“You can get sober, but if you’re still bored working a dead-end job at 23-years-old and not making any progress in your life, you’re not going to be happy,” he said. “But if you get a kid in school and get them case management services and they start getting good grades, they start to feel good about themselves and they start doing better. All [of a] sudden, they can take on more work the next semester, all of [a] sudden they have a job and then they’re going to school full time and doing both those things.”
While he was in the program, Qualters met Ben Jones, a former college baseball player from Tennessee.
“It’s guys like that [that] bring you into the program and get you working there … I wouldn’t have taken sobriety as seriously as I did. He was one of the people who taught me you can just be a normal dude, he was another college baseball player, chill guy,” Qualters said.
Jones was a former addict, one who had previously been at Motlow State Community College and Lambuth University, both in Tennessee, before addiction took over his life. Prior to becoming a patient, he went through three separate rehab facilities and wound up in a local crack hotel.
“That was right before [Life of Purpose founder] Andrew [Burki] picked me up, I had been homeless in my truck for a week or two and that was when I got into that crack hotel,” Jones said. “I wondered if I was going to ever complete my degree or get a job. I thought this was going to be it.”
Jones became one of the first patients at Life of Purpose’s Boca location, working his way to a degree from Vanderbilt University and a spot on the staff as a therapist. Moving through the ranks, he later founded his own branch of Life of Purpose at Middle Tennessee State University.
“It can be a difficult field to work in but the coolest part is when you see someone who at some point you knew them and their life was in shambles and now they’re going on and they’re doing some cool stuff,” executive director Koeller said.
“[Jones] went through here. He went on to get his master’s and is now the executive director at Middle Tennessee State University. So this is someone who was on the verge of death because of drug and alcohol use and now has a master’s degree and is a respected professional in the field and is back at his alma matter opening up a treatment center.”
Starting with Law and American Society as his only class, Qualters eventually worked his way up to a full course load while working full-time as a behavioral health technician at Life of Purpose.
“Once they asked me to work there I was like, ‘I’m doing everything well enough that they’re asking me to show other people how to do it’ and that was another huge moment for me,” he said. “And then working there and going to school full time, like you get that initial one where you’re like, ‘Holy shit, this is incredible, I can handle all these things because of the help I’ve been given along the way and then you get a bunch more of those mini moments as you keep progressing forward.”
Looking for Signs
Working directly with students who are going through the program like Jones did with him, Qualters uses his experiences to help guide people who are in the same position he was in not long ago.
“What I can tell you the most is what it’s like to be a student in early recovery,” he said. “I have a year and a half sober. I’m not at the point where I have 10 years and feel like I know everything but it’s close enough in my rearview to me that I can turn around and pinpoint what exactly I was feeling.”
All of that experience comes as part of the network that Qualters said you build to support yourself during and after recovery. When he needs support or vice versa, Qualters said that many of the guys who went through recovery with him are always there to talk.
“Everyone’s there to help everybody and it seems like a weird cliche, but it’s true,” he said. “I’m the same way, like if one of my buddies from back home who got sober after me is living out in LA now and he was struggling with something and he called me at 3 in the morning, [I] had no problem answering my phone. It’s way better to call somebody than have someone do something stupid.”
Qualters, Koeller and Jones all believe that this is the way treatment should be given to addicts, seeing it as a doorway to education most kids in that situation don’t have.
“I think this is an innovative idea,” Koeller said. “When you look five or 10 years from now, I think we’ll be in every state and people will be thinking, ‘Oh man, why didn’t we do this sooner?’ I think substance abuse treatment has lagged behind many other medical treatments [because of a] lack of funding for research, the stigma around substance abuse and addiction so I think we’re on the tip of the spear.”
With a new facility at Middle Tennessee State University and the University of North Texas, Koeller believes this is a winning formula for recovery. As for Qualters, he is looking to finish his degrees and potentially apply to law school.
“I know if I didn’t hit that bottom, with that absolute and physical bottom I wouldn’t be here or be sober,” Qualters said. “You kind of have to lose everything to get it back. I’ve definitely earned all of that back and more.”
Ryan Lynch is the editor in chief of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @RyanLynchwriter .