The strength to recover

Carina Burgher News Contributor

Not even 24 hours after being released from prison, Phillip Rakowski found himself restrained to a hospital bed. His first order of business back in civilian clothes had been to collect on drug debts people avoided during his incarceration. Keeping him company on his errands was his girlfriend, and copious amounts of alcohol. After a particularly violent confrontation, Rakowski recalls he and his girlfriend rushing back to their modified ‘98 Mustang GT and speeding away at 90 mph. 

“Baby, corner!” 

The chaotic life Rakowski had been living finally dealt a return blow. The only thing he remembers from the crash is the shout from his partner and being thrown from the vehicle during one of its multiple flips. Rakowski awoke in a hospital with a broken collarbone and a state trooper standing above him. 

Despite knowing that he would once again be placed behind bars, Rakowski could only ask,

“Did I hurt anybody?”

Rakowski served 57 days for violation of his parole and then had only two weeks before he was expected again in court. For the first time in the approximate 15 years that he spent in-and-out of the penitentiary, Rakowski did not drink upon release. Instead, he spent the interim doing meth.

With his life spiraling out of control, Rakowski made a visit to his grandfather, which led him to contemplate the dark reality of his situation. He began thinking about becoming completely clean and sober after sharing his dream of going to college and realizing that his lifestyle was a barrier to a brighter future. This was the beginning of a string of “firsts” that ultimately led Rakowski to Oregon State University. 

On Feb. 4, 2010 Rakowski entered the courtroom for the first time on his own volition.

 “I think I’m done,” he recalls telling the judge. “I want to go to college.” 

He has been clean and sober ever since.

Rakowski plead guilty to DUI and third-degree assault, but said something changed. He spent his last conviction of 13 months working on his recovery and enrolled in an education program. On his release date, Rakowski moved into an Oxford House, a living program for those recovering from alcoholism and drug-addiction. He also began taking classes at Linn-Benton Community College.

“I wouldn’t have been able to get through community college if I wasn’t living in an Oxford House,” Rakowski said. 

A key factor of his continued success in recovery was becoming a member of the Collegiate Recovery Community as an undergraduate at OSU three years ago.  Since then, Rakowski has come to view the CRC as family. 

“Here’s the thing; I can’t do it on my own, and neither can a lot of other people,” Rakowski said. “The reason the sober living community is so imperative is because people need to belong, to have their culture.”

The safe space that Rakowski found in the CRC is in the process of moving to an entire building of their own, a project which has gained national attention. The new location will make OSU the first college in the state, and one of only 150 in the country, to include housing. By the end of the month the CRC will be able to call Dixon Lodge their new home. 

John Ruyak, an OSU Alcohol, Drug and Recovery Specialist, has been a staff member of the CRC for over two years and is very pleased with the way the program is growing.  

“It was always in the back of our mind that we wanted housing,” Ruyak said.

The CRC has been working through Student Health Services for the last three years to provide support to OSU students in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse.

“We’re setting trends,” Rakowski said. “Watching it grow from where it was, to where it is now… to be part of the sober living community, to see that unfolding, it’s beautiful.”  

The addition of housing, the Recovery Living Community, is expected to change and supplement the way the CRC operates. Up until now, the CRC used a space in McNary Hall as their clubhouse and for meetings or open events. The clubhouse provides members with social support, but Ruyak believes getting an entire building will allow the CRC to have a “holistic” approach when supporting member recovery. 

“I think the new building is going to allow us to expand support in a way we weren’t able to in McNary,” Ruyak said. 

McNary Hall tried their best to support student recovery by designating a wing of the sixth floor as substance free. Unfortunately, without the commitment of students to sober living, individuals in recovery weren’t guaranteed safe and recovery supportive housing.

Ruyak stressed that the RLC is not a treatment center but still needs to be able to support the promise of upholding a clean and sober space for residents and guests.

Jim Gouveia, counselor and group leader of SMART Recovery at OSU’s Counseling and Psychological Services, says that having a reliable living environment is vital to those in recovery.

“When people are in recovery they need a community to support their work,” Gouveia said. “To find fellowship, belonging and support in where they’re at.”

Although the Lodge is still under construction, the RLC already has three residents. Once the space is complete there will be room to house up to twelve members for the 2016-17 academic year. In the future, the space could house up to 30 residents, but the number will be determined by need. 

“It’s a safe place to find like-minded people,” Ruyak said. “So now your friends are here but this building is also your home.” 

Beyond being an OSU student, the requirements to reside in the RLC include being dedicated to recovery and having a minimum of six months of continuous sobriety. These rules aren’t meant to intimidate prospective members or residents, according to Gouveia.  

“It’s university culture,” Gouveia said. “Students are using, enjoying and even dependent on substances.”

Partying and drinking behavior can be triggering to individuals in recovery and pose a threat to their sobriety. Rakowski hopes to open a dialogue about addiction and recovery with the student body and let them know the CRC and RLC welcomes everyone.

“When we’re dealing with things like recovery, identities and things like that, we’re dealing with social equity,” Rakowski said. 

The adoption of the Dixon Lodge as a designated space for the CRC has made Rakowski feel validated in his identity as a recovering addict.

“It’s my cultural center; it’s my community,” Rakowski said.

Students who support recovery or are considering sobriety and membership of the CRC will have access to a public space in the Dixon Lodge where staff members will be available during daily drop-in hours. Local support groups such as Young Peoples’ Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous  will hold meetings in the space, which are open to all OSU students and the public. The CRC’s mission is to provide supportive spaces for all recoveries and would welcome any process group to hold meetings in the SLC building, given that a reservation request is approved. 

Construction and the transition from McNary to the Dixon Lodge is expected to be complete by the end of October, but members of the CRC know that their work never ends.

Moving forward, the CRC wants to break down the stigma surrounding addiction and recovery. Establishing a community space for recovery and sobriety is only half their battle. As an advocate of his own recovery and that of others, Rakowski believes that engaging others in transparent conversation is the key to combating stereotypes. He hopes that being public with his addiction will help other people in need of recovery.

“It’s OK,” said Rakowski. “It can be dealt with.”