River Harper anxiously shifted in his seat and grasped his hands as he reflected on his younger years.
The senior lacrosse player and biology major with a dream to become a doctor shared a struggle that he grappled with for many years. Harper explained how for a long time that he felt a part of him was missing inside of him. So, when he turned to alcohol and drugs, he enjoyed them because they made him feel normal.
He was barely a teen when he became addicted.
“Addiction runs in my family, so I think I was genuinely born with that type of personality,” Harper said as he continued to clutch his hands. “I started drinking hard alcohol and smoking marijuana at ages 12, 13 respectively. By 15, I was abusing prescription medications and using cocaine.”
Harper said he had a normal childhood and grew up with a love for sports. Outside of sports, however, he had trouble fitting in. It was only in lacrosse where he felt most belonged.
“I always had social anxiety,” Harper said. “I would struggle with meeting and feeling comfortable around people and sports was a great outlet for that.”
In middle school, when the anxiety intensified, he turned to drugs and alcohol.
“I had figured that I could use a substance as an outlet like I did with sports. After that, the addiction increased and increased.”
At 15, Harper witnessed his very close friend struggle with severe medical issues and began spending most of his free time beside his friend, neglecting his own “self-care,” Harper said. “It was really, really emotional for me to go see him at the hospital day after day and try to support him without giving myself time to process. That spiraled me into an emotional wreck. I knew in the back of my head I had that escape from the normal anxieties of life.”
He thought, since he was taking care of his friends, he was also taking care of himself by coping with drugs and alcohol.
“Instead, it made everything much worse.”
At 16, he started getting into trouble with his parents and at school, particularly getting arrested for alcohol-and-drug-related usage shortly after getting his drivers’ license.
“It’s really hard to live an honest life when you’re stuck in addiction,” Harper said.
Despite the consequences, his addiction was making it hard for him to stay out of trouble and in the clear. It was also causing more issues within his household.
“I had distanced myself from my family even more, which caused a lot of problems such as moving out of my house and not having a stable place to live.”
He was 17, a junior in high school, and it continued until he graduated.
“Not having a stable environment to live in or having a place to call ‘home’ was extremely difficult for me. I always considered myself a family person but I couldn’t stay sober long enough to move back in. This put a big rift in my life and caused a lot of internal and emotional problems, mostly because I was a loner.”
Harper’s voice began to shake as he explained how his family had to deal with his addiction.
“My dad understands why I kept making wrong decisions because he was sort of in my position. He’s been sober for six years and has stuck with it.”
For his mother, however, it created a “huge divide.”
“Our relationship was terrible. She wanted to help me so badly yet didn’t know how to. I pushed against her immensely and it took a huge toll on her. My brothers, on the other hand, were very young at the time. It was such a terrible environment for them to grow up in.”
On top of all he was going through, he didn’t know where he was attending college.
“My high school classmates had already put in their college applications and I was clueless. It’s hard to focus on that stuff when you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to sleep at night and how you’re going to get money to eat and feed your issues.”
Just as his addiction was quickly taking over and nearly giving up on his childhood dream to play lacrosse at college, Harper received an email from Steve Colfer, the men’s lacrosse coach, offering him an opportunity to continue to play lacrosse at Cabrini.
“I became obsessed with the idea that I could continue playing,” Harper said in a hopeful tone. “I was feeling really sad that lacrosse was going to be over for me and I really didn’t have any direction on where to go. So I took it and ran with it and decided to come play lacrosse at Cabrini.”
Starting a new chapter in his life at Cabrini, Harper continued to struggle with his addiction. He told how a lot of his friends, including his closest friends, didn’t understand why he was constantly drinking and doing drugs.
Everyone except for Cabrini alumni Timmy Brooks.
“I met Brooks my freshman year through lacrosse. I leaned on him a lot when I was a sophomore and attempting to get sober. He gave me all the resources to do so but he would only support me if I was giving the conscious effort to be sober.”
Although, the help Harper was seeking didn’t last long. Eventually, he fell back into his addiction and all of his friends, family and girlfriend were distancing themselves, leaving him all by himself with no one to go to.
“I had burned all my bridges by then because I could not stay clean and sober. I had finally gotten up to the point where I was feeling so alone all the time, realizing everything wasn’t working. I was facing too much pain.”
Just as he was about to surrender, Harper reached out to Brooks a second time and said, “I need help.” Brooks brought Harper back under his wing and helped him out a second time.
After ultimately putting full effort into staying sober, Harper housed with other people struggling with substance abuse and stayed there for eight months. Today, he is managing one of the houses for sober people.
“It’s amazing. My teammates would be in the locker room ready to congratulate me whenever I reached a milestone of staying sober. I can’t be thankful enough for having people in my life to support me through this journey to recovery. Now, I can be a support to those people, including my younger brothers, and help them refrain from going down the path I went on.”
Finishing his last-minute thoughts, Harper kicked back and gave advice on how to manage substance abuse.
“Addiction’s crazy. It’s evil. You slip into it so unknowingly. You lose the ability to think straight and you see wrong decisions as ways to take care of yourself.”
Looking back, he said there’s really no logic with addiction.
“It completely controls your mind and takes the soul out of you. I was very blessed to have Brooks come into my life and help me get help not once, but twice.”
River Harper has been sober and clean for over a year. He is currently enjoying his studies and playing lacrosse while spending time with his friends, family and girlfriend, while working hard to accomplish his goal of attending medical school.
Harper shared how he thinks it’s super important for people to know that someone who is addicted to substances should not be judged.
“People need to realize that a person addicted to substances is sick and struggling. Help is out there and it takes a lot for someone to get sober.”
He also shared how his life at the moment is better than he could ever remember it being. His family connections are stronger than ever, he has more friends, and his girlfriend is still with him and supporting him after all he had been through.
“It’s hard to see a bright side to every situation but it’s important to know that everything can be fixed with time and there are plenty of resources out there. We should all be supporting those struggling with addiction.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 and CAPS (Cabrini’s Counseling and Psychological Services) at 1-610-902-8561.