Rich Paul working in the office at UCF’s Collegiate Recovery Community.

Rich Paul was losing control and he was losing hope. He said he was struggling with his relationships. His performance in college was deteriorating. He couldn’t hold down a job or maintain financial stability.

The drinking started when he was 18. Paul couldn’t find much to do in college other than drink and said that the stress of fulfilling his undergraduate’s requirements drove him to drink more. He distanced himself from his family and said he felt like he couldn’t talk to anyone who understood what he was going through.

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After barely graduating in Pennsylvania, Paul moved to Florida. He said he felt lonely. He was in a new place with a new job and no friends. He thought about going to a bar to meet new people, but feared that he would drink too much without securing a way home. Paul said he knew he couldn’t have just one drink, yet he refused to think he had a drinking problem.

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 “I thought that if I just moved to Florida, everything would be better, I thought it would solve all my problems, but I brought me with me; I brought my problem with me,” Paul said.

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He found himself burning bridges with loved ones and creating fragile, make-shift bridges with others who were abusing drugs and alcohol as well.

“I didn’t want to die, but I wanted to die because I didn’t know of a way to break the cycle,” Paul said.

This isn’t uncommon. One in 66 college students are either seeking recovery or are already actively recovering, according to the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech University.  

Eventually, he did find a way to break the cycle and now, Paul is eight years sober. He has one Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management from UCF and is working on his second in social work. In addition, Paul dedicates much of his time to helping other students who have found themselves in his situation, eight years prior.

Paul spends 30 hours a week as a peer educator at the Collegiate Recovery Community. CRC is part of UCF’s Student Health Services which offers prevention, treatment and recovery programs for Central Florida’s community, according to their website.

The CRC is located at UCF’s Research Pavilion, in suite 135. In this cozy suite, photographed faces of people with testimonies of their recovery are framed on the walls. A spacious, comfortable couch faces a TV with gaming consoles like Nintendo 64, set up and ready to play. Down the hallway is a conference room with a white board, filled with words.

Paul is able to determine the best help for those who come to the CRC for support by taking an individualized approach.

“I help them to know that they’re not alone. They’re not the first ones to think, feel, or experience what it is they’re going through,” Paul said.

Like many others in the beginning stages of recovery, Paul felt that his life was over. He said he didn’t think it was possible to have fun without drinking or using drugs, let alone finding other sober people to do activities with.

But Paul realized that he could do all the same activities that he liked and more, including the ones he had given up when he was drinking and using drugs.

Nick Hundley is a 19-year-old psychology major at UCF who moved to Orlando from Panama City Beach.

Hundley was in recovery before his move and said he felt uneasy after coming to Orlando. Even so, he had a plan to connect with other students in recovery and followed through.

“As long as I could get to some sort of recovery program around UCF as well as get settled where I was living, I knew I’d be fine,” Hundley said. “I found that through the CRC.”

Hundley began to develop a relationship with the CRC and took over as president of the Sober Knights. Eventually, he decided to apply for a job at the CRC and now works with Paul.

Hundley’s continued prosperity is an example of why Paul believes peer support is the key to success in recovery.

“It can be hard to find people to be sober with because there’s a lot of stigma around addiction,” Paul said. “If I tell someone I’m an alcoholic or an addict, will they look at me as a whole person or will they look at me as a person with a label?”

Paul thinks that disclosing his recovery can assist in diminishing the stigma.

Today, Paul’s biggest challenge is that there are too many good things going on in his life. There are so many things he wants to do and not enough time to do them all in a day. He says his life is so full compared to the lonely life he was living before recovery.

Paul’s dedication to helping others is rewarding, but also demanding. He said he buried friends, sponsees, and at one point, a woman he thought he would end up marrying one day.

“There is nothing quite like watching the light come back to somebody’s eyes over time,” Paul said. “But it’s equally painful to watch it potentially dim again.”

Paul isn’t the only one who has lost loved ones. In the U.S., 18 percent of deaths from alcohol poisoning are people between the ages of 15 to 34-years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Even greater are deaths from overdoses, with 70,237 fatalities reported by the CDC in 2017.

Currently, CRC is striving to be more engaged with the student body at UCF. One way they hope to do that is to move from the Research Pavilion to a place on UCF’s main campus, when the time is right.

“We’re here to support all students,” Paul said.

The CRC provides a judgment-free, safe place for people who need help with recovery or guidance.

“I almost died not knowing there was a way out,” Paul said. “I want to be here when that next person walks through the door saying, ‘I think I have a problem and I don’t know what to do. I need help.’ There is always a way out.”