Opinion | Old man on campus

Drug addiction delayed my college experience. As graduation nears, it’s time to reflect on my journey as a 27-year-old at Quinnipiac, and why I’m grateful for all of it.

By on April 17, 2018

By: Ryan Chichester

I remember my first day on Quinnipiac campus like it was yesterday. My fiancé Ashley and I had just visited a university in New York, where a heavy rainfall had obstructed our view of the urban campus. Wet and exhausted, we trudged further north to Hamden.

The thudding rain on the roof of my Hyundai slowly silenced as we drove up the Merritt Parkway, and dark clouds almost immediately gave way to sunshine when we pulled into Quinnipiac’s Visitor’s Lot. Ashley and I saw the shift in weather as a sign from above. After a tour and chats with journalism professor Molly Yanity and the faculty, it was a done deal. I wanted to be a Bobcat.

Despite the relief of finally knowing where the next step of my life would take me, there was a noticeable sense of uncertainty and discomfort. What exactly was I doing? Here I was, at 25 years old, deciding where I would spend the final two years of my delayed college career. Sure, 25 is considered to be someone’s prime years in the grand scheme of life, but in university years, I was a wrinkled old man.

Would my classmates welcome me to my first Quinnipiac classroom with a walker and plastic covers for my seat?

The truth was, I didn’t care. After spending two years of my life walking in and out of rehabs and living in a fly-infested one-bedroom shithole while using an old t-shirt to wipe my ass (we couldn’t afford toilet paper), there was not much left that could embarrass me anymore. So I signed up to go back to school and star in my own ‘Billy Madison’ sequel.

I had given college a try before, back when the students surrounding me were all my age. I had started school at Middlesex County College in Edison, where I was ready to lay the path to becoming the best damn sports writer that Central Jersey had ever seen.

At least I thought I was ready.

I had begun my descent into drugs long before I graduated high school. I decided that life was better when I was high. All the time. As an addict, I have come to understand that I have this unique void in my soul that drives me to escape my own reality due to my delusional acceptance that my reality isn’t good enough. Drugs were my escape. By the time I walked onto Middlesex campus for the first time, I was high on heroin. My writing aspirations disappeared in a cloud of white smoke with every line of white powder I snorted up my nose. I was a full-time student holding a rolled-up dollar bill in my hand more than a pen or pencil.

I kept my secret for years, but like all addicts, the walls started to crumble around me. The drugs weren’t working anymore, and neither were my lies. I was trapped in my own insanity, doomed to keep repeating the same empty routine of driving to Newark for drugs, only to return home to nothing. My dogs were the only companions in my life that didn’t look upon my pale, caved-in face with pity.

Finally, on my 22nd birthday, something changed. I had a rude awakening in the form of a birthday card from my mother. My mom has always been the kind to wear a smile at all costs and keep things positive. But there was nothing positive left of my miserable existence. I opened her card to me and saw nothing but a quick blurb: “Dear Ryan, my birthday wish for you is that you live to see your next one.”

The one-ounce card hit me like a wrecking ball. I thought about what she said, and a wave of fear rushed over me. But it wasn’t the fear I expected. I realized in that moment that while I could die from an overdose on any given day, that’s not what I was afraid of. I was more frightened of living through another year enslaved to a bag of white powder.

So I agreed to try to get help once again. A week after my birthday, I was on top of a mountain in Vernal, Utah with nothing but some clothes, a sleeping bag and a notebook. I spent my days sitting on the hard dirt, writing about what brought me here and what I planned to do with my future. I wrote every day.

The first few days were tough. Withdrawal symptoms caused me to vomit a few times, and I had to dig a hole, bury it and carry on with my day. But things got better. My head cleared. I hiked peaks and valleys and saw some of the most beautiful creations of God that my eyes will never forget. Most importantly, I found myself. Four months later, armed with a new sense of self-worth, I returned to the real world.

So here I am at 27 years young, getting ready to graduate from a school that I am eternally thankful for agreeing to attend on that sun-splashed rainy day two years ago. All of the uncertainties I felt when I first decided to come to Quinnipiac were washed away within weeks of my first semester. There was no judgement, only friendships that I’ll take with me wherever I wind up next. It took five years after putting the drugs down, but I got to experience the college life.

Well, maybe not the same college life as others. While classmates and friends talked about going out on a Friday night, I was heading to work or a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Aside from a Halloween concert, I have never been inside Toad’s. I still don’t know what the hell Clubhouse is. I may be disconnected from that part of Quinnipiac, but I never felt disconnected from the people that make up the Bobcat community.

Now I will begin my search for something new, and flat-out scary: a job. Years of recovery and soul-searching have made me realize that I still want to be in sports journalism. My family, my fiancé and the people here on campus have taught me to go for it no matter what. So that’s what I’ll do. It will be difficult, but hey, I’ve survived worse.

There have been times during my two years here that I’ve stopped briefly to wonder what exactly I’m doing here. I dismiss it quickly. The amazing faculty and students that I get to see every day is more than enough evidence that I made the right choice.

If those conflicting thoughts creep in, I just look above my kitchen table, where my wonderful fiancé hung a white wooden sign that reads, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

That sign is my physical reminder to keep moving forward. The Chronicle and the people of Quinnipiac who have made it so easy to share my story serve as my living and breathing reminder that it’s never too late for anybody.

For that, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you all.

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