Addiction, recovery and community at Michigan State
On the evening of Sept. 25, Todd "Z-Man" Zalkins addressed a roomful of MSU students as an author and public speaker.
Behind the man, buried deep in his past, was a 17-year battle with drug addiction.
Zalkins' personal journey from addiction to sobriety became the award-winning 2017 documentary “The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd ‘Z-Man’ Zalkins." The screening on campus was hosted by MSU's own Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC).
Meet Todd Zalkins
Zalkins grew up in Long Beach, California. He found his way into the punk rock music scene at an early age. For him and his friends, the genre validated their commitment to “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” For Zalkins, it eventually became just about the drugs.
He said he learned the hard way how depressive substances amplify depression and how a body — no matter how resilient — can only live so long under constant consumption of addictive substances.
At the time of his best friend’s death due to a heroin overdose in 1996, Zalkins was six years into his addiction. He thought the death might be a wake-up call.
Instead, it was "game on." He began reaching for any and all substances to numb the pain of his loss and avoid processing his grief.
His substance use evolved over time — from cocaine and Vicodin to harder opioids like OxyContin and heroin. He said he went from working and functioning to burning bridges, losing friends and eventually, himself. Zalkins attempted to get sober many times, but kept finding himself returning to old habits, thinking he was strong enough to handle it.
“There’s so much fear that transpires the moment we stop using because we get so uncomfortable. The discomfort is so prolific and the person, the individual, needs to be medically treated,” Zalkins said.
When Zalkins finally committed to fighting his disease, his doctor said he was the worst case he’d ever seen.
“My post-acute withdrawal symptoms lasted about 15 months. ... Physical sobriety is one thing, emotional sobriety is a whole different deal,” Zalkins said.
Today, he has been sober for almost 12 years.
He's committed his life to educating others about substance abuse and helping people fight their addictions and work towards recovery.
The hard truth about hard drugs
While Zalkins' story might be new to viewers of his film, his battle echoes that of many dealing with substance abuse and addiction.
The film address several factors of substance abuse. It points out the factors that invite people to use substances like drugs and alcohol, the initial comfort zone created over the course of addiction and the aftermath of dealing with recovering from addiction.
“Here’s the answer to addiction, here’s the solution entirely: Let me know when you can invent a little pill called willingness. Just pop that pill and you wave the white flag and you’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Zalkins said.
The film explains opioids as having physical and mental effects similar to heroin or morphine. They are commonly obtained in the form of legally-prescribed pain relievers. Drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin are legal until they are consumed in higher doses than the body requires. According to the film, 18 to 24-year-olds make up 80 percent of people in treatment for drugs.
Zalkins addressed the perceived misconception about addiction as a disease, not a choice.
“It saddens me when someone says ‘You just brought this upon yourself’ and I’ll say 'until it affects someone in your family, then let me know how you feel.' Would you talk to your own son that way? Would you talk to your daughter that way? ‘This is your fault. You wanted to be addicted and sick and do all the things we do in our sickness’ and that’s not the truth. When the disease claims ownership of us, it is not the human being that is essentially making these decisions, it’s the disease,” Zalkins said.
At MSU, there are currently about 700 students seeking assistance for a substance abuse disorder. That's where the CRC comes in.
Seeking recovery options at MSU
Taylor Struna and Will Vaughn first discovered Zalkins' film while attending a conference and wanted to bring his story to MSU. Struna is the student leader of CRC and works alongside coordinators to organize student outreach.
“It’s a difficult task ... and it’s hard to advertise. Being out here and doing events like this, opening up to the public is really good for our image. If you are in recovery, that’s one of the first things you’ll probably Google if you’re pretty into your recovery,” Struna said.
Established at MSU in 2013, the CRC helps college students find sober alternatives to “normal” college life activities.
Students seeking recovery options while pursuing their education can have the same opportunities to feel a part of the MSU community. CRC offers individualized recovery care, social events, accountability from students and staff and an environment for MSU students navigating recovery options.
The CRC works with students and staff to host social sober events for students — in addition to events like the film screening — to work towards reducing the stigma around addiction.
Vaughn is the recovery housing support specialist and has been working with MSU’s new recovery housing for students on campus.
This fall, CRC is now offering recovery housings for students who apply. The anonymous on-campus living option offers students the college experiences without exposure to drugs or alcohol. Recovery housing serves as an extension of CRC’s services by providing students with 24-hour support, academic resources and the opportunity to build meaningful relationships.
“I live in the dorm where we have recovery housing and interact with our students and just provide the support and coaching and whatever else they need to help navigate through college life and stay clean and sober doing it,” Vaughn said. “It’s something we are working to grow to put the word out because we feel like there’s a lot of people who still need it that don’t know it’s here.”
Students living in recovery housing live amongst other students, while working on their own recovery programing.
In addition to CRC, another resource for students is MSU’s Traveler’s Club, a student registered organization for students in recovery for addictive disorders.
Zalkins believes the drugs are getting harder and people are more desperate for answers and access to health and recovery resources. In the U.S., more than 115 people die each day from overdosing on opioids.
Zalkins' friend Bradley Nowell, lead singer of Sublime, was a musician. He constantly exposed to the hyped-up lifestyle of performing and taking drugs to amplify the experience. Unfortunately, he followed in the footsteps of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.
In recent years, the music world has seen this trend of opioid-related addictions and deaths. This year, musical artist Demi Lovato was hospitalized for relapsing. In the last few years, musicians such as Prince and Tom Petty have lost their lives to accidental drug overdoses.
Addiction does not discriminate, according to people like Todd Zalkins and the CRC students at MSU who are committed to educating about addiction, fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness and providing outlets for people to seek recovery.
To them, sharing the stories of those fighting addiction is just the beginning of a long journey to acceptance and recovery.
For more information about CRC membership, recovery housing and other student resources, visit the CRC or reach out to Dawn Kepler, CRC Coordinator, by email at email@example.com or by phone at (517)-353-5564.