"The rooms taught me that I could prioritise myself and my wellbeing, and that is not a selfish act..."Burak K/Pexels

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of substance abuse and recoveryIf you have been affected by any of the issues raised, please scroll to the bottom of the article to find a list of useful resources.

Love Letters to Cambridge

These are tough and uncertain times for us all, and a lot of us are left with little closure. Varsity are launching this series to give a platform to students reflecting on the parts of Cambridge they'll miss the most, and to gain some closure through writing. Just email our Features team with a 150-word pitch with your idea!

‘The Rooms’ are a familiar term to anyone in a twelve-step fellowship. In them, the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addiction Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous, Co-Dependants Anonymous, Nicotine Anonymous, Family and Friends of Alcoholics, to name but a few, take place. The rooms themselves are unassuming and impersonal. We meet in church basements, community spaces, parish centers, clinics, anywhere the rent is cheap. On the walls hang our scripture: white scrolls on which the twelve steps and the twelve traditions are listed.

Cambridge was a game of two halves for me. I spent the first two years of my degree in active addiction, ending with an intermission. I wish I had intermitted with the intention of getting better, but really, I just couldn’t handle Cambridge anymore. My addiction was a secret I told to barely a living soul. Friends and loved ones would glimpse parts of it, but I guarded the truth like my old diaries buried under my bed (too ashamed to bring out, too frightened to throw away). I was so convinced that heroin was the only thing left to fix me, I justified anything in its service. I really believed it was my cure, and that if I could just stop smoking crack, I could hold onto it forever. I would steal from the people close to me, hurt those I loved most, and manipulate to get what I wanted. One day in May I threw my hands up for the first time; I couldn’t stop on my own and I needed help.

I went to my first NA meeting and so began my slow, reluctant dance with recovery. I would lurch forward and trip back, learning as I went but unsure what to do next. When I returned for my final year in October 2019, I was six days out of rehab. Things had not gone to plan: what was meant to be a studious September preparing for third year turned into a thirty-day stint at rehab where each book I’d packed was given to me one at a time, only after being vetted suspiciously for ‘inappropriate material’.

“Recovery can be hard when it feels like you’re in it alone.”

On arriving at Cambridge, I found the rooms immediately. I went to a meeting before I had even unpacked, I needed all that they had to offer. Before rehab, I would gingerly sit at the side-lines of the odd meeting, and I paid the price for that: I couldn’t stay clean and I wasn’t making progress - I needed to do things differently.

These meetings were tiny compared to the few I had been to in London. It seemed as though everyone had known each other forever, and there were no undergraduates - the great cynic within me wanted to run. But everyone smiled and welcomed me, someone made me a cup of tea. I sat in the circle and looked around, I felt so different to everyone; they weren’t young and they didn’t look fun. Yet as everyone shared, that all slipped away. Everything these people said was like a mirror to my own feelings, fears and secrets. What surprised me even more was the humour in the room, the laughter. It is a peculiar feeling, after having felt alone for so long, to be surrounded by people who have gone through something similar. Afterwards we held hands and said the serenity prayer. Everyone hugged and I was encouraged to get as many phone numbers as possible. I have been to a meeting nearly every day since then.

“...no matter what, you don’t put anything ahead of your well-being.”

The rooms of Cambridge became a solace and refuge from the pressures of my degree and student life. I came to love how separate it felt from the University. I felt at home in a way I didn’t feel at college; these strangers and I, no matter how different we seemed, were united in our shared experience, strength and hope. It was important to have an alternative space where I could go and feel a sense of belonging. Sometimes the atmosphere was intense, there were tears; other times it was just a place to vent about your day. I would feel nagging internal dialogues about my next essay retreat to the back of my head.

The rooms taught me that I could prioritise myself and my wellbeing, and that is not a selfish act; these people taught me how to look after myself. I loved the rooms because I learnt how to be a part of something. There I learnt to express myself and listen to others, two things I struggle to do.


Mountain View

There’s hope for healing

Recovery can be hard when it feels like you’re in it alone. Sometimes I felt angry, jealous - that I had come to this too young. I felt like an outsider to ‘typical’ student life which seemed to rotate around activities I couldn’t do anymore. But I also learnt that with a good support network, it was possible to make new friends, go to events, go for a coffee, even go on the odd night out. In fact, if I wasn’t looking for the differences, I could really enjoy myself: I could still get chips late at night, have meaningful experiences or fall in love… You don’t lose anything worth keeping by getting sober.

This is not to say I wouldn’t forget that sometimes. Relapse was a painful, destructive and isolating experience. The rooms were there for me when I was ready to come back with open arms; not a word of judgement, just love and sympathy. Sometimes waking up and meditating, praying, calling people, doing step work and gratitude lists isn’t what I want to do. I would finally get to a good place with some work only to have to rush off to a meeting. But I learnt that no matter what, you don’t put anything ahead of your well-being. Anything I put in front of my recovery, I will lose.

I will miss everyone from the rooms at Cambridge, and I am in touch with many of them now. Luckily, whether I am online, at home, abroad, the rooms are always just as welcoming.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised, please visit any of the following: