Editor’s note: The story below has been updated to correct the services the University of Colorado Boulder’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services and the Office of Victim Assistance offer. CAPS and OVA both provide treatment for students struggling with substance misuse.
James Carnes lived for the mornings he spent on Folsom Field.
He woke up early every day and entered the stadium surrounded by athletes who had grown up loving the same sport as him and dreaming the same dream as him: To play football at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Carnes, now 29, relished the time he spent getting to know the players, coaches and football staff, but the time he spent on the field also made him feel more alone than ever. He had achieved his goal of attending CU Boulder, but rather than playing wide receiver, Carnes worked as one of the team’s equipment managers. The position kept him close to his dream, but it never carried him all the way.
Through the years, alcohol began to engulf Carnes’ daily life, eventually becoming a way for him to cope with the disappointment he felt. His substance misuse led him to isolate, fail classes and attempt suicide.
But through his struggle, Carnes found support on campus at the Collegiate Recovery Center. The center offers peer-to-peer support, said Chris Lord, the center’s associate director. Unlike counseling, many of the students running the meetings aren’t trained. They are there to support others who are working on growing from their addictions or other mental illnesses.
“The Collegiate Recovery Center is a community mostly of students,” Lord said. “It’s a group of people who are looking to live a balanced or more healthy lifestyle together. Something that really helps people to heal from addiction and prevent addiction is having connection and a healthy community.”
Like Carnes, other students at CU Boulder have gotten help for substance misuse. According to data from the spring 2021 National College Health Assessment, 2.7% of CU Boulder students who participated in the survey said they have been in recovery for drug or alcohol use. The data was compiled using responses from the 954 students who participated. There were 32,777 students enrolled at CU Boulder during the semester the study was completed.
The recovery center and its sober living program helped Carnes connect with other students, it got him back on track with school and it helped him find himself.
“Looking back now, I am so grateful that I ended up coming (to CU Boulder),” Carnes said. “Something good came from every bad thing that happened. I have met people through church and CRC that are going to be lifelong relationships. I am grateful for everything.”
A lifelong dream
Every Monday night, Carnes sat in front of the TV and watched football with his dad at their home in Colorado Springs.
He started playing football when he was five years old.
“(Football) was my happiness,” Carnes said. “It was like not being in the real world all of a sudden.”
During football, the world around him fell away. The world also included his parents.
“Unfortunately, I had two parents who were alcohol and drug addicts,” Carnes said. “Their struggle made it so they were not around as much.”
There were many days after school when he waited for his mom to pick him up. She never came. When he was eight, his parents divorced. Instead of waiting for his mom after school, his dad would come pick him up“], although he wasn’t always sober, Carnes said.
“It was uncomfortable at home, and that’s why sports were so important to me, because it was a way to stay after school,” Carnes said. “I was just trying to stay busy and not be at home.”
Although, Carnes’ parents did receive treatment for their addictions years later, not everyone who has struggled with longtime substance misuse does recover, which is why the recovery center is so important, Lord said.
“It’s like cancer, if you catch it early, it’s easier to treat.”
Early on in his career before joining the recovery center, Lord worked at a detox center. Some of the people he worked with did recover, but a lot didn’t, he said.
“I wanted to do something earlier,” Lord said. “I wanted to work with people earlier to prevent people from getting to that place.”
Falling into a habit
Getting to CU Boulder did not happen on Carnes’ first try or even his second.
By the time Carnes graduated from high school in 2012, the drinking had begun. He battled with the idea of leaving the lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed and knew his girlfriend would not move with him if he took a football scholarship in California.
During the summer of 2013, he and his dad went out to visit the school and the football team.
After the visit, Carnes sat down with his dad and told him he wasn’t going to California. His dad was quick to move on and help him find a job, but he could not fully hide his sadness from Carnes.
“You could feel the disappointment and the sadness,” Carnes said. “It was emotionally difficult. I don’t think I realized how much it meant to him and that was hard.”
For several years, Carnes installed garage doors and lived with his girlfriend in Colorado Springs.
“I was extremely depressed during this time,” he said. “I didn’t want to be doing garage doors. I wanted to be in school. I hated my life.”
Working toward a dream
Carnes’ dream to play football at CU Boulder still lived in the back of his mind.
In 2015, he decided to take the leap and move to Boulder to get closer to his goal. He accepted a job as a janitor at CU Boulder and loved it. His girlfriend was still back in Colorado Springs, but his dream felt within sight.
He applied for the first time for CU Boulder, hoping to transfer since he had been taking classes at the Front Range Community College’s Westminster campus. He was rejected but continued to work at the campus.
“I was cleaning the football coaches’ offices,” Carnes said. “It was a really cool experience because I got to be around football.”
In 2016, he gave it another shot and applied for school at CU Boulder. Again, he was turned away.
Carnes stayed in Boulder for two years but his relationship with his girlfriend grew more strained. In 2017, they broke up.
“My dream of being at CU was not her dream,” he said.
The breakup resulted in Carnes abruptly quitting his job at CU Boulder and moving back to Colorado Springs. Soon after, he became friends with someone who was attending Colorado State University Pueblo. She convinced him to transfer from Front Range.
“I really loved it,” Carnes said. “It’s a community college feel as a four-year. All of the professors knew me. I felt really supported.”
In 2018, Carnes started dating someone else who encouraged him to try therapy. But it didn’t last long. He couldn’t connect with the counselor, and lost interest after they prescribed him a medication for depression.
“At the time I was drinking every day, and I didn’t want to take medications,” he said.
In June of the same year, Carnes applied to CU Boulder. His girlfriend at the time wanted to transfer with him. Her acceptance letter came before his, but by August he received an email from the school.
“I opened the email and my dad was there,” he said. “It was a really cool moment. I tried to make it sound like I was expecting it, but I was freaking out inside.”
A spiraling addiction
Carnes and his girlfriend moved to Boulder immediately, but because his acceptance letter didn’t arrive until August, he had missed football tryouts and finding an apartment near campus was close to impossible.
“We found the tiniest little studio, but it was close to campus,” he said.
He applied for the Leeds School of Business but was denied and instead was admitted into the College of Arts and Sciences. He randomly selected sociology as his major without knowing anything about the subject, Carnes said.
“It ended up working out because I really like it,” he said. “I love people and I love studying people.”
The first few weeks in Boulder were chaotic. The sprawling campus felt daunting compared to the close-knit community at CSU Pueblo, but Carnes was happy. Instead of being at CU Boulder as a janitor, he was now one of the students.
He began utilizing CU Boulder’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services early into his time at the campus but still couldn’t find a therapist he connected with, Carnes said.
The recovery center is just one of the several programs CU Boulder offers for mental health and addiction-related support, Lord said. The campus’ counseling and psychiatric services, known as CAPS, and the Office of Victim Assistance (OVA) fall under the treatment component. CU Boulder Health Promotion offers prevention work such as outreach on everyday substance use.
One prevention method the campus started in 2019 was free distribution of Narcan at the Apothecary at Wardenburg Health Center for anyone who has Buff OneCard, which is a campus idea. Narcan can be used to treat overdose in an emergency situation.
From September 2019 to January 2021, the campus filled and provided 8 boxes — 16 doses of Narcan. The number of Narcan distributed increased by 92% from February 2021 to March 2022. During that time period, 100 boxes or 200 doses given at Wardenburg Health Center.
During his first semester at CU Boulder, Carnes was hired as an equipment manager for the CU Boulder football team and worked from 7 a.m. to noon and then went to class until about 5 p.m. on weekdays.
It didn’t take long for him to burn out. His mornings turned from exciting to exhausting. During his last semester at CSU Pueblo, he had started drinking more regularly. What had once been evening drinks to wind down after work had turned to habitual afternoon or morning swigs from liquor bottles.
Eventually, Carnes found himself calling off work and skipping classes to stay home and drink. His grades slipped and he withdrew from his classes to avoid failing.
“I had this dream to play college football but I was 25,” Carnes said. “I really felt like I was behind in life. I felt like I was such a loser and that nothing I was doing made sense.”
He continued to reflect on his life, feeling disappointment for the way everything had turned out and began to isolate himself.
During his second semester, Carnes and his girlfriend moved into a larger apartment. The apartment, which had a separate bedroom away from the living space, fueled his drinking because he was able to better conceal it.
“She would go into the bedroom, and it helped that I wasn’t visible anymore and that was kind of the problem,” Carnes said.
One part of what the Collegiate Recovery Center provides is a safe place for college students like Carnes, Lord said.
“For a lot of people, their unwanted behavior or addictions, they happen at home, so home might not always be a safe place to be,” he said.
By this time, Carnes also wasn’t working anymore and only had classes in the afternoon. After his girlfriend left for work in the mornings, he sipped from vodka or whiskey bottles almost every day.
One night, his girlfriend decided to go to bed early before end-of-semester finals. Carnes told her he needed to do homework. When she went into their bedroom, he drank.
The hours passed and a liter bottle of whiskey was almost empty by the time Carnes felt himself stumble and knock over the TV. His girlfriend woke up to crashing sound and found him throwing up. She also found Carnes’ phone. On it were messages he had been sending to other women on dating sites.
“I did it and didn’t even know I was doing it and would block it out and it became a cycle and I would just start drinking again,” Carnes said.
Like Carnes, other college students have experienced feelings of remorse after drinking. CU Boulder’s spring 2021 National College Health Assessment found that 22.9% students said did something they later regretted when drinking alcohol in the 12 last months.
Weeks passed, but Carnes and his girlfriend didn’t talk about that night. Eventually, Carnes confessed he had been talking to one of his ex-girlfriends. The next morning, he woke from another night of drinking alone, and realized his girlfriend was gone.
She texted back Carnes and told him she was back with her family in Colorado Springs. She was done, she said.
He felt a part of him break. Carnes knew he messed up, but he also felt a different emotion that restrained him from fighting for her or apologizing: relief.
“I just remember thinking ‘This is horrible,’” he said. “My addiction also told me ‘Now you can drink however much you want.’”
A support system
During the summer 2019, Carnes distanced himself from friends and family back in Colorado Springs.
“It was tough, especially when he was still struggling,” said Robert Carnes’, James Carnes’ dad.
The only person he saw on a regular or daily basis was the clerk at a liquor store next to Safeway.
When he drank, he would reach out to his ex-girlfriend’s family. Although she had blocked him, he would find a friend or relative to call or text.
“It was hurting my family, and I was annoying her family,” Carnes said.
One night he messaged friends and family telling them he was going to attempt suicide and his dad called the police.
“Being that far away, there was nothing you could do,” Robert Carnes said. “You could get up here in a couple of hours, but there was nothing you do right then.”
Like James Carnes, many other CU Boulder students have received assistance from police for mental health-related needs. In 2019, the CU Boulder Police Department received 420 calls for welfare checks, and 100 of those resulted in the student being placed on a mental health hold.
Carnes was drunk and took the pills he was prescribed for depression as a way to attempt suicide. He roamed through campus and remembers waking up at his apartment with police in the room who later drove him to the hospital.
“A lady at the hospital referred me to the CU Collegiate Recovery Center,” he said. “We made a deal that she would let me out if I went to the recovery center.”
He didn’t go.
“I went straight to the liquor store and started drinking again for the next two months,” he said.
When the semester began, Carnes was given the chance to tryout for the football team. But the morning of tryouts, he was hungover. He was told there were not enough spots on the roster for his position. His chance to live out his dream was over, Carnes said.
But the letdown coincided with a random call from the recovery center. They said they would still love to meet him, so Carnes thought why not?
“I remember leaving there thinking ‘I don’t think I have a problem,’” he said. “I saw people who were recovering alcoholics, and I didn’t think I was like my dad who went to rehab like three or four times.”
Slowly, he continued going to the center and began meeting people. He started making friends and feeling for the first time in years like he wasn’t alone.
The recovery center, which opened in 2013 inside the University Memorial Center, hosts meeting and events for CU Boulder students. On average, about 10 to 15 CU students regularly attend meetings at the recovery center, and the same amount use the lounge on a regular basis to hangout or study, according to officials with CU Boulder’s Health And Wellness Department.
At the center, Carnes met with Robert Shearon, who at the time was the program manager at the time.
Shearon also discovered the center while he was in college at CU Boulder.
“My boss walked me to the recovery center when I disclosed that I was struggling with withdrawing from substances,” Shearon said.
At first, Carnes was shy and looked like he was suffering. He was in pain, Shearon said.
“He was in the depth of his addiction when I met him,” he said. “He ended a pretty significant relationship and was possibly teetering on failing and dropping out of school and was living alone.”
During their time together they talked, walked around campus or went out for coffee, Shearon said.
Their conversations ranged from topic to topic and Shearon helped Carnes start envisioning a life where he could go out with friends or tailgate at football games and stay sober.
“There was a lot of difficulty with going to the (football) games and watching his peers live out his dream,” Shearon said.
During Carnes’ 2019 school year, the recovery center helped him reverse his academic suspension. He started attending more meetings at the recovery center as well as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Eventually, he found a therapist he connected with through CU Boulder’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services.
“The urges (to drink) were very strong, but luckily I had people to call like other students or staff members would answer their phones,” Carnes said. “I got through those urges by reaching out to people. That’s what saved me from a lot of relapses was having other people to be there for me.”
Mental health services offered at CU Boulder have become widely utilized through the years. The campus’ behavioral health appointments and after-hours calls increased by 9% between the 2019-2020 school year and 2020-2021 school year. CU Boulder saw a similar increase this school year, said Joshua Lindenstein, CU Boulder spokesperson.
In 2019-20, about 18% of the student population at CU Boulder utilized individual therapy services through the university. Last year, there was a slight decrease to 16%, but the data is trending upward again this school year, Lindenstein said.
When school ended for Carnes in the summer in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic was rapidly spreading around the world, forcing businesses and schools to close to step the spread of the virus.
While the world around him shut down, Carnes gave into his urge to drink.
“I slowly started getting into drinking hard liquor and had a bad night,” he said.
During that time, Carnes wasn’t alone in feeling isolated. After in-person meetings ended, the recovery center saw a decline in attendance, Lord said. From July 2020 to July 2021, a total of 780 students attended meetings held by the CU Boulder Collegiate Recovery Center. Last semester, 689 students attended meetings at the center, almost reaching the total number of students seen all of last year.
“(Last year) we were doing a lot on Zoom,” Lord said. “Isolation was what people were told to do. You were told to do the opposite in recovery.”
After his relapse, Carnes called Shearon and requested to move into the recovery center’s on-campus sober housing.
He’s been sober since.
“It has just been so great,” Carnes said. “We have to have a roommate, so I am never alone. That probably saved my life and gave me the ability to get some real sobriety under my belt.”
CU Boulder offers eight apartments that each have two beds, Lord said. The campus began offering sober housing on campus in 2015.
“If you’re somebody who has read a previous record or if you disclose ‘I am somebody who suffers from addiction,’ it can be hard to find a place to live,” he said. “It’s really nice that we have that, and we have these students that are living together and together they are much more likely and able to continue to do well.”
During their years working together, Shearon saw the light gradually brighten in Carnes’ eyes.
“This hunger for joy and living has come back on,” Shearon said. “He was very meek and quiet and he shows up in a really respectful and confident manner now.”
Robert Carnes said he can see the impact Shearon and the recovery center has had on his son.
“He’s become a different person,” he said. “He’s embraced the whole thing. I think he knew at that point it was do or die.”
Although Carnes never did get to feel the rush of the energy from the fans while he stood under the bright lights at Folsom Field, he’s found a new muse that fills him with the same joy football once did.
“I do vocals in a metalcore band,” Carnes said. “It has given me this opportunity to be creative and push myself. Music has given me that joy that I hadn’t found in anything else other than football.”
After graduating from the recovery center and CU Boulder, Carnes said he’s going to take time to think about what’s next for him. Maybe he’ll pursue the master’s degree his dad is pushing for, he said.
“I want to look back and reflect,” Carnes said. “Adversity is something I can handle now. With everything that happened, it’s just a small setback. I can get through anything now.”
“That’s a good feeling.”