The roots of modern alcohol support groups can be traced to Wesleyan, and this model can be found on campus to this day.


There’s no denying the presence of alcohol on campus. Yet some may not know that Wesleyan has had a large impact on the way health professionals and the public look at alcohol abuse and on the way people suffering from alcoholism combat it. That impact stems from Dr. Harry M. Tiebout of the class of 1917, a highly regarded proponent of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) who wrote many articles about combating addiction. It has been a long time since Dr. Tiebout was a student here, but his legacy can still be seen in the way the University handles substance abuse counseling.

After graduating from Wesleyan, Tiebout worked as a psychiatrist and became President of the National Council on Alcoholism from 1951 to 1953. Later, he served on the Board of Trustees of Alcoholics Anonymous from 1957 to his death in 1966. To him, Alcoholics Anonymous was the definitive solution to alcoholism.

According to his 1949 article in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, “The Act of Surrender on the Therapeutic Process, with a Special Reference to Alcoholism,” the idea of “superficial compliance in therapy” (described as only a partial surrender of the self to a therapist’s authority) was problematic in treating alcoholics in a psychiatrist-patient therapy environment. That is, in order for a patient to properly combat alcoholism, ze must surrender hirself wholly. This can only occur when an individual with certain traits in hir unconscious mind becomes involved in a certain set of circumstances—essentially hitting rock bottom.

So how does a patient get to these circumstances, according to Tiebout? In a 1944 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, “Therapeutic Mechanisms of Alcoholics Anonymous,” Tiebout writes that the key is letting go of the ego and acknowledging reality.

“[The central effect of Alcoholics Anonymous is] to develop in the person a spiritual state which will serve as a direct neutralizing force upon the egocentric elements in the character of the alcoholic,” the article read.

By this logic, group therapy such as that employed in AA could assist with many issues, simply by getting the patient to realize the problems of others and the interpersonal effect of hir own problems.

So how much does Wesleyan’s stance support the views of this famous alum?

To look at the University’s history of handing alcohol abuse on campus, it is necessary to look at the evolution of Connecticut’s drinking age laws. The 1980s were a rather tumultuous time for the drinking age in Connecticut: after the drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1972, it was raised to 19 in 1982, to 20 in 1983, and finally back to 21 in 1985. As a result, Wesleyan overhauled its alcohol policy in 1986, increasing its strictness about underage drinking and leading to backlash from the student body.

On Oct. 3, 1986, The Argus published an article by Aviva Goode ’90 titled, “New Alcohol Policy Met with Criticism.” The premise of the article was that alcohol policy prior to the change in 1986 was very relaxed and did not show many consequences for underage drinking taking place on campus, but now the University would be more severe in its punishment to fit the standards of the state law.

According to students quoted in this article, the change in University policy had less to do with students’ health and the dangers of alcohol addiction and more to do with protecting the University’s liability. Tension evolved from students who felt that the stricter alcohol policies were not particularly in the best interests of the students, who would benefit more from increased resources to combat alcohol abuse.

The article concluded with students saying that Wesleyan’s change in alcohol policy was focused primarily on saving the image of the University in the face of changing laws, not helping students who might have been struggling with alcohol in Wesleyan’s social climate. It stated that Wesleyan claimed to have many counseling groups available for students who had worrisome drinking habits, but some students, like East College Head Resident Paul Furtaw ’87, did not agree.

“The University is taking credit for something they don’t have a whole lot to do with. Counseling groups such as Wesober are entirely student-run, without support from the university,” Furtaw is quoted as saying in the article. “As a result, there is no cohesive structure for getting help with alcohol abuse at Wesleyan.”

In another Argus article published in February of 1985 by Peter Blumberg, “Campus Version of AA Launched at Wesleyan,” the group Wesober was announced and described as having a surprising amount of success. The article began by describing Lisa, the founder of Wesober, who started the group after attending some AA meetings in Middletown herself. Wesober was a Wesleyan version of AA for students who wanted to seek help for addiction on campus; according to the article, narcotics abuse had reached epidemic proportions at Wesleyan that year.

But where is Wesober now? Does Wesleyan still have a support system designed for students like AA or Wesober, or, as Furtaw suggested, are there no accessible means of finding a solution on campus?

In the spring of 2012, a network of students, faculty and staff came together to form Recovery@, a group primarily for those in recovery from alcohol abuse at the University.

“The network was started when a student in recovery came to me to discuss how to build a recovery community at Wes,” said Tanya Purdy, Director of WesWell. “We looked into some programs at other schools and decided to base ours off of Recovery@ at Princeton.”

Recovery@ functions much like AA in that it has two components: meetings and informal connections.

“The informal connecting and networking is something that is simply facilitated when a student in need emails and then is put in touch with another student in recovery.” Purdy said. “The gatherings are for Wes community members who are in recovery and those who have been affected by another’s substance abuse so that they can provide experience, strength, and hope for one another.”

Recovery@ gatherings take place twice a semester and typically last about an hour. The meetings can take whatever form its attendees prefer, including a meal or a group conversation about the struggle of recovery. Attendees include both those who struggle with substance abuse and their loved ones.

Yet Recovery@ is not officially a counseling group for substance abuse. Instead, it is a network of people coming together to support one another. According to Purdy, what is important is that someone combating substance abuse can find others to relate to and, as Dr. Tiebout would have had it, connect with other people in working through the process.

“I think a common misconception about recovery and substance abuse is that it doesn’t exist in college students or for someone who attends a school like Wes,” Purdy said. “This network creates a safe space for people to talk about and support one another through those issues, which is especially important if the dominant view is that it doesn’t exist here. We have community members in recovery and we have many more who are deeply affected by another’s substance abuse.  The disease of addiction is pervasive and insidious.  The network provides some solace in dealing with these issues and with that, some joy in moving beyond the struggle.”