Beyond addiction

Founding member of Gamecock Recovery program graduates in May

For senior William Benitez, graduating with his bachelor’s means more than just completing a degree. The former addict once thought he’d never get out of a jail cell.

Benitez, one of the founding members of the on-campus Gamecock Recovery addiction program, was arrested at 18 and convicted at 20 for felony drug possession and distribution.

Sentenced to eight years’ probation, he ultimately served seven months in a county jail. Before being incarcerated, he failed out of Volunteer College in Tennessee while abusing everything from stimulants and ecstasy to cocaine and alcohol.

“Parts of my transcript are full of zeroes,” Benitez says. “I was too high to withdraw when I stopped going.”

The Nashville, Tennessee, native alienated himself from his family — at one point his parents kicked him out of the house and called the police on him.

“I remember calling my dad the last time I was locked up, and his response was, ‘You must like the Sumner County Jail.’ ”

Benitez says his first addiction was an eating disorder that began in middle school.

“I controlled what I ate, how I looked,” he says. “Drugs then made me feel comfortable and secure, and while it created so many problems, it felt like it was a solution of some kind from fear and insecurity.”

After being released from prison, he got sober and immediately enrolled at Charleston’s Trident Technical College where he finished his human services associate degree in 2015. That same year Benitez came to the University of South Carolina to pursue a bachelor’s in social work because he wants his story to have a positive effect on others who may be fighting addiction.

“I got involved in advocacy and with social work so I can use my story in a way that’s powerful and meaningful,” he says.

A fellow social work classmate who knew Benitez’s story told him about Gamecock Recovery, a small group of students who support one another in substance use disorder recovery.

“There is a need for people in recovery to have support,” Benitez said. “They can’t be in Greek life the way others can and have a similar college experience. I want to help in any way I can.”

While only a handful of students actively participate in Gamecock Recovery meetings and activities, about 500 receive a monthly newsletter that markets events like sober tailgates and tips on staying sober and clean in college, says Aimee Hourigan, Substance Abuse Prevention and Education director who oversees Gamecock Recovery.

“The group helps students connect to each other and identify with each other’s shared experiences,” Hourigan said. “It also helps them connect to the university so they can fully participate in everything USC has to offer. The goal is to help them have an authentic college experience while maintaining their recovery.”

For Gamecock Recovery, Benitez facilitates a recovery mindfulness group every Thursday in the new Center for Health and Well-Being’s C.A.L.M. (Carolinians Actively Living Mindfully) Oasis.

“The meditation class has been a safe space for me every Thursday,” Benitez said. “With a wide-open schedule — life kind of coming at me with deadlines — it is a safe room for self-care time. I feel supported" by others in recovery who attend.

After graduation, Benitez plans to move to Santa Fe, N.M., with his girlfriend and find a job. He hopes eventually to earn his master’s in social work.

“I do consider myself a success story because I got to the other side of it. I really believed I was going to die in a jail cell,” Benitez says. “The life I’m living, I never dreamed I would.”

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