Updated February 28, 2023
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” wrote Charles Dickens in his famous novel A Tale of Two Cities. He could also be describing what it’s like to be in your 20s. When you’re young with your whole life in front of you, there is so much to discover, and the future seems bright. Yet being a young adult is also stressful and full of uncertainty, and that can take a toll on your mental health and trigger substance abuse problems.
FHE Health Alumni Coordinator Kyle Feaman, now in his 30s, remembers vividly what that was like. At the age of 23, he checked himself into treatment for a heroin addiction. It had come to a head in a dramatic confrontation with his family, by which point Feaman had become skilled at “lying, manipulating, and running” to hide and deny his problem. The next eight weeks would be spent in inpatient rehab detoxing from heroin and developing healthy coping tools for stress.
We asked Feaman in a recent interview to look back on that time in his 20s and reflect. From his experience of getting sober in his 20s and, more recently, supporting FHE alumni in their 20s, what were the biggest obstacles to getting sober? What were the biggest benefits? You can catch that interview below, but first—a closer look at the addiction and mental health needs of young adults as a group in this country.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Stats for Young Adults
Young adults have some of the highest rates of substance abuse, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 35 percent of people ages 18-25 binge drink, for example, SAMHSA reported in its resource guide “Substance Misuse Prevention for Young Adults.”
Researchers also say that people in their 20s, (Gen Z’ers and Millennials), are more stressed-out and consequently more likely to face mental health issues. Data from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use found that this age group (and, more specifically, 18-25-year-olds) had the highest rates of mental illness as compared with other age groups.
Biggest Challenges of Getting Sober in Your 20s
What are the biggest challenges of getting sober in your 20s? Feaman listed several:
“Lack of life experience and lack of consequences that were dire”
According to recovery wisdom, people are more likely to get treated for an addiction when they have experienced enough negative consequences. In your 20s, though, you’re able “to rebound from certain consequences,” Feaman said. “You get arrested once, but it’s not the end of the world. You’re not at the end of your rope.” In his own case, Feaman said he was “fortunate that he was exhausted” but “could’ve continued using drugs more years” due to an absence of dire consequences.
“You’re still finding out who you are.”
Early adulthood challenged Feaman’s sense of identity and self-understanding. In school he had been “a class clown surrounded by friends and played sports.” Then “everyone went to college,” and things changed. Feaman no longer was quite as sure about who he was as a person and where he was headed, and that insecurity and sense of uncertainty was a trigger to use drugs. In other words, “the substances made you feel comfortable enough to act like the person you always wanted to be,” and once those substances were out of the picture, Feaman found himself asking the question, “‘Who am I without the substances?’”
“Peer pressure (both direct and indirect) and losing friends”
When Feaman was in active addiction, he hung out with several other drug users whom he’d later have to avoid in recovery. Peer pressure functioned indirectly, too. When Feaman left treatment, he knew “hundreds of people in recovery.” That might seem like a lot of social connections with which to build a healthy, new life, but sometimes it could have a reverse effect: “I wanted to find a way to go out, but safely, and didn’t want to go to the bar or concerts;” and meanwhile, “people started to leave recovery.”
That gradual attrition caused Feaman to wonder if he could start going out again and “just smoke weed instead of the hard stuff.” Ultimately, it took “a lot of work” to accept that he couldn’t just do that.
Losing friends was another extension of peer pressure (both direct and indirect). Whether they were “friends back home whom you’ve known since a kid” or “people in their 20s who are in recovery and less dedicated to it,” that loss hurt and at times challenged Feaman’s own recovery.
“Realizing that recovery takes time”
Patience doesn’t come easily, even for a lot of older people; but a young adult may be more prone to assuming that once they leave treatment, they’re immediately cured. In Feaman’s case, he remembered “calling my mother and sisters saying that ‘I’m better now.’” His journey to recovery would of course take longer.
“Not knowing there are options out there”
The idea that you could receive top-notch treatment from a private provider and your insurance would pay for most of it was new for Feaman. Hospitals were the only inpatient option that he had heard about—and a dreary one at that. When treatment options are either way too expensive or seem like a form of punishment, that can be an obstacle to getting sober.
Biggest Benefits of Getting Sober in Your 20s
What were the biggest benefits of getting sober in his 20s? Feaman listed a few. They’re also compelling incentives to address a drug or alcohol problem.
“I made a lot of friendships that last a lifetime.”
Thanks to treatment, and in the process of “being myself and being open,” Feaman found “deep-rooted connections for the first time in my life.” Feaman was appreciative of the fact that he was young when he got sober and therefore will get to enjoy these friendships for many years.
“I didn’t have too much wreckage.”
Another benefit of being young and not having much life experience before rehab was that Feaman wasn’t “so broken down from years of experience with addiction” that he had to start entirely from ground zero. Sure, he came in to rehab with major credit card debt but also “didn’t spend too much time dragging my family through the mud.” He was “able to learn how to live at 23 and go on to be an employee, a friend, a brother, a husband.”
“I was able to acquire things in life I never thought would be possible.”
Because he addressed his addiction relatively early in life, Feaman said he “had all that time to build a life and be young doing it—and never have that regret, as in ‘Was it too late?’” Feaman, in his 30s, is now married, a homeowner, and anticipating starting a family.
Encouragement for the Person in Their 20s with a Drug or Alcohol Problem?
What words of encouragement did Feaman have for those in their 20s who might be struggling with substances and afraid to seek help?
“I’d say, ‘What do you have to lose?,’ Feaman answered. “It sounds cliché and to the point, but what’s going on isn’t working.”
Then Feaman referenced his own struggle and what it was like to hear other people’s advice: “There was nothing anyone could say to me that I didn’t already say to myself in the mirror. I hated myself, so I used. I used because I hated myself.”
When the personal reality of addiction finally sank in, it proved more convincing than other people:
I had to learn that [my addiction] wasn’t just going to go away. My life was stunted. There was no more growth possible with what I was doing. If I didn’t make the change, I’d have no coping skills, no friends, and wouldn’t know how to go about life.
As for being afraid to seek help, Feaman could identify. “I was really scared of any accountability and wanted to do what I wanted to do,” he said. Serendipitously, though, “life became a whole lot easier once I became accountable for my actions,” he reflected.
“When I was trying to do the right thing every day, life got simple,” Feaman added. “Things matter a whole lot more when you strive for them.”