Turning DWIs into an Addiction Studies Graduate Degree

Spotlight on Students

David DucharmeThrough its accredited degree programs, the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies (HBFGSAS) provides an exceptional educational experience for students. Some students have followed unique or interesting paths to reach this point in their lives. This is one in a series of conversations with several of these addiction counseling students.

Teacher, entrepreneur and certified nursing assistant (CNA), David Ducharme, brings a tremendous background in working with diverse populations to his new role as a student in the master's degree program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies.

Growing up in a full-service campground in Northern Minnesota, David gained an appreciation for being outdoors and working hard. His parents have owned their campground near Bemidji for over 35 years, and during his early years, David had opportunities to experience the best and worst of living in this scenic vacation land.

"I like getting to know people and understand what makes them tick, and it was a great place to learn how to interact with a wide variety of people," said David.

It also nurtured talents that helped him move forward in his life. An avid hockey player, David moved to St. Paul during his senior year in high school to play hockey and then went on to Baltimore to play in the junior hockey league. However, negative aspects of his life were beginning to catch up with him. Even though he denied having any problems, addictive tendencies were becoming more evident in his actions and behaviors.

"I tried college at 19, and it didn't go well," said David. "I'd already gotten my first DWI and knew I didn't have the control to be able to go to school and do what others were doing. My drinking and drug use became more prevalent, and I eventually dropped out of school."

He joined a road construction company and traveled across country to projects that coincided with the changing seasons—from Montana or Wisconsin in summers to Florida or Texas in the winter months. At 24, he got his second DWI and found he was burned out, both from the work and lifestyle.

"I was getting into trouble wherever I went," he said. "However, in spite of my record, I still didn't recognize that I had a drinking problem and denied a lot of it."

He moved back home, saved some money, and enrolled in Bemidji State University. In four years, he graduated with a double major in business and teaching. The city of Bemidji is surrounded by three Native American nations, and his student teaching practicum led him to Red Lake Elementary. According to 2015 data, Red Lake Elementary ranked worse than 89% of elementary schools in Minnesota, and over 80% of the children participate in the free or reduced lunch program. David had planned to teach math in middle school, but was hired full-time as a first-grade teacher.

"It was the best and worst of my experiences. There was lots of abuse, lots of kids in foster care and lots of pride along with a very isolationist environment. But I loved the 'emergent light bulb' going off as kids learned to read," said David.

He taught for five years and worked at the campground during the summer months.

"We would start in April to get the campground up and running and go until October, working 75-80 hours a week without a day off. I was on a course for burnout, but I thought as long as I'm saving a kid, I'm okay, and as long as I'm running the campground, I'm okay."

However, in 2012, things began to unravel, and his drinking moved to a new level. He had quit playing hockey with his local team in the fall, and by spring, he was falling behind on both his school and campground responsibilities. He would often wake up in his car at 3 a.m. and not know what happened. His focus became "to make it through the school year and then get help."

Sunday, May 5, 2013, stands out as a defining moment in his life. He left the campground to go into town, but never returned home. He woke up to the noise of his car engine running and being informed by the rescuers that he had rolled the car into the ditch and then had driven the car back out. He was admitted and released from the hospital, issued his third DWI and went to jail for the night.

"That week I went through a chemical assessment and was honest for the first time in my life," said David. "I entered Hazelden and that was one of the most important days in my life. I wouldn't be here without having gone through treatment, and I'm grateful for the desperation that led me to that point in my life."

After 28 days, he moved to a sober house in St. Paul and ultimately made the decision not to return to his former life 'Up North.' He remembers his first "sober" jobs—working at the nearby Burger King with two of his housemates and volunteering at Sholom, a senior living community. There they encouraged him to go through the CNA program, and he transitioned to his new roles at Sholom; first, providing care, listening, and being of service; and then into the adult day center where he was responsible for dispensing medications. At this same time, he moved to managing the sober house, Oneida, where during his first week on the job, a young man died in the house from an overdose.

"His death had a profound effect on me," said David. "Through recovery, I was learning boundaries; that I can't be 'on' all the time or in control of everything. This tragedy helped me realize that I had an interest in going further in this field."

David enrolled in the Master of Arts in Addiction Counseling at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies and is slated to graduate in December 2016. When he first walked back on the Center City campus for orientation, he felt a tremendous sense of connectedness with both the people and place. Currently, David is completing his clinical practicum in the Silkworth men's unit. From his work with the patients and other dedicated team members, he is reminded daily to keep his own recovery program going.

"Right now, I'm just giving back, and the number one thing is people—meeting people and getting to know them is one of my best things in life," said David. "And I find balance in my coursework, through AA, and with other students who are going through this process with me. Right now, I'm keeping my sobriety a priority, and if I do that, I can do anything else."

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