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Why I do this work: BE A BEN!

As a person who struggled many years with alcohol and other drugs, eating disorders, chronic illness and trauma, I am proud to say that recovery and harm reduction saved and continues to save my life every single day!

If you asked me 10 years ago, if I could imagine myself publicly disclosing that I’m in recovery, I would never believe you.

I hate to say it, but addiction AND recovery stigma are alive and well even, in the most progressive, post-secondary institutions. Addiction does not discriminate but stigma does.

Personally, over the course of my university student career I never met a single person in recovery from addiction. I met plenty in the throws of it. But no one on the other side.

This would all change when I met Ben.

Ben was a fellow social work doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal.  I liked him right away. A native American, Ben was brilliant, had a zest for life, and loved to have a good time. So when he invited me to his Halloween party with all his cool friends from New York, I accepted without hesitation.


Like many other nights, I only planned on having a couple of drinks. But after I had one, that plan went out the window. As Ben poured me another glass of stiff sangria from the punch bowl, I noticed he wasn’t drinking. I always noticed when people weren’t drinking. I judged people harshly who didn’t drink. So I asked him why?


Without skipping a beat, in the most nonchalant way, he replied, “I’ve been in recovery for 25 years.” I was shocked.


Ben was the first person I ever met in recovery. Here was a fellow student, who was having fun, dancing, and stone cold sober? I couldn’t believe it.


When I hit my final bottom 2 months later, something was different. Ben had planted a seed.


As Nigerian poet Okri writes,  We live by stories; we also live in them… If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”


I didn’t realize it until years later, but Ben gave me permission to try a different story.

Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the most helpful things we can do, is to just be visible as a person in recovery.


We need to show university students that the path of recovery is worth pursuing, that they need not be ashamed or feel alone – and most importantly, that there is hope.


That is why I decided to found the UCalgary recovery community  (UCRC) and Recovery on Campus (ROC) Alberta. The UCRC and ROC are intentional communities of belonging that support all recovery pathways, while providing built-in opportunities to meet the Ben’s of the world.  Today, I realize that Ben’s decision to recover out loud in that private moment changed my story.  I invite everyone to BE A BEN!  Not only might you change someone’s life, but save it.

Dr. Victoria Burns, PhD is an associate professor at the University of Calgary, founder and director of the UCalgary Recovery Community, and Recovery on Campus Alberta. She is also the director of the Recovering in Place Lab (RIPL), a research hub committed to transdisciplinary, community-based approaches to addiction recovery.  As a registered social worker, educator, qualitative researcher, and engaged activist she has worked in the homelessness and addiction-recovery sphere for over 15 years.  She combines her lived experience with a passion of story-telling and the arts, including documentary film, to raise awareness and combat stigma for marginalized populations in scholarly and mainstream spaces alike.

 Interested in sharing your story? Check out the submission guidelines here.



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