Paul still breaks into tears when he thinks about how close he came to dying before finally breaking free of 19 years of drug addiction and crime.
The 38-year-old Anne Arundel Community College student took the first steps toward recovery when he enrolled at the college two years ago, to prepare for a career in veterinary medicine.
And thanks to the efforts of an English teacher at AACC, Paul can take advantage of a support network geared to help him make it through the days at school -- a network he has found so helpful that Paul now volunteers to help others with similar problems.
Today, Paul's blondish-brown hair is conservatively cut, in contrast to the shoulder-length style he once wore. His books and parakeets take precedence over a good time.
But beginning at age 17, Paul's "constant high" resulted in at least two jail sentences for drinking while intoxicated and two sloppy counterfeit schemes begun while working as graphic artist.
"I used everything, LSD, heroine, cocaine, the whole spectrum," he said.
"I started when I was just out of high school. I was an addiction waiting to happen."
He counts himself lucky that each time he was arrested, judges suspended his sentence, placing him on probation and in treatment centers. But he continued to use drugs. It was not until he attempted to use a quarter-ounce of cocaine in a matter of minutes that he realized that he had to make a change.
"All I can remember is seeing my mother and parakeets saying, 'Don't leave us,' " he said sobbing. "It was scary to look at myself and see that I was nothing but a drug addict. It was the culmination of everything. I finally came to hate my existence, and I didn't want to die."
Until recently, students like Paul had to go it alone on campus. The support group meetings for alcohol and drug use he attends at night helped, but now he has a place on campus to keep him on track during the day as well.
Room 111 in the Student Services Center on the Arnold campus looks like any other small office used by student organizations. It is easy to overlook the yellow sheet taped to the door labeling it as the Office of Campus Substance Abuse Education. But students and faculty members who need help are quietly finding their way inside.
And when they do, David McDowell, director of the program, is there to greet them. The tall, mild-mannered freshman English teacher and drug counselor lends a friendly ear --in the office or anywhere on campus students or staff would feel comfortable.
"I stop in to see David daily," Paul said. "The center is a valuable support tool for me. Being able to talk about it keeps me sane. I am as sick as the secrets I keep inside."
In the past, students with problems with drugs had to see college advisers, who would refer them to other agencies for help.
Paul is among a small group of what McDowell refers to as "silent peers," people who have gone public with their problems in order to help other students who may be in denial about their drug use, or who would feel more comfortable talking to someone their own age.
The number of contacts made by McDowell has increased since the office opened last month, with discussion topics ranging from incidents of DWI to concern about a friend or relative.
"We average three to four contacts daily," McDowell said. "We have some who are currently using and a lot of people affected by someone else's use."
It was the informal chats with students about drug use that prompted him to gain formal training in the area. McDowell completed an eight-month sabbatical in Wisconsin this summer, where he undertook 236 hours of counselor training and eight graduate credits in student assistance programs. He also developed two training manuals and resource books that were distributed to campus supervisors and student advisers at AACC.
"I became interested in heading the program because I had some knowledge and would joke with students in class while actually giving them information," McDowell said. "Once students realized that I had some knowledge of the problem, they began to come to me."
Now he is reaching out to the entire campus, providing information and making referrals to other private and public agencies in the county when needed.
The center is also filling a need for staff and faculty members who otherwise had to seek help from the United Way of Central Maryland's Help-At-Hand program.
The college does not have a formal employee assistance program.
The office is open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and by appointment on Tuesday and Thursdays. Its operating expenses are paid for by a 26-month, $82,844 federal grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education. The college is contributing $188,000 to the program over two weeks.