A new semester has just begun at Salt Lake Community College. The halls are once again filling with students and online classes are being accessed from home, in coffee shops, and across the Salt Lake Valley.
For many, this will be one of several more semesters at SLCC, but for dance company member Shae Howell, this will be her final performance in a routine that has lasted almost a decade.
In 2010, Howell started her academic career at SLCC amidst utter chaos in her personal life.
“I had this double life, I’d go out and party and smoke weed and had a 19-year-old boyfriend,” Howell says. “Then, come Monday, I’d be this dance girl on the drill team; it made me feel like an outcast.”
Starting in her sophomore year of high school, Howell had become a self-described “blackout drunk.” As the child of two alcoholics, she spent her time juggling a quickly-growing addiction with her duties as a member of Hunter High School’s drill team.
“I will never turn to drugs and alcohol; I will not be my parents, that will not be me,” she says. “But I didn’t have coping tools, effective communication, emotion regulation; none of that was a part of growing up for me.”
For Howell, that was just the beginning of her journey through addiction. On the night of her high school graduation, a close family member shared OxyContin with her, and she suddenly “felt whole” for the first time.
“It became my salvation, it was my hope,” she says. “It was a lie. That wasn’t real, that I felt healed.”
Howell soon came to SLCC after having developed an addiction to OxyContin and made it onto the dance company in 2010.
“No one knew how much I was struggling. I had no idea that there were other people out there like me,” she says.
Due to a financial miscommunication with SLCC, Howell left after her first semester. From there, everything spiraled out of control.
“I was a pill popper, I was one of those people you hear about,” she says. “You think addiction just happens to other people, not you. But you have so much shame and denial when it does.”
The next four years of Howell’s life would be a descent into addiction. Chasing highs, stealing for her next fix, sleeping anywhere, becoming what she had imagined someone addicted to opioids was.
Unable to hold down a job, or make meaningful connections, Howell spiraled into a deep depression in 2014.
“I was suicidal,” she says. “I was drinking and high, I couldn’t live high or sober.”
While listening to a late-night radio station, Howell heard a message.
“It said, ‘If you or someone you know is addicted to drugs or alcohol and you need help, give us a call.’ ”
After calling the number, Howell entered treatment the following day.
“Six days of detox, 30 days of treatment, that was my Christmas 2014,” she says. “Now, it’s been four-and-a-half years, clean and sober.”
This was the beginning of a long road that Howell still walks every day. After getting clean, she returned to SLCC in 2015 to resume her schooling.
Howell wanted to reconnect with her artistic side, which had been lost in the fight against addiction.
“I tried out for dance company but didn’t make it. I was told to get in shape and come back the next semester,” she says. “I lost myself so much and I didn’t think I’d get it back.”
Howell made it the next semester. Soon after, SLCC’s dance company got a new director, Whitney Harris, who quickly became a friend and ally to Howell.
Harris speaks highly of Howell, saying that she is the “first person to check in with people” when they are struggling, a feeling Howell is all too familiar with.
“She’s [Howell] been a champion throughout,” Harris says. “Shae truly, genuinely loves people, and she is going to do whatever it takes to be successful.”
Howell’s time at SLCC is coming to an end, with this summer semester being her last. Having lived through addiction and come out the other side, she is focusing on her schooling. She plans to major in education at the University of Utah, and recently won the Terrel H. Bell scholarship for her commitment to becoming a teacher.
It isn’t over for Howell though; addiction never truly goes away.
“I want to live in the light now, but there are days where I feel like I can’t do this,” she says. “Recovery is a lot of work, a daily choice.”
Howell encourages any student to seek help if they feel they might be struggling with substance abuse.
“Our secrets keep us sick,” she says. “Talk to someone you trust and be fully honest with them.”
Howell is an advocate for wearing your worst parts on your sleeve. She hopes that by sharing her story, she can help others share theirs and move forward.
“Addiction does not discriminate,” she says. “You’re only going to get help if you’re honest.”
Harris believes drug use on campus is more prevalent than we think, especially after seeing Howell struggle without suspicion. She wants students to know that “it doesn’t have to be your defining moment.”
Howell recommends a 12-step program and therapy, which she says is what worked for her. But there are many options available.
SLCC has a comprehensive list of resources for help with substance abuse on the Center for Health and Counseling website.