Losing a friend to drugs leads to a career in social work and addiction recovery

Frank Greenagel, left, and his friend, Fraser, who died of a drug overdose, pose in younger days.
Photo: Courtesy of Frank Greenagel

'When I think about why I do what I do, he is at the top of the list. I still cry about him sometimes.'

- Frank Greenagel

Students who live in Rutgers Recovery Housing, a sober living on-campus residence, are well on their way to recovery from drug or alcohol addictions. But one of the most challenging moments a recovering addict can face is when a friend from the past overdoses.

When this happens, students can turn to Frank Greenagel, a clinical social worker and recovery counselor at the Rutgers recovery houses in New Brunswick and Newark. Greenagel knows on a personal level what it feels like to lose a friend to addiction.

In 2002, one of Greenagel’s closest friends, Fraser, died at 27 of an overdose of alcohol and crack cocaine, ending an intermittent period of sobriety with tragic consequences. Greenagel and Fraser had been friends since their sophomore year at Voorhees High School, a location Greenagel recently returned to, along with current Recovery House students, to teach about the perils of addiction.

“I liked Fraser immediately because he was very bright, had a great sense of humor, was a terrific story teller and was always involved in chaos. But by the time we were seniors, his addiction problem was very evident,” recalls Greenagel.

The downward spiral continued with Fraser failing out of the University of Pennsylvania and getting arrested for drug possession multiple times. Greenagel tried to assist with recovery, even letting him live in his undergraduate apartment at Rutgers. Fraser would be clean, and then relapse. Finally, the call came that he had died, and that loss changed the trajectory of Greenagel’s life, convincing him to become a social worker. He applied to the Rutgers School of Social Work MSW program three days before the deadline.

“When I think about why I do what I do, he is at the top of the list. I still cry about him sometimes,' Greenagel says. “There is picture of him in each of my offices.”

Now Greenagel, who was appointed to the Governor’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse and named chair of the New Jersey Heroin and Other Opiates Task Force in 2012, uses that experience to help students.

Greenagel speaks nationwide about drug and alcohol addiction.
Photo: Courtesy of Frank Greenagel

When Recovery House at Rutgers was created in 1988, it was the first of its kind in the world, designed as a place where students could support each other’s sobriety while forming meaningful relationships. The residence atmosphere is a mixture of academic focus, social activities and recovery support. Students are required to be sober at least 90 days before moving in and to participate in a 12-Step Program during residence. The average GPA has risen to 3.2.  Group activities include hiking, biking and speaking at high schools. There are 18 people in recovery that graduated from Rutgers this year and on average 35 live in the housing. The location is kept private.

For resident assistant Neha, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Recovery House is the main reason she has been able to stay in school and excel, maintaining a 4.0 as a graduate student.  Her use of drugs and alcohol began at age 14 as a way to fit in with a peer group. Addiction happened quickly and led to arrests and a brief jail time. Five of the friends that she wanted so much to emulate have since died from drug-related events, overdoses, suicides, accidents.

“I finally got sick and tired of the way I was living and went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. For some reason, it stuck. I was very scared to be newly sober and go back to school, but the Recovery House was essential in that transition. The first few years of sobriety are so delicate. I could not have gotten through it without House support,” says Neha.

Life without addiction has allowed her to do things she always wanted to do, like volunteering for two years in Costa Rica, going on vacations and partaking in hobbies like bird watching.

“I can have a real relationship now for the first time. I am now learning how to live because I missed so much of life before,” she adds.

The House reports a 95 percent abstinence rate and a 98 percent graduation rate. Greenagel, who describes the staff members who assist Recovery House students as “hard-working and capable,” credits them with its success.  He and his co-workers, including Lisa Laitman, director of Rutgers’ Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program, work as a team to achieve those statistics.

“We see students in clinical sessions as well as out in the world, which is gratifying. You can get a good sense of a person by seeing them in both environments and watching them grow. There is a lot of bonding and we stay connected even after they graduate,” he says.

Recovery House is raising money for scholarships, activities and a new building. The scholarship will be in Fraser’s name and in memory of anyone who lost their addiction battle. Donations can be made payable to Rutgers ADAP and sent to Rutgers CAPS, c/o Frank Greenagel or Lisa Laitman, 17 Senior Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901.