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By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – It had been nearly nine years since Clinton Zegers last stepped foot on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus.
He was in his early 20s then, a typical college student with a respectable 3.2 GPA preparing for his final semester of classes. By all appearances, the former homecoming king, class president and all-state football player at David City Aquinas High School was on the right track.
But he was hiding another life.
The Bellwood native started drinking around age 15, but he was rarely drunk during high school.
“I didn’t like the feeling of losing control,” he said.
That changed when he moved away for college.
Zegers found himself partying three or four nights a week in Kearney, usually with the same mission in mind.
“It was either I’m not drinking, or I’m getting blackout drunk,” he said.
The problem intensified when a long-term relationship ended.
“Instead of coping with my feelings the correct way, I leaned on the best medicine I knew, and that was alcohol,” Zegers said. “I just drank to excess.”
He stopped going to classes in fall 2010 and holed up in his apartment, where he downed cheap vodka until he passed out, then repeated the routine day after day.
His struggles were a secret to his friends and family and, to a certain extent, himself.
“I had no idea what addiction was,” Zegers said. “I didn’t think there was any way I could be an alcoholic.”
After dropping out of school – he told his family it was related to academics – Zegers moved in with a cousin back home and started working at the county jail. He wanted to be a sheriff’s deputy, but his health was a major obstacle.
Zegers resigned from his position with the sheriff’s office, citing anxiety issues.
“But it was really because I was drinking nonstop,” he said. “I was living a double life.”
ROAD TO RECOVERY
In January 2013, Zegers finally revealed his alcohol addiction to his mother.
He spent a few days detoxing in the intensive care unit at a Columbus hospital, but couldn’t commit to giving up booze.
“That’s the insanity of addiction,” Zegers said. “I’m literally in the ICU in the hospital, telling my family I’m still going to drink at holidays.”
Zegers knew he had a problem, but he hadn’t reached rock bottom yet.
“My life hadn’t become unmanageable,” he said.
He was in and out of treatment centers over the next four years, then his brother gave him an ultimatum – stop drinking or find a new place to live.
“It was the first time I wanted to be sober, I just didn’t know how,” Zegers said. “I was tired of living like that.”
MARCH 20, 2017
That’s when Zegers flew to Phoenix for a 60-day inpatient treatment program. He hasn’t touched alcohol since.
After completing the program, which required him to have a sponsor and follow the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, Zegers decided to remain in Arizona. He moved into a halfway house and served as a recovery manager assisting other addicts.
In February 2018, he started working for Pathfinders Recovery Center in nearby Scottsdale, first as a recovery support specialist then director of residential services.
“It’s something I always wanted to do, but I could never stay sober long enough to do it,” Zegers said.
The 31-year-old uses his own background to connect with people in similar situations, whether they’re millionaires, prison parolees or people living on the streets.
“It helped me a lot, too,” he said. “I try to learn something from everyone who comes through the treatment center or halfway house.”
Inspired by a friend and mentor, Zegers also refocused on another part of his life he abandoned eight years prior.
“Being sober is about more than just the drink or the drug, it’s about improving your life and the way you live,” Zegers said.
For him, that meant completing the degree he started in 2006.
Zegers enrolled in the online business administration program offered through UNK eCampus last fall. Admittedly, he was a bit nervous about distance education, but says the process couldn’t have gone any smoother.
“UNK offered a lot of support. My adviser was amazing. She went to bat for me,” Zegers said of online program recruitment specialist Stacey Schwarz.
Zegers returned to the UNK campus last week with his parents, siblings, girlfriend and other family members – all the people who supported him throughout this journey. They were in attendance Friday when he crossed the stage inside the Health and Sports Center to receive his bachelor’s degree in business administration with an accounting emphasis.
It was a moment worth fighting for.
“My mom was really proud. She cried and made me promise that I would walk,” said Zegers, who recently accepted a position as a probation officer with the state of Nebraska.