Jeff Neer never grows tired of repeating an important lesson he says he discovered along his own path to recovery.
“I really like to point out that people who are at incredible lows in their lives can turn things around and have extremely meaningful lives,” said Neer, a final year MSW student in the School’s Triangle Distance Education Program and an Ellen E. Power and Dean’s Scholar.
Neer is certainly living proof. For the better part of 20 years, the North Carolina native struggled with addiction to crack cocaine. He’s been clean for the last eight—a journey that actually began at UNC and eventually led him to the School of Social Work and to a new career in helping others who are also struggling with substance use.
Neer fell into addiction shortly after entering Carolina in 1985 as a promising UNC Morehead-Scholar. He planned to study political science and considered applying for law school. But within two years, he had become firmly addicted to drugs and dropped out of school altogether instead.
He remained in the area and ultimately landed various jobs in horticulture and commercial landscaping, work that often placed him alongside colleagues also struggling with their own addictions. Over the years, Neer’s multiple attempts to kick his habit generally ended in relapses, exacerbating his family’s personal and financial stress.
Then, about eight years ago, he found himself back at UNC, this time as a new hire with the University’s grounds services. The position provided him with the structure and support Neer said he needed to get clean. After years of individual counseling and therapy, 12-step meetings and even participation in a drug study at Duke, Neer said he finally made the decision to enter Fellowship Hall, an alcohol and drug treatment center in Greensboro.
Shortly thereafter, he discovered the Shambhala Meditation Center in Durham, where he eagerly embraced the study of mindfulness and Buddhist meditation.
“I went to this place and I was desperate and miserable and feeling really alone in the world, and they just accepted me,” Neer recalled. “Finding the meditation center was a turning point in my recovery. That’s when I decided I wanted to do something that specifically was of benefit to other people.”
With support from the University’s tuition waiver program, Neer began taking classes again and earned an anthropology degree from Carolina in 2012. He enrolled in the School’s Triangle DE program about a year later and at the same time, was hired as a peer support specialist with the Wake Assertive Community Treatment Team under UNC’s Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health.
Neer, who initially only saw himself as a substance abuse counselor, is now equally passionate about his work with individuals with mental illness, many of whom also struggle with addiction. Diagnosed with anxiety disorder, he can also easily relate.
“I’m really good at building rapport with clients because I’ve been there,” he said. “I’ve been through most of the things they’re going through and I can understand that sometimes you can’t just put (substances) down and walk away from it as much as you’d like to because that’s just not a plausible solution.”
Through his interest in the Governor’s Institute on Substance Abuse, from which he recently was awarded a scholarship, Neer said he’s also learning to be a more powerful advocate for those he aims to serve. Part of that advocacy is sharing his own story and reminding others that addiction never discriminates.
“So many people have this very biased opinion of who does crack, and it’s especially important that people know that every culture and every ethnicity can be affected by addiction.”
Neer remains grateful for the second chance he was given to turn his own life around, an opportunity he found much easier to pursue largely because of the financial support he received to return to school.
“I simply would not have been able to go to grad school without these scholarships,” he said. “So, I’m extremely thankful for the experience in this program, which has been priceless. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”