Not long ago, Tina Wambolt was drinking 24 beers a day and so depressed she could barely get off the sofa, much less leave her house.
Next month, the 40-year-old West Warwick resident will graduate from the University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus with a bachelor’s degree in human development and family science, with a minor in psychology.
It’s a huge accomplishment for Wambolt, who has not only been sober for eight years, but is also the first in her family to go to college. She is also graduating at the top of her class in her field.
“Graduating feels surreal,’’ she says. “With a life like mine I almost didn’t feel worthy. Getting a college degree was something other people did. But I made it. It’s a miracle.’’
Picking the right college played a role in her success too, she says. At URI’s Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Continuing Education she discovered excellent professors, supportive students and internships that should help her find a job counseling alcoholics and drug addicts.
“I want to show people there’s a better way and they’re worth saving,’’ she says. “I’ve been there, so I know what they’re going through.’’
Her childhood in North Attleboro, Mass. was anything but normal. She grew up with a father who drove trucks for a living and a mother who worked as an accountant. Her grandfather, who died in 2007, started sexually abusing her at age 2 and continued until she was 14. He also introduced her to wine coolers at the tender age of 12.
“The alcohol was numbing for me,’’ says Wambolt. “It helped me cope with the situation.’’
She managed to graduate from high school, although weekends were spent drinking and hanging out with her older boyfriend, who bought the alcohol. By the age of 18, she was married with a baby. In her early 20s, drinking started to take over.
“Everyone would be passed out at a party, but I would stay up and drink until the alcohol was all gone, every last bottle or can,’’ she says. “Sometimes, I’d drink by myself until 4 in the morning.’’
When her marriage failed, she moved back in with her mother. In 1998, she married again and had another child, a daughter, but the drinking escalated and contributed to the end of her marriage.
Still, she forged ahead. She married again – in 2002 to Brian Wambolt – and even held down a full-time job in a group home, drinking only on weekends. “Then things really deteriorated,’’ she says. “I couldn’t stop.’’
She lost her children to state social services. She was drinking two 12-packs of beer a day, plus a half pint of vodka. She was arrested for drunken driving, and her mother found her passed out on the living room floor with a blood-alcohol content of .477, six times higher than the legal limit. “I should have been dead,’’ she says.
On Sept. 4, 2007, her husband and mother committed her to a rehabilitation center in New Bedford, Mass., where she sobered up, got counseling and was inspired by a counselor to become an addiction therapist.
“She made me feel like my life was worth living,’’ she says. “I wanted to give that feeling to someone else.’’
After 18 months at an outpatient center, her husband dragged her to the Community College of Rhode Island to sign up for classes – a trip she doesn’t regret. She earned her associate’s degree in substance abuse counseling in May 2012, then transferred to URI’s Providence campus in the fall.
At first, she was terrified of failing. “I didn’t think I was capable like other people. When you grow up like I did you have a low self-worth.’’ Slowly, she became more confident – socially and academically.
“The Providence campus was the best place for me,’’ she says. “The classes were small, the younger students appreciated where I was coming from and the professors were supportive. They wanted me to succeed.’’
Her internships at Tri-Hab in Woonsocket, the Providence Center and the Addiction Recovery Institute in Warwick also provided practical experience crucial in her job search.
She’s graduating at the top of her class, with a grade-point average of 3.99 – high enough to earn the University Academic Excellence Award in Providence’s human development and family science department. Wambolt’s husband, parents and two children, who are back in her life and filled with pride for their mother, will be in the audience when she receives her diploma.
“It feels weird sometimes,’’ she says. “I can’t believe I’ve come this far. I’m a little scared, but that’s to be expected. I’m also really excited. To be able to start a new life helping others discover their potential is an honor.’’