May 27, 2019 | Katherine Adams
Deborah Thornton has not let her age nor the challenges of her past deter her from achieving her academic goals. A two-time alumna of University of Houston-Clear Lake, Thornton recently received the Department of Behavioral Science’s Outstanding Student of 2018 award. Now equipped with two master’s degrees – one in sociology, received in December 2016, and another in behavioral sciences, received in December of 2018, she is working towards her goal of teaching and inspiring others to overcome the obstacles life inevitably presents.
“It’s taken me nine years to get through my education. I started later in life due to my alcoholism,” said Thornton, now 53. “I’m a recovering alcoholic and in June, I will have 17 years sober.”
Thornton said that growing up, she’d lived with turmoil and chaos in her family. She was introduced to social drinking when she began classes at Tyler Junior College. “Then I was introduced to drugs, and in my last semester, my transcript was mainly ‘W’s’, for ‘withdrawn,’” she said. Thornton struggled with drug use for several more years, but her alcoholism stole 18 years of her life. “I functioned well as an alcoholic,” she said. “I worked, and I never drank at home or in front of my daughter. Many people had no idea I was an alcoholic.”
She began a successful career in sales but spent 12 years trying to maintain sobriety. She relapsed often. “I simply could not stay sober,” she said. “I got arrested multiple times, including three felony charges. Going to jail is what saved me. I finally realized that my alcoholism was destroying my life. The consequences of my addiction are still affecting me.”
Today, she’s an active member of a 12-step group and she shares her story anytime someone asks. “I realized that helping others is my path. My past has become my greatest asset,” she said.
After being released from incarceration, Thornton said she could not find employment due her criminal record. “I worked two or three jobs for years trying to make ends meet. That’s what happens when you have felonies on your record,” she said.
“In 2006, I read ‘America Anonymous’ and found my purpose in life. It made me realize that staying sober in a 12-step program was not enough. My personal recovery wasn’t helping the global issue of addiction,” she said. “I needed to go back to school so that I could make a difference.” After obtaining an associate and a bachelor’s degree, she became a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor in Texas and worked in substance abuse treatment.
The chair of her bachelor’s program told Thornton that she should go to law school because she was very outspoken during classroom discussions about topics pertaining to addiction and incarceration. Instead, she went to UHCL to begin her graduate studies. A year ago, she presented a paper titled, “The Criminalization of Pregnant Women; Barriers to Substance Abuse Treatment” at the Harvard Medical School Addiction Symposium. She presented the same paper at the Society for Social Justice annual convention last August and will be presenting again at the American Sociological Association in August of 2019.
“I love to do research and write. I am drawn to topics that raise awareness of social
injustice regarding addiction and incarceration,” she said.
She said she also loved the time she spent in her classes at UHCL. “Overall, I had great professors,” she said. “They’re very supportive. I think UHCL is a great place if you’re like me and starting school later in life.”
“Deborah is a great example of the opportunities UHCL provides for our nontraditional students,” said Professor of Sociology Mike McMullen, who also chaired Thornton's behavioral sciences master of arts thesis. “She enhances class discussion by being willing to talk about the challenges she has faced in her life, and her research, which we hope will be published soon, is powerfully informed by both her personal and academic knowledge of addiction and the punitive force of the criminal justice system.”
Although finding a job has proven more difficult than she thought, Thornton said she hoped to pursue her passion to help women coming out of prison and entering society. “I love to teach – I’m dying to teach. I want to teach from a different life perspective. I never dreamed I would want to be a college professor. I came to UHCL for graduate school and fell in love with learning and teaching.”
For now, she works with people in 12-step programs and volunteers at treatment centers and sober living facilities. “I support their recovery from addiction, and I help them plan for a future in their new sober life. I always encourage them to go to school and I help them apply for college and financial aid.”