From Rock Bottom to Columbia: My Journey of Recovery

In early March of 2020, life really wasn’t going my way. I had just dropped out of highschool, totaled my car and was working off my community service requirement for an underage possession charge. I was on the cusp of adulthood and to me it seemed I had already made too big a mess out of my future to hope of ever repairing it. What really baffled me was that no matter what I did I could not stay sober. That spring I found myself in a hospital bed again after a brief period of sobriety. I like it when things make sense. When life resembles a story, with a beginning, climax, and resolution. This hospital visit was the obvious turning point in my story. It was tragic enough that I could say to myself “Isaac, this is the part where you get sober, it has to be”. One week later I was on my way to Legacy. 

Spring of 2020 was an interesting period for many of us, as so with me. I probably remember it more fondly than most. The pandemic couldn’t have come at a better time for me. It helped me overcome the willingness boundary that so many of us face when embarking on the path of recovery. It felt like the world was taking a break so I could work on myself. The first couple days with my group were hard. I had not been around people my age without drugs and alcohol in months. I had to relearn some basic social skills and paid for my ineptitude in many awkward interactions, despite the best efforts of my peers to welcome me into the group. In spite of these social challenges, I found myself able to contribute to the group in other ways. I had grown up in Utah and had spent much of my childhood hiking and camping in the mountains. I was quite comfortable in this environment, which left me with plenty of energy to contribute to group tasks. I began to enjoy being useful to others. In active addiction there was rarely a time when people needed me, or a time when I was in a position to be helpful. I began to feel a new self worth, and started to see that I could have a place in other people’s lives. 

The social apprehensions soon fell away. I became very close with the other guys in my group. That is the best thing about wilderness therapy. It is often said that the opposite of addiction is connection, and in “woods” you have plenty of time and shared experience with your peers to form extremely strong connections. Some of the guys in my group I still keep in contact with years later. Two of them ended up going to the same aftercare program with me in Tucson, they are some of my closest friends. I began to really enjoy each day, not because of any excitement or pleasure, but because of the meaning I found in being present with others and walking in harmony with nature. 

Aside from the community I found at legacy, and the connections I made there, I also learned alot from my sessions with my therapist. His name was David Weider, and he changed my life. He no longer works at Legacy, but I know his impact is still felt by those he helped. He had a similar story to mine, but his had a much better ending than the one I had imagined for myself. He had traveled the world, had fallen in and out of love. He had lived a full life, the opposite of the one I was living. Back then I had no heroes. Addicts rarely have time for heroes. David became my first. Of the many things he and the program taught me about myself and about the world, two I find of utmost importance.

First, human beings need dreams. When an addict is transitioning to sobriety, one of the first things they will find is that they have a new mass of free time and free space for thought. This was true for me. My mind up to this point had been in a spiral of needing to feel pleasure because I was bored, and being bored because all I had was pleasure. When I got sober, I had to find something else to occupy my mind. David told me stories of his great adventures and I began to dream of my own. Not only did I dream of grandeur (that I could do before I got sober) but plans of how to accomplish these things began to form. I began to draw self-worth from my dreams, and in turn found some happiness in them. I began to be fueled in my new life by the goals of the future, which I had failed to conceive of in the past because I ruled them out as impossible.

This brings me to my second invaluable lesson; we need to have hope. Before all of this I fancied myself a realist. I was quick to point out all that was wrong with the world and dismiss the idea of things getting any better. This outward portrayal of pessimism translated to how I felt about my own prospects. How could I hope to accomplish anything, what right did I have to dream or succeed, with so much in disrepair. I soon learned that I had been looking at it all wrong, as I think most people do. The inner world must change before the outer world has any hope of being changed. I had to find some reason to hope despite the odds. To hope for a better life for myself and a better world for others. 

After leaving Legacy I was awarded a scholarship to live for free at a transitional living community in Tucson. Around this time, I picked up a book by Lyndsey Addario entitled “It’s What I Do”.  It is a memoir of Addario’s career as a photojournalist. I was moved to say the least. The way she talked about her vocation, the meaning she got from her work is what moved me. I wanted what she had, a career I was passionate about and that made a change in the world.  

In my first couple weeks in Arizona I enrolled at Pima Community College. I began taking general education classes. I took Political Science, Sociology, and Writing classes, and I did well. I found I had the capacity to understand topics that interested me, and bear those that did not. I discovered that those ideas I had about my potential were not based in reality. I could succeed and it didn’t have to be drudgery. This was the beginning of the dream forming process. Now, solid in recovery, I could begin to decide what I wanted to do with the new life I had been given. 

This past summer I was preparing to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson after completing most of my general education courses at the community college over the past three years. I was planning on completing a double major in Global Journalism and Global Studies with a focus in Human Rights. I had a stable job working at my old aftercare program and had a wonderful fellowship of friends in recovery. One day I received a letter from Columbia University urging me to apply to their undergraduate transfer program in New York. I applied, not thinking I would get in after they saw my highschool transcripts. On the 13th of July I received an email congratulating me on my acceptance to the school of General Studies, and instructing me to be in New York by August the 28th for orientation. After a couple days of emotional turmoil I decided to go. Leaving Tucson has been the hardest decision I have ever made, but I am reminded that the best things in my sobriety came when I took a chance. A chance for something different, a chance for connection, a chance for a dream. I am sure that these next couple years will be the hardest I have encountered, but it is nice to know that I have the ability to overcome challenges, my story is proof enough for me. 

 As I write this blog I am sitting in my new, way too expensive, apartment preparing for the start of classes tomorrow. I am reflecting on how the past three years of recovery have been and how I have done in taking what I learned at Legacy into the world. I am confident I have dreams, and I am confident in my ability to reach for them. I know I can be useful to others and form real, meaningful connections with those around me. And I have hope that if I continue on this path of recovery, my life and the lives of others will continue to improve. 

If you would like to help Isaac continue his studies at Columbia University, consider supporting or sharing his GoFundMe at