At the age of 16, a time when many teenagers are trying alcohol for the very first time, Julia Nelson was struggling to end a 5-year-long addiction.
And, yes, that means she began drinking when she was 11.
This past weekend, though, Nelson completed a remarkable turnaround: from teenage alcoholic and drug addict to graduate (with honors) from the University of San Francisco.
“When I thought about this day, I didn't think that would ever happen and I was terrified,” Nelson said. “But now, I'm very assured about my ability, and I think that more than anything, my history with drugs and alcohol has become a true asset.”
Before the age of 11, Nelson described herself as actively participating in soccer and being a happy-go-lucky kid growing up in Santa Barbara.
But there was a feeling of emptiness that she kept hidden, even from her mother and closest friends.
“It felt like everyone had a lightbulb above their head and they all flipped a switch and the lightbulb went on,” she said. “I flipped my switch and nothing happened, I just felt like I was missing something.”
Nelson said her first experience with alcohol turned that around.
“Alcohol was the only thing that made me want to be where I was and be who I was,” Nelson said.
Nelson said she eventually added marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and adderall to her alcohol comsumpion.
“I would just grind everything up and snort it,” said Nelson. “It didn't matter if it was Saturday at 1 a.m. or Tuesday at 10 a.m. in class. If I had it, I did it.”
It was not until Nelson was laying in the hospital after jumping through a glass window during what she described as a psychotic episode that Nelson got the wake up call of her life.
“We got the call from [a] detective, they told me I could either go to jail or rehab,” she said. “I had no intention of staying sober, but I didn't want to go to jail.”
After finally going through substance abuse treatment, Nelson said she wanted more than anything to be sober, but the underlying cause of her substance abuse was not yet resolved.
“That pit in my stomach was still there, alcohol filled it for a long time,” she said. “But when I stopped drinking, that hole was still there.”
Through the help of professionals, her mother and psychology textbooks, Nelson learned how to deal with her alcoholism and was able to get sober. Her research led the eager student to fall in love with psychology, which was ultimately the major she pursued at USF.
“I thought 'Okay maybe psychology would be a good fit for me',” she said. “It was really exciting and so I started taking school really seriously.”
Before transferring to USF, Nelson spent a few years at city college where she described really learning for the first time how to handle test taking and large class loads.
Now that she has turned the tassel on her graduation cap from the right to the left side, Nelson said she is forever grateful for the people who helped her on her long journey to sobriety.
“The community I found with other people who were sober is a really beautiful thing,” she said. “I talked about how, the first time I drank I didn't want to be anyone else. I've been able to find that feeling sober.”
Nelson plans to pursue a career in criminal justice reform and research. She said she wants to help the people who went through the criminal justice system but who were not, by virtue of their race or social standing, provided a second chances like she was.
“Being able to work with other young women who were getting sober, being able to go into high schools and talk to kids there, being able to go into jails, juvenile halls and talk to them has been a huge thing for me and my sobriety and it's really my way to give back to the world.”