Cooper Iven: 4th Year Global Studies Major
In his office in Embarcadero Hall, Cooper is relaxed, wearing a flannel and beanie, propping his feet on his skateboard which he rocks slowly back and forth. He speaks softly, and flashes huge smiles when he thinks back on fond memories he’s made at UCSB. But not all of them are so happy. You wouldn’t know it just by looking, but Cooper has gone though one of the most profound college experiences I’ve ever heard of.
“Senior year of high school I was living a kind of double life. It was a little strange. I had this whole public facade of being super involved in my community. I worked on a lot of public works projects. I was doing pretty well in school and had all this stuff going for me. But privately I was completely miserable.”
Cooper is a recovering alcoholic. For almost two years now he has been clean and sober. Before that, from his junior year of high school to his second year of college he was drinking every day in an attempt to self-medicate his inner struggles with anxiety and depression. This behavior almost ruined his life. But today he is working three jobs, counseling students in UCSB’s Drug and Alcohol programs, and setting his sights on a future of service towards others. Cooper’s development since his time coming to UCSB exemplifies the notion that college is about much more than reading books and taking tests.
* * *
As a high school student in his suburban Los Angeles town, Cooper was a standout member of the community. He was thoroughly involved in public affairs, helping to start a recreation center for teens and founding a youth town council that worked along-side the real city council. He was passionate about skate boarding, and in his sophomore year he spearheaded an effort to build a skate park so kids would have a safe and fun place to hang out. He was well known around the area- he often spoke at local meetings and to business owners on behalf of the many projects he took on, including raising over $2 million dollars for the design and building of the ambitious skate park. There are newspaper articles you can find online today about Cooper’s beneficial impact in his home town.
But underneath his exterior of strength and positivity, Cooper was developing problems with substance abuse. He told me he found it ironic that he was selling the idea of his skate park as, in his words, “a healthy and constructive place for kids,” when he was personally beginning down a destructive path with alcohol. In his junior year, Cooper’s experimentation with smoking and drinking began to morph into something much more sinister. His consumption ramped up significantly throughout his senior year, so that when it came time to move to Santa Barbara for college he was battling a serious addiction.
“By the time I left high school I was a daily drinker, and smoking pot and taking acid,” he remembers, “I had to drink or I couldn’t sleep.”
These behaviors took a toll on his relationships at home. Cooper tried to get sober once in high school when he realized that his drinking was interfering with his friendships, but eventually fell back into it after only a few months. He fought with his parents constantly, and was even kicked out of his house on multiple occasions.
When he came to college he thinks it was probably a sort of relief for them. But as an alcoholic experiencing complete independence for the first time, his transition to freshman year was anything but easy. For any young person, learning to navigate the world without the support and structure they relied on before college is hard. When you put an addiction to alcohol on top of that, the barriers to becoming a productive, autonomous member of society can seem overwhelming.
Because his parents refused to support him financially, Cooper was left to find ways to support himself, and his habits, on his own. He turned to hustling where he could, and stealing alcohol from stores when he had to. Just making it through his day to day was difficult: as his addiction progressed, Cooper became chemically dependent on alcohol. He needed to consume a base level every day to avoid the crippling withdrawals that would accompany sobriety. Cooper said it was scarier for him at that time to think about not having money for alcohol than for food. Running out of alcohol meant suffering from the anxiety and depression that the alcohol helped to subdue, and without it he wouldn’t be able to sleep.
Money was tight. Cooper tried to get a job on campus, but showed up late and hungover on his first day and was immediately fired. “Getting a job just seemed like something I couldn’t do,” Cooper reflected, though he wondered if at the time he simply just didn’t want to even try.
Things were stressful for much of that year. Cooper relied on a meal plan and the AS Food Bank to keep him fed. Meanwhile, the entire academic side of college felt completely separate from the daily tasks of just getting by.
“It was increasingly difficult to make it to class. Especially having the freedom of not living with my parents, no one is forcing me to go. If I’m too hungover, or too drunk, or too lazy, why would I go to class?”
Lots of students can probably relate to this sentiment, but for someone caught in the throngs of alcoholism it extends far beyond the normal adjustment from external to internal motivation to do well. When he did make it to class, he was almost always buzzed or drunk in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms, which made it very hard to concentrate. The once successful student found himself struggling to stay afloat in his new academic environment.
* * *
Despite the normalization of alcoholism in college, and especially in Isla Vista, Cooper knew that his drinking was crippling him. Even though there were times when he wanted a way out, it felt almost impossible. One of the most debilitating facets of alcoholism is its progressive nature: the longer it goes on, the more you become physically and emotionally addicted. Withdrawal becomes more intense task with each passing day of continued drinking. When he tried to sober up on his own early in his sophomore year it was a nightmare- insomnia, hallucinations, seizures, and worst of all, the knowledge that it would get worse and worse as time went on. Additionally, Cooper was forced to confront many of the underlying emotions that caused him to drink in the first place. In the end, he began drinking again. It was just easier than confronting recovery on his own.
Halfway through that second year, after failing to detox successfully, Cooper reached his absolute breaking point. After a particularly bad bender he was on the verge of failing his classes for the quarter, and was moving out of his apartment suddenly. “A lot of things in my life were falling apart at the same time,” Cooper recalls. Something needed to be done.
He realized that he needed to find help, which led him to go to the Counseling and Psychological Services Center (CAPS) where he finally told counselors about the extent of his substance abuse. From there he was referred to the Drug and Alcohol Program, who then referred him to Student Health. They were able to help Cooper detox safely in a hospital, and afterwards secure a spot in a legitimate rehabilitation program where he could receive professional help in facing his addiction. It was one of the hardest things he’s ever done, but without going through it Cooper would not be where he is today.
When his time in rehab was finished, Cooper moved back into Isla Vista to a sober living housing complex called “The Haven.” At this house students and other young people live and learn together in a community dedicated to recovery from numerous substance dependencies. For alcoholics committed to living sober, detoxing is only the first step on the long road to recovery.
Overcoming the temptations to drink requires lots of personal growth and changes in lifestyle. Cooper says being surrounded by other students who are undergoing the same difficult process has been instrumental in his ability to do so. With so many people around him who have been through the challenges of recovery, Cooper found role models and peers. He told me one of the hardest parts of trying to sober up before finding this community was the isolation of not having anyone to share his experiences with:
“Before if I was having a hard time, or needed to reach out to somebody, I didn’t have anybody. All of the people I was connected with were either my drinking buddies at best, or drug dealers or people I would hit up if I needed something.”
Now, Cooper has an entire network of friends who know exactly what he’s feeling: “No matter what I go through, I am not alone in it.” This made it easier to deal with the ups and downs of recovery over the past few years.
* * *
As a part of that process, Cooper has been forced to confront many of the underlying issues behind his drinking in ways he could never before do. The turbulence of college causes many students to reexamine who they are, but for Cooper the need to do so was particularly urgent. Without understanding why he felt the need to rely on alcohol to subdue his emotions, he could easily fall into the habit again. It’s been a journey of personal discovery that’s brought intermittent anguish, joy and ultimately a level of relative clarity and peace.
“Growing up I always thought I was such a special little snowflake, that I was such a good person. I had my demons, but at the end of the day I was caring and loving and this great guy. But coming in here and getting this clearer lens on it, I realized that I’m super selfish. Realizing that has been kind of challenging, but also freeing in a way. I know what I’m up against, and I know how to work on it.”
One of the ways Cooper dealt with these realizations is to rediscover many of the things that made him who he was before his drinking got in the way. After getting sober he began to think about how important participating in his community was to his character. Helping others was a fundamental part of who he was, and what made him happy. Though his addiction interfered with this for a while, recovering within a group of peers who cared so deeply for each other reminded him of how integral to his life being of service to others is. A lot of his desire to accomplish massive goals was inspired by the benefit that they would bring to those around him:
“I didn’t put that much effort into most things that would have helped me personally. When it was other people involved and I felt like I was doing it for other people, I found this other kind of motivation to get it done.”
That sort of motivation helped him to build his skate park in high school, and now it’s helping him to stay on track with his recovery. Reconnecting with his desire to help others led Cooper to join UCSB’s Drug and Alcohol program as a counselor. Cooper’s job is to talk with students who come in over concerns with their own substance abuse habits, a topic which can be hard to discuss with professional therapists or counselors. Peer to peer counseling is less intimidating, and because the peer counselors have often had their own experiences with substance abuse they can provide a relatable perspective to students unsure about to how address their concerns. Cooper has learned to use this drive to help others as a way to stay focused on his own recovery by bring continuously active in trying to help fellow students accomplish their goals. By refocusing his energy on his community, he finds strength and perseverance to remain dedicated to sobriety and personal growth. At first, he felt a little unsure about taking on a paid position doing service that might otherwise have been done for free, but after spending a few months in the job he told me that it just feels right:
“I’m on fire for this job in a way that I’ve never gotten at any job I’ve worked before.”
Testing the waters of working in the social service realm revealed to Cooper that, far from presenting a conflict of interest, knowing that he could provide genuine help to those who need it while making a living felt like a natural step in his personal journey. He told me that he is seriously considering working for the organization that runs his sober living home. Since they are planning to expand their housing and counseling programs to other college communities around the country, there are plenty of opportunities for him to find a position leveraging his desire to guide others through their own process of recovery. On top of that, Cooper has been working on the sales team for a start-up software company in Goleta, where the prospects of a job after college look promising.
* * *
Out of what he called a “literal hell” he was living though, Cooper is now in a place of health, motivation, and excitement for his future. He’s back to doing many of the things that made him happy before his addiction: skateboarding, going to the beach and mountains, and just hanging out with real friends. He told me that he started a writing club with some of his buddies. Every week they meet up and share some literary creation they made, be it poems, short stories or whatever else comes to mind. Cooper is working on preserving some of the more memorable experiences he had during his drinking years, both good and bad. Remembering where he was is important to moving forward.
If college is about learning who we are, and how to prioritize in our lives the things we care about, Cooper’s story is as successful as any star scholar. Figuring out what we want and what makes us tick leads to the kind of development necessary for finding happiness and passion in our lives. The prioritization of how we spend our energy is maybe the ultimate goal of our time in university, and possibly for the rest of our lives. This process looks different for each person, and for Cooper it came in the form of having no choice but to look inside of himself and grow.
“I feel like if I hadn’t been forced to learn it, I never would have.”
Whatever the trigger might be, navigating the uncertainty of identity and calling requires negotiating our own periods of growth with the same strength and openness as Cooper.