A (Re) Commitment to Thrive
Cal State East Bay grad who overcame homelessness, addiction, depression looks to give back
“I am homeless. I am addicted to cocaine. I am addicted to alcohol. From head to toe I am covered in addictions that have plagued my life for too long. I’ve never been so lost or confused in my life. I sleep wherever I can with whoever I can to drown my depression and a lie that I have been keeping from those who have cared so deeply for me. I push away my family to continue living a lie. Nobody has any idea how badly I want to leave this earth. I don’t belong here. I am going to sleep now and if you find this, share my life with the world. Share the stories both good and bad. Share the love. Share the happiness. Share life just as I tried to do. I love, and that is all I have to offer you.”
Nelson Harrison didn’t think he would make it through the night when he wrote this just after midnight in January 2016.
“I really thought at that point, my life was a wreck,” the Cal State East Bay kinesiology student said. “There was nothing to live for anymore. I fell asleep, and the very next day, I woke up and that was it. I don’t know what happened, how it happened, but that was the turning point of my life.”
Harrison says he grew up in an abusive home where drugs were prevalent. By the time he was 10-years-old, he was smoking weed, and eventually, his addiction turned to alcohol and harder drugs, including cocaine.
“It was how can I escape from all of this and pretend it is not happening? It was just a cycle that I have been in my whole life,” Harrison said.
He enrolled in Cal State East Bay’s kinesiology program hoping to clean up his act, but during the course of his studies, his father suffered two strokes. His sister battled breast cancer, and Harrison says the stress from those life-changing events sent him spiraling deeper into depression and addiction.
“I don’t believe I can be where I am now if I didn’t go through that. I just wish that it wouldn’t have been to the extent that it was. I really, really, really went overboard. That’s my lifestyle— all or nothing and drugs were one of those those things that was all or nothing. I went to all of it and was left with nothing.”
Looking back, Harrison says the night back in 2016 doesn’t seem real. He woke up the next morning, quite literally and figuratively.
“From that moment on my life completely changed,” Harrison said. “Everything that I could ever imagine going wrong started going right for me and now I am finally here, about to graduate. It’s the greatest thing.”
Harrison worked hard at making amends with his family and getting back on track at school.
“The three words that really help me— compassion, forgiveness and gratitude,” he said. “Every time I wake up, I say thank you and just look at myself in the mirror and say you made it! You made it!”
Harrison said he isn’t sure about his next step, but he knows his purpose in life is to bring smiles to others and to give back whenever and wherever he can. The 31-year-old runs a free boot camp and cooks fresh meals for the homeless in Berkeley at least once a week.
“Knowing what Nelson has had to overcome to get where he is today is both inspirational and humbling,” said Paul Carpenter, chair of the Department of Kinesiology. “Inspirational in that the challenges he has faced and overcome, the demons he has conquered, offers hope to others that they too cannot only survive but thrive. Humbling in that his willingness to give back and help others gives me perspective on how privileged I am. The support and encouragement he has given me as my personal trainer as I have dealt with a health issue, has been invaluable and for which I owe him a debt of gratitude. He may yet convince me to go vegan!”
Harrison, a tri-athlete, has had a profound impact on his professors who say he is a standout who reminds them of their responsibility to the health of our environment, and of our bodies.
“He's very smart, works incredibly hard, with a driving commitment to a set of values that will make him an invaluable member of any community lucky enough to have him,” said Cathy Inouye, associate professor of kinesiology. “There's an altruistic element to the work he plans to do upon being graduated, plans that include international travel and impacting lives of others by teaching and educating others about effective exercise programming and evidence-based benefits of movement and physical activity from a multidisciplinary perspective.”