Total turnaround: From athlete to addict to college graduate

  • June 9, 2012

By Jeremy Walsh
Staff Writer, Record-Bee

LAKE COUNTY -- Former Nice resident Juanita Allison is set to graduate next week with a bachelor's degree in cell and molecular biology from California State University, East Bay.

"I feel like I'm finally being the person that I was intended to be," Allison, 32, said with the June 15 commencement ceremony approaching.

But it wasn't always easy for Allison to envision herself wearing a college cap and gown, especially as she was falling from the heights of high school athletics to the depths of drug and alcohol addiction.

Allison, who attended Upper Lake schools growing up, made local headlines in the mid-1990s because of her track-and-field skills.

Though she competed in a variety of events, her specialties were the long jump and triple jump. Her career-best of 37 feet, 3 inches in the triple jump qualified her for the state championships and remains an Upper Lake High School record.

She moved out of the county for her senior year and finished high school in Rancho Cordova.

However, issues with alcohol derailed a potential collegiate career at CSU Sacramento.

Allison said she "started sort of partying a little bit too much and wasn't able to focus on my studies."

By 2002, Allison -- having failed out of college and in her early 20s -- moved back to Nice in an effort to curb her alcohol problem. But her troubles escalated within three months of returning to Lake County.

"I started going to the bars, and guess I never really was good at controlled drinking," she said.

Allison remembered being banned from county bars and then getting what she called "a good idea to help with my drinking problem" -- methamphetamine.

"I drank so much I guess I had a bright idea that well, at least I wouldn't be passing out and stumbling everywhere if I use meth," she said.

The addictions translated into arrests on charges such as being under the influence, possessing drugs and failing to appear in court.

And in May 2004, Allison again made headlines in the Record-Bee.

The Lake County Sheriff's Office reported at the time that Allison, then 24, twice tried to escape during the same incident after being told she was under arrest. On the second occasion, she was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car but ran away as deputies gathered evidence. Authorities found her in Clear Lake near some docks.

Allison said if she hadn't spent the next five-plus months in the Lake County Hill Road Correctional Facility, she might not have gotten clean.

"I had enough time, enough days in jail where I basically had to be sober and to see that there was another way," she said.

Allison also found motivation from devastating news she received while in jail. She remembered finding out on her 25th birthday that the grandmother who helped raise her had died.

"In my mind, I didn't want all her years of raising my brother and I to be in vain," Allison said.

She recalled posting bail in October 2004 and initially being unable to quit using drugs. But Allison grew weary of her addiction-controlled lifestyle by April 2005.

"I was tired of using. I was tired of running because when you have warrants, you have to really watch out if you're not ready to go to jail, and so I was trying to hide out and it was really hard," Allison said.

On April 25, 2005, she appeared in court and was remanded into custody. That marked her first day clean.

Allison remembered staying in jail until June 2005, when her escape case resolved and left her with "a long laundry list of probation terms."

She said she was then transported to Solano County because of a traffic warrant. When she was released on her own recognizance in Fairfield, Allison got a ride to Napa.

"I never went back home because I knew the same thing would happen as when I always got out, that I would probably find the old friends and the old acquaintances before I found a support group for recovering people," Allison said.

She briefly went to Los Angeles but relocated to Oakland in summer 2005.

While in the Bay Area, Allison said she completed her probation-required treatment and started going to a career center. A counselor there signed her up for a biotechnology-training course, and her teachers soon encouraged her to earn a vocational certificate.

"So I just kept going. I enrolled in the next semester and I've been going to school really ever since then," Allison said.

She remembered completing classes for the certificate at Contra Costa College in San Pablo and then continuing with courses to meet transfer requirements for a four-year degree.

She transferred to CSU East Bay in Hayward in 2008.

The next four years were challenging: financially, educationally and emotionally.

Allison said she relies on scholarships, uses public transport and lives in public housing in Oakland. She maintains a full course load.

"I've seen her progress from a rank beginner to a more advanced scientist," CSU East Bay professor Chris Baysdorfer said.

To supplement her coursework, Allison interned in San Francisco.

Pierre Desprez, of the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute, remembered being struck by Allison's drive while working as a scientific intern.

"She did very well ... she was very motivated," said Desprez, who has worked 20 years as a cancer researcher.

Allison was named on several articles published in medical journals because of her research work at the institute with brain, breast and prostate cancers.

As for drugs and alcohol, she celebrated seven years clean and sober in April.

"I wouldn't say that the nature of addiction has changed, but I know how to deal with it when it comes up," Allison said.

"Instead of going for a drink when I'm upset or I'm stressed out, now I have a lot of tools that I'm used to doing, like calling someone in my support group or doing something healthy -- praying, meditating, going for a walk or going to help someone else," she added.

With her undergraduate studies coming to an end, Allison said she worked to get her criminal record expunged and is considering several professional options, including a teaching credential, a master's degree or a job in the science field.

"I don't know exactly what I'm going to do yet but I know I'm going to do something. I can feel it," she said.

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