“Over under sideways down,


Backwards forwards square and round.”

– The Yardbirds (1966)

There was a time those ly rics described the life of Charles Leipziger, fueled by drugs and alcohol – lots of alcohol – and fed by wishful illusions.

Not today. As he nears his 16th year of living sober, Leipziger transferred from Santa Monica College into San Francisco State University this fall, where he is majoring in history, and hopes to become a teacher.

In 1991, his father offered to support him financially if he attended school full time. He enrolled at SMC, where one of his instructors introduced him to the works of Raymond Carver. Leipziger decided to become a writer.

He tried his hand at “poetry and short stories, but not in any kind of disciplined fashion, so I wasn’t very good at it,” he said.

In 1992, an SMC Study Abroad program took Leipziger to England. “And yet – despite this wonderful opportunity to study abroad – I carried on drinking alcohol and using drugs at a very frantic pace,” he said.

He decided to become a classical actor. In 1994, he went to study theater arts at New York University (NYU) and the Stella Adler Conservatory (now the Stella Adler School of Acting).

At NYU, Leipziger took part in a Shakespeare workshop with performers from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and began a passionate relationship with one of the performers. “I wanted to marry this woman and have kids with her,” he said.

So he dropped out of NYU in 1996, and headed to London, with hopes to audition and be accepted as a full-time student at the Royal Academy.

He auditioned.

He was not accepted.

And his love affair crashed.

Leipziger returned to the US defeated and drinking heavily. He spent time living on the streets of New York before making his way back to Los Angeles. Working at a Venice pizzeria, he met a man involved in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). “He wasn’t doing drugs or drinking, but was really enjoying life,” said Leipziger, “and I thought, ‘I want what this guy has.’ ”

Leipziger started attending AA meetings. “But I wasn’t done drinking,” he said.

In summer 1997, he returned to audition in London, and was turned down. In 1999, he repeated the cycle. When he returned to Venice, he “just lost it,” he said. “I was picked up by the psychiatric emergency team.” Leipziger was diagnosed as bipolar.

In 2000, after 6 months of therapy and 7 months of not drinking, “I got on a plane thinking, ‘One more time, I’m going to go to London. This time it’s going to be different.’ I mean the insanity was just ridiculous,” said Leipziger.

But this time, he brought along the phone number of a man in AA. “On the night I arrived in London,” said Leipziger, “I called this guy, and I broke down.”

He met the man for an AA meeting the next day, and something changed. “For the first time in my life, I had a moment of surrender,” Leipziger said. He continued attending meetings. And went through his audition-and-get-turned-down routine, but when he came home this time, he immersed himself in AA’s 12-step program.

Time-shift forward to January 2014 and the “a lot sooner” part.

“I was almost 14 years sober then,” said Leipziger, “and a friend asked, ‘If you could do anything you wanted to do, what would you do?’ I said, ‘I would go back to school and get a degree.’ And he said, ‘What’s stopping you?’”

Leipziger decided to give SMC another try. He stopped by the Center for Students with Disabilities (DSPS) and said he was bipolar and wanted to take classes, “but I might need some help because I don’t know if I am going to be able to do this.”

At the Center, SMC counselor Pinsopearui (“Pin”) Lor arranged for Leipziger to receive a variety of support services, including tutoring through SMC’s Writing and Humanities Tutoring Center.

Lor also suggested two history classes to Leipziger, but he chose to enroll in only one and pair it with an ‘easy’ class: Speech. “It was one of the hardest classes I’ve taken in my life,” he said.

Whenever he felt overwhelmed, he would go talk to Lor or attend a tutoring session. He not only earned an A in both classes, “I got hooked on history,” he said.

Lor, in the meantime, reviewed Leipziger’s complete set of transcripts, all the way back to 1991. She found that he was only two classes away – not ‘a couple of years’ – from qualifying for transfer as a history major to a California State University or University of California campus.

Leipziger enrolled in his last two SMC classes, and Lor assisted him with the transfer and financial aid application processes. He was accepted at several campuses, and chose San Francisco State.

“My hope for my future? To find the balance between going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and helping people in AA,” said Leipziger, “and the discipline and self-confidence to succeed in an academic environment at San Francisco State University.”

Read more stories from present and past years in the SMC Student Spotlight Archive.