An accomplished business owner. A volunteer high school wrestling coach. A published author. Former mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Jay Isip has no shortage projects to keep himself busy these days. His voice is upbeat and full of energy. He has found a balance in life. It’s a far cry from where he found himself 15 years ago with one thought on his mind:
“I don’t care if I die today.”
* * *
After making an hour drive under the influence of alcohol and with a bottle of liquor in his passenger seat, Isip, then 19 years old, sat in a beach house in Seaside Heights, N.J.
He had taken up drinking more than a year earlier, the day after his high school wrestling season had ended. Not having the thrill of one-on-one competition left him with a void. He admits he struggled academically – while his friends would go on to college, Isip had to repeat his senior year. Attending just two classes per day and without a job, Isip found himself with lots of free time and little direction.
“I was a lost teenager where I would drink every single day and try every single drug,” Isip says. “That became my everyday lifestyle. As a young adult, you don’t know what’s next in life. When you see all your friends going off to college, doing something with their lives, you feel left behind. I masked my emotions with alcohol and drugs.”
Which brought him to the New Jersey beach house. Upon arriving, Isip says he decided – in his already impaired state – to ingest mushrooms, cocaine, ketamine and an ecstasy pill. He knew it was a potentially deadly mix, but was indifferent nonetheless.
“I don’t care if I die today.”
Isip came to the following morning in a puddle of vomit, covered in sweat – and surprised to be alive.
After surviving the episode, Isip set out on a new path. A childhood friend introduced him into the world of MMA.
“The gym was like rehab because everybody had an issue – family, drugs, drinking, something – but there together, we were a team,” Isip says. “We all felt alive inside that gym. It was a family.”
Isip found quick success in the amateur ranks and then turned pro. He stayed clean for four years, knowing a failed drug test would cost him the MMA career that gave him a sense of purpose. In retrospect, though, Isip says he jumped into professional MMA fighting too soon. He lost three consecutive fights and was sent spiraling again.
“Not understanding what it is to lose in that sport, it messed me up in the head,” Isip says. “After my third loss, I went back [to substance abuse]. I thought, why am I doing this? I’m a waste of life. If I can’t do this, what else am I going do? I have no direction besides this. If I’m not successful at this, what else do I have?”
Isip began drinking again, and it wasn’t long before he had resumed ingesting alcohol daily. This time, though, he fought to get sober. He struggled with withdrawal and sought the help of a physician.
A combination of prescription medications proved to be a dangerous mix because Isip kept drinking, and at 3 a.m. on a night in 2004, Isip sat on the street after leaving a bar. He got in his car and drank another bottle of liquor.
“I was revving my engine, thinking, ‘I’m a waste of life. I can’t even win a fight. I’m terrible. After a big title shot I had lost, what do I have to live for?’ ” Isip says. “I stepped on it.”
Isip says he sped down a city block and slammed into a parked car, hoping he would fly through his windshield. His 1993 Honda Accord couldn’t get up to speed quickly enough, however, and again he survived, this time staggering out of his vehicle dazed and bleeding.
Isip was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated after the crash. He attended mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as part of the sentence following his arrest, but credits the unwavering support of his brother Pete, as well as several self-help books written by others who have gone through intense challenges, as the biggest factors in turning his life around.
“My brother kept me alive,” Isip says. “My brother was always there for me when I needed him, especially in the hard times. My issues hurt him more than they hurt me. I put him through a lot. If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably be six feet under.”
Instead, Isip is now the owner of an eclectic mix of business ventures – a barber shop, a gym, and a greeting card and apparel business – and volunteers on the coaching staff of the Belleville (N.J.) High School wrestling team. In much the same way he was inspired by others’ tales of redemption, Isip is sharing his story. His second book, Happy Chasing Happy: An Aimless High to Happiness (Volume 1 Fight Addiction) chronicles some of his darkest moments. A second volume for the story is in the works.
“Writing helps me a lot as far as understanding who I am,” Isip says. “Everybody needs an outlet, and letting go of the past is the most important thing to helping you be happy in the moment. For me, writing was that outlet.”
For more information on Isip’s latest book, visit HappyChasingHappy.com.
Valentino is Senior Editor for Addiction Professional.