Reading, Writing, and Rehab

By Beth Schwartzapfel | Boston Magazine |

Getting kids sober, in other words, is a major priority. But keeping them that way can be a tricky task. A lifetime of unbroken sobriety is a lot to hope for no matter when you begin the recovery process — scientists believe that falling off the wagon is actually part of recovering — but it’s a particularly long trajectory when you’re starting as a teen. And Kelly points out that while adults tend to relapse in isolation, “adolescents nearly always relapse in social environments. If you can create a social environment where recovery and non-use is the norm, they can do much better.”

But does recovery have to mean non-use? To most experts it does, but a vocal and passionate minority — groups like the Harm Reduction Coalition and the Drug Policy Alliance — argues that, in the long run, insisting on total abstinence is unrealistic at best, harmful at worst. Lipinski comes down on that side of the debate, which makes Northshore Recovery High an outlier within the larger recovery movement: There are no 12 steps, no strict path that students must follow. The notion of safe and sober is not black and white, Lipinski argues. Her students don’t “live in a world that’s safe. They’re in and out of homeless shelters. We would never be able to keep them here if we had that zero-tolerance policy.” Lipinski’s approach is aligned with what’s broadly known as “harm reduction,” which holds that, for better or worse, some people will use drugs no matter what. Needle-exchange programs and “wet houses,” where alcoholics can continue to drink, were born of this philosophy. The idea is that if someone can’t stop or won’t stop using, we should at least make his drug use safer and less harmful, both to him and those around him.

Lipinski’s unwillingness to demand that her students remain drug-free pits her against her colleagues. In fact, Lipinski recently resigned from the board of the Association of Recovery Schools, which sets standards and guidelines for recovery schools nationwide, because of what she believes to be its overly rigid approach to adolescent addiction. Traci Bowermaster, the board’s former chair, insists that allowing a young person to use drugs in a recovery environment is detrimental to him and the other addicts in the school. “In order for kids to really be able to embrace a new identity as a person in recovery, they have to remove ties from those who might still be using,” Bowermaster says.

Indeed, most recovery high schools ask students to commit to some version of a 12-step program prior to enrolling. At Boston’s William J. Ostiguy High School, for example, the expectation is abstinence. The school’s philosophy is that a student who is actively using doesn’t belong there. He belongs in treatment. Like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, the school believes that no drug use is safe, and that total sobriety should be every drug user’s ultimate goal. “This is not a small thing for me,” says Ostiguy principal Roger Oser. “To put us under the same umbrella? I don’t think Ostiguy High and Northshore are recovery highs in the same sense.”

IT’S MONDAY MORNING, just a week into the school year, and all 52 students at Northshore shuffle into the school’s cafeteria and plop down on drab tan couches, arranged in a circle, for their daily check-in. Billy and his friend Alex, both wearing baggy jeans and oversize hoodies, sit together on a couch. Alex, a sweet-faced kid with blond hair and blue eyes, is recovering from an addiction to sedatives. “Alex,” Michelle Lipinski begins, “can you share where you were yesterday and where you are today?”

“Sure,” says Alex, 16. “Last couple weeks, I had the mindset that I was going to just smoke weed, and just control it. Then I talked to my mom, and she started crying. I just couldn’t fucking handle it. So I was like, Fuck it. I’ll just be sober, for now at least.”

“Do you feel like you just stopped a tidal wave from hitting you?” Lipinski asks.

“Yeah,” Alex nods. “But I just want to smoke weed and be a normal teenager, you know?”

  • Hendrik

    I am disgusted with Beth Schwartzapfel’s article, “Reading, Writing and Rehab.” I have worked as a consultant at the Northshore Recovery High School on and off for three years and I have been endlessly impressed with the school’s energetic, thoughtful and encouraging approach to the process of recovery for teenagers. The goals of a recovery high school are (in order of importance):
    1) Keep kids from dying
    2) Keep kids out of jail
    3) Educate (academics and life skills)
    4) Provide examples of peers for whom recovery is working
    The rock-bottom approach to recovery that is appropriate for adults simply doesn’t work for adolescents. Minors are not in control of their living environments or their finances. Children cannot escape a hostile home, addict parents or gang infested neighborhoods without strong consistent support before, during and after relapse. Every teenager and every relapse needs to be evaluated individually. Suspending a student for a dirty test can lead to beating by a parent, a relapse on a more dangerous drug, or running away. The other students need to be protected as well. I applaud the Northshore Recovery High School for trying a different, more difficult and more thoughtful…

  • Kristen

    My name is Kristen Johnston. I’m an actress who co-founded SLAM (Sobriety, Learning And Motivation), a board dedicated to creating NYC’s first Recovery High School. I have worked exhaustively for the past 5 years, trying to make this happen. Michelle Lipinski has been a true hero to us, doing everything in her power to help, in any way she can. I spent a week at Northshore Recovery HS, and I can say from first-hand experience, everything Ms. Schwartzapfel relays in her article is categorically false. Ms. Lipinski is a strong, kind, brilliant leader, the teachers all cared so deeply for reaching each kid, and there is NO QUESTION it’s saving lives. I’ve never been to a school where so many graduates come back daily to see what they can do to help out. I’m disgusted by this article. If she had spent more than a cursory afternoon there, she wouldn’t have written such an inept, damaging article. It’s the kids who will really suffer from this. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • Kendall

    When you berate someone whom takes extensive periods of time from her life to help drug addicted teenagers. This is not some fantasy world where you can wave a magic wand and every addiction you have can be cured. They are teenagers, it is obvious that they will relapse. The point is that they are on a path to their future because of these schools. When they were in public schools they were lost in the shadows, looked over. With recovery highschools they are put under a magnifying glass, and are forced to take note of their actions. I have a brother that goes to recovery high and now he is getting straight ‘A’s and steering clear of drugs and alcohol. They don’t condone substance abuse, they just make you realize there are always people like you out there that are going through similar occurrences, and give you that crutch you need to make it past your difficulties.

  • Jackie Valley

    This is truly one of the most irresponsible articles I have ever read. Clearly the author has no experience working with teens let alone teens suffering from addiction. Clearly the author has no concept of harm reduction and it’s effectiveness or it’s impact nationwide. Clearly the author has done little to no research on harm reduction programs and the preliminary evaluations, which show these programs to be “a viable and promising approach to working with highly marginalized drug users.” Clearly the author has never attended a funeral of a child who has died after leaving a traditional rehab program. I have. I have also seen kids fail at harm reduction programs – there is no one size fits all when it comes to addiction. If there was – someone would have started the program and we would eliminate the disease. I also know Michelle Lipinski personally and am appalled at the author’s disrespectful tone and commentary on a woman who has given up time, money and a good portion of her life to work with a very challenging population. I will NEVER subscribe to, purchase or reference Boston Magazine if this…

    • LBV

      In light of the article written by Ms. Schwartzapfel, I found encouragement by learning about Ms. Lipinski’s approach and attitude toward helping teens through recovery. Key comments made by Ms. Lipinski have given me hope and understanding of my own teen who is struggling with substance abuse. I am not critiquing the article, but, to those who found it damaging… i just want to say that i found it enlightening and saw Ms. Lipinski in a positive light.