Reading, Writing, and Rehab
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?”