Rehab and Relapse at Recovery High Schools

On the morning of her eighteenth birthday, Amanda woke up at her friend’s house to find her 2002 Dodge Stratus, a gift from her parents, totaled. Both front airbags were deployed, two tires were flat, and the windshield was smashed. She had no idea what had happened. She knew she had been drinking and drugging the night before, but she had no recollection of getting into an accident, nor of getting herself or the car here. All she knew was that she was scheduled to take the SATs that morning, and she had plans to party in Providence that night for her birthday. So she hopped in the shower and went on with her day like nothing had happened.

Amanda is a student at William J. Ostiguy High School, one of two local high schools I profile in this month’s issue of Boston magazine. Ostiguy and Northshore Recovery High School in Beverly are part of a growing national movement of schools geared specifically toward teens recovering from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Any expert will tell you that relapse is part of the process. But the question of how to deal with relapse has a very different answer at Ostiguy and at Northshore.

Amanda’s parents didn’t believe her story that she had hit a curb with her car, and after many tearful fights they finally forced her into rehab. But she left after less than two weeks of the six-to-eight week program, and relapsed her first day back at school. She enrolled in Ostiguy shortly after she returned home, “not for myself — because I was convinced I didn’t have a problem — but I wanted to be sober for my parents and for my younger sister,” Amanda says.

In keeping with its policy, Ostiguy suspended Amanda each time she had a relapse. The next several months were a series of relapses and suspensions, cycles in and out of school and rehab, until last spring, the school told her to take some time off and come back over the summer.

Then, in September, a friend from Ostiguy relapsed and threatened to kill himself. “I was trying to tell him that he needed to go home, and that he needed to be honest with his parents and he needed to go to treatment,” she says. “He said to me, ‘you’re really one to talk.’” That night she prayed for him; by turning herself over to a higher power, she for the first time honestly took one of AA’s twelve steps. The next morning, he went to detox and she went to a meeting, her first in months. “It was awful,” she says with a laugh. “I hated every second of it. I was like, ‘argh! I can identify with the speaker! That means I’m an alcoholic!’ But it’s opened up my eyes to so much more.”

Because of all of her suspensions, Amanda just started her fifth year of high school. But Amanda says she is grateful for the school’s relapse policy. “If I knew it was OK, and I could stay in school, it’d be really really hard to stay motivated to be sober,” she says. “You have to be completely willing. And the only way you’re going to be completely willing is if you have no other options.”