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Monday, August 3, 2015

For High Schoolers Struggling with Addiction, It’s a Bumpy Road to Recovery

From WBUR 90.9 FM's Blog "Learning Lab"

By Peter Balonon-Rosen
July 29, 2015

“When someone is in active addiction, they’re essentially working with a brain that they can’t trust.” It’s like an internal civil war that you’re fighting with your own brain.”

BOSTON — The first time Devin Rich died, it was the night before Mother’s Day 2014. He was 17, and he overdosed on a cocktail of codeine, prescription tranquilizers and other drugs.

When Rich woke up in the hospital at 6 p.m. the next day, his mother was sitting by his side. She had spent all of Mother’s Day sitting next to him, crying and hoping that he would revive. But the first thing Rich noticed, he says, was that he no longer had his drugs.

“I didn’t wake up feeling remorseful or guilty,” says Rich. “I woke up angry because my drugs weren’t in my pocket, my night was cut short and my friends didn’t help me — they called the cops.”

Against medical advice, he ran out of the hospital. A subsequent court order required that he be treated for substance abuse, whether he agreed to it or not.

“Even at that time I wanted to get clean, because my life sucked and I was very depressed,” says Rich. “But I wanted to get high more than I wanted to get clean. I wanted instant gratification. I wanted to feel better today for a couple hours, rather than feel better a couple months from now forever.”

In June, little more than a year later, Rich graduated sober from one of Massachusetts’ four publicly funded high schools for students in recovery. But before he could get there, he had to die again.

Schoolwork And Support

The school where Rich ended up, William J. Ostiguy Recovery High School, is tucked on two floors of a Boston office building, near the Park Street subway stop. There, a staff of about 15 work with an average of 30 students, ages 14 to 21, in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.

Classes are small — usually no more than 15 students — and the school is open year 'round. Students can start at any time of year. Once there, they develop an individual recovery plan with the school’s licensed substance abuse counselor and submit to random weekly drug testing.

If they relapse, students are removed from the school for treatment. How long they’re gone depends on how badly they relapse and whether they report it or are caught. While they’re out, the school’s counselors continue to work with them (and their families, if possible) to revise their recovery plans and focus on appropriate treatment.

“All too often people in recovery in general, not just kids, will convince themselves that once a relapse happens they might as well go all out because they’ve already quote-unquote screwed up,” says John McCarthy, Ostiguy’s recovery counselor. “And it’s really unfortunate, because a relapse does not have to be like that. It can be, you know, a positive learning opportunity.”

Like any high school, at its core Ostiguy is focused on academics. Students must pass their classes, whether given on site or online, in order to graduate. When they do, the diploma comes from their sending school. Those schools are all over the state: Cape Cod, Attleboro, Andover, Natick, Framingham, Boston and beyond.

Brockton, Beverly and Springfield operate similar schools; another is scheduled to open in Worcester this fall. And more are on the way: The Massachusetts state budget recently signed by Gov. Charlie Baker would give $3.1 million to recovery high schools, with $1 million of that designated for creating at least two new schools.

With the opiate epidemic raging in Massachusetts, advocates say it’s a step in the right direction. Massachusetts lawmakers like Rep. Jim Cantwell (D-Marshfield) agree.

“We have a compelling interest to make sure that we educate our children, despite any kinds of challenges that they have,” says Cantwell.

These schools do more than provide clinical support, says Roger Oser, Ostiguy’s principal. They create a community where students can support each other through recovery.

“The young people identify as being in addiction,” said Oser. “So they look to the left and they look to the right and they see someone who is going through the same struggle as them, which they don’t get in their communities and their home schools.”

From Weed to Pills to the Street

Rich was born in Lowell and grew up just east of there, in the town of Tewksbury.

His journey to Ostiguy began at age 12, when older friends introduced him to alcohol and marijuana. At 16 he was drinking, using an assortment of pills and powders, and selling drugs to support his habit. At 17, he was shooting methamphetamine, taking opiate-based pills and sleeping on the streets.

After the Mother’s Day overdose, Rich bounced around among a few detox and residential treatment programs, but, inevitably, once he left them he’d fall back into old habits.

“I started using again,” he says. “Chronic relapser, in case you can’t tell.”

But things were worse now.

“I had been homeless before, but this time I was real homeless,” he says. “It wasn’t the sleeping on people’s couches, always having friends to pick me up. It was the sleeping outside in downtown Boston with a sign begging people for money, not showering in days, like … I didn’t want to be alive.”

He’d go days without eating and beg for enough money to buy drugs or ride the commuter rail to Tewksbury. There he’d get drugs from friends or dealers, ask around for places to crash, and stay until he’d outworn his welcome.

Then he’d go back to Boston and do it again. It was an endless, miserable cycle.

Now 18, Rich knew he wanted a change. But, he says, he felt powerless to make that happen.

“I always said I wanted to die, because I was so depressed. But the truth is I wanted to settle down, I wanted to have a family, I wanted to get my life together. I wanted the American dream, I wanted all these successful things,” Rich says. “I just wasn’t willing to do any of the work.”

Then, in December, 2014, something happened that shook him: He overdosed for the second time.

This time, he had to be revived with the nasal spray, commonly referred to as Narcan, that temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

“I woke up and I realized, like, ‘I am going to die.’ Like if I do this, this is life or death. This isn’t fun and games anymore. Like, if I keep getting high I will die,” Rich says. “It’s either keep going the way I’m going for as long as I can and end up another statistic, or make a change right now. And it just hit me in the face right then.

“So,” he says, “I decided to go to treatment.”

After his second overdose, Devin Rich had to be revived with Naloxone
nasal spray, commonly referred to as Narcan. It temporarily reverses
the effects of an opioid overdose and restores breathing. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The First Steps to Recovery

That month, Rich went to a detox program in Worcester. When it ended, he requested further treatment because, he says, he knew that if he went back to the streets he’d start using drugs again.

So in January he enrolled in Cushing House, a six-month residential program in South Boston for teens going through substance abuse recovery. Run by the Boston-based Gavin Foundation, the program works with teenagers to teach them life skills, assist their sobriety and support them through a recovery process.

After a month, Rich was encouraged to enroll at the recovery school supported by the Gavin Foundation — Ostiguy High.

It was, he says, a life-changing experience.

“Ostiguy taught me that not everyone gets high, because the people in this school are all sober and in recovery,” said Rich. “So it gave me a network of people who both understood what I was going through but also just people that I could hang out with and spend time with, without having to worry about them using around me.”

Beyond academics, the school teaches students about replacement activities — things to do with their time instead of using drugs or alcohol.

“What do they do for fun? What are their interests?” explains McCarthy, the Ostiguy recovery counselor. “What they know is the pursuit of drugs and using, activities involved with that.”

Once a week, the school has a block devoted to community building, where the students do a fun activity like softball or going for a walk around Boston.

“We do something enjoyable just because they know that people need to learn how to have fun sober,” says Rich. “People need to learn what people do when they’re not getting high.”

Graduation … and Beyond

Although he’d barely gone to school in the year and a half before Ostiguy, now Rich worked hard to pass all of his classes. Each day, he says, he’d take after-school online classes in Ostiguy’s computer lab, in order to get all the credits he needed to graduate on time.

And this June, that’s exactly what happened. He was one of 16 graduating members of the Ostiguy High School class of 2015.

Next, he enrolled in Summer Works, a summer program run out of Ostiguy. Participants earn a wage while they learn life skills including resume writing, conflict resolution and interview techniques.

By early July, he had moved back home. It has proved to be a bit of a difficult transition.

“Although my relationship with my parents is a lot better than it was, it’s not quite there. And it’s like a work in progress every day,” he says, a few days after moving home. “I’m only staying there temporarily while I find housing.”

It’s a Friday afternoon — Friday, July 10 — and Rich is upbeat as the summer program lets out. He stops to chat with Principal Oser on his way out of school.

Oser asks him about his weekend plans. Rich is planning to stay at a friend’s place that night, he says, and Oser warns him to be careful. It’s only been a few days since he left the residential program. He’s still in recovery.

Rich assures him all will be well.

Principal Roger Oser offers Devin Rich some advice for the weekend
on July 10, 2015. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/WBUR)

Where Is Devin Rich?

But on Monday Rich doesn’t show up. He doesn’t come to Ostiguy for the program the next day, either. Or the next. And he’s not answering the emails I’ve sent to follow up on a few last questions.

One day, Ostiguy staff members say, he had a doctor’s appointment they hadn’t known about. Other days, though, he just isn’t there. They can’t say much more because of confidentiality, but on Friday, Oser sends me an email.

“Devin is not going to be in to Ostiguy this week,” he writes. “He is focusing on his recovery.”

The next week, he’s still not coming to the school.

If he’s not there, I decide, maybe he’s in Tewksbury. Could he have gotten in trouble with the law?

He never gave me a phone number, just his email address. So I call the Tewksbury police, who say he’s someone they’ve had contact with in the past. Nothing recent, though.

Next, I look for Tewksbury residents named Rich and find 18 phone numbers online.

On my second call, I reach Paul Rich. He’s Devin’s dad.

"We Threw Him Out."

After leaving Cushing House, Paul Rich says, Devin “came home and decided that marijuana was more important than everything else.”

“He decided four days after he came back home that he was going to start smoking again. And we caught him and tested him, and he tested positive,” Rich continues. “We threw him out of the house.”

That was on Friday, July 10, Paul Rich says — the same day Devin had spoken with the principal about his weekend plans. He didn’t take anything with him, not even a phone.

“This is the second time we’ve thrown him out of the house,” Paul Rich says. “Because the fact is that, in this situation, you have to be tough on the kids. You can’t let them sit there and run rampant around the house while they’re on drugs. It doesn’t work.”

Paul Rich says his son is “living on the streets between Boston and Wilmington.” The family has been communicating with him, off and on, over Facebook. Rich says he is more disappointed than surprised that his son relapsed so quickly.

“It’s a choice. I don’t care what people say about this being a disease,” he says. “Once someone cleans you up and forces you to be clean — because you’re in some place and you can’t get to it — it’s a choice to go back to it.”

According to the most commonly used manual for mental disorders, however, drug dependence qualifies as a mental disorder. It changes the brain in fundamental ways.

“When someone is in active addiction, they’re essentially working with a brain that they can’t trust,” says McCarthy, the Ostiguy recovery counselor. “It’s like an internal civil war that you’re fighting with your own brain.”

The odds are stacked against students who become addicted. Almost half of all teenagers treated for substance abuse — not necessarily at recovery high schools — will relapse within three months of completing treatment, studies suggest, and two-thirds will relapse within six months.

Ostiguy’s numbers are somewhat better. In the 2012-2013 school year, the school says, 75 percent of its students maintained sobriety for the entire school year. About 80 percent of Ostiguy graduates enroll in college, and many maintain long-term sobriety.

A day after speaking with Paul Rich, I get an email from Devin Rich.

“It’s been difficult to get Internet access,” he writes, “but overall I’m doing OK.”

Karen Stern and Melvin Matos work on a linoleum print in a summer program
for students in recovery at William J. Ostiguy High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

What Comes Next

Back at Ostiguy, 13 days after Rich spoke with Oser, the summer program goes on. But Devin Rich isn’t there for it.

“He’s been in at least physically at least once or maybe twice, but not in the capacity of a student,” says McCarthy. Though Rich is 19 and has graduated, the Ostiguy staff continues to reach out to offer what support they can. Because of confidentiality, McCarthy won’t say more.

Meanwhile, as Eminem plays in the background, the program’s remaining members are busy designing paper lanterns for the upcoming 250th anniversary celebration of the Liberty Tree. They carve original designs into linoleum, apply paint with a roller, then stamp the block prints onto paper.

One of them is Melvin Matos. The summer program is the first paid work he’s had since getting sober, and he’s pretty proud of it. Since coming to Ostiguy in November 2014, he says, he’s found its supports very helpful in his recovery.

“I enjoy the fact that I’m able to reach out to everyone when I’m struggling,” says Matos, “and that they would never turn their back on me.”

For all these students, McCarthy says, establishing outside support networks may be even more important. After all, their recovery doesn’t end when they leave Ostiguy or a residential program. It can’t.

McCarthy knows that from experience — both as a counselor and in his own life. He struggled with substance abuse until he entered recovery in his early 20s. Since then, he’s seen firsthand the rewards that recovery can bring.

“It lends itself to a lot more than just not drinking and using,” says McCarthy. “It allows people opportunities to achieve anything they want, really, providing they really have the motivation to work for it.”

McCarthy himself has been clean and sober since 1998. But he shares with his students a hard-won truth: Recovery is not a six-month program; it’s a way of life.

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