The school year hadn’t started yet, but Harrison found himself in the principal’s office, with his mother sitting at his side. He’d been called in for a meeting on a warm September afternoon just before beginning his senior year of high school.
The 17-year-old’s heroin addiction had become so serious that his mom, Debbie, didn’t know what else to do. By then, he’d been in at least eight treatment programs, and had relapsed after leaving each one.
Harrison and Debbie hoped the calm, patient woman across the desk would be able to help. Susan Strong, the principal, was in charge of leading Rockdale Recovery High School, a brand new drug recovery school in Worcester. For Harrison and his mom, the school felt like their last chance.
Rockdale is not a treatment program—it’s a high school. Attendance is voluntary. No judge, court order, school administrator, or parent can force a student to stay. When it first opened in September, the school, which just a few months prior had been a vacant warehouse in the city’s Greendale neighborhood, had no desks, textbooks, or trash cans. It was starting from scratch.
“I think a special high school environment would give me some much needed time and space away from home to work on my home situation and get my grades to where they need to be,” Harrison wrote in his admissions essay. “Average high school has proved to not be a help to me time and time again, every shot taken concluding to some kind of failure or disappointment. Now’s the time I want to break the cycle of this insanity and begin my own story of success.”
Strong came into the position largely unfamiliar with the opioid epidemic that ravaged many of her students. As a high school principal in western Massachusetts for more than a decade, she had seen students suffer from drug use, but believed her love for her students would be enough to help them overcome their addictions. She would open her heart to them, and that would be enough.
Or so she thought. She and her staff spent the year figuring out how to forge ahead as their students came and went, repeatedly pulled back under the spell of their addictions to alcohol, heroin, and prescription drugs. Instead of teaching trigonometry and history, the school became a place that, out of necessity, spent its first year in existence trying to teach students like Harrison how to stay alive.
“Looking back, I did a lot to prepare,” Strong said. “But I had no idea what I was in for.”
• • •
Harrison and 10 other students sat in swivel chairs around a long table in a conference room reserved for “community meetings.” Each morning, Strong and the students spent at least 20 minutes in a group therapy session reading Alcoholics Anonymous passages and discussing the students’ struggles.
Darilyn, an outspoken senior obsessed with fashion and makeup, led the group one morning in September, just a day before her nine-month anniversary of sobriety. Strong said they should all congratulate her, but Darilyn asked them to wait. Like many in recovery, she knew better than to celebrate too soon.
“A big part of recovery is not being stuck in one place,” Darilyn said. “You have to be making progress. The reason we’re all here is because we want to get better, we all went through something that really fucked us up in the head, and we all really want to get better.”
The group nodded as she continued.
“Sometimes I think, ‘How come I’m the only one of my friends who’s in recovery?’” she said. “There’s a reason we all chose to be here. We can be each other’s family now. Right, broski?”
She nudged a classmate in the arm. He smiled.
Within the first few weeks, the students confessed things they were often too afraid to admit at their old high schools. They didn’t judge each other for how many times they’d been arrested or had overdosed. After all, many had been there themselves.
At the end of every meeting, the students gathered in a circle to recite the Serenity Prayer. Strong grabbed their hands and held them tight as they passed a squeeze around the circle. In those moments, with the pulse traveling between their fingers, Harrison and the other students were connected even when everything else in their lives threatened to fall apart.
When they started the school, the staff wanted to create a stable, predictable environment. They devised a schedule that included a reasonable 9 a.m. start, as well as chunks of time for group therapy. They lined the classroom walls with motivational posters: “In a world where you can be anything, be yourself.” They named the hallways “Recovery Way” and “Hope Avenue” to remind the students that they were always walking on a path toward improvement.
The school has four classrooms, a cafeteria, a meeting room, a health and fitness room, and a counseling suite with administrative offices. The bathrooms are single unisex stalls that provide enough privacy for drug testing, which is conducted on an as-needed basis. The staff includes four teachers, a full-time recovery counselor, and a part-time career counselor.
The first recovery high school was founded in Minnesota in 1987, before the opioid epidemic tore through the country. Massachusetts began to open recovery high schools in 2006 as part of the state’s Substance Abuse Strategic Plan, which aimed to prevent, intervene, and treat drug abuse. Rockdale is the fifth such school in the Commonwealth and the first in Worcester County, where there were 177 fatal opioid overdoses in 2015, part of a growing trend of unintentional overdoses across the state.
After treatment, about 70 percent of addicted kids who return to their communities relapse within six months to a year. Only about 30 percent of those in recovery high schools relapse within the same time period.
Even though Rockdale was a welcome addition to the region, it didn’t come without early challenges. For one, the students eligible to attend Rockdale live all across the county, a 1,500 square-mile swath that makes up the largest county in Massachusetts. The scattered geography gives Strong a nagging feeling that some kids aren’t being reached.
“I’ve gotten calls from parents who live in towns on the edges of the county who want to send their kids but can’t get them here,” she said in September. “So we know there’s a greater population that isn’t being served.”
For students, it means that Friday afternoons don’t bring excitement about an upcoming weekend, but rather a sense of dread over leaving the support system they have at Rockdale.
Harrison knew he would have to find a way at home to pass the time. At school, it was easier to drown out the voice that urged him to shoot up. He could distract it when he scratched out the answers to problems in math class. He could quiet it with every jab to the punching bag in the rec room. He could confess his feelings to his classmates during group therapy sessions, where they would encourage him not to give up.
On the weekends, though, the voice grew louder. His old friends asked him to hang out. He could only think about getting high. He never stopped smoking cigarettes, but found himself occasionally smoking weed on the weekends.
Students at Rockdale aren’t automatically kicked out for using certain drugs, as they are at many recovery schools nationwide. Strong decided to adopt a harm-reduction approach to drug use after visiting Northshore Recovery High School in Beverly, which has followed the model since opening in 2006. Rather than push addicts into cold-turkey abstinence, harm-reduction educators often allow students to take smoke breaks during the day, and they don’t punish some students who continue to smoke weed outside of school. Those behaviors are categorically prohibited at the majority of other recovery programs.
This philosophy puts Michelle Lipinski, the principal of Northshore, at odds with other leaders in the recovery movement. About five years ago, Lipinski resigned from the board of the Association of Recovery Schools, which sets standards and guidelines nationwide, because she believed its approach was too rigid. When students know they won’t be kicked out, Lipinski said, they are more willing to admit when they’ve relapsed, which makes it easier for administrators to get them help.
“To look at a child in the height of illness, one who’s showing manifestations of it and say, ‘you can’t come here anymore’ is just unfathomable to me,’” Lipinski said. “We’re their family. I can’t mandate recovery and then deny them access to resources when we give them 365 fresh starts. We can’t leave them behind.”
In the past 10 years, her school has seen a 71 percent graduation rate. Lipinski said it’s a challenge to measure success only using sobriety as a marker. Students at recovery high schools don’t only work on recovering from their addictions, they also work on overcoming the issues that drove them to use in the first place.
“So, while some of our graduates continue to use, some are able to moderate their use, and some are no longer using the substance which led to their demise,” she said. “But all of them continue to keep in touch and let us support them in any way can.”
Andy Finch, a leading researcher of recovery high schools and professor at Vanderbilt University, said he’s not aware of other recovery high schools that explicitly follow a harm reduction model. Most believe that total sobriety should be every drug user’s ultimate goal.
But Strong and Lipinski feel that there’s a spectrum, with cigarettes on one end and heroin on the other.
“To quit doing heroin and quit smoking is too much for them,” Strong said. “Then they wouldn’t come to school at all. We wanted to meet them where they are.”
At Rockdale, Strong decided to let the little things slide. Students turned in their cell phones every morning, but she allowed some to slip into her office during the day to check their messages, knowing full well they weren’t actually texting their sponsors, but their friends instead.
It would be worse to lose them completely, she told herself. These students, the ones she gave tight hugs multiple times a day, felt like her own. Strong had always been a worrier who fixated on things like whether she’d turned off the stove, but now she worried about whether she was doing enough to save lives.
But all her worrying couldn’t prevent what she once said was her worst fear—relapse. Harrison had only been at Rockdale for a few weeks before his pot-smoking on the weekends escalated to smoking Percocets and, later, to shooting heroin.
“In early recovery, kids are very impressionable,” Harrison said. “If you’re around a majority of people who are using, then it’s more likely than not you’re going to use. It’s like, if you hang out in the barbershop long enough, you’re probably going to get a haircut. The same thing applies here.”
Strong and Alyssa Richard, the school’s recovery counselor, decided it was best for him to leave school and attend a detox program. One morning in October, Harrison walked into Phoenix House, a large beige and brick building less than five miles away from Rockdale, to begin detox. Again.
This time, he would take the program seriously, he promised himself. He had seen his classmates, like Darilyn, stay sober for months at a time, and he believed he could do the same.
Strong watched about half of her students leave during the fall as relapses became more frequent. The teachers usually found out after seeing the results from drug tests, but sometimes they’d notice if a student showed up to school bleary-eyed. Some students, like Harrison, would tell Strong they were using again.
Strong began religiously carrying around a small book with the phone numbers of treatment centers in the area, just in case parents would call her looking for assistance. She found herself constantly checking her phone to see if students had texted her asking for help.
“I don’t think I realized how fragile this population is,” she said. “You tell them ‘one minute,’ and they don’t have a minute because in that time they’re deciding whether or not to use again, and heroin’s life or death.”
The Central Massachusetts Special Education Collaborative, which received the grant to establish the school, estimated that it would take around 35 students for the program to break even financially. With the relapses of the fall, enrollment was down to fewer than 10 students in school at any given time, and Strong felt pressured to increase attendance.
She began accepting students who had been sober for less than a month—some for mere days—to increase enrollment. Bringing students who were still using into an environment with vulnerable peers proved disastrous at times.
During drug testing, four students snuck into the single-stalls and cheated on their urine tests. One girl dumped the plastic cup into the toilet and filled it back up with toilet water and soggy bits of paper. Some of the boys bought urine and snuck it into school, where they poured it into their testing cups.
They found other ways to cheat, too. Some students took cough, cold, and congestion medications because they didn’t show up on drug tests. Students repeatedly said they were just “sick and tired,” but the staff learned that meant they were high on “Triple C’s.”
In November, a janitor found a marijuana pipe in the bathroom. A student hid it under the garbage bag in one of the stalls, presumably so a classmate could smoke weed later.
A game of “whack a mole” ensued, Strong said. During the 8 a.m. staff meetings that week, the teachers tried to figure out the culprit, and speculated by sharing rumblings they’d heard from the students.
“I think he was smoking over the weekend, so it could’ve been him,” one teacher said.
“Well, she’s smoking before school, so it could’ve been her,” another chimed in.
Throughout the course of the day, Strong called in a handful of students, all of whom denied it was theirs. Many had already been in and out of multiple treatment programs. They were afraid to say anything because they didn’t want to be kicked out. Most had nowhere else to go.
“The teachers are all wound up,” she said. “We’re in a recovery high school, and we have drugs in the school. We don’t want kids who are struggling to bring their peers down.”
This problem wasn’t unique to Rockdale. Kristen Harper, executive director for The Association of Recovery Schools, said teachers in these schools are always trying to prevent the next major incident from happening.
“Unfortunately when it comes to our population, ‘yets’ can happen,” she said. “There are kids who haven’t been arrested yet, or who haven’t overdosed yet. They come from all different stages in their recovery processes, and while early intervention is important, some kids need to take time off to get back on track.”
After his “yet,” a relapse, followed by a month-long detox, Harrison was allowed back to the school.
Harrison’s big brown eyes are earnest. He cracks jokes, and he’s quick to tell his friends to “take a deep breath” whenever they feel triggered to use. He talks openly about his struggles with recovery because he hopes that his story will help them realize they shouldn’t give up.
“The first time I came back, I had a lot of anxiety,” he said, sitting in his math classroom a few weeks later. “I came in around lunchtime, and I was having heart palpitations because I was so worried of what people would think. And I don’t really care what other people think of me.”
He paused, looking to his math teacher, Stephanie Adams, and his classmates.
“Well, wait, I guess I do,” he said with a shrug. “But then I thought, ‘I’ve already been through so much.’ Coming back to school was just one more hurdle I had to do.”
He focused his energy on his school work and going to the gym. He devoted his Instagram account to posting photos of himself flexing, captioning the images with “#gains” and “#recovery.”
“I’m obsessed with eating right and going to the gym,” he said, flexing his left arm and squeezing his bicep. “Compared to what I used to be, I’m huge. I used to be 125 pounds when I was using, now I’m 165 pounds.”
Adams rolled her eyes and smiled.
“It’s true,” Harrison insists, flexing his left bicep again. “I want to do a program that’s nutrition and physical fitness, and eventually open up a clean and sober gym and help my clients.”
“No, no, I know,” Adams, the math teacher, said. “You’re doing great.”
• • •
Harrison was 12 the first time he got high. A friend asked if he wanted to smoke weed she’d stolen from her parents. She didn’t have rolling papers, so they snatched some printer paper before running into the woods, where they giggled as they put the makeshift joints to their lips, the smoke wafting up toward the stars.
He was the baby of the family, born 10 years after his three older siblings. Debbie admits he got away with more than the others. She knew he was smoking weed and told his pediatrician, who reassured her it was a phase.
By the time Harrison reached middle school, he started dealing drugs to other kids. Harrison’s father also sold weed when he was a kid, Debbie said, so they weren’t too concerned about their son’s enterprise.
“We let him do it,” Debbie said. “It’s our fault. He said, ‘I’m either going to pay a lot to smoke this, or sell it and not have to pay for it,’ and we just let him do it.”
His network grew quickly. Harrison, then a skinny, unassuming kid with a baby face, close-cropped hair and square-framed glasses, had been raised around his parents’ restaurant. He knew the customer was always right. He knew how to deliver his services in a timely manner. He was someone his clients could trust.
“I got really good at [dealing] by the time I was 14,” he said. “I couldn’t spend the money on clubbing like other dealers since I was so young, so I just spent it on more drugs. I was a 14-year-old partying with 20- to 25-year-olds and, because I was their dealer, they didn’t look at me like a little kid and worry about me. They just thought, ‘this kid’s making more money than me’ and would get pissed about it while we were all getting trashed.”
With his exposure to older clientele, Harrison saw how heroin hollowed them out to wisps of the people they used to be, yet widened their eyes as though they were perpetually searching for something more. He promised his mom that no matter what, he would never be like them.
But he already had a growing opioid addiction. He had first tried Percocet when he was 12 after a friend gave it to him, and never quite forgot the high he felt. As he started making more money from dealing, he tried mushrooms and other hallucinogens, but they couldn’t compare to what he felt when he smoked Percocet. By the time he was 14, Percocet became his drug of choice.
Those years are a blur for both Harrison and his mom. Debbie says her son has been in constant turmoil since he started smoking weed in sixth grade, and she’s tried to intervene at every point possible along the way. She started by putting him in outpatient treatment programs for his marijuana addiction, where he’d go to sessions at You Inc., an outpatient counseling service in Worcester County.
“He was able to bullshit the therapist into thinking he was okay,” she said. “But it wouldn’t be long before he would be back. There was a time when we would get free carpooling back and forth to go to the program, and he was the worst person to get into the car. He just wouldn’t go.”
When he reached high school, Harrison said it was easy to buy Percocet. He smoked with friends and at parties, but as his tolerance grew, he needed more. He found himself smoking pure 30s, which are 30-milligram pills intended for people with chronic pain.
Even though his business was profitable, 30s cost at least $30 a pill. His friend told him that heroin would be cheaper, and the high would be even better. They shot up together.
“There’s just really no going back from that,” Harrison said. “Until someone else steps in.”
His mom sent him to Phoenix House, where he stayed for three months of his junior year of high school. He knew he needed help, but he didn’t take treatment seriously. To him, treatment was something he had to get through before he could start using again. Even if he left a facility thinking he could stay sober, he would go back to his old school with his old friends who were still using, where he’d make hundreds of dollars selling them drugs. He’d relapse, and wind up back in treatment. Over and over again.
“I’ve not been able to be his mom for three or four years because I had to put him away so many times,” Debbie said. “There have been so many times where I’ve wanted to make him a cup of tea or pop some popcorn for him while he studies, and that’s been taken away from me. I’ve had to put him away from me in places that are anything but nurturing and homey and justify it by thinking, ‘Well, at least he’s alive.’”
In November, Harrison confessed to Strong that he was having uncontrollable urges to use again. He considered stealing money from his parents’ cash register to buy heroin.
“Lunch money,” Debbie would later say. “Not even. Six bucks and that’s all it takes to get high. Heroin is a demon of never having enough. And that demon will be on his doorstep for the rest of his life.”
Even though she was living with him, Debbie had no idea the demon knocked on their door after Harrison returned home in November. It rapped quietly, while his parents were still sleeping, when Harrison woke up at 5 a.m. and drove to a friend’s house to shoot up. He then drove home, got dressed, and waited to go to school.
He can’t point to any one reason why he was using again after he got out of detox in November. Maybe his recovery wasn’t strong enough, he said. Or maybe it was too easy. His parents gave him money to spend on Christmas presents, so he bought the cheapest possible version of each gift, then spent the rest of the money on heroin.
He continued to shoot up over winter break, the marks hidden underneath a cast he had put on in November, after he punched a hole in a wall during an argument with his mom. He continued to shoot up even when he felt guilty for lying. He continued on December 26, the one-year sobriety anniversary for Darilyn, who had been one of his biggest sources of inspiration on his journey toward sobriety.
That day, the day after Christmas, Harrison’s family was spending time in the restaurant. They had recently built a condo in the space above the dining room so they could be closer to the business. His mom was doing laundry, his sister was in the basement, and his dad was in the kitchen. Harrison was laying on the couch, his eyes closed.
“Harrison, wake up and come help me fold these napkins,” Debbie remembers saying.
He didn’t move.
“Harrison, come on,” Debbie said. “I need some help.”
What came out of Debbie’s mouth next was more than a scream. It was primal, a bone-chilling wail—the sound a mother makes when she sees that her child is dead.
Harrison couldn’t hear her. His eyes were rolled back in his head. He foamed at the mouth. He had no pulse.
When the emergency workers arrived, they injected Narcan, the opiate antidote, into one of his veins. Nothing.
They loaded him into the ambulance, where they gave him another shot of Narcan. Finally, his eyes opened. He was alive.
Once he stabilized, the family held a meeting to determine whether he would go to another treatment program or come home until they could figure out something else.
One thing was clear: He wouldn’t be going back to Rockdale. At the time, Harrison didn’t seem to care.
• • •
Strong issued an ultimatum to the students at the end of the first semester: Stay and commit to being sober, or leave and go to treatment. Two students ended up leaving, and while it wasn’t easy to watch her students go, Strong knew some would be better served by being in treatment full-time.
She also knew things needed to change in January. In the first half of the year, she’d struggled to control the manipulative behaviors in the students she loved. They cheated on drug tests, brought drugs to school, and lied to her face. They also warmed up to her in ways she never expected. They sought her out for hugs in between classes, and they texted her during the lonely breaks over the holidays to let her know they were doing okay.
Still, she decided there should be less downtime and more of a focus on school. After winter break, she adjusted the schedule to eliminate the morning cigarette break. She required the students to sign up for an elective during their free period, like newspaper or kickboxing, instead of using the time to complete their make-up work. She nixed the guest speakers who focused on their hard-knock history of addiction and opted for those who could speak to professions or interests the students could pursue after graduation.
And, above all, at the 8 a.m. meeting, she and the teachers stopped speculating which students were still using.
“Once we stopped freaking out, the kids completely relaxed,” Strong said. “That was a huge lesson to all of us. The kids hold each other much more accountable and are looking for one another in a different way because they know they’re not going to get in trouble for slipping up.”
During all of this change at Rockdale, Harrison was in detox, where he did his best to make it from one day to the next.
His classmates didn’t seem to miss him. They knew he’d been getting high before school, and they didn’t want to hear him talk about how easy it was to hide it, especially while they were trying to stay clean.
Student turnover tends to be high, said Finch, the Vanderbilt professor. Unlike in more traditional schools, the student population at recovery schools changes daily, generally hovering at an average of 15 students. In April, Rockdale received more enrollment requests, bringing eight new students to the school. Strong said many kids relapsed over the holidays returned to their normal high schools and realized they wouldn’t be able to finish the year.
“Small schools are considered 250 kids, so recovery high schools are in their own league,” Finch said. “But they are schools. They’re providing curriculum, they’re providing credits that count, trying to help kids stay clean and sober, which is their identity.”
In the second semester, the new students also had the financial means to attend. The governor’s budget for the 2016 fiscal year included funding for two new recovery high schools, but no one stepped up to start them.
The money was divided among the five existing Massachusetts high schools to help with transportation. As a stopgap, Strong decided to purchase two vans to bring students to and from Rockdale.
“We’re under tremendous pressure to fill the school, and there are students in small communities whose districts don’t provide transportation,” she said. “I’m hopeful they’ll change their minds, or that the state will help out. My greatest worry is that we aren’t reaching the kids we need to reach.”
After his overdose, Harrison’s family sent him to a 25-bed detox and stabilization program called Spectrum Young Adult in Westborough, where he would stay in the inpatient program for six months.
He took part in group therapy and individual counseling, and it was impossible for him to get into trouble because he had no privileges. He couldn’t leave the facility. He couldn’t have a cell phone. He could only see his family on Sundays when they would be allowed to bring his dog, Opie.
Debbie could tell he was doing better. Harrison was smiling more, and he was opening up about the ways in which he had hidden his drug use the month before.
“There is not a person that has gone through more ups and down than Harrison that the school may ever have in their existence,” Debbie said. “When he’s in recovery, he’s the perfect kid. He’s upbeat, and helpful to others. But there’s always the worry that he’s lying and sneaking around.”
After two months at Spectrum, Harrison promised he was ready to return to Rockdale. He had come to see his overdose in a new way. It didn’t make him a badass. It made him someone who needed to make the most of his second chance at life. He couldn’t shake the image of what he must have looked like in the minutes before the ambulance came to get him, eyes rolled back, mouth foaming, limbs splayed.
“A couple of minutes more and I would’ve been dead,” he said. “I’m grateful to be back and alive. I have this second chance in front of me and I’m here for a reason and I need to do something with it.”
Strong noticed the change, too. For the first time, Harrison seemed visibly shaken by his overdose. She decided to let him return to school.
“How could I say no to him when he lived and all he wanted in his life was to be back at the school?” Strong said. “He’s part of the family.”
Strong started to drive him to school every day, shuttling him between Spectrum and Rockdale. He would face random drug tests and would need to make up the two months of school work he had missed.
But he would get to start over. Again.
A few weeks later, on a Monday in late March, Harrison walked around the school with one earbud in his ear, the other dangling back and forth as he walked. Listening to music—specifically his new favorite artist, Jack Johnson—was a compromise he’d made with Strong upon his return. He could listen to his iPod during the day as he worked, but needed to take the earbuds out when his teachers were talking.
As he traveled from class to class, Harrison didn’t talk much to anyone. He didn’t hear one of his classmates argue with the nurse as she was given a cup to test her urine. He didn’t hear a classmate plead with Strong to take one more smoke break. He was focused and calm, living in a world where the words filling his head were not his own.
Being back at school after having missed two months meant he had a significant amount of work to make up. Kids frequently disappeared during the middle of the year, often for weeks at a time, but those two months were the longest his teachers had seen. Still, they walked a delicate line. They didn’t want to overwhelm him with so much work that he wouldn’t do any of it and stop coming altogether, which is why the science teacher, Michelle Keenan let him copy data from his classmate’s lab report. Much of his make-up work involved copying notes and data in a fraction of the time it took his classmates to learn the subjects.
When Harrison got up to go to the bathroom, Keenan took back the lab report. When he returned, he looked around for the paper, which Keenan was tapping against her leg.
“Did you take that back?” Harrison said.
“Yeah, you didn’t think I was going to let you copy the whole thing, did you?” Keenan said.
Harrison shook his head and looked back at the laptop. He tapped his fingers on the keyboard, typing nothing.
“So what do I say for the method since I wasn’t here for that?” Harrison said, growing frustrated.
She explained what the method of a lab report meant, and he typed what she said into the sheet before asking how long until kickboxing class would begin.
“Just a few more minutes,” Keenan said.
He smacked his hands down on the keyboard and started complaining about Spectrum.
“I hate it there,” he said. “It makes me so frustrated. They have so many rules and I can’t even use my phone.”
“How long have you been sober?” Keenan said.
“Three months,” Harrison said.
“Well, there you go,” she said. “They must be doing something right.”
Harrison grabbed the rubber bracelet on his right wrist, the one that said “Working out is my drug,” and twisted it back and forth.
“Yeah,” Harrison said. “Well maybe I am, too.”
• • •
Debbie knew deep down that Harrison couldn’t live at home, but she still hoped he might be able to return for the summer once he graduated from Rockdale. She and the leaders at Spectrum decided to give Harrison a trial run in April. He would go to the restaurant for a few hours, just long enough to have dinner and cuddle with Opie. Minutes after he arrived, when his mom wasn’t looking, he walked into his room and looked for the heroin he had once stashed in a drawer.
“He didn’t tell us, but he admitted it to the school,” Debbie said. “We all agreed he shouldn’t come back home once he was done at Spectrum in June. Being here is too triggering.”
Debbie knew she was entering the “next phase of Harrison,” one full of uncertainty over who he would become and where he would end up. Strong and the other teachers tried to fill in the blanks, whether that meant going to a halfway house or another full-time treatment program.
“These teachers there are genuinely interested in him and his future,” Debbie said. “I guess, most of all, they believe he has one.”
Recovery high schools in Massachusetts averaged a 70 percent graduation rate over the past 10 years. State-wide, about 87 percent of students graduate in four years.
“Graduating isn’t how we mark success,” said Lipinski, the Northshore principal. “We don’t have a one-size-fits-all measure. If they’re being productive and not harming anyone, that’s success. If they’re trying to live a normal life, that’s success. If they’re alive, that’s success.”
To help him prepare, Adams had the seniors complete five-year plans, which outlined their future goals. The school doesn’t have a full-time guidance counselor, so Adams stepped in and had them make goals related to their health, careers and relationships.
“We’ve talked vaguely about plans for after graduation, but we have five weeks until we push them out there door,” she said one afternoon in May. “That’s scary.”
The day Harrison made his plan, he realized it had been 138 days since the last time he used. There were only 36 days until graduation.
He scribbled down his goals in what he said was the order he wanted to apply them: health, family, career, financials, social, relationships, travel. He explained how he’d continue his spirituality, attend the 12-step meetings, and work toward becoming a certified physical trainer by the end of 2016.
Ultimately, “spending my life with my future family and dogs is all I want,” he wrote. “All this is possible if I stay clean and sober and do the right thing.”
Thirty-six days later, Strong walked down the hallway called “Serenity Lane” and turned a corner as she looked for the seniors.
“There you guys are,” she said, clasping her hands together. “Awww, don’t you look great.”
The eight seniors wore their caps and gowns, and were getting ready to head out for one last smoke break together before the graduation ceremony began in their school cafeteria.
Harrison batted his purple-and-yellow tassel on his graduation cap and then ran his hands down the front of his black robe to smooth out the wrinkles.
“Is this thing supposed to go on the right or left?” he asked his classmates.
“I don’t know how this works,” Harrison said. “I didn’t expect to be here.”
He and seven others made it to graduation day on June 15, but Harrison and at least a dozen others would need to attend summer school to make up credits they’d missed during the times they’d relapsed.
But first, Harrison had a stage to walk across. His entire family filed into chairs on the left side of the room. Every senior gave a speech during the ceremony, and when it was Harrison’s turn, his sister pulled out her cell phone and Debbie inched forward in her seat.
“Throughout my senior year at Rockdale Recovery High School, family, friends and myself have gone through the trials and tribulations of addiction and recovery,” he said. “I can only speak for myself when I say I didn’t think I was ever going to graduate high school, and I don’t think I could have done it without the support of this amazing school.”
With tears in her eyes, Debbie applauded.
Strong stepped in front of the microphone and turned to the eight seniors.
“Addiction is stronger than any emotion: love, hope or desperation,” she said. “You have taught me humility. You are supreme human beings crippled with a hideous disease. But I believe each of you will go on to have bright futures.”
Strong started handing out the diplomas. She looked at Harrison before calling his name. He pointed at his chest and feigned surprise.
“Me?” he mouthed.
“You ready?” she asked.
He nodded and stood up as she called his name. He wrapped her in a hug.
Harrison didn’t stick around long after the ceremony. He went to stand outside with his mom. They snapped a few photos with the rest of his family and walked away from the school.
“I’m going to be somebody someday,” he said out loud as his family trailed behind him. “I swear.”
He carried that promise with him to the car, where he would ride back to Spectrum. He vowed that this time, during this new chance, things would be better.
He relapsed less than two weeks later, just days shy of his six-month anniversary of sobriety.
Three other graduates did, too. Harrison is taking this relapse harder than the one that nearly killed him in December.
“I had so, so much recovery under my belt, and I threw it away,” he said. “They say it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, it’s how many times you get back up. You can lose your clean date, but you don’t lose the knowledge that you learned.”
Harrison has been sober for a month, and has weaned himself off of methadone. He’s going to meetings every day. He’ll need to return to Rockdale in the fall to make up additional credits he missed during the year.
He vows that this time, during this chance to start over, things will be better.