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Recovery high schools help save young lives

It's hard enough to pull away from addiction when you're an adult. How do you do it as an adolescent — when you're not yet fully formed, and your friends are everything?

Brendan Griffin found an answer to that puzzle. It came hard. It means everything.

Sitting in an office at his school on a recent morning, he recounted his steep descent, and his slow climb back. He was 14 when he started using. An athlete from a loving, supportive family, he began with marijuana, then took up alcohol and prescription pills.

"I was drinking in the shower every morning," he said. "I cut off everyone in my life. My goal was to get high, to get out of myself."


He knew the pain he was causing, withdrawing from the people who loved him, eventually stealing from them, too. But he saw no other way to get through the days.

"When I could stop, I didn't want to," he said. "And when I wanted to stop it was too late, and I couldn't."

When he hit bottom, his parents sent him to a wilderness rehab program in Utah. He's now 14 months clean.

Just 17, he should be back in his old high school, thinking about college, preparing to launch. But how does he go back to his old school after what he has been through? How does he fall in among students who were using with him, and haven't stopped? How does he fit in, in a place that doesn't really understand his disease?

He doesn't. Instead, he goes to William J. Ostiguy High School, a recovery school housed in an office building in downtown Boston. Here, Griffin gets the history lessons and SAT prep he would have gotten at Arlington High School. But he also gets counseling, a sober environment, regular drug tests, and peers who get it.


Ostiguy is one of four recovery high schools in the state. It's a Boston public school, operated by Action for Boston Community Development, in partnership with the Gavin Foundation, the stellar addiction services operation in South Boston. The school educates about 35 students at any one time, from all over. They stay an average of a year and a half, most of them returning to their home communities when they've got their legs under them.

Griffin will graduate from Ostiguy, where he's found academic success, and safety. Well-meaning as faculty at his old school might be, they're not experts in substance abuse. And fun though his friends were, they would not have shored each other up, as they do here.

"When I got here, I didn't know how to stay sober," Griffin said. "They showed me."

This state provides more, and better, treatment for addicts than most. Still, plenty of kids with abuse issues attend schools that are living in the last century, where the impulse is to punish rather than treat. Adolescence is already freighted with insecurity. Suspensions and expulsions supercharge it.

"By the time they get to us, they're pretty beaten down," says Ostiguy guidance counselor Joelle Bush. Ostiguy tries to rebuild them, one day at a time.

As always, kids fall: On this Monday morning, two girls had failed drug tests, and were headed to residential treatment programs. The community has grieved alumni who left intending to build new lives, but died after being dragged back into their old ones.


But Ostiguy is a lifesaver for so many kids that students make Herculean efforts to get here. Some travel from as far away as the Cape. Some heave themselves every day out of homes where there is no support.

Young addicts need more of what Ostiguy offers. Last year's state Opioid Task Force recommended that a fifth recovery high school be opened in the Worcester area. Cape Cod could use one, too. If we're serious about dealing with addiction, we have to expand the focus on the years where many habits start.

We need more stories like Brendan Griffin's. He'll graduate this year, and then train to become an addiction counselor. Return a kid like him to life, and we give a gift to everyone who loves him.

"My little brother isn't scared to see me come home any more," he said. "My parents aren't waiting for that call to say I OD'd. I have everything back."

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com