A year ago, Penelope sat alone in her darkened bedroom, numbed out on drugs.
It was her junior year in high school. She’d quit the volleyball club after showing up high too many times. Her grades were mostly Cs and Ds. College seemed out of reach. And rehab? She tried that, for four months, but when she got out, she surrendered to the pressure to use again.
“I was just really unhappy unless I was high,” she recalls.
Today, Penelope (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) is a student at a specialized school in New Jersey that teaches teens how to maintain long-term sobriety—viewing addiction not as a moral wrong, but as a health issue. It ditched old ways of thinking about drug abuse as an acute crisis in favor of a model that treats addiction as a chronic disease that necessitates a lifestyle change.
The school, Raymond J. Lesniak Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery High School, only has seven students. It’s one of just 38 so-called “recovery” schools across the country, says Sasha McLean, a Houston educator who sits on the Association of Recovery Schools’s board of directors. After the failure of the War on Drugs and the spread of addiction into whiter suburbs, new ways of treating addiction view recovery as a long-term, cyclical process that includes relapses and requires new peer relationships, experts say.
Compared to 2002, teen usage of marijuana is on the decline nationwide. Yet over roughly the same period, overdoses have risen. Contrary to popular thought, the classic notion of peer pressure isn’t to blame, explains Brian C. Kelly, Purdue University associate professor of sociology. Rather, young people ponder “whether they think substance use will allow them to have more fun with their friends,” he says. In other words, teens pick their friends based on who else will smoke with them.
While empirical evidence on recovery high schools is limited, they could work by “giving kids the opportunity to hit the reset button on their social networks,” Kelly believes. Extracted from their old schools, young addicts won’t hang out with their drug-using friends and can build strong relationships with other sober youth.
Run by the nonprofit Prevention Links, Penelope’s school is New Jersey’s first recovery high school. Founded in 2015, it integrates traditional classwork with specialized drug counseling. Operating out of a basement in Roselle Park, Lesniak High School’s tiny staff has helped 25 families cope with opioid, cannabis and alcohol abuse. “Really what we’re creating is the opportunity to build new strengths to be able to go back into that [prior] environment and deal with those temptations,” says Pamela Capaci, who opened the school after five years of lobbying.
In most respects, Lesniak resembles a regular public school. Students return home at the end of the day, and no one pays tuition. Math and language arts are taught in person; other courses are conducted online, giving Penelope the responsibility to work through the material at her own pace. Small class sizes prevent Penelope from playing hooky or zoning out in class. “That’s useful if you’re someone like me who likes to be rebellious,” she says.
A sizable portion of the day is devoted to talking about recovery. Penelope sets goals for the short and long term each week in eight categories, ranging from academics to sobriety. After lunch, Penelope and her classmates add links to a paper chain of things for which they’re grateful. If she ever feels the temptation to use, she can retreat to a recovery room to recline on beanbags or jump on a mini-trampoline. But hardest of all, Penelope reports, are the regular drug tests.
That’s because, for months after she enrolled, Penelope couldn’t kick her addiction. She knew she should stay clean. It was her senior year, her one chance to get into college. Still, through December, Penelope couldn’t stop smoking pot. “It was part of my life for so long that it made me feel safe to get away from my problems,” she says, adding, “Addiction isn’t something that is a choice. It’s something you have for your whole life.”
Penelope occasionally sneaks a puff of weed, but relapses are rare. She believes she’s far better off at Lesniak than she’d be at her old school, where she once walked in on a girl snorting a line of coke in the bathroom and the pressure to use felt inescapable.
Temptations flared, in particular, on Friday nights when Penelope’s Snapchat features a torturous live stream of drinking and smoking at local house parties. Old classmates texted her, “Want to burn?” or “Should we get wasted tonight?” Like most teenagers, Penelope struggled to say no.
“Some people can choose to get high. I really can’t stop when I do it.”
What finally changed? Penelope credits her relationship with the school’s clinical social worker and two recovery mentors who are recovering addicts. They draw on personal experiences with sobriety to commiserate and to share tips. Because they understand the tough battle against addiction, they know there will be slip-ups. Rather than berating Penelope when she got high over winter break, they stuck with her. “Recovery is not a linear process,” says program coordinator Morgan Thompson.
Given the complexities youth face, the school says it gauges its effectiveness, not in how many days students stay clean, but in how many full-blown relapses it prevents. “The model allows us to catch things very early. We have kids coming to school saying, ‘I smoked pot last night, and I don’t want to do it again,’” explains Capaci. “The story of our success lies in what happens … to get them back and not experience any lost learning time. It sheds the shame and fear around their struggle to learn new behaviors.”
Penelope vouches this approach works. The fact that someone’s checking in on her makes her think twice, she says. “If I were just at home and came up with a plan, the chance of me following through wouldn’t be too realistic,” Penelope adds. “Here, when I come in every day, they check up on me. It’s a backbone. That’s really what this place is: a backbone for me.”
Penelope has clocked two months of sobriety. She’s back at the gym. Her report card is filled with As. She’s applied to six colleges where she hopes to study medicine and has already been admitted to two.
She will always be vulnerable to addiction, but Penelope now has the tools to triumph over it.