Radical compassion and the power of empathy: in the halls with the students of Northshore Recovery High School

    In many ways, Michelle Lipinski is the principal of a high school just like any other. Students rush from class to class from the morning to afternoon, study hard for quizzes and exams, and wait for their senior prom with bated breath. However, one thing sets Northshore Recovery High School apart from most other schools in the nation: All of its students have a diagnosed substance use disorder.

    Join Elizabeth for a special episode of Heart of the Matter as she speaks to Principal Michelle Lipinski and current and former students Shaylee, Alba and Rachel about the origins of Northshore – which was the subject of the MTV documentary series 16 and Recovering – what others can learn from its education model and what makes it a “safe place” of empathy, tough love and radical compassion for the students and staff who walk its halls.

    Content warning: This episode contains mentions of death, suicide and suicidal ideation, as well as in-depth discussions of substance use. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health or substance use disorder, please contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at (800) 662-4357. These programs provide free, confidential support 24/7. You are not alone. 

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    Episode transcript

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Michelle Lipinski, welcome to Heart of the Matter. And welcome to Shaylee Dobbs, Alba Ward, and Rachel D. Domenico. It’s so nice to have all of you with me. I’ve been wanting to do a show on recovery high schools for a very long time. And Northshore Recovery High School was the first one on the East Coast. Michelle, tell me how you got the idea to start this high school.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    I was running an alternative school in a neighboring city, and a lot of the students were presenting with substance use issues and I didn’t know what to do. And so, subsequently, my superintendent, at the time, one of his children started tampering with some opiates. And this is a public story, so I’m not outing anybody. And so, he and I tried to find a solution, and we worked with the local government, we worked with… It was actually Governor Romney and Lieutenant Governor Healey at the time, back in 2005, 2006. And they came up with this model. And so, we worked with the administration to open the first recovery high school.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    How does this work? I mean, every kid at the school is in recovery, yes?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Every student at the school has a diagnosis of a substance use disorder, yes. I mean, recovery, it’s a journey, not a destination, is what I say. So, I think the word recovery sometimes can be a target. And so, it’s like a working definition of recovery, but they’re all moving towards becoming more of a self-directed adult and moving and transitioning through high school. And really, like I said, they identify what their own recovery looks like.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    In most normal high schools, if a student comes to class and they’re high or they’re drunk, they get sent home. They’re often suspended. How does it work differently at recovery high school?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Well, hopefully, they don’t come to school under the influence. I mean, that’s few and far between, but when they come to school, they have to do drug testing. And we work with restorative practices, and students don’t feel… I mean, you talk about this a lot more than I can. Students don’t have the shame and the stigma, so if they did have a rough night, the night before and they come in, and they’re presenting in a way that looks like they may have used the night before, they come in and they talk to us and they tell us that they’re struggling.

    And if they do come in under the influence, we have them assessed by the nurse. And if they can go back to class, they go back to class. And obviously, they’re searched and we try to keep things as safe as possible. Like I said, there’s no like one-size-fits-all, so it depends. So, if they had a little bit of alcohol in the morning, if they had a lot, we have breathalyzers. And so, we really just work with the student and their family and see if whether they can be classroom-ready. And if they’re not classroom-ready, we get them to a place where they can be.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And Shaylee, Alba, and Rachel, all of you have either been students and graduated from Northshore Recovery High School or are a student. Tell me how it works from your perspective.

    Alba:

    It’s really comforting. Whenever I would use and stuff, I would feel guilty, but when I would come to the school, I didn’t feel like crap because I wasn’t getting put down, I wasn’t getting shitted on. And so, I actually talked a lot. It was actually really easy for me to talk about what was going on with me. And that’s most of the students here really.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Alba but we saw you were featured in that fantastic documentary, “16 and Recovering,” a four-part series on MTV that basically profiled the school, the students there. Michelle, you were featured prominently in it. And first of all, you were so honest, Alba, in this documentary, about what you were struggling with.

    Alba:

    Thank you though.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    About the fact that… You really helped a lot of people. I’m just telling you. I salute you and your courage, but you were very honest to know about the fact that from the time you were 12, you were really struggling. Tell me about that. What was that like?

    Alba:

    I’ve had depression for a very long time. When I think back, I think I’ve had it when I was like really young, like in the elementary school and stuff, but it hasn’t gotten worse until I reached middle school, because, everybody going through puberty and everybody trying to find what they’re going to be, and everything like that. And I had no idea, I was kind of winging it, and some kids didn’t understand me winging it, so I got pretty bullied.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    But you started using drugs and alcohol pretty young to help get through those awful times.

    Alba:

    Yes, I did. I started off by smoking weed. I had a family member who was like, “Oh, you should try this. It’s super cool.” And so, I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to try it because you’re cool.” So, I tried it and then, I mean, I fell in love with it because it felt like it helped my anxiety and stuff, and it kept my mind off of the bad trauma and everything like that. So, it helps in the meantime. And then people started realizing that I was starting smoking, and I’d be called like a crackhead and stuff like that. And it kind of gotten worse, so I was like, “Oh, you guys think I’m a crackhead, then I’ll be a crackhead.” That’s what my mind was like.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Shaylee, what about you? What can you tell me about your story?

    Shaylee:

    Mine’s a little different. I grew up in a household that was very active in the AA community. I was raised in AA. I had a single mother who got sober when I was two years old, so I knew better, but I started hanging out with older people, I started smoking weed and drinking when I was 14, and then I started dating a drug dealer, and that’s when things got really bad. Within like a three-month period, I became a everyday opiate user, coke every day, and Xanax around that point. So, I started Northshore Recovery High when I was 16, in 2016, and I’m still currently a student.

    Shaylee:

    I was really bad when I was here. I was always going to the nurse to make sure I was okay, getting sent home, sneaking off to get high, and stuff. And it took me four years to finally have something click. My parents tried to do everything that they could. They understood it, being addicts and alcoholics themselves, that there wasn’t really much they could do. Michelle did literally everything she could have, section, after section, after section, me leaving rehabs, treatment centers. And then I turned 18. When they started filming, I seen the camera crew, and I left. That was four years ago.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    She never came back.

    Shaylee:

    And I never came back. About 11 months ago, I went to treatment, took it seriously, came off of meth, fentanyl, and coke, and have been clean, and it’s all because of Michelle, honestly.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Oh my gosh. Okay. Michelle, what is that like hearing that?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    It’s hard for me to… I mean, I didn’t do the hard work for her. I mean, she did the hard work, and we plant seeds. And my staff and I all love these children like they are our very own. And that’s the reason that they came back. So, when Shaylee came back to me in the spring and she said, “I’m sober and I really need to finish my diploma. Can you help me set up for the GED?” And she just kind of fell apart in my office, and she was like, “I forgot what it feels like to be here. I want to come back to school.” And I was like, you’re kind of 21. So, one of those… But I mean, look at her. Look at what I get. Look at these beautiful people. So, I don’t take credit for that, but we keep a place where, honestly, we love them and it’s radical compassion. We don’t ever give up on them, no matter how old they are.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Shaylee, what was the difference when you came back. And I mean, you’re sober now and clean.

    Shaylee:

    Yeah. There’s really no difference with the school. It was just all me. I wasn’t ready to get clean. I had all the same opportunities to get clean, I just wasn’t ready. And now that I was ready, Michelle took me back with open arms, and to this day is still like my safe place. I can call any of the staff, no matter what time it is, and say, “Hey, I’m struggling. I need help.” And they help me.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Anytime, no matter what. Wow. Okay. Rachel, how about you?

    Rachel:

    So, I graduated from Recovery High School in 2014. And I just want to say like… I mean, what year? It’s 2022, that is the same. I know if I’m struggling or if there was something going on, I still reach out. I call Michelle all the time. So, I grew up in like a dysfunctional home. The first time… I always said I was never going to do drugs because I have two older siblings who used opiates really when I was really, really young, I watched that. So, my bright idea was to drink alcohol because that’s not a drug – is what I thought. So, the first time I ever drank, I was 11 in the sixth grade. By the time I ended up at Recovery High, I was… I still said I was never going to do opiates, mind you, but I was using everything else. Anything you can think of that wasn’t an opiate, I was using. And then that was like 2011, but my disease really took off. My senior high school, when I turned 18, I started using opiates, and that was it, I never put them down.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. We hear that story over and over again about opiates, that it’s a whole different ballgame and just terrible in terms of being caught in its grip. I’m curious, from the three of you ladies, explain the difference between a regular high school and how you were treated in your struggles, in your difficult times, in Northshore Recovery High School, what the differences are. You’ve all talked about the fact that you can talk to anybody there, that you continue to talk to everybody there, but let us know how that works exactly, and what the difference is, and what a difference it made in your life.

    Shaylee:

    I went to Beverly High School and Marblehead High School, and none of the staff was educated on what addiction looks like in a child, so it was just clueless. If I smelled like weed, they would know, but if I was nodding out in my English class, they would just think I was up all night. And they didn’t have the tools, and I don’t blame them, but they just don’t know what they don’t know.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Michelle, how important is that, that the teachers, and the counselors and the principal, that they understand what addiction looks like, what substance use disorder looks like, what using looks like?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Thank you for that. That’s become my life’s work, Elizabeth; is to help people in understand how to help these children in their schools, because, I don’t think every district can open a recovery high school. I don’t think this is necessarily the answer. I think the answer is exactly, and what you just said, it’s about training people who are with our children all day long, how to do this in a way that’s compassionate and empathetic, and to work with them and to not keep suspending them or put them in prison. And so, I think that for me, it’s kind of become all of our life’s work to let people know, which is hence the documentary. But my staff here have had extensive training on how to work with adolescents who have trauma and who have other mental health disorders, and how to work with them. And I wish that people can model their schools on this, so when you see someone who’s struggling, really treat them with dignity because they’re struggling.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    You said in a TED Talk that you gave, that if we treat them with kindness and compassion, if we get them help, they heal.

    Shaylee:

    They do.

    Alba:

    We do.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    But it’s tough love too. I think I’ve sectioned every single one of…

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What does that mean when you guys have all… Talk about the section.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Oh, it’s Section 35. It’s an involuntary… They take… You can talk about it, Rachel.

    Rachel:

    Okay. So, the first time Michelle had me sectioned was out of juvenile court. I think I was 17. I called her… And this is how much we trust the staff at Recovery High, because, I was like, “They’re making me take a drug test. My probation officer, they’re making me take a drug test. I’m going to fail for everything. Please don’t tell anyone. You can’t tell my mom.” And she was like, “Okay. Yep.” And 20 minutes later, I was in front of a judge, stating that I called Michelle and I didn’t sound right in the conversation. And I was on my way to a involuntary commitment, which, at the time, it was the CASTLE in Brockton.

    Shaylee:

    Yeah. Castle.

    Rachel:

    That was my spot.

    Shaylee:

    Me too.

    Rachel:

    It’s like 30 days that you’re inpatient treatment.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    So, it’s against their will.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Against their will.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    So, if students aren’t willing to go to treatment, there is a… And here in Massachusetts, we have something called a Section 35. So, we can have them involuntary committed, and it has to be in front of a judge. It’s humiliating, it’s horrifying, it is absolutely the last thing you want to do. So, before we pull a Section 35, which can only be done by police or a parent or a close family member, before we do that, we give them every single opportunity to do it voluntarily. But if it gets to that point, they all know that I’ll go to court with their parents. And they never want to see me at court.

    But we can have those conversations. I mean even though she graduated many years ago, her mother and I still have conversations about like, “How’s Rachel doing?” So, I think it’s just having… If you create that space and if you could do it in a place that doesn’t move like an academic institution, then they will come back when they’re good, they’ll come back when they are not so good, like they need support. And I just think that that’s what we’re lacking in our communities. It’s a place where people can trust that no matter what, they’re going to get 365 fresh starts, that they can come back.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And I’m just curious, Michelle, your staff, your teachers, how many of them are in recovery? How do they all know how this works, what it looks like, what to do?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    I have my art teacher right in front of me if you’d like to ask her because she… Get over here, Devin. So, Devin started here… You can come over here. She didn’t know she wanted to work here. She happened to be dating one of my friends, Debbie. And she’s really a great artist. And so, I met her, and I wasn’t happened to be looking for an art teacher, and-

    Devin:

    I don’t know if you wanted me here, but here I am.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    And Devin, she was only six months sober.

    Devin:

    I really didn’t know what the school was about. I just needed a job, and I said, “Who is going to hire an alcoholic graphic designer?” Michelle’s like, “I need an alcoholic graphic designer.” And I was like, “I’m in.” And so, I learned as I went, you know what I mean? Recovery High helped me get sober, as much as we’ve helped the kids. And I learned so much from Michelle. I just asked her questions all the time, like, “What’s the best way to help these guys?” Because it was like, I don’t know, as much as it was hard for me to… I couldn’t imagine… As hard as it was for me to get sober as an adult, these guys have as much stuff that I have going on for myself. That didn’t make sense. You know what I’m saying? It’s harder for them, I feel like.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    No, I totally hear what you’re saying because I know that there are… I’m in recovery too, and a lot of times, in meetings that I go to… Because by the way, recovery is a group process. I think isolation is the single worst thing for a person who’s struggling with either a mental health issue or a substance use disorder, but I’m always really amazed and in awe of the people who have found recovery so early on in life. Especially because they’ve got there and, “How do I graduate high school sober? How do I go to college sober? How do I get married sober? How do I…” Rachel and Shaylee and Alba, I’m curious to hear what you think about that. I mean, facing a life of recovery from the time that you’re a teenager.

    Alba:

    Most of my teenage years, which I’m so upset about, is I have a hard time remembering because almost my whole teenage years, I was using. So, there’s only bits and parts that I remember. Yeah.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    It’s probably for the best.

    Alba:

    Yeah. Probably, for sure.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Just so you know, it was terrifying. Yeah.

    Alba:

    Yeah. And it feels so good being on the other side. It really does. I don’t feel so paranoid all the time and I don’t feel guilty. I used to always feel like such an awful person because my Nana, she would always say, “If you love me, you’ll stop.” And that’s what a lot of people say to a loved one. And it’s like, “I can’t. It’s what I have to do. I can’t do it for my Nana.” And that would break my heart. It would hurt me so much because I couldn’t give her what she wanted. And so, now being on the other side, it feels so good. She trusts me more, she can talk to me with anything. I talk to her about anything, and I feel more grown-up.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. That’s really… And you just said something so important: You can’t get sober for anybody else. You have to get sober and clean for yourself.

    Alba:

    Right. And you know what, you can have help. Sometimes like if you have a friend that helps you on the track of staying sober, then that’s good, but it’s also you who has to do it. For me, how I started getting sober was that I had somebody who would help me start off. So, I was staying sober for them at first, and then eventually, I’ve felt strong enough to do it for myself.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I’m curious, the three of you, do you think that you would’ve gotten clean and sober if you hadn’t gone to Recovery High School?

    Rachel:

    No, absolutely not.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Really?

    Rachel:

    I mean maybe eventually, but… So, people always look at me like I’m crazy. I have no filter when it comes to my use. I would walk in here, if I relapse, and I’m like, “Yeah, I did coke last night.” And that’s just like the culture here, I feel like, and that carried… I didn’t have that at my previous school, but that carried with me, no filter. I am incapable of lying when I use, but as a teenager, complete abstinence, I struggled with that. I had five months, six months, seven months. I couldn’t grasp being sober for the rest of my life, but I think that’s a huge part of why I am okay and sober, because, I knew that it didn’t have to be complete abstinence.

    I had to drink on my 21st birthday. I didn’t, but I thought I did. And that not looking at it like, “Oh my God, I relapsed. I haven’t used opiates in two years.” Should I have drank? No, but I didn’t have to throw everything away. And I think sometimes, people look at recovery like you have to be completely abstinent and you have to do it this way. If I was looking at it that way and I didn’t have Recovery High, I probably would’ve just thrown it all away.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    So, how important was it to have classmates and teachers like your art teacher we just heard from, or Michelle, but also other people in your classes, going through the exact same struggle that you’re going through? People you can come in every day and you can say, “Last night, I drank,” or “Last night, I slipped and did such and such”?

    Shaylee:

    Really hard to see. I have four years on most of the students here, even five or six years. And I see them doing the same exact thing that I was doing at their age, and you want to coddle them and tell them that it’s going to be okay, but that’s enabling, so I just give them the best advice I can and tell them I know exactly what they’re going through and I’m here if they need anything, but that’s an adventure they have to go on alone.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What about you Alba? Did it really help knowing that you were among other people, sort of walking the same path you were?

    Alba:

    I think if I never had that chance to actually feel connected with somebody, I think I would’ve committed suicide because I felt so alone. And right when I stepped foot into the school, Michelle came with open arms, she said, “Hello, how are you? I hope you’re feeling good today,” right when I walked in, and that’s when I knew that I could trust everybody in this building.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Wow, that’s really something. You really think it would’ve been that dire for you if you hadn’t had that community?

    Alba:

    I think so. I felt so alone, like so alone. And when I came here, I felt like I could be myself, like I could finally do what I felt was right and normal in my eyes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Michelle, I’m really struck by the fact that, in watching this documentary and watching your TED Talk, the enormous amount of compassion that these kids get in the hallways of Recovery High School. If I could count how many hugs I saw in that documentary series, I don’t think I could.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    I got in some trouble for that.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Did you really?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Oh yeah. Educators don’t like hugging. I mean, I’m not saying… In general, I think we’re just a little bit different. And we use the word… We love our students, and we tell them that.

    Alba:

    I think that’s what really connects everybody in the school – is the hugging. I think we need the human contact.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Well, I think there’s a good… You have to be taught that there’s something called a good touch. And so, we’re not doing it in a sketchy way. And I think my staff and I know boundaries really well, that if a student does… Because some kids don’t get hugged at all at home. And so, sometimes just walking down the hall and just, “How’re you doing?” Just that connection is really, really important.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Well, and having compassion for the mental health struggles, that we know from all the current research, the entire world is suffering right now. Anxiety and depression are off the charts as a result of the pandemic. They were already rising. We know the influence of social media, especially on young women, like the three of you girls or ladies, excuse me, is incredibly destructive. And I was struck by something, Alba, that you said in the documentary, which was that mental health issues and substance use, you said, go together like cheese and crackers.

    Alba:

    Yeah. It’s so true.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Exactly. I mean we get back to the same thing. Somebody who is trying to numb themselves is feeling pain of some kind.

    Alba:

    And sometimes even when they do do the drug, afterwards, they feel the pain. So, it goes both ways, really.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What about Shaylee and Rachel? What about the two of you? Tell me what you struggled with. And I know Alba has been very honest about really debilitating depression that she suffered. What about you guys?

    Shaylee:

    I was just a very anxious and emotional child. And when I was 14, I went through a pretty traumatic trauma.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What happened?

    Shaylee:

    Nope.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    She can’t say it.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Okay, but it was an awful thing and you had a tough time with it.

    Shaylee:

    Yep.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And did you turn to substances to help relieve that pain?

    Shaylee:

    Yeah. I was already smoking and drinking, but after that happened, that’s when I started using hard drugs.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right. And Michelle, therein lies the dilemma that a lot of society looks at these kids and say, “You’re trouble. Go off to rehab or go off to some sort of boarding school that is meant to scare you straight.” When actually, what a lot of these kids need is a hug and some compassion and understanding.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    And yeah, I mean, I think that… I call it The Year Without a Santa Claus. And there’s this land of broken toys, but they’re all a part of each other, and nobody knows that they’re broken. There’s nothing that a child can say to me, a student can say to me, that that shocks me. I mean, because they come with these stories. These stories that Shaylee’s speaking of are more common, but they don’t talk about them in traditional high schools. And here, Shaylee can open her mouth and say that story to any of the girls here or any of the boys, and everyone’s going to go, “Me too.” It’s one of those places that you just don’t feel broken. You actually feel like, “I’m in a safe place and we can start to build ourselves back together.” And it just feels a lot less lonely.

    And like I said, I am honored to be able to work with these young people because it’s great seeing them get to that other side where they can actually help others. And that’s the beautiful part of this recovery, whether it’s abstinence-based or harm reduction. I even hate using those words because I don’t want people to die on those hills, but it’s just recovery, whatever you want to call it. Because I know these three right here, they’re recovery coaches. They help other people. I watch them. Their sole mission is to help other people find the joy and beauty of recovery, whatever pathway they want to choose. And that’s why, every day, I can walk in here and watch what these three women are doing, and it renews me.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Rachel, after graduating from Recovery High School, you are now a recovery advisor after going to college, yes?

    Rachel:

    Yeah. So, I actually just left that job, but I’m actually in a LADAC program, which is like a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor. Hopefully, get onto like a social work degree and a LADAC, but yes, that is what I was doing for the last, I don’t know, seven months.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    That’s great. So, you’re all paying it forward.

    Rachel:

    Yeah. The best we can.

    Alba:

    I work at the school now.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Do you really?

    Alba:

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Oh my God, Alba. You really are.

    Alba:

    I just kept coming, and I was like, “Oh my God, I can just work here.”

    Michelle Lipinski:

    When I asked her if she wanted be a para, she was like, “Of course.” And then afterwards, I go, “Okay, so we’re going to pay you this much an hour.” And she goes, “I get paid?” And I was like, “Yeah, Alba.”

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Michelle, tell me, in what ways is the recovery high school exactly like another high school. I mean, obviously, kids come to school, they’re expected to go to class and do their homework. How is it like other high schools around the country?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Yeah. They still have to pass their classes. And we have standards-based curriculum, so they have to pass MCAS, which is their high stakes test in order for them to get their diplomas. They have to go to classes, they have to… I mean, my teachers teach a little bit differently. I think that they all understand where the students are, so they differentiate curriculum like they read about, but I mean, they’re incredibly talented, but they get them the information that they need in order to get those credits to matriculate. So, like I said, we are just smaller classes, but we’re still classes and they still sit here and get the work done. And they all have a schedule for seven periods of the day.

    Shaylee:

    A lot of the teachers here also have a special education training, so that also helps a lot.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    How does that help?

    Shaylee:

    So, some students need like… I’m one of the students.

    Alba:

    Me too.

    Shaylee:

    We need to be taught a certain way. And they help each student the way that they need to be helped. Does that make sense?

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. So, they recognize that different kids learn differently.

    Shaylee:

    Exactly.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And are flexible about teaching in ways that they can reach them.

    Shaylee:

    Right.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    And I think at every opportunity, throughout the curriculum, if it does come up, a lot of my staff are in recovery and they have their own experiences if they don’t have family experiences. And so, if there comes a time where recovery becomes the most important thing to do in that day, that kind of takes over. So, there is kind of a language, it’s not always like, “We’re teaching recovery 24/7.” But my staff know enough that if it becomes a topic of conversation, that it becomes the topic of conversation, even for a brief period of time until we can get back to teaching history or English or math or whatever that is.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And you do drug tests at the school randomly?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Yes.

    Shaylee:

    Yeah. She does.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Okay. Ladies, are those nerve-wracking?

    Shaylee:

    Not anymore. Now that you know you’re going to pass a drug test, no, but before, I would have other students take my drug tests for me, I would pay students to take my drug test for me.

    Alba:

    Not me. We used to-

    Rachel:

    I never cared. I would light up a cup and just proceed onto class.

    Alba:

    We used to put water in the cups. I mean, the students would do anything. We used to put water in the cup and-

    Rachel:

    They would know, by the way. They would know. They always knew, but they’d like to see how creative we were trying to be.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    So, what happened, Michelle, if somebody tested positive on one of those random drug tests? What happens next?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    So, it depends on what the drug is, it depends on whether or not that person-

    Rachel:

    I would be taking trips down to Beverly Hospital every day.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. And tell me why that happens. Because the first thing that happens after a positive hit on a drug test is you go to see a counselor.

    Rachel:

    I would go see Michelle, and then we’d take a trip down to the nurse, and I would get evaluated. And then the nurse would say, “Yep, she really needs to go down to Beverly Hospital because she is not safe.” So, I’d spend some time at Beverly Hospital until I sobered up a little bit. At this point, I think I was 18, so I would just walk out and come back to school and do it all over again the next day.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Come back to the school the next day and do it again.

    Rachel:

    And take another drug test and be back down at the hospital.

    Alba:

    Most of the students think that when they take a drug test, that they’re going to get in trouble with their parents or in general, and that’s not what happens. If you pop up for opiates, then you definitely have to be… it has to be talked with your parents, definitely. But if it’s something else and they’re really struggling with it, we talk to them about it and we see what else we can do for their recovery plan.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    So, every student has a recovery plan. And on that recovery plan, they identify if they’re going to be using other substances. So, that’s going to be abstinence-based, or if they’re going to use medical marijuana or whatever that is. And they’re really honest about that. So, we have that conversation with the parents or the guardians, whoever they’re living with. And so, when they do test positive, we just have a conversation and make sure that the parent knows, and go back to class.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I’m curious, how much of a role did peer pressure play in helping you guys get or stay sober? Did you ever feel like… Or was it the opposite? Was it just complete, like, “Okay, if you tested positive, no biggie”? I’m just curious, in a community of other kids and teachers in recovery, what role that played for you?

    Rachel:

    Yeah. I mean, I definitely felt that push from some of my peers who like… I mean, it’s like one big family here, so you definitely feel when other people are pushing you to do the right thing. So, I don’t know if it necessarily helped, but you definitely feel it. It makes you think rather than isolating it.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Alba, Shaylee.

    Shaylee:

    At first, in, it was probably, 2016 to 2017, the students then, including myself, we really didn’t care, and then we started losing a large population of the students. So, then that’s when we started checking up on each other and trying to help each other take steps to move into the right direction.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    It scared you.

    Shaylee:

    It scared all of us. We had six students die that year.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Of overdoses?

    Shaylee:

    Yeah. And then more came after I dropped out that same year.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I mean, that’s the scary thing about all of this. Well, this is a really deadly disease. It kills people.

    Alba:

    Yeah. I can’t even count anymore, how many friends and family members I’ve lost. I mean, it’s past 10 fingers.

    Rachel:

    Yeah. And it becomes normal.

    Alba:

    It does. And that’s like a sad thing to say.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    It’s an incredibly sad thing to say, but born out by the numbers, we know that the number of overdose deaths since 2000 have tripled among teenagers. Michelle, why do you think we’re losing this battle?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Oh, that’s a whole other… I can go on for an entire hour and a half about that, Elizabeth. I think that especially with the pandemic, has only heightened that even further. I think it’s just the lack of connection and the fact that we think that we can suspend our way out of this, that we really feel like punitive policies are going to change behavior. And we still have those antiquated punitive policies. They start at the district and they go round up to the school board, into city council, and we still follow these antiquated policies. And we can’t police our way out of it, we can’t. We’ve got to figure out how to connect with people at a cellular level and get them the help that they need. And we need to provide the help.

    And we need to have insurance companies that actually pay for the freaking help. So, it’s just, there’s so many barriers to getting sober and getting into recovery. And especially, a lot of the students that I work with, they fall under the poverty line. They get free and reduced lunch, and so their access to recovery is subpar at best. And so, I just feel like the disparity between the insurance that you have and every support you get is… I know that when I have to section a student, they’re going to go to a certain place, I take that very seriously, because, I know that they’re not going to have access to the Betty Fords and the Hazeldens of this world. And I know where they’re going and I know that it’s going to be a different kind of recovery.

    And it’s not going to be worse, it’s just going to be… The system’s broken, Elizabeth. I mean, I think you’ve probably heard that a million times over. I heard a few of your podcasts. And it’s just, for adolescents, the system is really broken. When we take an adult system, when we shove it down to what an adolescent need, instead of giving them summer camp, they need summer camp, they need to know how to have fun and be sober, they need to know how to read a book and be sober, they need to know how to go to class and be sober. I mean, it’s a different model, and we haven’t built it yet.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    I was struck in the documentary… You had prom. You guys-

    Alba:

    I love prom.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    They still come to prom. They graduated, and they still come to prom.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    That’s hilarious. But why was that so important ladies? I mean, to have the normal prom that every other kid gets in every other high school, you guys got to have.

    Alba:

    It was good. We felt like we were also part of the regular school as well, being able to go to prom and stuff, so that was really good. And it’s fun. All of us get to come together, we go on a boat, and we all dance and listen to music and eat food. And we don’t have to talk about anything else. We just talk about dancing, music, and having fun.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    All in your gorgeous prom dresses.

    Alba:

    Yes.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Dressing up was fun too. I wanted to read you guys something that I had read, a quote from my professor of psychiatry at Yale, about the disease of addiction. He said, “Imagine if cancer not only killed people, but in the process of killing people, it made everyone around them angry at them and ruined all the relationships with their loved ones. Addiction not only kills people, but they often die alone after having ruined all of their relationships in the process.” I think his point being that, going to what you just said, Michelle, the way we as a nation, as a society, look at addiction, the way, as a culture, we punish addiction, the way we stigmatize people with mental health challenges or substance use disorder, it shames people into silence and it tragically prevents them from getting the kind of help they need. I just wanted all of you to weigh in on that with your thoughts.

    Rachel:

    So, I feel like that’s part of the problem, that you’re labeled as a troublemaker, especially as an adolescent, when it’s really that you don’t know how to deal with feelings and trauma, and you’re using substances to combat that. And now you’re a troublemaker and a loser and whatever else, why would you want to continue to be honest with people who already don’t understand you from the beginning? And I could go on for days, but that ties into more too, like if you don’t have support of people around you, and you’re using, and I’m not telling you I’m using and you don’t know anything or any education, how are you going to know to come check on me or to bring the Narcan? And I think that’s part of the reason we see more and more people die as the stigma gets worse, even though it’s supposed to be getting better. I don’t know. That’s it for me.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Well said, Rachel. Shaylee.

    Shaylee:

    I think she said it perfectly.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Alba.

    Alba:

    Some people, when they did something bad, they think that they’re going to be that way forever, really. And just getting judged all the time, just makes you feel like shit, man.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    One of the students that we lost, who was in the documentary, Shawn, he wasn’t supposed to be in the criminal justice system. We were trying to section him. And when the police came to his house to section him, which they took him out of bed, he said, “I’m going to have a cigarette.” And they said, “No, you aren’t.” He was wearing a housecoat. He reached in his housecoat pocket to get a cigarette, and they tasered him. And so, he got violent and so he picked up a charge. Because we were trying to get him better, he picked up a charge.

    And this became his segue into this horrible spiraling depression because he had to get a negative drug test in order to not go to jail now. And just the thought of even putting that, I don’t understand the expectation of why people have to be… The sobriety shouldn’t be on the plan when violence was the problem. So, I just think there’s unrealistic expectations across the board, and as soon as you enter into that system, getting out of it is like… We all know so many people in the system because they can’t get a negative drug test.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    What is the one thing, Alba, Shaylee, and Rachel, the one thing you would like others out there to know about depression, anxiety, addiction, that you think society might not know? What’s the one thing you would like them to know?

    Shaylee:

    That’s kind of tough to answer.

    Alba:

    Yeah. I like them to know that they’re not alone.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Other people suffering, that they’re not alone?

    Alba:

    Yeah. It takes time.

    Shaylee:

    Addiction doesn’t discriminate either. It doesn’t matter where you come from, your background, your origin, how much you have, how little you have, doesn’t matter.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    True. Rachel.

    Rachel:

    That’s really tough for me to answer. I just wish that more people would do some research or some read-up on research or evidence-based practices rather than continue to formulate opinions based off of what they’re seeing or what they’re hearing. Because those are the kind of opinions that continue to… it somehow turns into like a statement, and then that’s science, and it’s not. The opinion people formulate in their brain about whatever it is, substance use disorder or mental health, and they get stuck on that, and then that’s, in turn, how you treat people. So, I wish more people would really try to see where this is coming from, why are we in an epidemic, why are so many people dying? I just want to know why people aren’t asking like, “Why is this happening?” Rather than-

    Michelle Lipinski:

    But don’t you wish that you can inject people with what it feels like to be in the most horrible depths.

    Alba:

    Yeah. So, they can actually-

    Michelle Lipinski:

    And so, you can say like, “Now you, don’t use.” I wish I could make them feel how it feels to crave so deeply that you would give away your children. I need people to know that this is not a choice. I wish that you can feel how hard it is to get sober when all you want to do is drink, or how hard it is to not want to pick up a needle when that’s the only thing that makes you feel better.

    As people knew how hard that was, they would go, “Oh my gosh, we need to put everything we have to this disease. This is what it feels like? Holy hell, nobody should feel like that.” And I just feel like people have the luxury of not knowing how that feels. And once you feel that, you can’t unfeel that. You have to become a soldier in that war. You cannot unfeel that. So, I kind of wish that those people who are judgey, you can be like, “Oh, by the way…” Just see what happens, and be like, “Okay, you get that for 24 hours, let’s see where you are. I’ll check in with you in around 5, bye.” And I think that would solve-

    Alba:

    I wish people had more empathy. We’re human, we make mistakes. You should know that you make mistakes too. Keep an open mind really.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    But I think it also gets back to, Alba, what you were saying at the beginning, that your grandma, your Nana, as you call her, said, “Don’t you love me enough to stop?” And that’s what Michelle was just saying, it’s not a choice, is it?

    Alba:

    Right. It’s not.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    It’s a disease. And that doesn’t mean you don’t adore her or love her. It just means that you can’t, that it’s really, really hard once are in the grips of that disease.

    Alba:

    It’s like you’re getting swallowed whole really. And you’re really trying to get out of the little hole and you’re just getting sucked in.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Right. And finally, it gets back to the whole, Michelle, you were talking about the fact that recovery is a journey, not a destination. I think that’s the one thing I’m still struck by the fact that anybody I know who isn’t in recovery themselves, they all think, “Oh, well, you’re sober now.” The end. And it’s not like that.

    Alba:

    You know what I was… I was talking about this the other day. I’ve been sober for a year and four months now.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Congratulations.

    Alba:

    Thank you so much. And a month ago, I was just driving around and I suddenly got the urge to do Molly. And I was like, “I’m sober. Why would I feel that way? I thought I was done.” I thought I wouldn’t get cravings anymore, but now I realize that being sober, every day is still a battle. I thought that once you get sober, that feeling just went away, you didn’t have to feel that way anymore, but it comes up once in a while. And I didn’t realize that.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Yeah. It’s an ongoing battle. Well, thank you so much. Hopefully, Michelle, we can encourage other high schools around the country to get staff members. I mean, is that what you would like to see? You’re not advocating that there be more recovery high schools. You’re advocating that all the other high schools currently open and operating, the millions of them in our country, be more humane and holistic? I mean, what’s your goal?

    Michelle Lipinski:

    Look at the discipline policies that we enforce, and how does that perpetuate the disease of addiction, especially for our athletes, especially for people in our high schools, especially for people who are identified. I mean, I stopped eating in the teacher’s lounge. There was a place where the teachers gather and eat together. …Because I just got so sick of hearing the stories about so and so. And “Well, this big brother…” It’s like they just keep perpetuating these negative stereotypes when I saw these beautiful children. I love the kids in the back of my classroom, like that was me. And so, I just feel like we allow people to say these negative stories, and it just perpetuates the stereotypes instead of saying like, “Hey, stop it.” Because as a new teacher, I wasn’t able to say that, but I would hope that we wouldn’t tolerate that behavior anymore in our high schools, of listening to people put children down.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    And by the way, that can set that child on a path that they may never get off, because, a child identified by teachers talking in the teachers lounge, as a troublemaker, or the star athlete who is hungover or tests positive for drugs and gets kicked off the team and then suspended from school, and then parents freak out and send them to bootcamp for… Survival bootcamp and then a therapeutic boarding. All of a sudden, you’re identified as troubled and difficult and the wrong kid to hang out with. And for that to happen to somebody when they’re 14, 15, 16, 17, that can turn that path dramatically for the rest of their lives.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    And I’ve done a lot of research, and there’s a lot of… I just wish that we can go into schools and say, “Here’s the five things you can do.” And it’s easy. You know what I mean? I don’t have to give them any money, I don’t have to give them any tools. It literally is just a mindset. We need to change the mindset of how we work with people. It’s not about throwing money at this. It’s about having leaders in our community that say, “I’m not tolerating this behavior anymore. We’re going to look at the school board policies about students who come to school under the influence, and we’re going to help them. We’re going to make a concentrated effort to change the system.” That’s why I’m a city counselor, because, I’m not listening to them anymore. So, you got to be a part of the solution. You got to put people in power who want to change schools.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Michelle Lipinski, thank you for your passion and incredible work in this amazing school. And oh my gosh, Shaylee Dobbs, Alba Ward, Rachel D. Domenico, you guys are rock stars paying it forward. So, congratulations, ladies.

    Alba:

    Thank you so much.

    Shaylee:

    Thank you.

    Rachel:

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas:

    Really lovely, lovely to meet all three of you.

    Michelle Lipinski:

    And thank you for being a power of example. We appreciate you.

    Rachel:

    Thank you. Yeah. Thanks for having us.

     

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    Published

    February 2022