“We Used to Be Drug Addicts”

Melvin, 18, and Peter, 16, are two students at William J. Ostiguy High School—an institution devoted to helping teens continue their academics while recovering from addiction.

All photographs by Jessica Scranton

Meet five teens battling one of the most brutal and enduring diseases there is: addiction.

Tucked away on a quiet side street in the heart of downtown Boston, just half a block from the bustle of Boston Common—a beautiful park with  50 acres of rolling hills—you’ll find William J. Ostiguy High School. Or maybe you won’t.

There’s no sprawling campus, no sign, no crowds of bleary-eyed students. Walk this shadowy block at start time, and all you’ll see is a man standing next to an abandoned taco cart in front of an office building, greeting teens one by one.

It’s 8 a.m. on a Monday, and I’m standing with that man—Principal Roger Oser—outside Ostiguy, which isn’t just any old school. It’s a “recovery high school”—an institution devoted to helping teens continue their academics while recovering from addiction. And once I get inside, it’s clear that this narrow, nondescript office building is actually an orderly and structured sanctuary.

It’s a refuge from the “friends” who might pressure these students (about 30 in all) into drinking again—or from their old schools, where drugs were a big part of the social scene. “This is a safe place from the chaos that most of these students have outside of school,” Oser tells me.

So how did these teens arrive at Ostiguy? Sure, they were the ones who initially decided to sneak a shot of vodka or take their first hit. But a complex mix of factors—some personal or genetic, and most out of their control—set them on the path from experimentation to dependency. “Trying drugs is like playing Russian roulette,” says Marcia Lee Taylor, president of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “If you’re susceptible to addiction, your life can take a totally different course very quickly.”

Choices sat down with five of Ostiguy’s most fiercely focused teens to understand what it means to suffer from addiction and then devote yourself to recovery. Let their stories serve as unsettling reminders of the power drugs can have over your life, if you let them.

 

 

Her journey to addiction all started with a swig of vodka at age 11. Now Sage, 18, has overcome her cocaine habit—with her sights set on architecture school.

For Sage Wagner, the list of low points is long. There was the time she blew $800 of her bat mitzvah gift money on drugs. There was the day she realized that her little sister could no longer look her in the eyes. And then there was the night she mistakenly boarded a bus out of Boston that dropped her in New York instead of her sleepy suburban town. “After that,” she says, “it was like, ‘Oh, God, I’m trying to kill myself.’”

On drugs, Sage’s behavior was explosive: “Addiction makes you someone you’re not,” she says. Now, in retrospect, she can trace her drug problem back to her preteen insecurities—when another identity was exactly what she wanted. “I was trying to hide myself,” Sage says, “and do whatever made me think that I wasn’t a loser or an outcast.”

It didn’t work. Drugs couldn’t cure Sage’s unhappiness, no matter how hard she tried to find a high to numb the pain—quickly moving up the ranks from alcohol to prescription pain medication and cocaine. “I thought that the only way to be happy was to do more drugs, but I didn’t understand that the drugs were making me unhappy,” she explains.

Now sober, Sage is learning how to deal with her anxiety and depression in healthier ways. “A lot of people say that when you start using drugs, you don’t learn how to cope with your emotions—you just stuff them in a bottle,” she says. “That’s really unhealthy. And it’s totally true.”


Melvin, 18, and Peter, 16, met on Peter’s first day of rehab last fall and became fast friends. Together, they’ve vowed to never let addiction pull them back in.

Within seconds of meeting Peter reed and Melvin Matos, it’s clear they’re the type of friends who finish each other’s sentences. “We met at CASTLE, a drug treatment center,” says Peter. “I’m lying down my first morning and Melvin comes in: ‘Hey! What’s up? You’ve got to come to class now.’” And just like that, Melvin set Peter on a different—and more positive—path.

The two teens quickly realized they had a lot in common, including a family history of addiction. In fact, Melvin’s grandmother raised him because his parents struggled with drug use. That’s what made stealing money from her to score pills a true rock bottom. “I told her that I would never get in with that crowd, and I did the complete opposite,” Melvin says. “It broke her heart.”

But Peter and Melvin have now built the right crowd, expanding their circle of support when they got to Ostiguy. It’s an important step, considering they can’t depend on old friends, many of whom are still using drugs. “We’re definitely brothers,” Melvin says. “I blow up his phone constantly when I’m struggling . . .”

But before he can finish, Peter cuts in: “And I always answer.”


Andrew, 19, started using heroin in middle school, but he’s finally back on track. He even coaches his little sister’s soccer team, which he calls “unbelievably rewarding.”

At 2 a.m. one weeknight last spring, Andrew McCall sprung out of bed and into the bathroom, where he hastily stepped into the shower—fully clothed and shaking uncontrollably. He let the cold water wash over him. “I was crying, I was scared,” he says. “It was a dream that I was getting high—but it felt so incredibly real.”

For Andrew, going back to that haunting time in his life—when “high” was the only state that felt livable—is the ultimate nightmare. His drug use started with marijuana around age 12 and quickly escalated to pain pills. By age 13, he was shooting heroin. By 14, he had overdosed. “[Using drugs] was a choice at first, until I didn’t even notice that it wasn’t a choice anymore,” he says. “I was waking up every day with my bones aching, I would have hot and cold sweats—all until I got that one hit.”

Imagine having what feels like the worst flu of your life, and you can either take something to cure it—or you can struggle through the agony while the virus runs its course. That’s what makes addiction so difficult to overcome: Even if you want to get better, each and every day of drug withdrawal is excruciatingly painful.

Meanwhile, there’s a quick fix always staring you in the face—unless you change your entire life to eliminate the bad influences.

“Addiction is like having an elephant on your chest that won’t stand up,” he explains, “until you’re ready to stand up with it.”


At her lowest points, Taylor, 19, treated everyone “like dirt.” Now she’s repairing her relationships and focusing on school.

So you think your bus ride is bad? Taylor Tromp made a three-hour trip twice a day, just to attend Ostiguy High. “It’s not that I hate Falmouth,” she says of her small hometown on Massachusett’s Cape Cod. “But it reminds me of bad things I did.”

That’s not surprising. Like many regions across America right now, Cape Cod is in the midst of a lethal heroin epidemic. And Taylor’s case is typical: She started with marijuana before moving on to prescription painkillers—and then heroin was everywhere. And cheaper. So she “just did that.”

While Taylor still battles cravings, she’s confident she’ll never give in. “Heroin kicked my butt,” she says. “Your skin changes. You don’t eat. You’re throwing up all the time. Drugs take over your life. Even when you think you’re in control, you’re not.”


 The Heroin Epidemic 

It’s spreading through cities and suburbs . . . And killing more people than ever before.

Why is this dangerously addictive drug destroying so many young lives? One big reason: More and more teens are abusing prescription painkillers, like Percocet or Oxycontin—operating on the dangerous assumption that because they’re “legal,” they’re safe. But these pills are in a class of drugs called opioids, just like heroin. And because heroin dealers have infiltrated small towns nationwide (20 percent of high school seniors said it would be easy to get the drug), young people hooked on pain pills are turning to this cheaper version of a similar high—a single dose of heroin costs about a quarter of the price of prescription painkillers. The consequences? They’re deadly: Heroin-involved overdose deaths have nearly doubled in a two-year period.

Reporting by Jacquie Itsines


Images: Phototake (brain); Shutterstock (syringe)

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