Michael’s Honesty

Basically Honest

Twenty-eighth in a series of success stories of alumni.

Michael S. is 16. So how can his life be a success story already? By setting out early on the wrong path, being brave or wise enough to ask for help early, and being willing to engage in group therapeutic experiences even though he feared revealing himself to others.

Having completed Recovery Outfitters treatment program and living on his own with others in recovery, he’s still a student at Avner Bush Academy, our accredited high school. He’s a senior already with only three more classes to go. He’s on target to get his diploma at 17.

Michael started on the wrong path early by experimenting with the family alcohol supply at about nine or ten years old. “Alcohol is just part of my family,” he says. At age 11, he took up smoking without his mother’s knowledge, so pot was the easy next step. He asked his 16-year-old brother to get him some pot when he was twelve. Then, after surgery on his little finger, Michael was given Lortab for pain. The second surgery to remove a metal pin from his finger was followed by another round of Lortab, which took him further into the use of mind-altering substances. He says he didn’t like the Lortab; on an empty stomach it almost made him sick. “But I liked the way it took me out of my mind, so I forced it down. I’d tell my mother my finger hurt and she’d let me have another pill. It would take me away from life issues.”

Life Issues

After Michael’s parents had divorced when he was four, he saw his father every other week. He remembers how he and his father and brother would spend their time together playing outside all day. Soon after his divorce, his father remarried and a few years later was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which was removed and returned again and again. In one year he had twelve surgeries. He and his wife moved to Pennsylvania to her parents’ house so she could better care for him and also hold a job. Michael last saw him in December 2007. The day after he died on March 10, 2008, Michael’s mother called the distraught widow and was told not to call there ever again. So Michael and his family didn’t get to go to his father’s
funeral in Rhode Island, and Michael didn’t have a chance to fully feel his father’s death and to grieve. This became a lingering issue for Michael, one he could not easily resolve.

Another life issue troubling Michael was depression. In eighth grade, he says, “I’d been telling my mom I needed help but she didn’t catch on then.” By ninth grade, “I didn’t actually want to kill myself,” he says, “but if I did die, I’d be cool with that.”

One day he and his mother got into an argument when he was coming down from pot. He was edgy and ran off. Three hours later he came back and continued the argument, ending by threatening to kill himself. His mother quickly arranged an evaluation for him at Ridgeview Hospital. At the hospital, Michael didn’t hold back. He spilled everything, repeating that he wanted to kill himself. He was immediately admitted. “That was cool,” Michael recalls, “because I could get away from my mom.”

Still another issue got in Michael’s way. He disliked revealing himself or being close to someone. “I had trust issues and safety issues. It was a struggle to let people get close. If I got close, they moved away or I did something to end it.“

And so entering the hospital environment was stressful for Michael. “I got there during visitors’ hours,” he recalls. “Other kids were sitting at tables with their families. I never liked being the new person. I never liked people and having to interact.” So entering a program where he had to interact and reveal himself was hard. However, he says that during the time he was at Ridgeview he improved his relationship with his mother and brother.

Michael’s willingness to go into Ridgeview had to do with his depression. In his mind, he didn’t have a drug problem. Michael saw drugs and alcohol as a treatment for his issues, not the problem. “One reason I thought I didn’t have a problem was that, when I ran out of Lortab, I was cool with that. I just drank and smoked. I’ve had ecstasy and cocaine put in front of me and I said, ‘No. I’m good.’ I thought because I said ‘No’ a few times, I didn’t have a drug problem.” Of course, at Ridgeview he got sober. In fact, his sober birthday is the day he went into Ridgeview. His treatment for suicidal thoughts and then the 30-day treatment for drug abuse totaled 56 days.

The day he got out was Halloween 2008. He went trick or treating with his brother and friends and then to a party where there was drinking and pot smoking. He did not participate. “I’d been getting a little of a conscience back and begun to care about people. My mom just paid for my stay at Ridgeview and drinking would upset her. And now I don’t want
to waste all the work I’ve done in recovery or all she has done for me.”

Even so, Michael didn’t feel he was ready to go it alone, so again he had the wisdom to ask for help. Shortly before he was released from the program, he told his mother and the staff that he needed long-term treatment and was given our brochure.

He had mixed feelings about coming here. “I wanted to stay sober but I was not looking forward to doing all I’d have to do, meeting people, revealing myself,” he said. “I hated being the new boy again.”

When he visited, he liked the home-like atmosphere and the absence of locked doors; he also found the guys super friendly. When then-resident Bruce said to him, “See you next week,” Michael felt a little bit of his guard come down.

At intake, when he said he wanted to come, Kim Seymour, ROI’s Executive Director, had to overlook his young age. Only one other boy so young had been treated here, but he became a success story, too. One more issue Michael had to confront soon after he enrolled: he disliked school. It was boring and he didn’t think it was important. But at 14, he was too young for a job, and he was required to do something constructive to move forward. He is a kinesthetic learner who needs hands-on instruction, which is far from what is provided in a typical classroom. His grades had not been terrible back home, but he’d become the class clown and was sent to the resource room in the Special Education program for having “a bad attitude.” He did better in that smaller environment with more individual attention. Now it seemed Avner Bush Academy would be just right for him.

He points out, for example, that learning geometry with former Avner Bush teacher Chris Appleton was a hands-on experience. Michael and another student, with Chris’s guidance, designed and built the picnic table that sits on the grass by the school. They discussed angles and parallel lines, then they measured, cut, and fitted it all together. “I didn’t know building a table was so complicated,” Michael says. Now that he has only three courses left to go—American government,
physical science, and precalculus—he is less interested in finding something intriguing or hands-on about these classes. Selfdiscipline has taken over. “I don’t like school, but I’ve gained a tolerance for it. This close to graduation, I’m just going to roll through it.” He thinks he might like to go to college, “one with a lot of internships,” to get a CAC (Certified Addiction Counselor). He thinks maybe he’ll become a policeman or a mechanic, something that he can do hands-on especially if it’s outdoors. At 17, he’ll have plenty of time to explore job options.

Turning Points

Michael was in treatment here for a total of 16 months, first in the primary residential program, then in CARES, the more independent living program. In treatment Michael faced each of his life issues that he had masked in the past by using.

His issue with revealing himself and allowing closeness had to be faced early on. Michael credits our psychomotor or experiential therapy sessions to work out grief and anger for a great deal of his long-term recovery. “The first one was an anger structure. That got me closer to the guys. It was the first time I cried in front of people I barely knew. Then being
closer to the guys helped me do the next one.”

Another turning point occurred,” Michael recalls, when “I was stalled out on everything. My step work had stopped, and I was not doing well in school.” Our staff concluded he needed to face his emotions about his father’s death and express them more directly. Kim, ROI’s Executive Director, decided to take him to Rhode Island to visit his father’s grave. “My mother couldn’t afford to send me on this trip, but she said I should ask my grandparents for the money. So I did and they said yes.” This was another instance of Michael’s willingness to ask for and receive help, interactions that in themselves
are therapeutic. The trip was even more so.

“On the way up, I felt nervous. I’d been to the cemetery before with my father to visit my grandfather’s grave, but I’d never seen his own. When I saw it, I was speechless. I just couldn’t believe it when he died—until I went up there. It hadn’t set in with me that I’d never see him again. Seeing his grave brought tears, for sure. It filled a hole inside me. I thought, okay, it’s true. It was a big relief.” Michael left a stone on his father’s grave, as is the Jewish tradition, a sign he’d visited and honored his father.

After that, he says he felt “a big weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I started doing better in school. I finally finished Step Four. It all began to fall into place. That hole was filled; there was no use to drag it on. I let go.”

Many people think that treatment for addiction is just about abstinence. Abstinence, however, is just a part of recovery. Asking for help, facing personal issues, being honest, becoming a person of integrity—these are all inherent in recovery at ROI, as Michael has learned so early in life.

“I’m past impulse use. One thing I’ve learned is, when I have a problem, to go to every single staff member and tell them all that’s bothering me. I’m basically honest ever since I came here.”

That is why Michael S. is a success story at 16.
Letitia Sweitzer, MEd

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