Mike Brake | August 15, 2019
Approaching her third sobriety birthday, Mission Academy graduate looks to the future
Blue* took her first drink of alcohol at age 10, a glass of wine poured by her grandmother during a visit to Florida. “I never had a best friend,” she recalled, but now she did—mood-altering chemicals that first soothed her, but then repeatedly threatened to derail her life and even end it for the next few years.
Yet this spring, Blue was one of five graduates of Mission Academy, Oklahoma’s only sober high school. She not only received her diploma, she completed her senior year having scored two A’s and one B in a trio of college classes she took under the state’s concurrent enrollment program. Best of all, she did it sober.
Mission Academy, operated by the nonprofit Teen Recovery Solutions, is one of some 44 similar schools nationwide, bent on reclaiming young people long lost to drug and alcohol addiction. The school is also a prime beneficiary of the Opportunity Scholarship Fund (OSF), a scholarship-granting organization which OCPA helped to midwife in 2014. OSF deploys donated funds from businesses and individuals to pay for specialized schooling for students for whom the public schools are less than appropriate settings—or in Blue’s case, unsafe places where mood-altering chemicals are readily available.
Blue’s parents both had issues with drugs and alcohol, as had many other relatives on both sides of the family, a genetic setup that made her own addiction almost certain after that initial drink. After her parents divorced when she was eight, she lived with her mother.
“I always had the mindset of wanting to escape,” Blue said. “I didn’t like reality as a kid.”
After that first drink—“I very much liked the warm feeling”—she had school difficulties, even being expelled from one private school as “rambunctious.” By sixth grade she was drinking on the sly, often with other daring kids who would raid their parents’ liquor cabinets.
When she returned home from 88 days in rehab, she realized that the worst place for her would be the same suburban high school where drugs were available in every corridor.
She ran with the druggie crowd that is present in most public schools, and soon was experimenting with a wide range of chemicals which she said were easily available on campus. Despite liking marching band, “I still felt really alone,” she said. Soon she was skipping classes, and in the middle of her sophomore year she simply stopped attending school.
Bouts of depression followed. “I was taking whatever I could get my hands on,” she said. “My drug of choice was more!”
By age 15 Blue was in a downward spiral. She began connecting with older men online who would provide drugs in exchange for sex. “I was prostituting myself for dope,” she said flatly. “I was a liar, a cheat, and a thief,” behaviors almost universal among hard-core addicts. By the summer of 2016 Blue had attempted suicide several times and experienced a number of near-fatal overdoses.
“I just wanted to end the life I was living,” she said. She began taking more “downers” (barbiturates) because of “how it made me feel close to death.”
On August 26, 2016, her parents joined together to secretly place her in a Texas treatment center for teen addicts.
“They told me I was going to a doctor’s appointment. We were driving south on I-35 about Pauls Valley when I found out they were taking me to rehab. I flipped out. I ran from the car down the side of the highway trying to escape.” Blue still has a picture of herself taken that day on her phone. It shows a scrawny young woman, eye makeup smudged and running down her cheeks from hysterical tears, a lost and cornered look in her eyes.
Blue spent 88 days in the Texas rehab.
“They see through you,” she laughed. Some 60 days into the program, “I surrendered.”
Two girls in the same program told her of Mission Academy, and when she returned home she realized that the worst place for her would be the same suburban high school where drugs were available in every corridor.
“When I got here I was ready to be sober, but I was not ready for school,” she said. “I had always hated school.”
Blue’s mother Eileen [also a pseudonym] recalled the struggles that preceded her sobriety.
“I didn’t know what was going on with her,” she said of the hospitalizations and suicide attempts. She and Blue’s father sent her to counseling, “but she didn’t engage with it. By the early spring of 2016 I couldn’t get her out of bed, couldn’t get her to go to school. I had no idea she was using.”
Blue finally responded to anti-depressant medications, but she soon dived deeper into addiction.
“I was up all night trying to chase her down,” Eileen said, noting that she eventually saw the central role addiction was playing in her daughter’s downward spiral.
That realization finally prompted the trip to treatment in Texas and Blue’s return to Mission.
“We started looking into it before she came home,” Eileen said. “We really didn’t want to put her back in the same environment.”
There were early adjustments, including to Blue’s medications for co-existing psychological issues. But Eileen gives full credit to Mission Academy for her daughter’s some three years of sustained sobriety.
“Treatment in Texas got her sober, but the school is what really kept her sober,” she said, noting that she sold her house and dedicated all child-support funds to pay her schooling costs. While there are no guarantees in sobriety, Eileen said she has seen continued growth in Blue, thanks to Mission.
“Even in early sobriety she was still pretty self-centered,” she said. “Today she thinks more and more of others. She is just a whole different kid.”
J. D. Fennell, executive director of Mission Academy, noted that many students entering the sober high school for the first time, like Blue, have academic and attitude deficiencies, products of years of drug and alcohol abuse.
“We meet students wherever they are at,” he said. Mission is actually a two-pronged program. Three teachers handle academics, while a companion staff of counselors work with the teens on addiction and mental health issues. Those functions are included in the Mission Peer Group, which involves counseling sessions, 12-step meetings, and even social events geared to the sober lifestyle. Every student is drug tested frequently, and a failed drug test can result in a range of accountability actions, including possible expulsion.
The school says of those who graduate, 63 percent go on to college. Fennell said of every 10 entering students, most coming from rehab settings, perhaps six will successfully complete the program sober. That is well above data commonly associated with addiction treatment alone, where perhaps a third maintain long-term sobriety.
Blue did finally buy into the academic program, as evidenced by her head start on college classes during her senior year. She said what struck her the most was how caring the school teachers were.
“With a little bit of willingness from the student, you’d be surprised at how fast they can catch up,” Fennell said.
“In my time here I have had so many lessons learned,” Blue said. “I am grateful for what the school has given me. They go above and beyond to make sure you are okay.” Sadly, she also watched some classmates relapse into active addiction and leave.
Fennell said that “although we have never turned away a student based on the family’s ability to pay,” and though the school receives grant and donation funds from a number of sources, the tax-credit-backed Opportunity Scholarship Fund is vital to its continued success.
“Four out of five of our graduates this year were receiving support from the program,” he said, noting that he joined OCPA, OSF, and others in an unsuccessful effort this year to convince legislators to expand the program.
What if the program did not exist? “In my opinion, at least one of those five would be dead today,” Fennell said.
Approaching her third sobriety birthday, Blue looks like most young women in her age group, though with some metal piercings and tattoos that might seem foreign to older folks. But she has a brightness in her eyes that belies her long near-fatal immersion in the dark tunnels of addiction. She is enrolled in college classes this fall and looks forward to majoring in sociology or a related field—and to the sometimes twice-a-day Alcoholics Anonymous meetings she attends “one day at a time.”
*In keeping with the anonymity involved in 12-step recovery programs, this is not her real name. She picked this pseudonym because “I always wanted that to be my name.”
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.