By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Greg Murphy teaches recovering addicts
Jolene, 17, was hooked on prescription pain pills. Her drugs of choice were Percocet and OxyContin. Now a recovering drug addict, she is a student at Sober Community School in San Luis Obispo.
“This school saved my life,” says Jolene. “I have grown a lot as a person and learned that I don’t need drugs or alcohol to lead a happy and successful life. I can be clean and sober — and still have fun.”
Jolene is one of 15 recovering addicts at the school, including five students addicted to meth, four addicted to pot, five addicted to prescription pain medications and alcohol, plus a few who were using cocaine and other drugs, says Greg Murphy, the teacher on site.
“Students enroll in the school voluntarily. Some stay a few months; others stay years,” says Murphy. “If a student suffers a relapse, we expect them to work through the incident with the therapists and their peers in group. Only if the relapse is hidden or if such incidents become common or contagious is the student’s stay terminated. Relapse is often part of the process and necessary for the sake of understanding the ‘We are powerless to stop using drugs’ concept that is part of the Narcotics Anonymous philosophy.”
Before enrolling in Sober School, some of the students nearly died from using drugs.
“I hit rock bottom,” says Jolene, who has been at the school for a year. “I OD’d, and my life was unmanageable. Getting clean was my last option. I can go to school here, take things at my own pace and not feel overwhelmed trying to manage my sobriety.” Regular high school, she says, has “triggers” that could make her start using again because drugs are so readily available and students are preoccupied with partying.
A typical Sober School day begins between 9 and 9:30 a.m., as students arrive at different times on city buses. By 9:45 they go to “group,” run by drug and alcohol counselors who work under the supervision of a marriage and family therapist. During group they are also tested for drugs before regular school begins.
“When they come out of group, they can be happy and invigorated or sad and depressed,” says Murphy, a San Luis Obispo County Education Association member. “I need to determine when to have patience and when to have compassion and when to be strict. There are times when someone needs to be left alone. While group is confidential, I get to know the kids and their stories. I work closely with their parents and speak to them daily. Many of their parents are unaware of the kinds of things their kids have been exposed to.”
Murphy engages students in literary works that have characters who, like his students, are facing personal challenges or have been traumatized.
Courtney, 15, was hooked on meth before arriving at the school five months ago. Her life, she says, was “constant chaos” and revolved around finding drugs. She was on the verge of flunking out before going into rehab and arriving at Sober Community School.
“I needed to get sober, and I couldn’t do it by myself.” she says. “Now I’m getting my credits and I’m getting a lot of support here from the other students. If they can do it, I can do it, too.”
Dallas, 18, has been at the school for three years. While many do not believe marijuana is addictive, he was unable to quit smoking it on his own. “I know that it’s available for medical reasons, but unfortunately, the people I met were just looking for an excuse to get high.”
When he first arrived at the school, Dallas says, he was stealing things, was angry, and had “issues with authority. I have grown up a lot during my time here.” He adds, “Greg Murphy and the staff were willing to give me a chance, and I am grateful for that. They focused on what I needed.”
For Murphy, the job is challenging, but extremely rewarding.
“These kids take responsibility for their own difficulties in a way that most adults never have the courage to do,” he says. “They throw themselves in, open themselves up and discuss the kinds of things we all run from. They are highly intelligent and very motivated. They are an inspiration.”