Eden Karlen didn’t think she had a substance abuse problem.
She watched her dad smoke marijuana and methamphetamine and tried both out of curiosity. Karlen, 17, changed schools often while growing up. A few years after moving to Minnesota, she found a friend group that also enjoyed using drugs and alcohol.
“I found a funny group of friends and that’s what they did,” she said.
The first time she tried meth, she hated it, she recalled.
“It was the worst come down,” she said. “It felt just awful.”
The second time she used it, she just avoided the come down by staying high as long as she could.
Substance abuse programs didn’t end her use. When she got into legal trouble, she figured she would stay off drugs and alcohol through a 30-day monitoring period and then go back to her old habits.
“I thought, ‘I’m young, this is just a slap on the wrist,’” Karlen said.
However, maintaining 30 days of sobriety wasn’t as easy as she thought.
“I just couldn’t stop,” she said.
Since that realization, she has been struggling with addiction. She recently emerged from her fourth round of substance abuse treatment far behind where she needed to be to graduate high school on time.
She rejoined the APEX — academic and personal excellence — Recovery School to work on those credits and her sobriety. She is celebrating four months of sobriety.
Rochester Public Schools created the APEX program during the 2016-17 school year. It offers students battling addiction education plans aimed at filling credit gaps while limiting social influencers and temptations to relapse. The school, housed in the Alternative Learning Center also offers showers, laundry facilities and a food shelf also are located on-site to meet other potential needs of the at-risk students.
“We work really hard to be the most stable place in their life even if they come to us like puppies in a barrel,” said Marian Holtorf, an APEX teacher.
Karlen attended the school last year, but relapsed and dropped out of the program. That doesn’t exclude her from rejoining when she feels ready, educators there said.
The main goal of the school is to help students graduate high school while maintaining sobriety. Students who fail weekly urine analysis tests can be asked to leave. However, they are welcome back if they reaffirm their commitment to stay sober.
Amy Stite, an APEX teacher, said most adolescents fighting addiction relapse six or seven times before staying sober. Kicking students out permanently sends the wrong message, she added.
“That’s like saying, ‘We give up on you,’” Stite said. “But they do have to be committed if they stay here.”
Although students’ setbacks are noted, their milestones are celebrated. When one student marked a full year of sobriety last week, staff celebrated with a cake donated by Channel One food bank.
Some students attend a few weeks to catch up on school and return to their traditional classes. Others stay to finish high school. For Makayla McCarty, the sober school is her best chance to finish high school. McCarty, 17, came to the program after drugs and depression led her to fall behind in school and eventually into a substance abuse treatment program.
McCarty’s sister was in and out of the hospital with health problems. Not wanting to burden her family with more problems, she turned to drugs and stopped attending school in Byron.
“I wasn’t trying,” McCarty said. “I was failing classes because I wasn’t caring.”
McCarty was concerned she would not only fall into old habits returning to school in Byron, but that she wouldn’t find the understanding she found at APEX.
“We’re all sober and you don’t have to feel ashamed,” she said. “Everybody’s here for your support and they know what you’ve been through.”
Maintaining sobriety remains a constant struggle for most of the students. Abril, 17, is working toward her high school diploma to then go on to become the first of her family to attend college.
“I want to use every day,” Abril said about her addiction to pills.
“I want to be successful every day,” she added. “It’s hard to think real far ahead about sobriety.”
Abril’s first round of substance abuse treatment was less than successful, she said.
“The day I graduated from treatment, I used within an hour,” she said.
Abril said she developed trust issues growing up and built defense mechanisms to keep people at a distance and tell people what they want to hear. Those are things she is still working on, she said.
Substance abuse and mental health problems go hand in hand. That’s why the school also makes use of a mental health professional onsite at the Alternative Learning Center where APEX is housed and a licensed drug counselor on staff, Megan Wilgenbusch. This is Wilgenbusch’s first school year with APEX in that position.
“It gets kind of tough to hear some of the stories and what these young people have been through,” she said.
In four months on the job, Wilgenbusch said she believes she has built a rapport and trust with the students there.
Karlen, who returned to the APEX program when Wilgenbusch started, said she wants to follow in Wilgenbusch’s footsteps and become a counselor. With seven months of sobriety under belt, Karlen has her eyes set on celebrating a year like her classmate. She now lives with her aunt, Terri Lopez, who went through certification to officially foster children. Karlen described Lopez as a caring person who encourages her to be the “best version of myself.”
Karlen enjoys reading books having restful nights of sleep and waking up refreshed.
“Now, I just like being clear-headed,” Karlen said.