ROCHESTER, N.H. — Jackson Ward knows what you’re thinking. The 16-year-old thought the same thing earlier this year as he, somewhat against his will, got ready for his first day in Live Free Recovery’s teen intensive outpatient program.
He didn’t see the point. Didn’t see how it could possibly be any different than the groups and inpatient programs he’d coasted through since he started misusing oral benzodiazepines and opioids. That substance misuse began as a way to bury the pain of his mother’s death, which happened when he was 12.
“I was really just an (expletive),” Ward said. “I told them I didn’t want to do it. I told them I’d give it a week, then I’d be out. I thought it would be this girl who would want us to talk about different stuff (but) had never taken drugs in her life.”
Ward’s first surprise upon walking through the doors of Live Free Recovery’s program was that the girl was actually a 50-year-old man. That man was Director Bob Faghan, someone who knows firsthand the pain that leads to substance misuse, as well as the pain that is caused by it.
The bigger surprise, though, was that Live Free Recovery’s format is all about using peer leaders right in the groups. It’s the only program in the state to combine peer recovery coaching and after-care mentoring with clinical services, as well as the only program that features seven-days-a-week contact with participants and 24/7 access to its licensed clinicians, according to Faghan.
“Traditional treatment is done and over with before good things start to happen,” he said.
Faghan started the teen IOP in Newton near the beginning of the year, and he recently brought it to the Rochester Community Recovery Center, thanks to a partnership with Frisbie Memorial Hospital.
Ward, a Hampstead resident, found his way to the program after being kicked out of Hampstead Hospital seven months ago. Since then, he’s stuck with Live Free Recovery, going so far as to train to become a peer leader and to follow along when Faghan opened up shop in Rochester.
“I went a week and kept coming back,” said Ward, who is seven months sober. “I don’t know if I can describe what makes it different. It just is. It’s just much different than I thought it would be.”
Different is what Live Free Recovery sets out to be to combat substance misuse and co-occurring disorders at some of their most vulnerable origins, particularly in light of the rampant opioid issues throughout the state. It isn’t a kid version of a 12-step program. It isn’t a residential inpatient facility or something that finds its participants through court orders.
Instead, it empowers students between the ages of 13 and 17 (18-year-olds still enrolled in high school are accepted in some cases) to take more ownership of their treatment. It does that by placing an onus on the peer side of the recovery, education and life skills processes, allowing students to guide themselves and their peers toward goals.
“It’s not like your typical treatment because it’s not focusing so much on recovery, but what’s next,” said Abbie Jepson, 17, a Hooksett resident and Live Free Recovery peer leader. “Everything here doesn’t have to be about being sober. It’s still possible to live even though you have this disease.”
The standard program is four weeks, during which students participate in three-hour after-school sessions four days a week.
After four weeks, all participants have the opportunity to continue on with the group at no charge to continue to work through their own disorders. After three to six months of mentoring, participants are offered paid positions as peer leaders and can receive training to become certified recovery support workers.
A typical session starts with a group discussion and check-in with Faghan and a licensed clinical staff member. Here, students can interact and lean on each other about cravings and other difficulties they’ve encountered since the last session.
“It’s easy for Bob or I to say, ‘You should deal with it like this,'” said Ashley Sheedy, a full-time clinician who came to Live Free Recovery after working with Faghan in Dover High School’s alternative program. “But for your peers to sit across from you and respond … that’s more accessible information for them. It sinks in really well just to know you have eight peers to call if you (need help).”
The discussion often includes a question designed to get the participants thinking. Often, like a question focused on fear during a recent Tuesday session in which Seacoast Media Group participated, they’re pulled from business magazines and techniques that focus on real-world thinking and application.
Faghan said that’s important because helping the students succeed in life and helping them find something that makes them happy ultimately serves the same goals as helping them live a sober life.
“I’m afraid of going in the wrong direction, of going downhill” said John Wilbur, 17. “I got my electrical license, my (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) certification, a bunch of stuff. It keeps getting better. I could not be alive. I could be homeless. I just want to be happy.”
On a recent Tuesday night session, participants got a special visit from Seabrook recovery advocate Chucky Rosa, who taught them how to make his Italian turkey chili in RCRC’s kitchen. Live Free Recovery often has visitors in for demonstrations and hands-on learning, and sessions have included yoga, martial arts and chats with individuals in the business and recovery worlds.
Cutting herbs, braising meat, mixing pots of vegetables and other ingredients — there were no complicated maneuvers in Rosa’s lesson, nor were there any preachy, scared-straight recovery talks. It was simple, and that was precisely the point.
By mirroring real life and by getting participants involved in basic aspects of things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with recovery, Faghan said the IOP brings students together in a way that pushes them to try new things and explore how they fit within them. Three of the five participants in Rosa’s session had never cooked before.
“It gets them beyond their comfort zone,” Faghan said. “I hope it gets extrapolated out there outside of group.”
A year ago, Paige Raymond, 17, a senior at Dover High School, “didn’t care about anything” in her life. One year sober, Raymond is still “terrified” at times she’ll become the person she was before she drunkenly crashed her car. But she’s found Live Free Recovery has given her something — the tools to exist in the very environments that contributed to her drinking.
“I could’ve died in my car accident,” said Raymond, a peer leader. “I should’ve died. This is my second chance. I know I can’t mess it up. This time, it’s too important.”
Jepson’s disorder intensified following major shoulder surgery, which gave her access to a stream of Percocet and OxyContin not long after she spent three months in an inpatient program for abusing alcohol, marijuana and various pills.
“I took all the pills and went on the run,” said Jepson, who was a high school soccer standout. “I wasn’t living at home or going to school.”
Her time in an inpatient program helped her realize she needed help, albeit a different kind than she’d had before. After walking into eight Manchester intensive outpatient programs to look into what was available, one helped connect her with Live Free Recovery.
That was six months ago, and Jepson credits the program for giving her more than just six months of sobriety. “This program has done everything for me,” she said.
Jepson and Ward say they’re thankful they were pushed to participate in Live Free Recovery, and like Raymond they’ve continued on as peer leaders to help others.
“The people here are the only sober friends I know,” Jepson said.
Live Free Recovery’s participants understand students may not be receptive at first to the idea of an intensive outpatient program, although they urge anyone to just give it a week, much like they did.
“Just like a lot of things, you just have to be open to it,” Ward said. “You have to be open to it 100 percent. You have to make the action to change.”
Information from: The (Portsmouth) Herald, www.seacoastonline.com