Written by Christopher Poulos
I recently had the honor of speaking at Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Eaglebrook is a private boarding and day school for boys in sixth through ninth grades. I spent nearly three years living at and attending Eaglebrook during my early teenage years. Attending Eaglebrook was an amazing experience that served as the foundation of much of my education and provided strong friendships that last to this day. A combination of help from my grandparents and a scholarship allowed me to have this opportunity. Eaglebrook regularly provides scholarships, allowing children to attend who would otherwise not be able to afford the tuition.
The school has a healthy, nurturing, and highly structured environment. Every student participates in academics, sports, and activities. I particularly loved Eaglebrook because the school is located on the side of a small mountain and has its own ski hill where we would ski for fun and race competitively.
By age 13, I was developing a substance use disorder. I discovered that using pills, alcohol, and other drugs provided me with relief from anxiety and depression and allowed me to feel as though I fit in. I began misusing medication, drinking alcohol, and using others drugs as frequently as possible. I was prescribed Ritalin and later Adderall to treat my ADHD and my daily misuse of these medications began immediately after they were prescribed. My teenage brain developed under the influence of pills, pot, and alcohol.
While I am grateful to have survived my addiction and incarceration, early intervention may have prevented years of unnecessary harm.
We had a class trip to Washington D.C. during my final year at Eaglebrook and one of my classmates and I smoked marijuana during the trip. Eaglebrook learned that we had been smoking pot, found me with a pot pipe, and subsequently expelled me from the school about two months before our graduation. What would have been best for me at that time was more structure, rather than less. I returned to my hometown of Portland, Maine, and my drug an alcohol use progressed rapidly. Without the daily routine of Eaglebrook and the activities offered there that I was passionate about, my substance use truly accelerated.
I now work at Life of Purpose, an addiction treatment center specifically focused on helping young people whose substance use either has interrupted or could interrupt their education. Some of our clients were unable to finish high school because of substance use, others made it through high school but could not begin college, and many started college but later withdrew as a result of their addiction. During my teenage years or early twenties, I would have been an ideal candidate for Life of Purpose. Unfortunately, my addiction remained largely untreated—despite my family’s efforts. I became very sick, began selling drugs, and was ultimately sentenced to nearly three years in federal prison for a non-violent drug offense. While I am grateful to have survived my addiction and incarceration, early intervention may have prevented years of unnecessary harm.
Until my recent visit, I had not returned to Eaglebrook since the day I was expelled. The current headmaster, Andrew Chase, who was one of my “dorm parents” when I attended the school, invited me to return and share my journey from addiction and incarceration to law school, serving at the White House, and directing a treatment center.
A big part of recovery is making amends for our past. By speaking at Eaglebrook, I felt I was making amends. Perhaps by awarding me my diploma, in some way Eaglebrook was making amends too.
Returning to the town of Deerfield and to the campus was surreal. I was flooded with memories and emotions as I drove up the hill and onto the campus. I met a bunch of students and spoke with members of the faculty that I hadn’t seen in 19 years, which was the last time I was there. We had a great dinner and although the school had grown, the structure and camaraderie that I remembered well remained. During my talk, in front of all the students and many of the faculty, I shared my own path, discussed policy, and emphasized what an amazing opportunity each of the students in that room had. I urged them to make the most their experiences at the school, something I was not well enough to do myself.
At the end of my talk, the current headmaster and his father, who was headmaster while I was at the school, came onto the stage that I was speaking from. They presented me with my Eaglebrook School diploma, nineteen years after the rest of my class. This brought me to tears and was hands down one of the most powerful experiences of my life. A big part of recovery is making amends for our past. By speaking at Eaglebrook, I felt I was making amends. Perhaps by awarding me my diploma, in some way Eaglebrook was making amends too.