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Part I: ‘I’d see you in a morgue’

 

Andrew Nelson was high on Xanax the morning of Halloween during his junior year, when he and his brother buckled into his beat-up, white Toyota Corolla bound for Mills Godwin High School.

 

Andrew had taken 10 pills the previous night, maybe a dozen. On the four-lane roads leading to school, he sped to 60, 70 mph. He screeched into a parking spot and scraped the car next to him, dragging his front quarter panel against its doors.

 

They were late, as usual, so Andrew bolted for the building. He left the car in drive and his door open. Minutes later, during the Pledge of Allegiance, he passed out, his head on the desk. Administrators called for his mother, Debbie, and she took Andrew home.

 

Once Debbie left for work, he found a bottle of vodka in the kitchen, poured a few shots, and passed out again.

 

Andrew learned a lesson that day: His 16-year-old, drug-addled body couldn’t absorb so many pills. Next time, he decided, he would take less Xanax.

 

Andrew was 12 the first time he tasted beer from his parents’ refrigerator. Soon after, he was smoking marijuana. When the high no longer was high enough, he discovered prescription painkillers. He was in the ninth grade.

 

“I was just high all the time,” he said.

 

But he isn’t alone. He is one of thousands of Americans swept up in a national prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic. Since 2007, more than 5,500 people in Virginia have died from opioid overdoses, according to the Chief Medical Examiner. More people in Virginia now die annually from drug abuse than from traffic wrecks or guns.

 

“We know that this is a public health crisis,” said Attorney General Mark R. Herring, who has made opioid addiction a focal point of his administration. “The problem is significant.”

 

Andrew recites the brutal statistics of addiction, according to the McShin Foundation, by heart: 33 out of 34 addicts will relapse. One in 15 will die.

 

At McShin, the recovery center in Henrico County where Andrew lives, many have given up hope. Others have died.

 

There are pictures all down the hallway of the men and women who have come through McShin’s doors. Andrew points to their faces one by one.

 

“Gone, gone, gone,” he says. “Overdosed in a McDonald’s bathroom.”

 

Though others have left, Andrew still is here. He lived to see his senior year of high school and attend graduation. He put every breath and every drop of energy into his final season on the Mills Godwin soccer team, which unearthed the demons still lurking inside him.

 

He has lived through a relapse. He has lived to see his 18th birthday.

 

“Everyone I know, you go to jail, you die or you go to recovery,” Andrew said. “There’s no life worth having like this. It’s going to end one of those ways.”

***

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According to experts, many opioid addictions start with an accident or injury. The doctor prescribes the patient painkillers, and the patient gets hooked.

 

But for Andrew, the path to addiction started with a can of beer.

 

Andrew wanted to act like an adult. So he would grab a can of Natural Ice from the refrigerator or pour a dab of vodka into his orange juice. He didn’t feel buzzed at first – he was afraid of drinking too much.

 

He didn’t enjoy the taste of alcohol but was overcome with a sense of relaxation. For a few moments, his problems seemed more tolerable.

 

He didn’t drink constantly – mostly on the weekends. Slowly, he became accustomed to a lifestyle of living dangerously.

 

Eventually, he needed something else to feed that craving.

 

By the seventh grade, Andrew was smoking marijuana. Some people told him you don’t get high the first time. But he felt it right away.

 

“It was that feeling I’d been looking for,” he said. “It’s just bliss, not having to think about what’s going on in your life.”

 

Marijuana was more satisfying than alcohol. The moment he was finished, he was ready to do it again.

 

Weed introduced him to a different, older crowd. His younger brother, Caleb, missed the days they spent skateboarding together.

 

Maybe, Caleb wondered, if he smoked weed, too, he and Andrew would have something in common and a reason to spend time together.

 

“I didn’t want weed to be our hobby,” Caleb said.

 

***

Give pills a try, Andrew’s older friends said.

 

At first, he was hesitant. An overdose on prescription pain pills can kill. He decided he would pop a few just one time, and he would tell no one.

 

He swallowed two hydrocodones pills, and the high was ferocious. He passed out, woke up and vomited. He was maybe 13 years old then.

 

“It put me out,” he said. “It was too much for me to handle.”

 

Next time, he decided, he’d take half that amount.

 

Once he was a freshman in high school, marijuana didn’t do it for him anymore. His tolerance was too strong, so he started smoking wax and oil. He experimented with LSD and mushrooms. And he bought more pills: Xanax, usually prescribed to treat depression and anxiety disorders, along with the powerful painkilllers hydrocodone and oxycodone.

 

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“They could see me stumbling and my eyes red. Everyone knew I was someone who used drugs very often.”

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Pills, he realized, had all the convenience.

 

You don’t have to smoke pills or inject them. You can swallow one in class when the teacher isn’t looking. You don’t have to worry about buying a drug that’s been cut or watered down, like cocaine. What you buy is what you get.

 

And pills were easy to obtain. He stole hydrocodone from his sister when she got her wisdom teeth removed. He took the pills prescribed to his dachshund, Chloe, when the dog was spayed.

 

With $20 in his hand, he could buy enough pills from other Godwin students to get high. He would ask his parents for money, claiming he was seeing a movie with friends or that he owed someone a few bucks for buying him lunch. He also had a part-time job at the gym.

 

Drugs also provided an income stream of their own. He learned the market rate for each one. An oxycodone pill was worth $20. But he found a seller who didn’t know how much to charge and asked only $2 each.

 

So Andrew bought 100 of them. He saved most of them for himself and sold the rest at a wide profit margin.

 

By the time he was in the 10th grade, Andrew was high all the time. Whatever he did – attend school, go to work, swim at the pool – he wanted to do it with drugs.

 

His friends didn’t want him around. They grew scared he would steal their possessions and sell them for drugs. He had developed a reputation.

 

“Everyone knew what I was and what I was up to,” he said. “They could see me stumbling and my eyes red. Everyone knew I was someone who used drugs very often.”

 

***

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The first thing Debbie noticed were stainless steel nuts, broken plastic pens, and disposable water bottles – the pieces for constructing a homemade bong.

 

There were more warning signs: Andrew was tired all the time and complained of stomachaches. Occasionally he came home drunk or left beer cans under his bed. The smell of marijuana wafted down from the attic.

 

Debbie and Rick, Andrew’s parents, refused to believe these were indications of a larger problem.

 

“That’s where we made our mistakes,” Rick said.

 

They punished him, the way they would if he broke curfew. They took away his phone and his car. They grounded him, but Andrew arranged for pot to be delivered to his mailbox. When they confronted him with it, he ran away from home, disappearing for several hours. When they found him at a friend’s house later that night, he refused to come home.

 

Even if Rick and Debbie had taken more drastic action, Rick later was told, they were too late. By that time, Andrew was addicted. And the only way an addict will stop is if he or she wants to stop.

 

“I was the worst enabler ever. I knew he was doing it,” Debbie said. “Honestly, I didn’t want to think there was a problem. I just wanted it to go away.”

 

It was easier not to label her son as an addict. Instead, Debbie labeled him as a screw-up.

 

***

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“I was the worst enabler ever. I knew he was doing it. Honestly, I didn’t want to think there was a problem. I just wanted it to go away.”

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Drugs took a toll on Andrew’s body and mind. When his supply of pills ran out, he experienced the effects of withdrawal.

 

He couldn’t eat without throwing up. His bones hurt. He couldn’t sleep.

 

He lost 25 to 30 pounds. He told his parents he had been running more than usual.

 

When he took too many pills, he couldn’t walk straight. One day during sophomore year, he swallowed eight or nine Xanax bars – Xanax is known as a “bar” because of its shape – and went to sleep.

 

When he woke up, still high, he fell down the stairs and broke his ankle. Not realizing the bone was fractured, he went to school with a broken ankle.

 

As his drug use became more serious, his commitment to soccer waned. Soccer was the sport he had played since he was 5. He first played for the YMCA team, then the Richmond Strikers, and then the Strikers’ travel team. But when he was 15, he quit competitive soccer.

 

He joined a recreational league, the kind where you pay $50 a season and show up if you feel like it.

 

Andrew showed up high. He would use cocaine or smoke marijuana before a game. He thought drugs made him a better player. But his body suffered.

 

“I’d be dead halfway through the game,” he said.

 

Death, though, was a real possibility. A Xanax overdose, by itself, rarely is lethal. When mixed with alcohol or painkillers, the combination can become deadly.

 

Andrew included beer and liquor or pain pills with his Xanax. He determined how much a person of his weight could withstand. If he took too much, his central nervous system would shut down, his brain no longer would tell his lungs to breathe, and he would die.

 

But if he ingested just the right amount, the high would be sublime.

 

Death didn’t scare him. If he did die, he said, he’d be set free from the black hole in which he lived.

 

***

57db4b468cdbb-image In the fall of his sophomore year, Andrew’s parents asked him to see a counselor. But Andrew had no interest in getting clean.

 

To get his parents off his back, he met with a counselor and a psychiatrist at the Family Counseling Center for Recovery in Midlothian. They forced him to take drug tests once a week.

 

That meant Andrew couldn’t smoke marijuana anymore – it stayed in his system too long. But pills flushed out of his body in three or four days.

 

Andrew devised a plan: He would take the drug test on Wednesday, and pop Xanax and painkillers and drink on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. When he tested again the following Wednesday, he always came out clean.

 

“It was a game,” Rick said.

 

Nothing Rick and Debbie tried worked, and Andrew didn’t improve. They felt so helpless. Debbie would sit in the den and cry every night. Rick struggled to sleep. His stomach churned constantly.

 

Their son, so gifted and talented, was tearing the family apart.

 

“I’ve resigned myself to see you in prison, an ICU or a morgue,” Rick told his son. “And if I was a betting man, I’d see you in a morgue.”

 

***

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“At that moment in time, everything changed.”

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Other Godwin students noticed Andrew. When they could tell he needed help, they usually called his sister Kiersten, who was one grade ahead of him.

 

One night, Andrew was at a party, drunk and high on Xanax. Kiersten got a call and was told “you need to pick up Andrew.”

 

Kiersten had heard talk of her brother’s drug use. As she witnessed his dramatic weight loss, she began to understand how bad it had gotten. For months she tried to reach him, but Andrew never wanted to talk. Not until this night.

 

He was ready to kill himself, he said. He couldn’t stop, he said. He felt like an animal.

 

Kiersten was quiet while Andrew screamed and cried. Kiersten always had kept her life straight. Why couldn’t her brother? She told him he needed to “get it together.”

 

She brought him home. Andrew was on the floor, in the fetal position, sobbing, when Debbie arrived. “You’ve got to take him somewhere,” Kiersten told her.

 

That’s when Debbie realized Andrew had a disease that needed treatment. He needed to go to rehab.

 

Lying on the floor, he asked his mother for help.

 

“At that moment in time,” Debbie said, “everything changed.”

 

Part II: The long road of recovery

For the first time in five years, Andrew’s body was clean.

 

In January of his junior year, Andrew went to a rehab facility in Arlington County called Phoenix House. He stayed for 45 days.

 

He came back to Godwin and returned to class and a normal routine. He tried out for the varsity soccer team and made the roster. He scored five goals that year, and Godwin won the state championship.

 

But Andrew struggled with temptation. Godwin, his own school, the place where he got all his drugs, was a trigger. He was “white-knuckling sobriety,” said his principal, Beth Smith. So the administration moved him to the homebound program, which allowed him to complete his work from his house.

 

Then summer came, and life got lonely for Andrew. His old friends, who had no interest in being sober, never saw him anymore. Andrew spent much of the summer by himself, and he stopped attending recovery meetings.

 

On Labor Day weekend, Kiersten, then a freshman at the University of South Carolina, was home for the first time since starting college. She asked her mother to cook a family meal.

 

Make sure you’re home on time, Debbie told Andrew. But he was late. When Andrew came home, his family was seated at the table. Andrew went upstairs and took a shower. He came down, and Debbie let him know how angry she was.

 

“You are a selfish son of a bitch,” Debbie said.

 

That night, Andrew left the house, met up with another student and stole his prescription. That’s how Andrew’s relapse began. For the next several weeks, he binged on any drug he could get.

 

The previous year, he had made a pact to see Beth Smith, Godwin’s principal, every day or two to check in. But now he was avoiding her, and Smith sensed something had gone awry.

 

Another teacher told Smith that Andrew was talking about his future. He wanted to quit high school and obtain his GED.

This idea was unacceptable to the principal. She called him to her office, and when she looked at Andrew, she knew he had been using again. By now, Smith could identify a Xanax high.

 

The only reason you want your GED, she said to Andrew, is so you can get high during your free time. Andrew broke. He admitted he was using again.

 

That night, his parents took him to Tucker Pavilion, the behavioral health unit at Chippenham Hospital, so Andrew could detox. In his body were toxic levels of oxycodone, Xanax, marijuana and alcohol.

 

He wasn’t far from an overdose. Whoever made Andrew come today, the staff told Debbie, saved his life.

 

At Tucker, he was surrounded by kids who attempted suicide. He saw rings around a boy’s neck who tried to hang himself. Another had stitches and burn marks on his arms.

 

That wasn’t Andrew. He didn’t want to die. But years earlier, when Andrew was cutting himself, he had something in common with the kids in the pysch ward.

 

***

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“We marveled at him. He was full of life.”

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When Andrew was young, before he ever tried his first drug, he was a precocious child. On the soccer field, he scored goals relentlessly. In the classroom, he was the center of attention.

 

He took up diving and immediately became a champion. He won swim meets without practicing most of the summer.

 

“We marveled at him,” said Rick, his father. “He was full of life.”

 

When he was in the first grade, Andrew’s parents split up. He tried to be optimistic, telling himself he now had two Christmases. But mostly, he just felt different. Why did everyone else have one house, and he had two?

 

Soon he started acting out in school. He became the class clown.

 

In the fourth grade, he started cutting himself. In the back of the classroom, where no one could see, he would grab scissors and take the blade to his arm.

 

“I wanted everybody to feel bad for me,” Andrew said. “Because I felt bad for myself.”

 

His teacher saw him and called his parents. Rick and Debbie took him to the Tucker psychiatric facility, had him evaluated, and put on antidepressants.

 

In some small way, cutting himself had been a success. It had brought his parents together, if only for a few minutes to talk about Andrew and to help him.

“Is this what I have to do?” Andrew asked himself.

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Three years later, Rick and Debbie reunited. They’ve been together since. “If I could take something back,” Rick said, “it was those three years.”

 

While it is common for an addict to have experienced trauma as a child, it’s not the only contributing factor, said Dr. James Thompson, an addiction specialist and the CEO of Clean Life Medical, an addiction treatment practice in Richmond.

 

Brain imaging reveals that an addict’s brain functions differently than a non-addict’s. There are differences in the genes of an addict. And addiction tends to run in the family. Andrew’s grandfather was an alcoholic.

 

There are three components to the disease of addiction, Thompson said: the biological, the psychological, and the social.

 

Andrew likely was born with a predisposition to addiction; he experienced trauma as a child; and he entered into an environment where drugs and alcohol were readily available. A perfect storm of factors.

 

“It’s really complicated,” Thompson said. “There’s no one clear cause.”

 

***

 

If you don’t do it right, you can die from a Xanax withdrawal.

 

Andrew spent six days at Tucker, the behavioral health unit of Chippenham Hospital, where he suffered tremors and hallucinations.

 

He took six or seven pills a day to slowly wean himself off the Xanax. He barely ate, and he slept as often as he could. He was sick all of the time.

 

“It was gross, man,” he said.

 

He arrived at Tucker on Oct. 4, 2015. And since that date, Andrew has been clean.

 

He left Tucker and spent 60 days at Cumberland Heights, a rehab facility in Nashville, Tenn. There, he got his appetite back. Each day for breakfast, he consumed granola and yogurt, English muffins with jelly, and strips of bacon.

 

His weight, which had dipped to 137 pounds during the height of his drug use, ballooned to more than 200 at Cumberland Heights. Today, he is back to a more normal 178.

 

***

What Andrew did at Cumberland Heights is known as rehab. But when his time there was complete, he wasn’t rehabilitated. No one is. Rehab is just the start.

 

Smith, Rick and Debbie needed somewhere for Andrew to go. Godwin seemed out of the question.

 

“After treatment, where do you put your kid?” Stas Novitsky said. “Do you put him in the same environment and hope for the best? It very rarely works.”

 

Novitsky has worked for the McShin Foundation, a nonprofit recovery program in Henrico, since 2015. He went to Deep Run High School, where he played soccer and was class president. When he was 17, he got hooked on alcohol, cocaine and heroin. He’s been clean for nearly 18 months.

 

Last fall, Novitsky was in the process of starting a recovery school, a place where high school students could spend their days while in recovery – a place where there was no temptation to do drugs.

 

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“After treatment, where do you put your kid? Do you put him in the same environment and hope for the best? It very rarely works.”

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In December, Andrew became McShin’s first student. Andrew spent his days in Novitsky’s office, doing his Godwin schoolwork through the homebound program.

 

His nights were lived in a halfway house. Sixteen men shared three bedrooms and one bathroom. They all were grown, except for Andrew. Some came from jail, others from the streets.

 

“And me,” Andrew said. “A little West End white kid that had never been exposed to this.”

 

The man in the bed next to him detoxed off heroin. He sat there hour after hour, throwing up and sweating. During those moments, Andrew felt lucky – he had detoxed in a hospital.

 

Andrew didn’t talk to the other men in recovery. He was afraid they would beat him up or steal his stuff. He kept his Beats headphones and his cellphone with him, because he didn’t trust anyone.

 

Later, he moved to a step-up house with more freedom. Now he lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a futon for a couch, an old television set, and a pot full of coffee.

 

***

There was a jacket, blue and white plaid with a fleece hood, abandoned in the kitchen of the McShin Foundation. It belonged to a guy named Zach, who was in recovery.

 

But Zach had disappeared, and the jacket sat there. For weeks, no one took it. Andrew decided if the jacket sat there one more week, he would claim it.

 

It was Christmas Eve 2015, and Andrew was fed up with recovery. It was time to leave.

 

He had his exit plan laid out: Once the meeting was over, he would walk out and get high as fast as possible. He would be homeless – there was nowhere else to go.

 

When the meeting ended, he got his stuff and headed for the door. There was the jacket. It was cold outside, and being homeless would be a little easier with an extra layer. The timing was perfect.

 

He slipped his arms through the sleeves and started checking the pockets for leftover pills – anything he could use to help get high.

 

What he found was a letter in the left breast pocket.

 

It was written by Zach and intended for no person in particular. In recovery, addicts often write letters to themselves about their feelings. In this letter, Zach detailed how he had been homeless before coming to McShin. But Narcotics Anonymous changed Zach’s life.

 

As Andrew read those words, he started to realize he didn’t want to live alone on the streets and in the cold. He didn’t want to be homeless.

 

Andrew decided to stay. He kept the blue and white plaid jacket and Zach’s letter. But he hasn’t seen or heard from Zach since.

 

For Andrew, that moment was a turning point. It gave him the belief that some higher power is looking out for him.

 

***

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During his last semester of high school, Andrew met every day with other recovering addicts to share their hope and strength. The recovery school grew to nine students and got its own building on the other side of the parking lot. They gave it a name: McShin Academy.

 

Seven have stayed clean, which is better than the national average. None has given up on recovery.

 

When the school year began, Andrew returned to the program as an employee. He runs group sessions, tutors kids with their homework, and works as a recovery coach.

 

He plans to take college classes online, and he’ll continue to live in his McShin apartment. One day, he wants to open a home where kids in recovery can live when their home environment is too much of a trigger.

 

Other kids in the recovery program have become his best friends. Almost all of his old buddies are gone. They had built a relationship on smoking, drinking and popping pills. When you take that away, what’s left? Socializing with them sober, he learned, wasn’t an option.

 

“Sometimes,” he said, “I have to deal with the wreckage of my past.”

 

During spring of his senior year, the only time Andrew spent at Godwin was soccer practice. For two hours a day, he could be a kid again.

 

He forgot about 12-step meetings and recovery school. His ankles, both broken during his addiction, slowly healed. It felt good to care about something again, to be a part of a team.

 

He’s begun to repair the fractured relationships with his family.

 

Two years ago, he and his dad struggled to communicate. Now, he calls his father just to say hello. When a storm knocked down branches throughout the backyard, Andrew offered to help clean up.

 

He goes to the gym with his younger brother, Caleb. Trust between them is being rebuilt.

 

One full year clean is just around the corner. To remain on that path, Novitsky said, Andrew must stay honest with himself and others. He needs to stay in an environment where others hold him accountable. And he should keep his ego in check.

 

“I’m not running from who I am anymore,” Andrew said. “I’m coming to know who Andrew Nelson is, and he’s not that bad.”

 

***

Drugs have been around schools for decades, Beth Smith said. She was Mills Godwin’s principal the past six years. In July, she left to become the principal at Patrick Henry High School in Hanover County.

 

About three years ago, Smith noticed a different kind of drug problem: Students were getting hooked on pills.

 

Every bracket of the student population was affected. High-achieving students chose them because they eased the stress of chasing higher GPAs. Girls liked them because pills have no calories. And athletes who were injured had easy access to them.

 

Andrew has observed the problem growing to an unsettling level. Mills Godwin has developed an ominous nickname: “Pills Godwin.”

 

“I think it really has spread like wildfire,” Smith said.

 

Patrick C. Kinlaw, superintendent of Henrico schools, declined to be interviewed for this story.

 

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“It’s not that drugs are becoming more prevalent. It’s just that the drug kids are using right now is a killer.”

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And it’s not just Godwin. Overdoses of benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, have contributed to more than 1,700 deaths in the state since 2007, according to the chief medical examiner. Prescription painkillers have led to more than 4,000 deaths.

 

While abuse by young adults is more common, drugs are consumed by teenagers in troubling numbers.

 

According to a 2015 report by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services, nearly 34,000 adolescents in the state ages 12 to 17 abused a prescription drug in the past year – about 5 percent of the state’s population in that age group. Prescription drugs are abused at a higher rate in central Virginia than anywhere else in the state.

 

Drug use, generally speaking, isn’t more popular now than it used to be, said Thompson, the addiction specialist at Clean Life Medical. It’s just more dangerous.

 

“It’s not that drugs are becoming more prevalent,” Thompson said. “It’s just that the drug kids are using right now is a killer.”

 

When Andrew was a ninth-grader abusing pills, not much light had been shined on the subject. Back then, Smith couldn’t identify a Xanax high. When a teacher noticed something about Andrew wasn’t right, he was sent to the office.

 

Administrators would perform a noninvasive search. He would pull out his pockets and step out of his shoes. But Andrew never was caught red-handed. If he couldn’t function in class, his mother was called and he was sent home.

 

But students knew about Andrew. When they wanted to help, they told his sister – and never a teacher – to keep him from getting in trouble. Andrew’s teachers, it seems, were the last to know he had an addiction.

 

Smith never wants teachers out of the loop again. The approach she set at Godwin was to counsel and care for student addicts, not punish them.

 

Because of Andrew, she learned what a Xanax high looks like – similar to alcohol, you start by losing your inhibitions. The more you consume, the more wobbly your walking becomes and the more you slur your speech.

 

She learned about the resources available, such as McShin and Tucker. She learned how to tell an incredulous parent “I think your child is using drugs.”

 

Andrew became her case study. Everything she wants the family of a drug addict to know, she now has a packet she can hand over.

 

She worked to increase awareness in the community, too. She started a recovery club that met for breakfast Friday mornings.

While chowing on donuts, they discussed how to attend prom and stay sober. She helped to bring former NBA player and recovering drug addict Chris Herren to speak before thousands in the school gymnasium.

 

“Maybe,” Smith said, “we’ve kicked the door open a little bit.”

 

Part III: Ending and beginning

57db4b453b78a-imageBefore each game, the Godwin soccer players formed a tight circle around Andrew.

 

They would clap, slowly at first, then faster and faster. They sung a note – “ah” – and held it out, the pitch starting low, getting higher and higher.

 

Then, in a deep, guttural voice, Andrew would bellow “Godwin on 3: 1, 2, 3!” And the team responded “Godwin!” Their voices could be heard from across the field.

 

Andrew was the emotional leader of the team in 2016, coach Skip Stevens said. The other players gravitated toward him.

 

May turned to June, and Godwin was on a run. The Eagles had won 10 straight games and reached the 5A state semifinals. As the game wore on, and Falls Church pulled further ahead, it became clear this would be Andrew’s final high school game.

 

He stood on the sideline, wearing a blue penny, Godwin trailing 5-1. As he waited to enter the game, he saw a foul committed on the other side of the field. He saw an opposing player put his hand in a fist and take a swing at sophomore Joe Worsham, Godwin’s other soccer player in recovery from drug addiction.

 

Andrew was livid. He charged the width of the field, determined to exact revenge.

 

Worsham had become fond of marijuana and pills. He joined McShin’s recovery school in February and has stayed clean the past six months. He looks up to Andrew, the program’s first student and its longest sober.

 

The two became best friends, spending every day together. During games, Andrew would shout recovery slogans to Joe from the bench. “It works if you work it!”

 

When Andrew saw a Falls Church player take a swing at Joe, an instinct fired inside him. He rushed across the field and tackled an opposing player.

 

The referee pried him away and pinned him down. He was ejected from the game, and the contest was suspended with 3:28 left on the clock.

 

A police officer interviewed him afterward but did not arrest him. In the parking lot, he apologized to his coach. He wrote letters of apology to Falls Church and the Virginia High School League in the days that followed.

 

For just a few minutes, something dark was let loose inside Andrew. He knows his fight is far from over. Even at 11 months clean, risks still abound.

 

“As long as I know that I’m never really cured, then I think I’ll be all right,” Andrew said. “The second that I think I’ve got this, I’m gone.”

 

***

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“I’m not going to let him live here and use.”

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The urge to use hasn’t left him completely. But it has diminished over time.

 

When the pull is strong, he calls someone or writes his feelings down. He never relies on himself to muscle through.

 

Should he fall into a relapse, Debbie knows she never will enable him again. She said she won’t open her door to him if he’s using.

 

“I will have to kick him out,” she said. “I’m not going to let him live here and use. I pray to God I’m never put in that position. But that’s reality.”

 

If he relapses now, he has more to lose than ever. He’s well known at Godwin and at McShin. He’s the program’s most established student, perhaps its biggest success story.

 

He’s the one who fell into the deep hole of addiction, sat there for six years, then with the help of his family, school and McShin, pulled himself out.

 

Novitsky calls him “a beacon of light.” For so many families who battle addiction, when they see Andrew, they see hope.

 

Should he relapse, his mother said, he would be the poster boy for failure.

 

“I worry,” she said, “he would kill himself if he relapsed.”

 

***

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Though he completed his schoolwork from McShin’s classroom, Andrew still was a Godwin student. He passed all his final exams and fulfilled his requirement for graduation.

 

All that was left was a diploma to receive and mortarboard to toss in the air.

 

Graduation was a Thursday in June at the Siegel Center in Richmond. Under his red robe, Andrew wore a blue- and red-striped tie embroidered with McShin’s logo. The president of the foundation gave it to him.

 

“Andrew Tyler Nelson” was called over the loudspeaker, and Andrew stepped across the stage.

 

Smith, the principal and perhaps Andrew’s greatest supporter at Godwin, put out her right hand for a shake. Andrew grinned, opened his arms and hugged her, lingering for several seconds.

 

“Thank you, thank you,” he said softly in her ear.

 

“He wouldn’t let go,” Smith said later.

 

The ceremony ended, and Andrew flung his hat toward the ceiling, losing it somewhere on the Siegel Center floor. Outside, he posed for pictures with his family. A tear rolled down Debbie’s cheek, and daughter Kiersten brushed it away with her thumb.

 

“I never thought this day would come,” Debbie said.

 

She wrapped her arms tightly around Andrew in every picture, her smile beaming.

 

Andrew unzipped his gown, loosened his tie, and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. He said good night to his family, turned toward the street and disappeared into a crowd of graduates taking their first steps into the next journey of their lives.

 

He climbed into his beat-up, white Toyota Corolla and drove back to McShin, like he does every night.