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The hard truth: Students hear grim stories from recovering addicts

Laura Zabinski talks to Woodbury High School students Oct. 13 for the Know the Truth education prevention program, an awareness campaign designed by the Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge.

Still in his early 20s, Rick Pellinger still looked youthful enough that he might pass as one of the ninth-graders he was addressing at Woodbury High School.

He grew up with a loving family in Apple Valley, he told his audience. He had two older brothers. He was good at sports, but even better at video games, with enough mad skills to compete in tournaments around the country.

His female colleague sat in the bleachers with the students. When he had finished telling his story, she read out questions students had texted to her phone.

"What was it like in juvenile detention?"

"What was treatment like?"

"Did you ever relapse?"

"Did anyone attempt to talk you out of drugs?"

The same scenario unfolded at different times throughout the day in classrooms and lecture halls throughout the school. More than 1,000 students in grades 9-12 attended the Oct. 13 presentations as part of Know the Truth education prevention program, an awareness campaign designed by the Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge.

Pellinger was introduced to pot at age 14 by his older brother. To stay focused during gaming tournaments, he began taking Adderall, which he called "the steroid of video gaming." Shortly before his sophomore year, he and a classmate got drunk and began breaking into cars. They were apprehended at dawn by a Minnesota state trooper. Pellinger fled on foot and ended up being Tasered three times.

"It was pretty similar to a 'Cops' episode.'" he said.

He got his general education degree while serving time in a juvenile detention center, where "the food was close to dog food, the cells were cold and they told you when to get up and when to go to bed."

At 19, he was living with a meth head in 'the hood' section of St. Paul, where fellow addicts shuffled through the streets like zombies from "The Walking Dead." He has been sober for over a year, he said.

"I encourage you guys to think about who you hang around with," he said.

That was the message from Laura Zabinski, who had the look of a rock star and the gusto of a summer camp counselor.

Everybody has heard about the gateway drugs, right? She asked. But they should beware of "gateway people," those peers whose words or examples might lead you down the wrong path.

It was her desire to fit in at school — exacerbated in part by a demanding father, she said — that led to her drinking in the 11th grade.

"I fell in love with alcohol," Zabinski said. "I loved the buzz. ... As the partying progressed, the drugs progressed."

Neither denied the appeal of drugs and alcohol or lectured students about the harmful health effects, although Zabinski did remind students that ostensibly organic drugs like marijuana weren't less harmful simply because they came from plants. So did cocaine, tobacco and heroin, she said.

In sharing their own stories, they stressed the collateral damage wrought by their descent into addiction — interrupted education, the money blown on the next high, the low-life associations, and the increased risk of violence, pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases due to impaired judgement.

Zabinski told students that she blacked out and got behind the wheel of a vehicle after finishing a liter of vodka with a friend. She was swerving in and out of traffic when the police pulled her over. She woke up in a hospital bed.

"My mother was there," she said. "She looked at me and said 'You can't come home yet.'"

The presentation seemed to have made an impression on Connor Thissen, 15.

"It did really impact me, how people under the influence of drugs can do reckless things and harm people they're with," he said.

This was the fourth annual Know the Truth presentation at Woodbury, embedded health teacher Gary Diamond said.

"Addiction hits everybody," he said. "Even a lot of these kids think they're invincible and never think it's going to happen to them."

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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