MOUNT ZION -- Katie Shreiner said it over and over Tuesday as she talked to physical education class after class in Mount Zion High School's fieldhouse: "I thought it would never happen to me."

But Shreiner found herself in a a situation no one wants to be in just a couple of years ago: an abusive relationship and addicted to heroin.

"I always thought, that's not me," Shreiner said. "But then it was. It happened to me."

Ashley Linton, Mount Zion PE teacher and grades six through 12 drug education leader, saw Shreiner, a 2008 Mount Zion graduate, telling her story on TV and decided it would be a good for her to talk to her students.

"We've been implementing more drug education because we don't think they're hearing it enough," Linton said. "And I thought (Shreiner) being a Mount Zion graduate would hit home with the students more than some speaker they're not familiar with."

Shreiner, 25, grew up around addiction and began smoking marijuana in high school, then later started taking Vicodin. But her drug use was mostly recreational until she came back to Mount Zion from Denver with her boyfriend.

She'd tried heroin with her boyfriend, who physically abused her, while in Denver, but he overdosed and had to be taken to the hospital. When they came back, her boyfriend and brother, also a heroin addict, began using together.

"I caught on, and at first I tried to help them, but then I ended up joining them," Shreiner said.

At first, Shreiner liked it. "It was fun, and when my boyfriend was high he was too lazy to get up and do anything violent to me."

But soon Shreiner was using every day. And what started as a $20 a day habit quickly grew into a $100 a day habit.

"I just wanted to numb everything, to feel nothing," Shreiner said. "It gets to the point where all you want to do is be high. You don't even want to eat, and you can't afford to eat."

Shreiner said overdoses aren't just a scare tactic used to keep people from using heroin. She estimated she overdosed five times and saw more than she cares to remember. The first time she ever used it, her boyfriend overdosed in the bathroom.

"He was in there for a long time, and I said his name and he didn't respond," Shreiner said. "I knew what I was going to see what I opened the door, but I didn't know what to do.

"When I opened the door, he was foaming at the mouth, he'd turned blue and he was having a seizure."

Shreiner and her boyfriend had moved to Denver as a new start. He swore he would stop abusing her, and they got engaged. But after the overdose, Shreiner's boyfriend turned suicidal, the abuse resumed and the couple returned to Mount Zion.

After joining her boyfriend and brother as a heroin addict, Shreiner had a scary overdose herself. She woke up with her boyfriend yelling in her face: "Why did you do that?"

"He told me he thought I was dead," Shreiner said. "I had tried to eat a cookie, and I passed out. I couldn't breathe, and I'd turned blue. He literally had to dig it out of my throat."

After about six months of addiction, Shreiner was broke, hungry and depressed. She decided she'd had enough and went for help. But quitting heroin is difficult.

"I would go to get it and be crying," Shreiner said. "I wouldn't even want to be high, but I didn't want to be sick. Detoxing is hell; it feels like you're dying. There are a lot of heroin addicts out there who don't want to be doing it, but don't want to go through what it takes to quit."

She entered rehabilitation hoping if both she and her boyfriend got clean they'd be able to make the relationship work. That changed quickly.

"Right when I got there, I started realizing that what he was doing to me wasn't OK," Shreiner said. "And they flat-out told me, 'You're not capable of being with somebody you used with. Neither of you will ever be clean.'

"Once I was out, I told him, 'I don't even know who you are. How could you do the things you did to me? You're not somebody I should be with."

But Shreiner did have a relapse. She felt bad about the way she'd ended it with her ex and decided to see him and ended up using.

"I wasn't strong enough," Shreiner said. "You have no idea what heroin will make you do. You think you're in control, but you're not."

Shreiner did eventually quit again but admitted it's not easy.

"I struggle every single day," she said.

Shreiner is in the process of moving out of her parents' home and in with her sister Erica Alford, owner of Unique Boutique Salon and Spa, where Shreiner works.

"When I was using, I wanted to surround myself with other users," Shreiner said. "Now I surround myself with people who care about me. I know who I can't hang out with; it's not that hard to figure out."

Alford, who was with Shreiner to offer moral support during eight hours of telling her story to students, said having two siblings struggling with addiction has been trying.

"It's hard and it's stressful," Alford said. "It's something I don't like to think about, but it's reality.

"I'm holding back my tears right now just talking about it, but I have three small children, and they know. I want them to know. I want it to scare the bejesus out of them."

That was Linton's hope with her physical education classes.

"This was a kid who was involved in swings and poms; it's not like she was some kid who had distanced themselves from everyone else," Linton said. "She was involved, but then she started surrounding herself with the wrong people.

"Her stories are scary. She was honest and graphic with them, and I think the kids need that."

Linton and fellow Mount Zion PE teacher Sarah Major stressed to their students during Shreiner's presentation: "You have resources."

"I'm here, your teachers are here and we have counselors," Linton told them. "And it's all confidential; we have protocols we have to follow, and if you tell us something, it doesn't leave here. We don't talk to anyone about it.

"Katie's life would have been a lot different if she'd looked for help. Don't be ashamed to look for help."

Shreiner said her goal is to raise awareness that heroin is a problem in the area, particularly with children and teenagers.

"I want to share my story with people in case they had family members who were or they themselves were addicts and didn't know what to do," Shreiner said. "And I feel like I wish I would have had someone talk to me about it in school. DARE didn't scare me at all. I wish I could have seen what it could actually do to someone."

Shreiner and some others have begun a biweekly meeting at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church, 400 W. Woodland Lane in Mount Zion. The next meeting is 7 p.m. Monday.

"We encourage any addict of any type or any family member or loved one of any type of addict to come," Shreiner said.

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Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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