Journey to recovery: Local teen shares experience with students

Gavin Nelson, a presenter from Know the Truth, shares his story of substance abuse with high school students.

Gavin Nelson was 12 years old when he started using drugs. After an overdose a year ago, he is on the road to recovery and sobriety.

“I really didn't have a good home environment or home life. I was hanging out with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors in high school, and I just wanted to fit in,” he said. “I had an older brother who didn't do drugs, but his best friend at the time smoked weed and did other drugs, so that's how I was introduced to drugs.”

Nelson, 19, was born in Stillwater. He grew up in both Stillwater and White Bear Lake. Nelson said both of his parents were addicts: his mom's addiction was alcohol and his dad's was meth and cocaine.

“My addiction didn't start at 12 years old, my addiction started when I was born,” Nelson said. “I had that in my genes. There is not anything in my life that is not addicting to me.” He said it doesn't matter what it is — drugs, food, sex, money, gambling or video games: “I have a very addictive, mentally obsessive personality.”

In early middle school he used drugs to fit in, get attention from his parents and find acceptance. “My parents were in denial about it,” Nelson said. “I didn't think I had a problem because my parents were addicts.” In high school he used drugs to cope with anxiety and depression and trauma from his childhood, and then it became an addiction. “The addictive personality that I had became even worse,” he said.  

Nelson said he started abusing prescription drugs and by his senior year at White Bear Lake High School, it was bad.

“I ruined a lot of things in White Bear Lake with vandalism and getting into trouble with the law,” Nelson said. “I hung around a group of people that caused a lot of chaos in that town. We got into a lot of fights by the Cup and Cone, stealing cars and stuff like that.”

Nelson said 14 friends and family members of his have died from a drug overdose, including his biological father. 

During quarantine, Nelson felt that he lost his future because he saw the world coming to an end. Then things came to a head a year ago in October when Nelson got a “bad batch” of meth laced with fentanyl and overdosed.

“What I do remember is I was working at a vape shop, and my boss told me to go home. I went home and detoxed in my room for six days and got sober by my own will. Then I turned myself into a treatment center,” he recalled.

That decision changed his life in the right direction.

He started working as a youth prevention advocate for Know the Truth (KTT), a substance use prevention program that targets teenagers and reaches approximately 60,000 students each year in more than 300 high schools throughout the state. The program uses a peer-to-peer format in which presenters share their personal stories and struggles with substance use, stripping away any glamour or myths that may exist.

Nelson is one of those presenters. He recently shared his story at Stillwater High School and said he knew a lot of the students, because he grew up with them. “Some of them came to me after and gave me a hug,” he said.

Nelson is a big advocate for young people to become sober and said when he learned more about KTT it helped him realize this is what he should be doing in his life — to show other young people they are not alone.

“The way that my life has become now, I have a future of becoming that person and be that voice,” Nelson said. “What I think is so amazing about Know the Truth is I get to be that voice, and it shapes me into the person I never thought I could become — a role model, a positive influence and a leader. This is the stuff that's going to keep me clean.”

Mika Nervick, KTT program coordinator, said students are asked to take an anonymous survey after each presentation. Here are the survey results so far this school year:

•30% of high school students reported using a substance at least once.

•After hearing the presentation, students are six times less likely to use than they were before.

•83% of students will quit using or use less after hearing the presentation.

“We've been blessed by having Gavin on the team. He relates to the students very well,” Nervick said. “If we can save even one kid, that's what it's all about.”

Nelson goes to support groups, has a lot of mentors he reaches out to and is thankful for his job at KTT.

“This job is a big part of my recovery journey as well as sharing my story and what I've been through,” Nelson said. “I know if I use, I lose everything that I got.”

Currently, Nelson has a great relationship with his parents and said he wants to make amends to the community he hurt. “I want to do something for my community that will make an impact on people,” he said. “Not for myself, but for other people.”

Nelson's goal for the future is to open his own treatment center for adolescents and start an organization for teens who struggle with addiction or who have lost someone to addiction.

“My life now is a life I never thought I could have,” he said. “If you would have asked me four years ago what I'd be doing in my life now, I would have said, ‘either dead or in jail.’”

For more information on Know the Truth, go to

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