Perils of teen drinking focus of conference

It began with a simple sip of Southern Comfort at age 14.

During the next several years, abusive drinking nearly ruined Koren Zailckas’ life. It at least altered a big part of it.

“Doing a lot of binge drinking definitely affected my identity,” Zailckas said in a telephone interview from her home in New York’s Catskill Mountains. “It was due to a whole mix of things, including post-traumatic stress disorder and avoiding early childhood, painful memories.”

Zailckas, now 35 and free from her downward spiral, will discuss youth-oriented binge drinking and related areas when she presents her talk, “This Is Who We Are,” at the annual Desperate Households substance abuse conference, which will be hosted Wednesday by Community Church of Columbus.

The Bartholomew County Substance Abuse Council has organized the event to spotlight substance abuse issues and possible solutions. In the past, it has attracted 200 to 300 people, including counselors, ministry staff, medical personnel, school officials, parents and a variety of others.

Zailckas is the author of two bestselling memoirs, “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood,” and “Fury,” dealing with deep-seated and often-repressed anger.

Zailckas has been hailed for her honest, raw portrayals of addiction and struggle but has paid a price for that honesty. She acknowledged that her family has not spoken to her in two years.

She is uncertain if the binge drinking she saw and experienced 20 years ago has changed much since.

“I talk some about the power of today’s alcohol industry,” Zailckas said. “And I talk about the fact that parents are not alone.”

Zailckas figures teens see more ads for alcohol than for jeans and shoes and beauty products combined. She said the flavored vodka industry, with products meant to taste like treats ranging marshmallows to cupcakes, has an appeal to some underage girls.

“I think that’s just another thing for all of us to be aware of,” she said.

For her, she said the real damage of abusive drinking unfolded psychologically. And while many people tout rehab as a best treatment option, Zailckas used one-on-one counseling successfully to find sobriety.

The biggest difference she sees between her severe, at-risk behavior from high school and college and today’s binge-drinking students is linked to social media and missteps now being broadcast to the world.

“That makes binge drinking much scarier,” she said.

Columbus resident Dawn Andrews, a member of the Bartholomew County Substance Abuse Council and also a part of the conference’s organizing team, believes Zailckas’ presentation is timely and important locally.

“In our community, we have a significant problem with addictions and suicide, both of which are used to numb or stop an individual from feeling or facing their issues,” Andrews said. “Alcohol is often used in the same manner and is often overlooked because it is legal at the age of 21.

“Alcohol is prevalent in most cases involving rape, unprotected sex, family stressors, abuse and neglect.”

Andrews sees another significant element of Zailckas’ story.

“Often these (heavily drinking) girls are misidentified as party girls when really they are using alcohol as a coping skill for difficulties in their life,” Andrews said.

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What: The annual Desperate Household Conference sponsored by the Bartholomew County Substance Abuse Council focuses on challenges and solutions to substance abuse. This year’s theme is “The Story of Your Life” with nationally touring author and speaker Koren Zailckas.

When: 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Where: Community Church of Columbus, 3850 N. Marr Road.

Admission: Free. Lunch will be provided free to all who register at

Information: 812-348-6257.