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He helps those who are in his former hell

Ex-addict reaches out to those at crossroads

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The woman who knows where I live is at my door.

She and her husband are intensely private people, but there is something she needs to share. She is sitting at my kitchen table now, the tears welling in her eyes. They are for her substance-addicted 20-year-old son.

But all she wants to talk about is the remarkable man who guided the family through a crisis, the way he has done so often for so many others.

"He might have saved my son's life," she says.

That's because he convinced the young man to enter a recovery program. He did that by making him understand there was someone who knew how he felt.

And he did that, of course, by sharing his own story.


-- -- --

"I came from a great, loving family. I excelled at school and sports. I wasn't a bad kid. But I never felt good enough."

That's the way Ian Rabb starts to tell me his story.

You might recognize the name.

It's on lawn signs all over Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry where he's running for Jenny Gerbasi's long-held city council seat. Lots of the signs are in front of apartments that are looked after by his family's Winpark Dorchester Properties, where Rabb works as the general manager. It's a position that has branded him a conservative, which -- on the social side at least -- seems at odds with his obsessive dedication to helping addicts and their families. And the nature of the man who one mutual friend characterizes as "a great big walking heart."

Witness his purchase of three houses that he's turned into addiction-recovery centres with the help of funding for staff from the province.

But that's near the end of the story. We should get back to the beginning.

Kindergarten perhaps.

Rabb remembers feeling like an outsider as early as that. Later, the feeling would manifest as a sense that there was a hole where his soul was supposed to be.

"I felt empty."

As he entered his late teens, around the time he took his first drink, Rabb become even more conscious of the feeling that there was a piece missing.

"I used to go to my dad and say, 'There's something wrong with me.' "

He had some counselling.

That went nowhere.

But he did.

Straight down that hole inside him.

It was when he arrived in Chicago to attend optometry school in his early 20s that the hole took on Alice in Wonderland proportions. He began hitting nightclubs, hanging out with the flamboyant Bulls forward Dennis Rodman. And doing cocaine and ecstasy.

"Everyone goes to their drug of choice. I thought I'd found mine. I thought I'd found the answer to my problems."

All he did, though, was add to them in weirder and weirder ways.

Rabb became an escort for lonely ladies who could pay.

He even did some porn movies.

"You start crossing lines. You think what you're doing is OK. But you're just crossing another line. And it's all fuelled by your addiction."

There were brushes with the law.

Arrests, in fact.

Eventually, most of his family gave up on him. He drifted off to Denver, to live with his sister. It was there, that he found new things to do while he was waiting to die, where he finally found the rope.

The one with which he pulled himself out of the hole.

"I don't take credit for saving my life, because it was when I lost my choices in life, that's when I was able to surrender and recover. All the choices were gone."

Curiously, the first person he credits with saving his life is a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officer.

She took him aside when the DEA raided a Denver meth lab.

"She said, 'What's up with you? You don't belong here. You're not like these other people.' "

Rabb finally confessed.

"I need help."

She was the one who helped him stay out of prison. But he credits someone else for saving his life.

His father, David Rabb.

When his dad arrived in Denver as the last family member still willing to help -- the last one who had been in denial -- Rabb confessed again.

"I had no more excuses. I made the admission to him: 'I have a drug and alcohol problem.' "

It wasn't as simple as that.

Addicts tend to be master manipulators. But at his father's insistence, Rabb ended up in treatment in Winnipeg.

It was that firm fatherly hand that finally did it.

He was coming home to family.

He would end up plugging the hole with the only thing that could fill it.

The wholeness that comes from helping others.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 16, 2010 B1

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