Tonya Karlowicz understands the stigma of addiction more than most.
The Sunriver woman felt it over the 14 years her son struggled with opioid abuse. People told her addiction was a moral failure and judged her as a mother.
But after her 28-year-old son, Blake, died in July from an opioid overdose, Karlowicz refused to be defined by shame.
“I have inherited his story,” she said of her son. “I have to carry on his purpose. I have to be his voice.”
That is what brought Karlowicz to the inaugural Walk for Recovery in Bend, where she was joined Saturday morning by more than 100 other people affected by addiction.
The crowd of those in recovery and their loved ones marched on a 2-mile loop through downtown Bend. The goal of the walk was to fight the stigma, raise money for better access to recovery services and call on state and federal lawmakers to consider addiction as a public health crisis.
“It’s nice to be around people who understand,” Karlowicz said. “They get it.”
The Walk for Recovery was a timely event in Bend. A week earlier, the Deschutes County Health Department issued a public warning after six people suffered opioid overdoses.
Health officials suspect the accidental overdoses are linked to heroin laced with synthetic fentanyl, a potent opioid that is often sold illegally for its similarity to heroin.
Fentanyl is the substance that ultimately killed Karlowicz’s son.
Whether the substance is alcohol or opioids, the focus needs to be on treatment for the addiction, said Mike Marshall, the executive director of Oregon Recovers, a statewide organization that hosts Walk for Recovery events across the state — including the one in Bend — and supports people with addiction.
“It’s not about the substance,” Marshall said. “It’s about the disease. And the disease is addiction.”
Oregon has the fourth-highest addiction rate in the country, and the state ranks last in access to treatment, according to Oregon Recovers.
The organization’s statistics show Oregon experiences about five drug overdose deaths each week, and five alcohol-related deaths each day. Untreated addiction costs the state $5.9 billion each year, including costs for health care, law enforcement and social welfare programs.
Marshall, who has been a recovering alcoholic for more than 11 years, helped start the Walk for Recovery event last year in Portland. The event grew this year to include walks in Bend, Eugene, Medford and Portland.
“We are building a statewide movement,” Marshall said.
Before the walk in Bend, the crowd heard from Bend Mayor Sally Russell and City Councilor Bruce Abernethy. Both have friends and family who struggle with addiction.
Jamie Christman, the former executive vice president of community affairs for the Bend Chamber of Commerce, spoke candidly about spending the past year in recovery from alcoholism.
Christman was arrested twice in August 2018 for driving under the influence, according to court records. Since then, she has sought help, but she had to sell her home to afford treatment and give up her career to focus on her health.
The sacrifices are worth it to Christman, she said. She met people in treatment who relapsed and died.
“I know that we die from this disease,” Christman told the crowd. “That’s where I was headed. I was going to die, or I was going to kill someone.”
Karlowicz, a social skills learning facilitator at Gilchrist School, wore a white T-shirt Saturday emblazoned with a photo of her son. She brought a box of the T-shirts and handed them out to friends and family, including her husband, Thom, and their 23-year-old son, Lucas.
When Karlowicz spoke to the crowed, she shared a poem she wrote about Blake. In it, she referred to his addiction as a monster that took over his life.
After her son’s death July 23, Karlowicz often thought about the times she would sit with Blake and talk with him about his addiction.
“He would just cry,” she said. “He hated the control it had over his life.”
Karlowicz’s son tried various treatments over the years. In 2005, he spent 60 days in the Sagewalk wilderness therapy camp in Redmond. But a couple years later, Blake was injured in a motorcycle accident and again became addicted to opioids.
In 2017, Blake moved to Los Angeles to enroll in the Klean Treatment Center, when the center he was attending in La Pine closed.
He never returned home. He died in Los Angeles.
Karlowicz is using the pain she feels as motivation to help others who may be ashamed of their addiction and suffering in isolation. She is documenting her journey on a website, terrifiednomore.com.
Directly after the Walk for Recovery, she took the next step in her journey. Karlowicz went to Gull Point campground on the Wickiup Reservoir, where she and her family held a celebration of life for Blake.
The celebration offered closure, but also clarity for Karlowicz.
“He changed my life in a positive way,” she said. “I have to give him purpose beyond the life he lived.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7820, email@example.com