Karen Lizzy has walked hand in hand with death. Now she helps others so they don't have to.
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The stories keep coming, each more heartrending than the last. There’s the relative who fatally overdosed at a bus stop as dozens of people walked by. The person who lost a nephew to fentanyl, another a wife. The man who OD’d twice because he couldn’t bear to live without his partner. The mother who desperately clutched her child to her chest after the toddler swallowed a discarded M30 pill she had picked up off the floor.
The stories are different yet all the same, woven together in a twisted tapestry of trauma and tragedy, addiction and shame. To Karen Lizzy, though, it’s the tale of her people. Of the Native community. One she wants to help write a new ending for.
“We’re called the most visible and invisible group of people,” says Lizzy, a licensed mental health counselor and substance use disorders professional with Cowlitz Tribal Health Seattle. No matter the drug—alcohol, opioids—“we always fall into the category of the group that’s dying the most.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Lizzy burns medicine in an abalone shell, lavender and cedar sap, sage and sweet grass. She uses an eagle feather passed down from her father to waft the cleansing smoke toward her face, and then, after a calming breath, she shares her own story. A citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community, a band of Ojibwe in Michigan, Lizzy overdosed twice on cocaine—the first time when she was just 17. She’d use and black out, only to wake up in the emergency room in restraints. Authority figures would blame her for partying but release her right back onto the streets anyway. Even as an adult, she tells doctors about her medical history and watches their formerly warm demeanors flip in an instant. They assume she’s simply trying to get drugs, Lizzy says.
These days, she wants to provide care for Seattle’s Native population, the type of care she never had. At Cowlitz Tribal Health in Tukwila, Lizzy and her team run the medication-assisted treatment program, connecting those who use fentanyl or other substances with what Lizzy calls “good medicine,” the kind that can get people off the opioid roller coaster. But instead of classic support groups, they host sacred circles, a space where members can feel safe and accepted. “We culturally centered our programs because our community will not come if it is a Western model.”
Before Covid, they shared food. People brought crafts to work on: beading or dream catchers, even regalia. They talked and listened. Sometimes storytellers joined, or elders intent on passing down cedar-working traditions. Lizzy and her team hustled around, making sure individuals had the resources they wanted and the medication they needed. The pandemic didn’t dampen enthusiasm either. Attendance actually went up when they went virtual.
Even still, there are hurdles. Although the Native population is disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic, less than 30 percent of tribes across the country offer medication-assisted treatment. There are many reasons—funding and a lack of resources, for one—but the most prominent is because “our elders say that you cannot participate in ceremony if you are on these medications,” Lizzy explains. Those are the very same medications that may help people cease their opioid use and heal. But the stigma alone is enough for some to never seek care in the first place.
Those who do walk through the doors at Cowlitz Tribal Health—after a lively debate, the tribe voted to allow those using medications in ceremony—are honored for that sacred moment they decided to seek help. Lizzy gifts them a medicine kit with traditional therapeutics, and then she gets to work.
For the counselor, it’s all about code-switching, centering the Western model of care in the framework of Native culture. “I’ve been taught that our spirit leaves our bodies when we use,” Lizzy says. When she greets a new member, she asks questions about their use disorder to satisfy the basic requirements of the state and drug courts. But her real assessment is how adrift that spirit is—and how she can help call it back home for a new story to begin.
One night in the fall of 2020, Lucifr Kruz woke up alone in a bathtub. He’d shot heroin with his friends and then passed out from a post-injection fever. When he woke up, his friends were gone. His bank and social security cards were too.
Kruz has never had an easy go of it. He survived an abusive childhood and lived 16 years on the streets, using heroin for most of that time. His addiction was so bad, he resorted to turning tricks and stealing groceries to fund it. But that sobering moment in the bathtub was a literal wake-up.
A call to Ms. Carrie, his case manager, got him an Uber to Valley Cities rehab, where he stayed for a month to transition onto Suboxone, a medication for opioid use disorder. It wasn’t easy—the withdrawal symptoms Kruz had spent so many years trying to avoid were excruciating. “I was literally climbing up the walls, trying to get out of my body,” but these days, it’s better.
Kruz has an apartment now and a job. He carries Suboxone at all times to put his mind at ease—and he hasn’t touched opioids since. He never wants to have that feeling of desperation, of “crawling out of your skin, gripping for something that’s not there, that you really need for your sanity,” ever again. “If you don’t know about it,” he says, “count your blessings.”
Anthony Taylor knows exactly where he’d be if he hadn’t gotten help for his heavy opioid addiction. “I’d be dead right now—no question.”
The 63-year-old had used cocaine since 1973, but a difficult divorce and two DUIs in 2014 flung him into the embrace of a new drug: heroin. Taylor lived in hotels and eventually his car, doing cocaine and then shooting heroin “just to come down, just to not be so spooked and stuff.”
He compares his opioid addiction to a silverback gorilla. “That silverback tells you when you get up, when you go to sleep. And when he stops doing what he wants to do to you, that’s when he stops doing it. You have no control over your life, period.” Without that gorilla, the heroin in his system, Taylor says he’d be a shell of a person, unable to get out of bed with full-on withdrawal body aches so bad sometimes he’d defecate on himself.
A chance encounter with a Seattle police sergeant one day in 2017 led Taylor to what was then known as Washington’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, now Let Everyone Advance with Dignity. He got on Suboxone, stopped using heroin, and eventually ditched cocaine too.
These days, Taylor is remarried and has a well-paying construction gig. He hopes he can save up enough to buy a home soon. But each time he works a job downtown, where those still in the throes of addiction are visible on every street corner, he counts his blessings. “I say, Lord, that was me. I can never in my life live like an animal for anybody or for any reason. I’ll never do that again.”
A woman walking her dog down Rainier Avenue stops to wave hello. So does a man in a ballcap. And a person hefting grocery bags across the street. Clearly, Deaunte Damper is a well-known figure in Columbia City.
As the first LGBTQ chair for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and host of We Live in Color on Converge Media, Damper is somewhat of a local icon in the South Seattle and Black communities. But for all who know him and his advocacy work, no one knew his secret.
“I’ve always been able to be a strong advocate for health disparities in my community,” he says, “but I was losing my friends to substance use, and I myself during the pandemic relapsed.” Damper, who first started using methamphetamine in 2009 to deal with personal trauma, had been off the stimulant for two years. But then the isolation became too much to bear.
He’d binge for a week, then throw himself into a project at work. Then he’d use again. Six months later, he realized that while he’d put himself in a position of leadership, encouraging others to reach out for help, he himself was afraid to do it. “I cried like a baby for two days straight before I actually checked myself into rehab.”
Now Damper is having one of the best years of his life—and he’s using his personal experience to rally those around him for the worsening fentanyl problem. “We’re in a public health crisis,” Damper says, urgency bleeding into the timbre of his voice, “and we need to be having these conversations about how to show up for community members. Because the more we don’t have Narcan around us, another life has gone.”
The 17-year-old who Zaheed Lynch had been mentoring hadn’t answered his phone for a few days. So Lynch, an ambassador for incarceration-diversion nonprofit Community Passageways, called the teen’s uncle. That’s when Lynch found out the young man was dead—from a fentanyl overdose.
“Things [were] really pretty much looking good for him,” recalls Lynch, who’d encouraged the youth to go to rehab, helped him do his GED coursework and get a job. But the redemption story got cut short.
It’s not Lynch’s only example, just the most recent: There was the friend in California who popped a pill, took a bath, and never woke up. The cousin who overdosed and had to be given Narcan by her brother. “Nowadays, you can die, even if you just take it one time,” Lynch says.
Another young man Lynch is working with just turned 18 and has been dabbling with drugs, from Xanax to meth to fentanyl, since he was 15. Treatment centers haven’t worked; talking hasn’t either. “When he’s in his right mind, he gets it,” Lynch says. But “when you’re addicted to something, that overpowers everything else. That overpowers your love for your family, that overpowers your love for your future, that overpowers your love for your daughter.”
All Lynch can do now is make it clear that he’s there for the teen—and that he has plenty of Narcan on hand.
If there were ever such a thing as a “functioning meth addict,” Annaiece was it. She’d been doing drugs since she was 13 after she ran away from home, but always held down a job and took care of her appearance. She had a long-term relationship with her boyfriend, John.
Then two years ago, a roommate introduced her to fentanyl. Annaiece, who’s 50 now, didn’t know anything about the drug, so she tried it once, then twice. The third time, she overdosed. “You think that would stop me from doing them, but there’s something really dangerously addicting about those pills,” Annaiece says.
The withdrawal is painful, like your whole body is cramping up, like it hurts to have skin. So Annaiece and John continued taking those blue pills, as much to chase the highs as to avoid the lows. They lived in their car until Denver, a social worker, secured them a place in Catholic Community Services’ Bridge Shelter.
These days, the couple are both on Suboxone, which helps manage their cravings and assuage the debilitating symptoms of withdrawal. Annaiece has relapsed many times, she says, but she’s determined to keep trying. One day, she hopes to marry John, to own a home (a cute fixer-upper), and to be a social worker, like Denver. She wants to know what it’s like to finally succeed instead of struggle. “I’ve done it all—I’ve been as high as you could possibly be. I want an actual real life, you know?”