EVERETT — Hardly anyone knew Corey Lee was struggling.
He didn’t fit stereotypes about people coping with addiction. He was a gifted kid, an athlete, an Eagle Scout.
“It felt like we as parents were failures,” said his mom, Cathi. “And I think that’s why we kept that a secret.”
But after Corey overdosed in his Eastern Washington University dorm room in 2015, that secret became impossible to keep. Once word got out on social media, his parents made the difficult decision to go public with what they were going through.
Corey died two weeks after his overdose at age 20.
Now, Cathi Lee draws on her experience to help others. Six years ago, she and Debbie Warfield came up with the idea to organize a local event to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, which takes place on Aug. 31 each year. Lindsey Arrington, founder of recovery support organization Hope Soldiers, later joined them.
Arrington is in recovery from the opioid addiction she grappled with in her teens and early 20s.
This year’s event includes a resource fair, a candlelight vigil and speakers like County Executive Dave Somers, who also lost a family member to addiction. It’s scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Snohomish County Plaza, 3000 Rockefeller Ave. It will be the seventh annual event, called “A Night to Remember, A Time to Act.”
Warfield’s story mirrors Lee’s in many ways. Like Corey, Spencer Warfield attended Everett High School. He, too, played sports and was a good student. He dreamed of being a firefighter like his great-grandfather.
His life was cut short before he got the chance. Spencer died in 2012 at age 24 after a heroin overdose.
Warfield, Lee and Arrington all believe in the importance of dispelling myths about addiction. It can happen to anybody, they said.
“Everybody knows somebody that’s struggling with addiction,” Arrington said.
Fighting stigma isn’t the only goal. Prevention is also a priority.
It’s an issue that’s only getting more pressing, as the fentanyl crisis has worsened an already dire situation.
Across Snohomish County, 205 people have died of drug overdoses so far this year, according to the county medical examiner’s office. More than half of those deaths involved fentanyl. Last year, 284 people died of overdoses. Of those, 189 involved fentanyl.
The country needs to have a “unified approach” to overdose prevention, Lee suggested, similar to the response to COVID-19.
The event also provides an opportunity for families who have lost loved ones to overdoses to connect with each other. Lee and Warfield both know how meaningful that is.
Meeting Warfield helped Lee understand “there was life after you lose a child.”
Gretchen Saari knows about living with grief better than most. She has lost two sons to heroin overdoses, one in 2009 and the other in 2017.
Behind every overdose death, she said, “there’s a family there whose life is never the same.”
As time passes, she said, you begin to remember your loved one separately from their addiction.
“Addiction is like a big storm cloud,” she said, “and the real person, it’s hard to see sometimes.”