‘It’s like watching your child drown’

A mother feels helpless as her son succumbs to opioid addiction

It wasn’t unusual for Dawn Camarda to get a text or phone call from her son, Blake Meier, in the middle of the day or late at night.

“I love you.”

“I love you back.”

Blake Meier and his mother, Dawn Camarda. Family photo

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Blake would come into a room and kiss her on the head or wrap her in a big bear hug.

When Camarda and her husband separated in 2014 and divorced the next year, Blake stepped in, going with her on trips to Florida or to see Van Halen or Departure, her favorite Journey tribute band.

“Blake loved to love,” said Camarda, an Alpharetta associate broker for a real estate company. “He was very loyal to his family. He always said nobody was going to hurt us. Nobody.”

In the end, though, it was Blake who hurt his family the most.

On Aug. 10, 2016, Blake overdosed in a West Palm Beach motel room.

Camarda was told her 26-year-old son had enough fentanyl in his system to kill a rhino.

A perfect storm

Camarda often wonders how they got to that dark place. Sometimes details elude her. They say grief can do that to a person.

Were there signs she missed that could have allowed her to intervene earlier?

She thinks it was a “perfect storm” of easily accessible prescription drugs, a young man’s curiosity and stress from family issues.

Blake became part of a disturbing trend in Georgia, where opioid addiction has taken a devastating toll. It has affected people from all walks of life, regardless of income or address. Last year, nearly 1,000 people in the state died from opioid-related drug overdoses, according to the Georgia Attorney General’s Office.

Blake and his two siblings grew up in an upper middle class family. Camarda spent much of her time with her children.

“I’d always tell them that I love you to the moon and back,” she said.

Blake, her middle child, was charming and laid-back, but he had a mischievous streak.

When he was about 10, friends sent a package containing seafood packed in dry ice. Blake’s father showed him how to make a dry ice bomb in a soda bottle but warned him never to do it alone.

“Of course, he did it without him,” Camarda said, laughing. “He threw it down the sewer in the neighborhood. Nothing was destroyed but it sure was loud..”

His father could not be reached for comment for this story.

A couple years later, Blake was playing around with a BB gun he thought was empty and pulled the trigger, knocking out a front tooth with the one pellet left in the chamber.

In school, Blake was an average student, but was “incredibly smart … naturally, technically smart,” she said.

People thought thought Blake would one day be an engineer because he excelled in math and displayed an early knack for looking at something and figuring out how it worked.

Blake could take a radio apart and put it back together in a heartbeat.

“He caught on to things like that,” Camarda said, snapping her fingers.

At Kennesaw Mountain High School, Blake joined the Mustangs football team and was a top receiver his senior year.

“He was a great football player and a really great person,” said his best friend, Douglas Schwartz, who owns an Atlanta technology company. “It was almost like he had glue on his hands. He could catch anything, and he was really fast, too.”

When did it start?

No one knows exactly when Blake slid into addiction. But Camarda wonders if his brain chemistry had been altered somehow, making him more susceptible to addiction, because of medicine he started taking at age 11, when he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.

Blake also once had confessed to his mother that he smoked marijuana when he was 13 or 14. High school friends say pills were easy to find at parties.

Ewell Hardman, an addiction counselor with The Summit Counseling, didn’t know Blake or the specifics of his case. However, he said the subsequent risk of using other drugs is significantly higher for those who begin early, say, 12-15 years of age.

Then Blake’s senior year in high school, he underwent surgery for the first of several bone grafts stemming from the BB-gun accident years earlier.

His dentist prescribed Vicodin to ease the pain.

Camarda doesn’t think the dentist over-prescribed the drug, which contains the opioid hydrocodone. She does think that perhaps her son started to like the feeling he got from it.

"Honestly, back then, no one thought about opioid addiction or that prescription painkillers could be addictive," she said. "He was under a doctor's care, and the doctor always knows best. I didn't think it would cause harm to my son."

In May 2012, Blake told his mother that he had been using pills and thought he was addicted.

“He didn’t say it gave him a mind-blowing feeling, he just said it relieved stress when he was using,” Camarda said.

Blake later confessed that a friend taught him how to crush the pills and snort them. “He said, mom it gave me the best high I ever had.”

Hardman said young people often turn to substances that make them feel good instead of “being able to face life on life’s terms,” he said.

"We have a cultural change where young people are not afraid of opioids and think they're not dangerous," Hardman said. "Somehow it just seems normal."

Blake’s friend Jeff Breitweiser, a carpenter, traveled that path. He’s also been in rehab several times but is now clean.

Breitweiser said he and other friends like Blake started messing with low-grade painkillers, and it just escalated.

“It can give someone the greatest feeling in the world,” he said. “It’s an awesome feeling, and you don’t care about anything.” He doesn’t think Blake experimented with opioids, though, until after his surgery.

At some pointBlake also started using heroin. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four in five new heroin users started out abusing prescription painkillers.

When Camarda realized her son was in trouble, she rushed him to the emergency room of a local hospital. The doctor gave him medication for withdrawal and sent him home. She asked whether he should be in rehab and said the doctor told her no. Because Blake came to her with the problem, the doctor said, he was going to be fine. “He said, ‘He knows what he did was wrong,’” she said.

For a week, Blake went through withdrawal. It was hell. He vomited and was racked with diarrhea, abdominal pains and headaches.

She sat on his bed and fed him lime Jell-O.

When it was over, Camarda thought everything would be fine.

Gaylord Lopez, a doctor of pharmacy and director of the Georgia Poison Center, shares a few facts about the opioid epidemic in Georgia and around the nation. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that opioid-related overdoses in the state of Georgia claimed the lives of 982 people last year. The AJC also found that doctors aren't being held accountable when they behave more like dealers than healers. Video by Ryon Horne, Carrie Teegardin and Curtis Compton

A prisoner at home

In a few months later, Blake started disappearing for days at a time.

In 2013, a friend’s mother, who suffered from chronic back pain, called Camarda worried.

She suspected Blake had swiped some of her morphine tablets.

This time, Camarda turned to rehab, and Blake willingly went. Soon, though, she got an anxious call from her son. Administrators said he couldn’t stay there anymore.

"They told me he was poisoning the well for other people," she said. "They told me that if I didn't come and get him, they were going to drop him off at the edge of the highway."

She went.

That decision was costly.

While Blake held down a job, he stole checks from Camarda and she noticed strange purchases began showing up on her bank statements. She started sleeping with her purse, and when she left for work, she would make sure she took small valuables, like her grandmother’s engagement ring, with her.

“I felt like I was a prisoner in my own home,” she said.

Even being home didn’t stop the drugs from coming in. Sometimes drug dealers would toss packages of pills over the fence. Blake put money for them in the mailbox.

Camarda and Blake would argue. He’d beg to use her debit card.

Once he overdosed in a Cobb County grocery store. He passed out and had to be revived three times. He was rushed to the hospital, but he checked himself out in the middle of the night and went back to using.

“When you’re using, you don’t care whether you bathe, eat, go to work,” Camarda said. “The only thing on his mind was using.”

His friend Schwartz would occasionally see him and thought he seemed sad.

“I heard he was in rehab but I didn’t know why,” Schwartz said. “I knew he was messing around with pain pills but, you know, 20/20 in the rear-view mirror. … I didn’t want to be the guy who was always bugging him. I didn’t want to drive him away. I wanted to love him and be there for him. I had absolutely no idea he was into heroin. I don’t think he wanted me to know. .”

Camarda feared the drugs would one day kill Blake, and she felt helpless. “It’s like watching your child drown,” she said.

If he was sleeping, Camarda and Blake’s younger sister Katie would go in and gently shake him to make sure he was still breathing.

He once warned his sister about drugs. “He pretty much told me that, if he ever caught me doing any sort of pill, the outcome would not be good,” she said. “I’d get in trouble with him.”

Dawn Camarda (right) and her daughter, Catherine Meier, bring out her horse at their home in Alpharetta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

When he told Katie he had shot up heroin, she begged him to take control of his life. There were times she would be in a downstairs room and hear a lighter hit the floor above. She knew then he was using.

“I could tell he was disappointed in himself,” she said. Sometimes he would lash out at them, but he would always be the first to apologize.

"There's a stigma that people think, 'Oh, well, they did it to themselves,'" she said. "But I don't think that's right. I think addiction is a mental illness. Once you're in, you're in, and it's hard to come out of it. You can't do it yourself. You need support."

“My Heart Just Broke”

Blake tried rehab again, this time at a Florida facility. Camarda remembers the last phone call from him — a day-and-a-half before his body was discovered.

"He said, 'Mom, I'm sincerely sorry that I put you through this, but I'm getting better,' " she said, her voice breaking. " 'I'm waking up happy and I just want to make sure you're taken care of. I'm going to take care of you for the rest of your life.' I was so proud of him. He was thinking clearly."

They traded texts the next day. The third day, her texts and calls went unanswered.

On the afternoon of Aug. 10, her doorbell rang.

A friend told her she needed to come downstairs. She saw a police officer at the door.

Is my son OK?

He handed her a note to call a detective in Florida.

“My heart just broke,” she said. “I knew.”

He had fentanyl in his system, a drug more powerful than heroin or morphine.

His mother asked the funeral director to shave his head and give her his hair. She wears a silver necklace that contains his thumb print and another necklace with a St. Christopher’s medal he was wearing when he died.

Today, Camarda runs a nonprofit, the Blake Meier New Life Foundation, which she wants to use to help families going through the same struggle. She also wants rehab facilities to have a safe place for people to go for 24 hours before he or she is released. That gives parents or loved ones time to get there before that person is released.

In a small memorial at her home, Dawn Camarda keeps personal items of her son Blake Meier, who died of a opioid overdose in 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

She has a small memorial at her three-acre Alpharetta property called Blake’s Farm, which she shares with Katie, her two horses, three cats and two dogs.

The memorial includes a scruffy pair of size 9, tan suede Wallabee shoes that Blake loved, several photographs, a Chattahoochee Technical College Golden Eagles football helmet, his jersey, a painting of an angel and a photo cube with the message “love you to the moon and back.”

And his ashes.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution series on Doctors & Sex Abuse is a finalist for the Goldsmith Award for Investigative Reporting.

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» Read the AJC's award-winning investigation, Doctors & Sex Abuse: A 50-state investigation