Roundtable: The Opioid Epidemic

Continuing our influential roundtable series on topics important to South Jersey, SJ Magazine’s Marianne Aleardi hosted 13 SJ leaders to discuss the widespread opioid epidemic. Participants shared passionate stories of their first-hand experiences working to combat the growing problem.  

On what people say about addiction… 

I hear this one a lot: “Didn’t they know better?” My message is: Look at me. I knew better. I treated probably 1,000 overdoses in my career as a paramedic. However, when it came down to an opportunity to numb hurtful things in my life, it just became an easy road to go down. If it was as simple as knowing better, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.


As I sit here and reflect on a life riddled with hurt, shame, and failure, my gratitude overflows. I am exceedingly blessed to share my experience as a means of lending you the courage to speak your truth. The deep, inner hurts that we carry can only die in the light of exposure. Our struggles are how we connect with each other and paradoxically lend us our greatest strengths.

I was the last of triplet boys and for some reason always felt like I was the crap left over, unworthy and insignificant. I was puny, uncoordinated, and had big glasses at a young age. I can still hear the echo of the harsh words that the cool kids would say.

I was the kid who cried at soccer camp and had to be picked up at lunchtime on the first day by my mother. I can remember when puberty hit, the desire for a girlfriend hit. My solution? Ask every girl in seventh grade out: not exactly a great promotional opportunity for me.

I was the normal kind of awkward, but soon things went from plain old bad to truly horrible. I was 14 years old when a man who was a recognized spiritual leader attempted to molest me. I held it in for a week.

When I finally gathered my courage and spoke up, his leadership and even my parents just brushed it away. The crushing feeling of abandonment and shame took me down a a road of searching for peace through any means possible for the next 20 years.

When I did get the chance a year later to date a cheerleader, I messed that up purely out of fear of messing it up. I tried too hard and drove her away. A few months later, she and I were assigned to stand next to each other at a Christmas choir concert. I became overwhelmed with the desire to apologize to her for my behavior, but didn’t out of fear of rejection.

She was killed an hour later in a car wreck. So that added regret to hurts I carried on my shoulders. I joined the local fire department and found some hope, only to realize years later that it was my way of being a rescuer because no one was there to rescue me when I needed it.

I threw myself into my work and spent every waking hour responding to emergencies. I finally found my place in life and maybe a sense of peace, however fleeting it was.

Stephen KavalkovichThen came September 11, 2001: the day the world changed forever. Our nation was attacked and innocent people needed help. I was tasked to go to NYC and join the rescue effort. I walked into Ground Zero that night and will never be able to describe in words what it was like.

There was no way to really help and I carried that defeat for many years. I used it as an excuse to act out and numb myself. I began drinking heavily to stave off the nightmares and guilt that would progress to the point of death 14 years later.

My illness intensified. I began working as a paramedic and it wasn’t long before I was stealing pills from the medicine cabinets of those I was entrusted to help. I got married, had children, and bought a house full of stuff, but nothing made me feel secure.

I cheated on my wife many times, lost more jobs than I can count, and gambled our money away between long hours of helping others. I worked for two out of three counties in Delaware that both fired me for unprofessional behavior.

My first attempt at treatment was in 2008. My counselor, a convicted murderer who’d found recovery, had to teach me basic skills like laundry and not lying about everything I said. My wife stayed with me until another job loss. Then, she moved in with her mother. She finally gave up.

Who could blame her? My reputation and career were ruined when my second and third treatments didn’t stick. Even though I’d been through treatment, I showed up to work high. My certification got revoked, which led me to shopping for a doctor who’d prescribe me more painkillers.

My only fuel was an insatiable need to numb myself. My greatest fear was jail, but soon that came and went, too. I still kept going. When the money and pills ran out, the little bag of dope was introduced and in desperation I gave in.

There is nothing like the demoralization of being revived from overdose by an ex paramedic partner on not one, but two occasions. I found myself in my mid 30s with my score card at zero. I’d tried many therapists, rehabs, and medications for symptoms related to my destroyed state of mind and body, but they didn’t work.

I am grateful to say that utter brokenness brought me to the realization that no outside treatment or “help” would ever be enough to make me like myself. That was an inside job. I finally became beaten to a state of willingness and reasonability.

In order to get better, I had to go deep within and explore my deep-seated hurts, behaviors, and beliefs about myself. I had always tried to fill the same hole that all humans are born with: a God-shaped hole I was trying to fill with man-made things.

I sought peace in material creation instead of the Creator. My goal is not to preach, but to share what worked for me. My recovery came from relationship with myself, accepting myself for who I was, and uncovering what was inside me all along. It came from putting others first and learning to serve rather than be served.

Stephen KavalkovichNow, I am not perfect and would never want to be. But life is good. I sleep these days instead of blacking out. I feel deeply, love without expectation, and offer myself in any way to whoever has a need that I can fill. I am just one beggar telling another beggar where he got the bread.

I found that I had been asking the same question society asks about addiction. Why do they do make bad choices? The more relevant question that offers solution is, Where does the pain come from?

I began exploring that and freedom came on like a tidal wave. It is now my mission to share my story with you as a way of connecting us and giving you a voice. We are all floating in space on this big round ball and none of us are getting out alive. The best hope we have for world peace is peace in ourselves, followed by connection through our struggle and weakness.

If a guy like me, who was educated and saved people for a living and was supposed to “know better” could all but kill himself, no one is immune. Drugs are not the poison we choose to cover our feelings: it is the feelings that break us. If we are lucky, we live to tell others, and it is our mission to do so.


Original Source-

How can you get rid of addiction once and for all? There are many schools of thought on this and I happen to believe there are many ways. However, one thing that must be addressed is the underlying causes and conditions. What started the runaway train? Many times a destructive habit is brought during adolescence as “recreation.” This may be true, but whether they are aware of it or not, the desire to alter a feeling or circumstance is underlying.

In our society today when someone does something “wrong” , the sharks of criticism and judgement begin circling. Recently, the artist formerly known as Prince passed of a now confirmed drug overdose. To the spectator hearing the news, this seems preposterous. He had fame, wealth, and all the worldly things that most dream of. What kind of pain was he in? Why would he choose to go down that dark road to oblivion?

Why does the well respected heart surgeon lose his medical license for unnecessarily performing procedures to line his pockets? When the 21 year old young man from an affluent home is now living on Skid Row after thirteen drug rehabs, we need to start asking a better question then why the addiction.The more relevant inquiry should be why the pain?

From the church basements all over the world which host 12 step meeting like AA, the world at large can begin to get a clue as to what the real problem is. “ I have an alcohol or cocaine problem” can be heard time and time again. Instead of asking why does he or she does that destructive thing, addressing the root cause is paramount to solution.


I would challenge this and suggest that “ you have an alcohol or cocaine solution”. As they say, pick your poison. Whatever the maldaptive or scorned behavior one chooses, the root of it all has to do with the pain one carries. The shopping to excess or eating tubs of Ben and of Jerry’s ice cream is just a short lasting analgesic band-aid to cover the hurt.

A family is baffled at that awful Uncle James who isn’t invited to Thanksgiving Dinner anymore because of the whirlwind of destruction he has left in his wake. Rehab, jail divorce, and dereliction and yet he still robs people to get one more bag of dope. He is just weak, they whisper on the phone or in a passive aggressive Facebook post. Is he weak? Or is he trying to numb a deep pain that he isn’t even consciously aware that he has?

The first time a boy kissed Jessica in High school finally the connection and affection that she never received from her absent parents draped over her like a warm hug. As long as she didn’t say no when the boy wanted to go further. The first hit of heroin and suddenly the warmth of a blanket, cuddled with chicken soup on the couch, this is love, right?

To the body and mind, yes it is. Why would someone want to give up that feeling if they never received it from anyone or anything else? Once the combination for the particular person is dialed into the lock, a strong association begins, and breaking it can and has proved fatal for scores of people. Since we are all humans, we all carry hurts. Take a hard look at yourself and ponder what do I use as my medicine? More importantly, chase the rabbit down the hole further and ask why the pain?

Original Source-


Running Back to Egypt

The Old Testament story of the Exodus is a very poignant portrayal of humanity. Thousands of years later, not much has changed. The Israelites were held in back breaking captivity and bondage to Pharaoh.After God used Moses as a great leader to “let his people go”, the Red Sea was parted and off to the Promised Land. In their eyes, the bad times were over and nothing but riches and joy from now on.

The Past


If we read further, we will find that the journey to the land God promised them, was supposed to be an 11 day journey. Sadly, this trip took 40 years and most of them never made it. The instructions were clear and the road was there. Soon after the danger of the pursuing armies of Egypt was eradicated, they forgot where they came from. They forgot the pain and torture. They had the thought that the troubles were over. God provided a way out, but now we face new challenges. We have to eat manna, and there is no steak and eggs. The desert is hot, and there is no shelter. Then the blame game began. They pointed the finger at Moses, if not for him, we’d could have a house, bed, and assorted foods. I mean, so we have to perform hot, difficult labor. But…But… at least we wouldn’t be facing these new Goliath’s.What does that say about people, then and now?


Think of a time in your life when you were in bondage, broken and full of despair. Perhaps, it was a relationship full of resentment, abuse, or mistrust.Maybe it’s a job that is making you miserable and hopeless. What about a drug addiction that took everything from you. You sat on the street in the cold with nowhere to go and yet, couldn’t stop chasing the next high. We have all been in that situation where we wanted out, and a way opened up. The rehab got us a bed, but now they insist you follow the rules and clean your room. We begged to get in, and someone made it happen in our cries. But…but..I want it to be my way. You finally escaped the abusive boyfriend, but now have to go back your mother’s basement at 37 years old. You are a grown woman, how can she demand certain house rules be followed? Late at night you text the one who hurt you and tell him, “ as long as you change, I will come back. “ We know how that one will end. A vicious cycle of escaping the quicksand and running like a moth to a flame back to it.




God didn’t rescue us from our “Egypt’s” so we can run back when we have new, unfamiliar terrain to traverse.Perhaps, if the Israelites that he rescued from captivity would’ve entered the Promised Land had they put the same faith and trust in Him when it came to this new, strange road in the journey. Perhaps, if we are brought out of our slavery after begging God to save us, the answer is to trust. Trust the process in the next chapter of the story. The promise isn’t that it will be easy, but if we are saved it’s for a reason that isn’t in vain. Easy would’ve been staying where we were, even though it was suicide on the installment plan. Change is painful, but not as painful as staying where we aren’t supposed to be.


Original Source-

What is you passion? Mom signed me up for summer soccer camp and had to pick me up at noon on the first day because I wouldn’t stop crying. It is really no secret to any of my family or friends that I was never the “traditional guy.”  As a child, I was awkward, puny, and uncoordinated. When the kids in the neighborhood would play football or hockey, I stayed as far away as I could. I just never had a desire to participate in such things.

Heck, I remember when collecting baseball cars was a popular thing. Since all of the other boys had huge collections, I made it my mission to get an even bigger stash. Even though my parents knew I wasn’t into baseball, they obliged. My desire to fit in overshadowed my desire to be who I really was. I was more interested in theater or watching “I Love Lucy” then sweating outside in competitive sports. My passion was different that the other kids.However, knowing I was different kept me shackled to my fear of being found out. I wanted to hide my differences and blend into the crowd.

I kept up the charade by joining the local football team at a mind-blowing 70 pounds. Of course, this was the 90 pound team and I was the tiny kid in the back of the line when we ran laps. I cried a lot there too. My dad loved sports and so did my twin brother so joining the team gave me a sense that my family would be proud. Somehow, I managed to suffer through the sweat and tears and made it on the championship team. Of course, my parents paid for my membership so they had to include me. It was the fourth quarter with only a minute or two left and the game was tied. We were playing against the local team that had never been beaten. They were twice our size and practically pros for middle schoolers.

Coach Bob held a time out huddle and told us to grab any fumble that rolls out and win this game! And guess what happened? When the next play began, a fumble came out from their side and landed at my feet. I grabbed it. And since I didn’t really understand football and had not idea which way to go, I stood there midfield with the ball up in the air like the Statue of Liberty holding her torch. My fear of letting the team down paralyzed me in place. Thank God the referee stopped the game before I was pummeled. Anyways, we won the championship and I still have the jacket to prove it. That was my last day on any organized sports team.

Why am I telling you this? I want to convey the idea of accepting who you are. As I said, I was never a guy’s guy. I never liked sports, tools, or cars. My ex- wife was more into that stuff than I ever was. I used to believe that there was something wrong with me because I would rather attend a musical than a football game. There are hundreds of examples in my life and I am sure in yours as well that we compromised who we were to be accepted. I would join groups of people just to be a part of, even if there “thing” wasn’t mine. It makes me think of young kids who grow up in gang saturated areas. Many of them join and do things that do not line up with who they so they will be approved of. It was only until I came to a major crossroads in my life that I finally began to embrace who I was all along. I don’t have to shave my face in your mirror, only mine. If you want to be happy, look within and be who you are. Follow you passion, that thing that ignites a brush fire within.

I am reminded of the film Lethal Weapon 3. To summarize, Danny Glover’s character is a police detective who gets involved in a shootout with a local gang. He shoots and kills one of his son’s best friends. On the morning of the funeral, his son is shaving in the bathroom. He enters the room and while observing his technique offers some advice. He noticed that his son, Nick, is shaving with the grain. The advice is to reverse the razor and go against the grain to get a batter shave.  I watched this film when I was 12 years old and still remember how that message hit me. The deeper lesson was not to be a sheep and do what everyone else is doing. Go against the grain, and while you may stand alone, you will at least stand for something. Embrace the wonderful, amazing person that God created you to be.


Original Source-

I was recently watching a speech given in the film “The Great Dictator” from 1940 starring Charlie Chaplin, and the statements he made carry even more meaning almost 80 years later. He spoke of “machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.” Hearing that on my IPhone 6+ super duper handheld connection device made my stomach churn like the Bering Sea during a storm. We have more ways to connect today than at any point in history, yet many people are more isolated than before things  due to things like social media. With one swipe of a finger, I can have  a video chat with someone in the Philippines, but somehow the connection that is sought gets lost on the digital highway. I know so many people who will not answer a phone call yet have no problem texting late into the night. Somewhere along the way the deeply desired human need for connection has been confused by Tweets, Snapchats, and Tinder matches.

I cannot help but see how this is tearing the very soul away from who we really are. The temptation to post a selfie with the best makeup and newest pair of  Jordans in hopes of gathering likes has become the yardstick which the masses use to measure self worth. The hurtful things that people say across the ocean of technology about another person’s post can still create destroy a person even if not done face to face. People tend to be more bold about their opinions when hiding behind a screen with miles of distance between them. The old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a lie that has been handed down for decades. The bruises on the outside heal eventually, but the internal ones caused by words can last a lifetime. I believe that most people are well intentioned at their core and would never say the things they say to another person’s face, but technology has given them a false sense of security and a place to be brutal without seeing the effects of  their negative words.

How many times have you gotten a text or email and felt hurt or upset only to find out that the intention of said message was the exact opposite? In my own life, I have not only burned bridges, I blew them up. Jobs and relationships have disappeared with a quick tap of the send button. Just turn on the news in any town and see the discord that can be sown by a single message that has gone viral only to be misunderstood and taken out of context. It has been stated that only 7% of any message is conveyed through words, and this is if the communication is direct and in person. The number dramatically decreases when it is through words on a screen or an “app.” Is it any wonder that the breakdown of moral compass, ethical behavior, and plain old decency has increased since the first modem dialed up to the world wide web?
This message is not to say that technology in and of itself is evil at all. Through the dramatic advances made by this, we have seen many amazing things. Things like cures for certain diseases, the ability for people to “connect” , and efficiency in delivery of goods and services. My concern is the loss of people truly caring and looking out for one another. I don’t want to see another person commit suicide, homicide, or any other heinous act in real time via any given smart phone application. Use these things for their innate value, but don’t let them define who you are as a uniquely created person with immense worth and potential.

Critic- A Lion Without Teeth

Since man first walked the Earth, there has always been a critic. I liken the idea of a critic to a loud mouthed, roaring lion that doesn’t have teeth and certainly cannot bite. These are the folks who take great pleasure at pointing out what you’re doing and picking it apart. Far be in from them to mind their own side of the street.

They have to weave their loud, smelly jalopy with the busted muffler into your lane. They do this in an attempt to push you off the road and into the trees. These are the people who are so deeply unfulfilled within their own lives that they would want nothing more than to ensure everyone else stays stuck in the mud of misery with them.

As long as you aren’t climbing the ladder of life they will usually seek a more apparent target. However, once you begin to climb the rungs of joy and happiness, the critic comes barking. He comes with negative comments, passive aggression, and gossip. Please understand that this has more to do with him then it does you.

When I focus on creating  a life that I want by pursuing my dreams, I do not have time to point the finger at you. The critic has nothing but time and self loathing. He roams around growling his misgivings and bitterness in your direction. You can listen to his voice and give up, for that’s the easy route. However, when chasing a worthy ideal, you must put on your headphones and ignore the noise.

This lion may be harsh and even intimidating. However, the roar cannot hurt you. Take heart and remember that you are chasing your life’s purpose. You are on your way to meet your destiny. You were born for greatness. The critic was born for his own greatness. Sadly, he is so blinded by the light that you shine and cannot see that he can climb the ladder too. It is not exclusive to you. It is all- inclusive and there is plenty of room.

Say a prayer for him and thank your creator that you are not as sad as he is. The critic is coming, are you going to shrink or rise up?

Original Source-

Introducing Stephen Kavalkovich from This Is My Brave Philadelphia!

Tickets are on sale NOW! Click the button below to order your tickets to meet Stephen and more brave storytellers. This is one mental health performance you won’t want to miss!

Please share this post with friends and family in the Philadelphia area. We’re all affected by mental health and addiction issues, and the more we can support each other, the easier it will be for people to seek help. This Is My Brave is proof that Storytelling Saves Lives.

Original Source-


The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect states that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the Earth can create a tidal wave on the other. Today, I got to see the most marvelous, living example of this and cannot get a moments rest until I share it with you. When loving people are able to take monumental, personal tragedy and rise up, a tsunami begins.

My experience on the journey of personal recovery and transformation has placed people in my life that I would not have had the privilege and honor of meeting had we not gone through similar tremendous loss and heartbreak. I will start with Adam. I never personally knew him, but sadly he left this world far too soon when he lost the battle with addiction. However, when he departed, his family was left with a choice. They could take the weight of grief and let it destroy them, or they could take the pieces of their broken hearts and build an empire. His mother, Gail, with the help of her son Patrick, began to go about the heavy task of offering a ladder of hope out of the hole that others had found themselves in. She is the only woman I know who will answer her phone and bring complete strangers to a shelter, detox, rehab, or wherever she can at any time of day or night. Since Adam passed a few years ago, she and her family have helped countless souls find a solid foundation with which to build a life of remarkable joy and freedom free from the grips of addiction.

I was one of the recipients of her assistance when I had nowhere to turn. As tragic as it was to lose her son, his loss became a chance for myself and hundreds of others. Had she crawled into a hole of despair, there is a good chance I would not be here today to share her story, be a father to my own children, and be here to serve others in the same way she helped me.  It takes one butterfly to start a slight breeze and in turn cause a hurricane that can’t be stopped.


Now, I will tell you about another man I never knew but wish I had the chance to meet. His name was King. He also succumbed to his demons not too long ago, and like Adam left a loving family with a giant hole. His two sisters, Sue and Anne, began a crusade, King’s Crusade, almost immediately after his death. After meeting them today, I know that as devastating as it was to lose him, their purpose was designed by God through their brother. Sue and Anne have a peace about them that I couldn’t possibly describe to you. They are warm, loving , and open about their struggle. I explained to Sue that although it hurts tremendously, their cross to bear is this movement because they are the only ones who could do it without effort. To paraphrase from Roald Dahl’s “Willy Wonky and the Chocolate Factory,” “You don’t ask a fish how it swims or a bird how it flies.” They do it because they were born to do it. Since King passed, they too started flapping their wings and today was the beginning of a Butterfly Effect that is going create a storm. Though I never knew him, the sisters’ example made me feels as if I had. They began planting seeds in our community by planning an expo to address the addiction epidemic everywhere. Today it happened and that was just the start. We may never actually know how many were helped by today’s event, but I know how many wouldn’t have been had it not ever occurred. Zero.

I don’t try to understand why God does what He does. Nor do I know why some people die from the same affliction that others survive from. However, recent events have given me the insight to know that none of this happens by mistake. I know that King, Adam, and all of the other lost loved ones would’ve wanted it this way. I met many folks who have buried their children in recent months today, and they are the true heroes. I thanked another man named Steve today for getting up, suiting up, and showing up. He buried his son Max recently, and he too has decided to build a bridge instead of burning one down.

I am eternally grateful to have experienced the Butterfly Effect today, and cannot wait to see what comes next. If the message of hope shared today helps one person break free from the bondage of addiction, then the senseless wreckage that addiction leaves in its wake will not be in vain.

Original Source-

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