By Douglas Moser
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Christopher Cote’s parents noted in the 24-year-old’s obituary that he will be remembered for his love of cats and that he lost his battle with drug addiction.
Christopher grew up in town, graduated from North Andover High School in 2007 and spent his whole life here. He was a varsity wrestler on two state champion teams in 2005 and 2006, played high school football and enjoyed baseball when he was younger.
He died on March 28 of a heroin overdose.
The challenging, roller-coaster seven years of drug use between the second championship wrestling team and his death earlier this year strained Matthew and Betsy Cote’s marriage, their relationship with their youngest child and the relationships between Christopher and his two older siblings.
“He started to take over our lives,” Matthew Cote said. “We had to fight for our lives.”
In Christopher’s obituary, the Cotes included his struggle with drug addiction, a rarity, because “we didn’t see a reason not to,” he said. “People know him, they know us. We wanted people to know what happened to him.”
The Cotes received cards from parents in similar situations, thanking them for their honesty.
“It’s so people know it’s out there and aren’t afraid of the stigma,” Matthew Cote said.
The Cotes said they found out Christopher first tried marijuana in seventh or eighth grade and tried without success to stop him. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, millions of people under the age of 18 try marijuana. A small fraction of those make the shift to harder drugs.
In its 2011 youth risk behavior survey, the CDC found that about 40 percent of all high schoolers had tried marijuana at least once. Broken down by grade, the report said 30 percent of ninth graders said they had tried it, a figure that rose to just under half by senior year.
Only 2.9 percent of all high schoolers admitted to using heroin, a figure that was stable through all four high school years, according to the CDC report.
Experts are concerned that heroin use is rising among young people because of the popularity of prescription opioid painkillers, which are in the same family as heroin and can be addictive in their own right.
Matthew works as a lab manager for a metal finishing company and umpires baseball. Betsy is a medical technologist at Lowell General Hospital. The Cotes had two older children graduate from high school — with some partying, Besty Cote said — and both go on college.
But with Christopher, they said they noticed a sharp change during his senior year at North Andover High. He started skipping school, he began running with a new group of kids, his grades slipped and the quality of his wrestling dropped. After the wrestling season ended, a call from the principal was not unheard of.
Years later, they learned that was the year he had discovered cocaine and oxycodone, a powerful opioid prescription painkiller.
“His senior year was an extreme struggle for us,” Matthew Cote said. “He barely managed to stay on track (to graduate).”
But he did stay on track and walked with his class in 2007. For the next year, Cote said, Christopher “drifted,” living at home without regular work, not showing interest in higher education, staying up all night and playing video games. Cote said they argued about the listless direction of his life.
During that time, he seemed to cross another threshold when he began stealing from his parents, his siblings and his grandparents. He pawned his PlayStation, his older brother Jeremy’s hockey equipment and his father’s camera. The Cotes had to get a safe. Some relatives would not let him in their house. He and Jeremy got into a fist fight over missing comic books.
Samantha Cote, who recently moved back to North Andover from Connecticut for a job, said the addiction basically ended their relationship, which she said had been “typical brother-sister.” “When I was at college, he would message me on Instant Messenger to ask for help on his homework. That ended,” she said.
When she was home, he would ask for rides and money, but she would refuse, knowing he wanted help getting heroin. “I know what he was after,” she said. “If he was asking for help seriously, I would have done it.”
He got in trouble with the police, and the Cotes kicked him out of the house in early 2009. He lived with a friend until the judge sent him to a rehabilitation facility in Brockton for 30 days.
“It wasn’t enough,” said Betsy Cote. She said he needed at least 90 days, but the insurance would not cover that long and they did not have money to pay for him to stay longer.
He came home afterward, and while the Cotes were away on a vacation, Christopher overdosed for the first time. Samantha found him unconscious. He recovered at Brigham and Women’s in Boston, where he was in a coma for five days, and completed six weeks of physical therapy at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Matthew Cote said Christopher could not feel his legs for some time and suffered cognitive damage.
“Everybody thought, or hoped, this would be his wake up call,” he said.
Three years later, he overdosed again, though not as badly, and detoxed at Harbor House in Haverhill. After another low point, things started looking up. He started regularly taking suboxone, a treatment for opiate addiction, with close supervision, attended therapy sessions, got a job at Lawrence Municipal Airport and began saving money.
“It was the most encouraged we’d been in five years,” Matthew Cote said.
But Christopher hit “that 90-day wall,” he said. Suddenly, the money was gone, the suboxone stopped and he relapsed. Christopher went to the McLean Center in Princeton for a few weeks at the end of 2012, and then a halfway house in Leominster. But that again only lasted six or so weeks. Days after the Cotes visited him earlier this year, the he got in trouble for getting heroin and halfway house ejected him, giving him $20 to ride the commuter rail home.
“He showed up here high as a kite,” Matthew Cote said. “We were pretty distraught. We had to start all over again.”
Just a few short weeks later, Matthew Cote returned home from work to find police and ambulance lights splashing the trees and houses outside his High Street home. Christopher died of his third overdose.
“He made a bad decision. That bad decision was trying heroin and it cost him his life,” he said.
During the struggle, the family still went places with him, like Niagara Falls, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco. Betsy’s father was close to Christopher. Jeremy asked Christopher to drive with him back East from California, a trip that included stops in Las Vegas, St. Louis for the World Series, and Pittsburgh for some hockey. “He had a good family and good friends who never gave up on him,” Matthew Cote said.
They knew he needed intensive treatment for longer than 30 days, the typical length covered by insurance or imposed by a judge, but they could not afford it for him. Matthew Cote worried that Christopher felt he could not measure up to his older siblings, who went to Bentley University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Except for the brief time in 2009, the Cotes always let their son come home. “I never gave up and I never wanted to give up,” Cote said. “I never wanted him to be homeless.”
“He’s your child. You can’t just let him go,” Betsy Cote said.
Christopher’s all-black cat Billie still lives at the Cotes’ house. His parents go to grief counseling and see the counselor who saw Christopher for several years. “We disagreed a lot on how to handle it, but never ever did I say it was her fault. And she never blamed me,” Matthew Cote said. “She thought he needed to sink or swim, and deep down I think she was probably right.”
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Overdose deaths Total fatal opioid overdoses for the years 2006 through 2010: TOTAL RATE PER TOWN OD 100,000 Andover 5 3.0 Haverhill 37 12.2 Lawrence 28 7.1 Methuen 24 10.5 North Andover 7 5.0 Statewide 3,050 9.4 Note: 2010 is the latest year for which data is available from DPH Source: Massachusetts Department of Public Health