An undated family photo of Chris L'Esperance, son of Salisbury police Chief David L'Esperance. He died of a drug overdose in May.

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on the alarming death rate among young adults from prescription drugs.

NEWBURYPORT — When the strains of “Amazing Grace” rang out from Immaculate Conception Church the morning of May 31, the words were sung by stunned, saddened mourners gathered for the funeral Mass of 20-year old Christopher L’Esperance.

The son of Salisbury police Chief David L’Esperance, a Seabrook resident, Chris died at his Groveland apartment over Memorial Day weekend, another local casualty of increasing recreational use of prescription drugs. He overdosed on a powerful — and too-often lethal — methadone wafer.

Devastated by their loss, Chris’ mother, Linda, and sister, Corinne, rose after Mass to tell of the wonderful son and brother they had just lost. Often choked with grief, tears streaming down their faces at times, they related their treasured memories of him. Their words brought comfort and occasional smiles from those who knew him.

Chris was a great big brother who looked out for his sister, Corrine said, and a young uncle who adored playing with his new baby niece.

He was a boy who loved to ride in the cruiser with his dad, Linda said, adding Chris loved just being with his dad.

He’d hoped to be a police officer someday like his father, Linda said. Chris wanted to follow his father’s exact path, becoming part of the Essex County Drug Task Force. Chris thought “his own experience” would give him an understanding of the drug problem far beyond that of the usual drug task force member, she said.

Throughout the eulogy, David L’Esperance, in a dark suit of mourning, stood guard in the center aisle of the church beside Chris’ casket. Never flinching, head high, back straight, like a sentinel he stood with his hand resting gently, proudly, on the coffin holding the body of his only and beloved son.

When at last the Mass concluded, Linda, Corinne and David L’Esperance walked behind the casket as it left the church on Chris’ final journey, the women crying. Jaw clinched tight, L’Esperance’s face grew red from the effort it took to hold in his grief.

Those in attendance watched in silent understanding. If L’Esperance gave voice to his agony, its sound would have rocked the rafters.

A growing problem

When 20-year old Chris L’Esperance died on Saturday, May 26, he was the fifth young man with Seabrook ties since March 2005 to die from an overdose of prescription drugs.

There could be more, officials say, but these are prescription-drug-related deaths they’re certain of and have toxicology reports to prove. As state and even national statistics illustrate, the death toll from methadone and other prescription drugs is overtaking heroin.

In 2005 and 2006 there were at least 291 drug-related deaths in New Hampshire, according to statistics provided by the medical examiner’s office. Of those, 87 could be traced to abuse of the prescription drug methadone, 40 to the prescription drug oxycodone and 17 to the prescription drug fentanyl.

If that many deaths were linked to a bacteria strain instead of the abuse of prescription drugs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have termed it an epidemic.

When contacted immediately after his son died, Chief L’Esperance put into words the feelings of law enforcement officials everywhere.

“Drugs are a scourge; no one is immune,” L’Esperance said. “Not the Kennedys, not anybody.”

Not even a police chief’s son who wanted to be a police officer himself.

Spreading a warning

Approached to speak out about losing his son to drug abuse, L’Esperance was wary at first.

“I’m not a martyr. I’m mourning for my son in my own way. Privately. I don’t want this to be about me,” he said. “But ... if my speaking gets the message out, if it up keeps another kid from dying and prevents another family from going through what we are, I’ll talk about it.”

L’Esperance’s son was not one of the typical drug users depicted in television dramas. He was an athlete and remained close to his family. Chris didn’t have track marks on his arms. He didn’t mess with illegal drugs. Prescription drugs were his downfall and his killer.

L’Esperance can imagine what took place in his son’s apartment the night he died. There was no indication Chris intended to kill himself, L’Esperance said, his apartment was clean; he had a full tank of gas in his car. But he probably took all or a portion of a methadone wafer — a pill about the size of a quarter — “laid down on the couch to watch a little TV and just drifted away,” L’Esperance said.

Methadone, like morphine, heroin and other pain relievers, deadens pain and depresses the respiratory system, he said. Since Chris probably had methadone in his system from prior use, the new dose sent him off to sleep initially, then stopped his breathing entirely.

The lure

After speaking with the medical examiner, L’Esperance better understands the lure of medications like fentanyl, oxycodone and methadone. All are powerful analgesics meant to relieve the most severe pain. Though methadone is most widely known as a substitute for heroin in the treatment of addiction, it’s so powerful that it’s also used in the management of chronic pain.

When a patient in excruciating pain takes a methadone wafer — basically synthetic morphine — the medication blocks the portion of the nervous system that feels pain, L’Esperance said. But, when methadone is taken by someone who isn’t in pain, its effect on the nervous system makes its users feel “incredibly good,” he said. That great feeling becomes the basis for a psychological addiction, he said. The physical addiction comes later.

Even though he was devastated by the methadone overdose death of his best friend Lloyd Chapin Jr. of Seabrook, Chris couldn’t shake his enchantment with methadone and similar drugs. L’Esperance thinks Chris — like many young, healthy men — think they’re immortal and too smart to overdose on drugs they consider fairly safe.

“On television there are ads for every kind of pill,” L’Esperance said. “You have a pill to go to sleep, a pill to wake up, a pill to feel good, a pill to enhance your you-know-what. It certainly gives the impression prescription drugs are safer.”

Trying to help

L’Esperance knew of his son’s drug problem. Noticing changes in Chris’s demeanor a few years ago — “his eyes were glassy; his temperament changed” — L’Esperance came right out and asked Chris if he was using drugs. When the answer was “yes,” L’Esperance didn’t start yelling. He and Chris’ mother did everything they could think of get their son help.

“We tried everything,” L’Esperance said. “We went to counselling. We did rehab, emergency rooms when we needed to and doctors.”

In an effort to put distance between Chris’ drug suppliers and friends in Seabrook who also use drugs, L’Esperance even helped Chris set up an apartment in Groveland. But Chris’ addiction overcame geography.

“I refuse to attribute his behavior to any locality,” L’Esperance said. “It’s not Seabrook’s fault; I want that understood. This happens everywhere. These drugs are everywhere. What makes it hard to stop in Seabrook is the old subculture of silence that’s always been there.”

The Seabrook code of silence is something local and state police investigators run up against often, they said when interviewed.

The L’Esperance family worked to get Chris drug-free, and it would work for a time. The physical addiction Chris could shake, but the psychological need for the wonderful high he got from methadone kept pulling him back.

“We talked about it,” L’Esperance said. “He said methadone gave him an incredible high. He didn’t drink much; he didn’t like marijuana. But this stuff. ... He could kick it for a time. He did earlier and even went back to college and was doing well,... but he went back to methadone.”

And it killed him.

Now L’Esperance has only memories of Chris to sustain him. No longer will he feel the “hello” and “goodbye” hugs he always got from Chris no matter how old his son grew. And L’Esperance will sell the boat he and Chris used together on the fishing expeditions they’d shared since he was a boy.

“That boat is the only thing I can’t face without him.”

Deaths due to prescription drugs

r Christopher L’Esperance, 20, formerly of Seabrook, died in his Groveland apartment May 26, 2007, from an overdose of the prescription drug methadone.

r Lloyd T. Chapin Jr., 17, of Seabrook, died on Feb. 3, 2006, at Exeter Hospital, after lying in a coma for 10 days due to an overdose of methadone. His parents, Miliki and Lloyd Chapin, Jr., were at his bedside holding his hand.

r Kevin Cassidy Jr., 21, of Amesbury died in Seabrook on Sept. 18, 2005, from the lethal mixture of alcohol and oxycodone, a prescription drug known also by the brand names OxyContin, Percocet or Percodan.

r Jimmy Manazir, 29, of Haverhill died in Seabrook on March 22, 2005, after consuming a fatal combination of alcohol and Valium.

r Ryan Bickford, 18, of Hampton died in Seabrook on March 10, 2005, from a deadly cocktail of beer and the prescription drug fentanyl.

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