GREENE — The cycle of lies, rehab and relapse began just when Debbie White felt her son was safe.
Over a seven-year span, Ben Boulay went from being a popular and charismatic student who excelled at sports to lying on a bathroom floor where his wife’s daughter, then five, found him dead from an overdose.
Boulay, who died in May at age 27 from a fentanyl overdose in Greene, is part of a growing drug epidemic that’s left broken families, unanswered questions and strained state resources in its wake.
According to statistics compiled by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine and the Maine Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, last year, 57 people died from heroin or morphine overdoses — Maine’s deadliest year on record.
In 2013, the figure was 34. Another opioid, fentanyl, was behind 43 deaths in 2014. In 2013, it was nine.
To date, there have been 11 unattended, drug-related deaths reported in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties in 2015, according to Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Sgt. Matt Cashman.
The tally, which Cashman cautioned is likely underreported, is on track to surpass last year’s, which was 15. In 2013, there were nine such deaths.
Typically, Cashman said, drugs are imported from out of state into populated hubs like Lewiston before they change hands and are funneled to outlying communities.
“It’s definitely increasing,” Cashman said. “It transcends every demographic: rich, poor, race, socio-economic group. The days where the stigma of heroin users was people in the gutter with a needle in their arm are over.”
Friends and family say there was nothing to forecast Boulay’s change from a social kid who liked partying to an addict. Yet his example typifies how the battle to stop the abuse of prescription pills like Oxycontin has helped create a niche for heroin.
Boulay graduated from Leavitt Area High School in 2006 and, uninspired by academics, was convinced by family to attend Kents Hill School, a boarding school outside Augusta. If he was drinking at parties and smoking marijuana, everyone in his social circle was too, and there was no sign of trouble ahead.
“We thought we were home free because he made it through high school with no problems,” White said. “It just wasn’t the child I knew.”
The next year, Boulay enrolled as undeclared at Husson University in Bangor. According to Jenna Ramos, his girlfriend at the time, and Christopher Brewer, a close friend, at Husson Boulay was still the same kid: loud, charming, confident and witty. There was no hard drug use, they said.
But Boulay was also barely attending classes, had lost his financial aid and, White said, was on the verge of flunking out.
“At one point he thought he wanted to be a history teacher. He retained information like a sponge. He could sit down and watch ‘Jeopardy!’ and just whip the answers out,” White said.
After briefly returning for a second semester without improvement, he dropped out and moved home, which is where trouble began and stewed. Unexplained, money and electronics would go missing. Ben always needed to borrow money, White said.
The disappearances stacked up. She knew what was going on, but said she didn’t want to believe it. On one occasion, White gave him a few hundred dollars and waited parked outside a strangers house, unsure if he was paying off debts or buying more. On others, he’d spend days without eating inside his room with a new girlfriend.
At the same time, Ramos, who was no longer dating Boulay, and other friends started their sophomore year of school, where they noticed a change: now, he brought a cocktail of prescription drugs to parties.
“Ben was the life of the party, but he lost his friends, his girlfriend, and was trying to find an escape. It was awful,” Ramos said.
Worried, she wrote a letter to Boulay’s mother outlining her concerns, but White said she ignored it as Ben characterized it as jealousy. If there was a growing problem, friends and family said, Ben was the type to tackle it alone.
But items pawned for cash mounted, first at White’s house, then from other family and friends. Although they had him arrested and put through drug court, White said it didn’t work: he was never randomly tested or searched for drugs.
“It took over everything. There was no boundary in his life he wasn’t willing to cross to get to his drug,” Boulay’s father, Normand Boulay said.
It also left him depressed. The first time at rehab, about a year after dropping out of school, Boulay spent about a month just outside Syracuse, N.Y. After a stint back home and a relapse, he tried rehab again. To pay for the second time, White married long-time partner Wendell Strout Jr., a Lewiston police officer, just to get Ben onto their insurance. Just days after it was legal, Ben was on a plane to Michigan.
“He wasn’t ready, but we said, ‘This is what you’re doing.’ He never gave it half an effort,” White said.
After moving in with Normand, following a stay at a halfway house in Boston where he’d wound up in the hospital with his arm infected from a needle, Boulay, uninsured, began taking methadone for about $90 a week. Normand estimated Ben had tens of thousands of dollars in debt between prescriptions and doctor visits.
Boulay’s drug use coincided with the government’s 2010 move to force pharmaceutical makers to reformulate opioids to make them harder to snort, causing prices to jump from roughly $30 a pill to $60, according to Cashman.
For addicts, heroin — available and cheaper, if more dangerous — was the answer. A dosage could be had for $12 or $15. Fentanyl, sometimes mixed with or sold as heroin because it’s cheaper, is significantly more powerful than its cousin, Cashman said. If forced to switch dealers, or if a dealer has an unknown batch, the results are increasingly fatal.
About a month before his death, after less than a year of being married, with two kids and a third on the way, Boulay stopped taking methadone in a bid to completely wean himself off. There’d been relapses before, but Kendra Boulay said her former husband stubbornly wanted his life back: the daily treatments prevented the couple from having a honeymoon. She’d later discover he’d drained their consignment shop’s business account and maxed out a credit card to buy drugs.
“He was a great father. He was just so ashamed about it he could never talk about it,” Boulay said.
A few weeks later, on May 26, she discovered text messages from his old friend and known drug dealer. She knew the plan hadn’t worked, and that night she asked for a divorce. The next day, when he didn’t show up to the consignment shop, she knew something was wrong.
Boulay had consumed a small dose of fentanyl his dealer mistook for Oxycontin. Kendra’s daughter, walking downstairs to the fridge for a snack, found the body, took the dog for a walk, and flagged down a neighbor.
Boulay, who has since started a Facebook forum to share information, wants to start a nonprofit to spread awareness of the issue.
“It’s the same story for everybody. I’ve spoken to people he went to rehab with, to parents; I’ve read books. It’s all the same pattern, just a different name. It amazes me. People need to know,” White said.