In the coming weeks New Hampshire lawmakers hope to fast-track a number of bills to address the growing number of drug overdose deaths, which is on track to reach more than 400 this year. As part of our year-long series on the state's opioid crisis called "Dangerous Ends" we look behind the numbers and hear one family’s story of loss.
Back in August Morgan Belanger hiked up Mount Major with his family for what they called “family day.” The outing included his mother, his younger brother, multiple cousins, aunts and uncles – the whole gang.
Belanger was the first to the top – something his aunt Francesca Kennedy, a kindergarten teacher in Somersworth, said was characteristic of him.
“We had this wonderful family day together and that look on his face, he was feeling proud of himself because he did feel like he was overcoming his demons and his addiction," Kennedy said fighting back tears.
The day before the hike, Belanger overdosed on heroin for the first time. Belanger had been battling a heroin addiction for a few years, but Kennedy said that he’d managed to stay clean for ten months.
And after the overdose scare, his family, including his aunt Nena Stracuzzi, a sociology professor at UNH, thought their nightmare was coming to an end.
“From the outside looking at him, things were great – it’s like we had him back,” Stracuzzi said.
But a few weeks after the Mount Major hike, at age 26 Belanger overdosed on heroin again. He was at his family’s home in Dover and his younger brother Ryan tried to save him with CPR. But his aunt Francesca Kennedy says it was too late.
“I never thought Morgan was gonna die, I thought he was gonna get help, and we were gonna get him help – we loved him too much to let him die from this,” Kennedy said crying.
Right before the holidays Belanger’s family members gathered at his childhood home – a large and nicely decorated house in a well-to-do part of Dover. Up against the wall is a large photo of that last family hike.
Belanger’s mother, Lisa Stracuzzi, sat in the dining room trying to hold back tears as she remembered her son as a child. He was a vivacious kid, she said – quick witted, popular and determined to a fault.
“He was busy – his brain was one step ahead of what he could do. Before he could walk you could tell he was mad that he couldn’t walk yet, you know, every step of the way you could see he was frustrated and he stayed that way pretty much his whole life,” Stracuzzi said.
Stracuzzi said her son’s addiction began after high school while he was working at a ski resort in Colorado.
After suffering an injury on the slopes, he was given a prescription for the painkiller Percocet. By the time Belanger moved back to New Hampshire, he was addicted to heroin, she said.
“Didn’t want to, couldn’t, wouldn’t believe that something like this was happening because that is not our world – any of us," Stracuzzi said.
Belanger’s family tried to get him treatment, but his aunt said they couldn’t find a space for him in any inpatient rehab facilities in the state.
“Then we started making the phone calls, where can we get this kid help, where can we get him into rehab," Kennedy said. "I remember having a conversation with somebody on the phone and saying 'so basically what you are telling me is that until something terrible happens there is no help available' and she said ‘unfortunately, no there isn’t."
At this point, Belanger had never overdosed or wound up in the ER, so he wasn’t at the top of any waiting lists.
Belanger’s family, particularly his step dad Ron Croce, a neuroscience professor at UNH, said they’re frustrated that the state allowed this to become an epidemic before it acted.
“The state’s response has been woefully inadequate and now because it has become an epidemic, especially in the Manchester and Seacoast areas, all of a sudden people are realizing the problems and they are trying to catch up but they just can’t do it,” Croce said.
They eventually sent Belanger to a 30-day inpatient facility in Florida. Fortunately for Belanger’s family, their insurance covered most of the cost but when Belanger returned he was still hooked on heroin.
Belanger continued to struggle with his addiction until a handful of burglary arrests led him into jail and then later, drug court.
Belanger’s family was hopeful when he was in drug court – he had a full-time job, he was following the program, he was clean for months. But a few weeks later, Belanger died of an overdose at their home from a batch of heroin laced almost entirely with fentanyl.
Francesca Kennedy said she hopes telling Belanger’s story can help to break down the stigma against those battling addiction. "They’re not bad people trying to get better; they’re sick people trying to get well,” Kennedy said.
Despite his death, Belanger’s still a big part of the family. Several of his loved ones say they plan to get tattoos in his honor and they even purchased necklaces that can hold his ashes.
And in October, a month after Belanger’s death, the whole family took a second hike up Mount Major – where they let loose more than a dozen purple balloons a color that has come to represent the struggle of addiction. And then in honor of Morgan, they each took a drink of Captain Morgan Rum and toasted to his life.