Overdose death shakes New London sober home
New London — There are no words to describe the pain a mother feels when she has just learned her son is dead.
Words can’t describe the images haunting the man who found his lifeless body, or the hopelessness of a friend who thought he could help.
Pictures get closer. A tortured grimace spanning a mother’s face, tears falling from her eyes. A man rocking back and forth in a passenger seat, unable to speak of what he just saw. A long embrace between the two strangers, each forever changed.
On Tuesday, it happened again. Zachary Robert Ramsdell dead at 30, a suspected drug overdose to blame. Kathy Lavallee, a mother who did all she could, knowing the whole time this could happen. Sober housemates who became friends, sure if only they had woken up sooner, if only they hadn’t lent him money, if only they had seen the signs, Ramsdell still would be here, lifting others up as he struggled inside.
Ramsdell was pronounced dead Tuesday, just after 11 a.m. Police and medical examiners occupied the 47 Prest St. scene for hours afterward. The two men who oversee the sober home there, both deeply familiar with addiction, tried to alleviate the grief surrounding them. There was no playbook for them to follow. And sometimes, there were no words.
More than a number
Ramsdell, an Enfield native, likely is one of tens of thousands who will die of a drug overdose this year. But numbers — even numbers as big as 63,600, which is how many fatal overdoses there were in 2016 — hardly tell the story.
Sitting on a couch in a nearby sober house at 42 Prest St. — both are overseen by the same two men — Lavallee smiled through her tears as she remembered her son, a goofball. He sneakily donned her niece’s Snow White outfit once, she recalled, just to make everyone giggle.
“I have a picture of it,” Lavallee said.
Ramsdell was a gifted athlete, she said, a soccer player who may have taken one too many headers. She traveled to New Hampshire, Rhode Island, across New England for his sports, a bona fide soccer mom.
He played basketball, too. He went to a three-point shooting tournament with his dad once, she said, and came back with a trophy.
In 2011, Ramsdell’s father, Jeffrey, died at the age of 50. The impact on his son was profound.
‘This is about mental illness’
Brushes with the law and declining mental health defined Ramsdell’s final years, his mother said. He was paranoid of people, possibly hearing voices. He probably used drugs to self-medicate, Lavallee figured. He made his situation worse, of course, but since January had taken great strides in the right direction.
After his most recent stint in jail — he served six months for stealing from his stepfather — Lavallee urged him to check out the Friendship House, which is the moniker used by the homes at 42 and 47 Prest St.
Sober houses have been in the spotlight of late, largely because they aren’t well regulated. A bill making its way through the General Assembly would address the problem by creating a system of voluntary registration.
By several accounts, however, Clarence “Chuck” Montgomery and Daryl McGraw run a tight ship at the Prest Street homes, which house fewer than 10 men.
Montgomery, the house manager, is a minister in the region. McGraw, available for guidance, directs Recovery Community Affairs for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The pair has set it up so newcomers who need more guidance are placed at 47 Prest St. Residents have a chance to graduate to 42 Prest St. if they consistently stay sober, attend meetings or treatment and hold down a job. Each house is stocked with naloxone, and Montgomery and McGraw are just a phone call away.
On Monday night, residents of both houses gathered for a commonplace group meeting. Ramsdell, though he never was a people person, often spoke in the meetings. Something about the Friendship House and the people there had brought him out of his shell.
Ramsdell had endured a stressful day Monday, fellow Friendship House resident Fred Wallen said, and recently had lost his job. But between the meeting and hanging out with Wallen until 4 a.m. Tuesday, Ramsdell seemed to have worked things out.
“The thing is, he always talked positive,” Wallen said of Ramsdell. “Yesterday he was like, ‘Man, we’ve gotta do the right thing. We have to get out of this.’”
Early Tuesday morning, about 2 a.m., Ramsdell posted to Facebook: “You can’t live a positive life with a negative mind.”
Less than nine hours later, a resident of 47 Prest St. was running toward 42 Prest St., yelling. Wallen, a resident of the house at 42, was waking from his slumber, running toward 47 Prest St. Maybe there would be time to do CPR, Wallen was thinking. Maybe there would be time to save Ramsdell.
But it was too late.
Ramsdell had gone to Sound Community Services Monday, prepared to address his struggles with mental health. His next visit would have been Wednesday.
“Mental illness,” said his mom. “This is about mental illness. He just couldn’t get out of his own head.”
The Friendship House
The death shook the men living in both houses. Not all sober houses foster relationship building, but the ones on Prest do. Wallen had grown particularly close to Ramsdell, but most of the men had at least joked around with him.
Wallen, 46, said he was considering finding a treatment program to deal with the loss.
“I could run with this,” Wallen said of using Ramsdell’s death as an excuse to break his nearly four months of sobriety.
“But if I run with it, the outcome might be just like that,” he continued, gesturing next door. “And what good would that do?”
Seventy-seven-year-old Ron Grimes — residents of the homes affectionately call him "Pops" — was stuck on repeat. Grimes hadn’t seen Ramsdell high or drunk before. He was a good kid, Grimes said. So when Ramsdell said he couldn’t afford necessities, Grimes lent him $40.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Grimes said, jabbing his cane into the ground. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Wallen said Montgomery and McGraw routinely drop what they’re doing to help the residents of the house. Residents are encouraged to be honest with the pair. A single relapse won’t get a person kicked out of the houses — instead, it will get them connected with the services they need.
When Ramsdell apparently overdosed, most of the residents were out at meetings or at their jobs.
Montgomery was devastated Tuesday.
“I’m at a loss,” he said. “I just don’t know what else we could have done. We just had a meeting last night ... and I didn’t pick up on any signs.”
Lavallee hadn’t sensed anything was wrong, either. She came down to have dinner with her son every other weekend, talked to him almost every day.
For Easter, Ramsdell went up to Enfield, seeing his family and meeting the bulk of his stepfather’s family for the first time. He littered his Facebook page with photos from the weekend.
“It was all he talked about when he got back,” Montgomery told Lavallee.
During her most recent hangout with her son, Lavallee said, she and Ramsdell went shopping for spring.
Her face contorted again, her grief stole her breath.
“He paid his own rent,” she said, ticking off accomplishments that are huge for those who struggle with addiction. “He paid for his phone. He was saving money."
“He was doing all of the right things.”