Losing Claire: Family of 22-year-old who died of overdose calls for more aftercare services

  • A photo of a young Claire taken by her mother. Muriel Lajoie

  • Muriel Lajoie kisses one of her daughter Claire’s guinea pigs as her daughter Rachel holds the other one in the family living room that has turned into a memorial for Claire, who died of a drug overdose in September at the age of 22. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • (From left) Claire’s sister Rachel, Claire, their mother, Muriel, and their stepfather, Craig Day, on vacation in Florida in 2015. Courtesy

  • Rachel Lajoie holds one of her sister Claire's guinea pigs in the family living room that has been turned into a memorial to Claire. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Muriel Lajoie in her Concord home last month. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Allison Heather, of Loudon, recounts her friendship with Claire Lajoie as the two worked to get sober. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  •  Claire (middle) with her father and stepmother, Ken and Teri Lajoie.  Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 10/5/2019 11:24:58 PM

When Claire Lajoie left rehab to move into her new apartment in Penacook, it was cause for celebration.

A family friend gave her furniture and a wooden dresser, which Claire polished in the yard of her childhood home in Concord.

She went shopping for household items at Walmart with her older sister, Rachel. They laughed while fooling around and recording Snapchat videos in the aisles.

Colorful tapestries on the walls of her childhood bedroom were packed in boxes that she and her mom, Muriel, would later lug up three flights of stairs.

The apartment had hardwood floors, and big bright windows that Claire loved.

“Everyone was rooting for her,” Muriel said. “She was feeling so hopeful.”

Claire placed two special items over her bed: the dreamcatcher that protected her from nightmares and a note her mother had written to her, on a torn piece of paper, when she was in an intensive outpatient program at Riverbend. It reads, “You’re stronger than you believe. Love, Mom.”

Claire had spent 7½ months in two different drug treatment centers, Green Mountain Treatment Center in Effingham and the Granite House for Women in Concord.

Even though she was just 21, it was the longest time she had been sober in more than seven years, her mother said. She was working on a 12-step program and had access to mental health help and peer support services. She got a job working customer service at Sun Tan City in Concord, where she thrived.

Claire was nervous to move out but felt ready, her family said. But three weeks ago, the day after her 22nd birthday and two weeks into her new life, Claire died of an overdose.

“I don’t know what happened in those two weeks,” Muriel said. “But I know she had everyone rallied around her, and it still wasn’t enough.”

There are growing resources in Concord for those battling addiction, but experts say post-treatment services, especially for young people, are still limited.

Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, formerly one of the state’s largest nonprofits dedicated to helping people live sober, closed its location downtown in February 2018. The Granite House for Women, a sober home on Main Street, moved to Derry.

There is also a dire need for more support services that address the intersection between addiction and mental health, Claire’s father and stepmother, Ken and Teri Lajoie, said. When Claire entered treatment in the last months of her life, she was in a program where she received some of those resources. But she could have used more – and sooner, they said.

“One clearly drives the other, but the focus in available treatment is frequently on the addiction,” Ken Lajoie said. “I think if we can increase resources for drug treatment programs to address mental health, we may see positive outcomes. Help shouldn’t be so difficult to access.”

Treating Claire

The day before she last dropped her daughter off at treatment, Muriel spent the night at home with her arms wrapped around her youngest daughter.

Claire was high on meth and she was shaking, terrified. She asked if her mother could say the Lord’s Prayer with her. They prayed and asked Claire’s grandfather, whom she called Pepere, for help.

Claire wrote about that moment in a note to her mother, sent from Green Mountain, a few weeks later: “After we said the Lord’s Prayer and asked Pepere for help – I swear I felt him hold me. And it could’ve been the drugs, but I know I heard angels whispering in my ear. I know he was definitely there with us, and I’ll remember that forever.”

Claire said she wanted to stay sober. She told her mom she was calling every sober house she could find asking for help – even one in Hawaii.

“Sometimes I forget that just about everything I like to do can be so much better without dope, meth or coke,” Claire wrote. “I want to go back to school – I want to learn how to surf – and do plenty of things and travel with my mom and my sister. I won’t promise everything, other than I won’t use today. I love you mom.”

The long road

Claire had struggled with drug use since her early teenage years. She started with alcohol, followed by marijuana, and then on to LSD, mushrooms and cocaine.

When Claire was 17, she overdosed on heroin at her boyfriend’s house. First responders had to use Narcan to bring her back.

Muriel said Claire wrote in her diary that she turned to drugs to fill a “black hole” she felt inside her. She held herself to a standard of perfection, Muriel said of her daughter, she never felt like she could achieve.

“She was angry a lot, she was confused a lot, didn’t know what she wanted a lot. Just very indecisive, very impulsive. When she started to try the drugs, those spoke to her,” Muriel said. “The dope made her not feel anymore, so she continued to pursue it.”

Claire’s parents said she had struggled with mental health issues, for which she sought and received counseling.

Before going to Green Mountain and the Granite House, Claire had been in and out of half a dozen outpatient clinics and rehabs. But she had never stayed sober for more than a few months.

Wherever she went, her parents supported her.

“It didn’t matter where she was or what time it was. I would pick her up, even if I was picking her up on Fisherville Road with all of her stuff in the middle of winter,” Muriel said. “The only time I felt that she was safe was when I had my hand on her. And I didn’t have my hand on her much.”

Granite House

The family said Claire was different after spending time at the Granite House for Women, where she lived after leaving Green Mountain.

She followed a program there built on the 12 steps and peer mentoring. She learned money and time-management skills, and worked on her resume. She had access to a gym, yoga and meditation.

She had attended therapy appointments and saw a medical doctor and a dentist, things she wasn’t always able to do when she was in active addiction, her mother said.

“They helped her work on not only getting off the drugs, but why she kept going back to drugs and felt like she needed them,” Muriel said. “It’s not the drugs; it’s the black hole in your soul that needs to be filled, and they teach you how to fill that hole with something other than coke, meth or alcohol.”

Claire started going on monthly gratitude hikes with the recovery community in the Concord area. She would get up early to meet at Mount Kearsarge before sunrise.

“Everyone who hiked would get a minute or two at the summit to share what they were grateful in their life at that moment,” said Claire’s friend, Jackson Rand, who she hiked with every month. “Claire talked about her mother, her family, her sobriety. It was grounding for us.”

Claire sent her sobriety chips from AA home to her family members and was able to visit home often while living at the Granite House. She participated in family dinners and sometimes helped her mother with yard work.

“It made her feel human again,” she said. “It gave her a reason to feel proud of herself.”

The queen

Claire also built important bonds with each woman at the house, no matter their age or their past. The women there called her their “queen.”

“She was our queen and she made all of her girls feel like a queen,” said Allison Heather, 31, of Loudon, who also lived at Granite House.

Brittney Waller, 19, a close friend of Claire’s at Granite House, said the women would have an activity called a “love challenge,” which was a little bit like Secret Santa, where women would be in charge of giving someone else in the house a small gift or note. Once, Claire ordered roses for a woman who had lost her husband.

“She left the flowers in her room with a note that said something like, ‘You deserve love’ and, ‘I love you so much. You’re beautiful.’ She signed the card saying it was from her husband,” Waller said. “She came out crying and just held Claire for like 20 minutes. She wouldn’t let her go.”

“There’s something we can all take from Claire and just her kindness and how she treated people,” Heather said.

Waller said Claire was the kind of person who was always reaching out to support others but rarely asked for help when she needed it.

“She was very, very stubborn and strong-headed. She had this huge heart that she didn’t want people to know, even though we all did,” she said.

Waller said she saw Claire cry only once, a month before she died.

“When she got vulnerable with us, we all surrounded her and stayed with her,” she said.

Muriel said she felt Claire starting to open up to her more while she was living at the Granite House. Sometimes, they would get into the car and drive for 60 miles just to talk.

“They were her heart to my heart discussions. Conversations we had never really had the chance to have before,” she said. “She would confide in me about personal things she was frustrated about.”

When Claire’s sister Rachel, 25, moved home from Maine in June of last year, she bought two guinea pigs, “Big Pig” and “Little Pig” for her and Claire, her best friend, to take care of together just as they had done as children.

“After everything we went through, I was starting to open up more to her,” Rachel said.

Leaving Granite House

Claire left the Granite House at the end of August, when her boss at Sun Tan City offered her a room in her apartment.

Granite House was going to be moving its sober home to Derry, and Claire wanted to stay at her job. She had just been promoted to assistant manager.

“She loved customer service, making people laugh and feel good,” Muriel said. “And she said it made her feel outside of her own skin. She didn’t want to leave her job; she had a safe place, sober friends, her community.”

Claire continued to go to AA meetings and to go on gratitude hikes.

Still, moving out on her own was a source of stress. She didn’t have the women at the Granite House to come home to, she didn’t have the routine drug tests, she wasn’t living in the middle of Concord anymore. She had to pay bills.

A week before she died, she relapsed with alcohol. She went on a gratitude hike the next day and went to AA to collect her 24-hour chip.

The last time Muriel saw Claire was on her birthday, when she stopped by Sun Tan City to tan and pay her daughter a visit. She said she looked happy. The next day – Friday, Sept. 13 – Claire was gone.

She was found dead in her new apartment that carried so many hopes for her future. Her family still doesn’t know where she got the drugs that ended her life.

Grief

On the table in the family’s kitchen there are piles of photos of Claire: wearing a Blue’s Clues birthday hat when she turned 3; of the family’s last vacation together in Florida; of the toddler with bright, blonde hair that would get darker as she grew up. In the living room, there’s another photo of Claire that’s surrounded by flowers.

Muriel said they’ve heard from a lot of people since they wrote about Claire’s struggle with addiction in her obituary.

“People we don’t even know have sent us cards and have messaged me on Facebook,” she said. “They said thank you for pointing it out. Most of the time it says ‘died unexpectedly’ and that doesn’t shine the light on what really happened. Her father and I were not going to shy away from this because it was a huge part of her life, and we want to save as many young women as possible.”

She said Claire was lucky to have all of the access she did to treatment, but she still needed more help. Muriel has state health insurance from her job at the Department of Environmental Services.

“I’m hopeful that this whole hub-and-spoke concept matures quickly,” she said, of the state program developed this year to direct those with behavioral health or substance use disorders to treatment. “Because they may have the distribution system to move people around, but they don’t have the services to offer them, and the clients don’t have the money to afford the services. There are kids that are at Granite House and begging to stay an extra month or two, but they can’t afford it.”

Teri Lajoie said she hopes people can learn from Claire’s story.

“What we hope is that there can be some change in the stigma and an acknowledgment that these two profound issues – mental health and addiction – go hand-in-hand,” Teri Lajoie said. “I believe you can’t treat one without treating the other. We loved Claire deeply and she was so much more than the addiction that stole her from us all. We hope that by hearing her story people will be kinder to others, more empathic and will try to understand other people’s struggles, even those different than their own.”

Muriel said she’s angry that she lost her daughter, but she’s also grateful that Claire had access to the services she did.

“I want to be angry, and I am. But I’m just so grateful for the chance that I got to know my adult daughter, who I would have never met, had it not been for this work that she was doing,” she said. “I would not have had any of this time with my daughter had it not been for the way that this recovery group approaches recovery. The aftercare is desperately needed.”

Loved ones of Claire will be going on a gratitude hike at Mount Kearsarge on Oct. 13, a month after her death.




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