SOUTH BERWICK – Matty Rix grew up in a community that had much to offer a happy, adventurous boy.

He took advantage of the open spaces and the forests and streams, whether riding his four-wheeler with friends or fishing and hunting with his father.

But small-town, rural southern Maine also had something else to offer its curious youth: A steady supply of pain pills and other prescription drugs.

“They can get anything they want,” said his father, Matt Rix.

Matty Rix, a talented high school wrestler on the verge of joining the Marines, died from a prescription drug overdose in April 2009. He was 19.

“He was my only son,” said Matt Rix, surrounded by photographs of Matty hugging his dog, showing off a prize trout and draping his arm around his father. “He’d do everything to make me happy.”

The Rix family was hardly the only Maine family to lose a loved one to misused painkillers in 2009.

The state set a record for fatal drug overdoses that year — 179. Rix, who died across the border in New Hampshire, isn’t counted in that total. Twelve years earlier, before the plague of prescription drug abuse first swept the state, Maine had 34 fatal drug overdoses.

In fact, Matty Rix was not even the only young adult raised in southern York County to die of an overdose of painkillers that week.

The day before Rix died, 22-year-old Brandy Sewall and 20-year-old Whitney Lizotte, both of whom grew up in neighboring Berwick, ingested a fatal mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs.

Rix apparently did not know the two women, and the deaths were not directly connected. All three, however, died just across the border in New Hampshire, where they rented apartments.

The two young women took methadone, a time-release painkiller and addiction treatment drug, and Klonopin, an anti-anxiety medication that also depresses the respiratory system, according to news reports at the time.

The mixture of an opiate and benzodiazapene can cause a user to simply stop breathing and is an increasingly common cause of overdoses.

“I don’t see anyone who takes one drug anymore,” said Dr. Karen Simone, director of the Northern New England Poison Control Center.

‘YOU CAN’T SMELL THE PILLS’

Nearly all of Maine’s deadly drug overdoses — 165 of the 179 deaths in 2009, for example — are attributed to prescription drugs.

In 2005, the number of all fatal drug overdoses exceeded deaths from traffic accidents in Maine for the first time. That number included deaths from pharmaceuticals as well as heroin, cocaine and other illicit drugs. In 2009 and 2010, the number of fatal overdoses that involved pharmaceutical drugs exceeded the deaths from motor vehicle accidents.

“For me, that says it all,” said Ronni Katz, coordinator of the Portland Overdose Prevention Project, which teaches addicts to recognize the warning signs of a potentially deadly overdose.

Matty Rix was the baby of his family. One of his three older sisters, Deanna, is a well-known athlete and a member of the U.S. national wrestling team, now training in Colorado.

Matt Rix, his father, is the longtime wrestling coach at Marshwood High School. He remembers when he and his ex-wife decided to move their family from Sanford back to his hometown of South Berwick. They had heard stories about drugs and alcohol in Sanford schools, he said.

Rix felt safe in the small town, but knew the importance of keeping his kids active and watching closely for substance abuse.

“I was looking for alcohol and pot,” Rix said. “You can’t smell the pills.”

Matty broke his hand in an ATV accident during his junior year of high school. Although he continued to wrestle, he eventually needed surgery and a prescription for OxyContin.

It’s not clear to Matt Rix whether the prescription began Matty’s troubles or made them worse. But later that year, Matt Rix got a call from school. “Matty had taken something and fallen asleep on the floor,” he said.

REACHING A TURNING POINT

Matty insisted it was a one-time thing. His father came down hard, kept him busy wrestling and watched more closely. He didn’t see any more pills.

But Matty shocked his father and his family when, months after high school graduation, he nearly died from an overdose of heroin. Pain-pill users sometimes use heroin as a less expensive alternative.

The close call had a big impact.

“That seemed like a turning point for him,” his father said. “He saw what he was doing to everybody in the family and to himself.”

Matty started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, volunteering at a soup kitchen and attending church. He began reading the Bible and put gospel music on his father’s iPod. And he signed up for the Marine Corps. He was scheduled to start boot camp that October.

“I thought that was the best thing for him — get out of Dodge.”

Matty got an apartment in Dover, N.H., 10 minutes from home, and started working with his father, an electrician.

“I was picking him up for work every morning,” he said.

One morning, Matty wasn’t outside. He didn’t answer his phone. Matt Rix had warned him he couldn’t wait for him, and went to work. He was working when he got the call that Matty was dead.

Matty had stolen a fentanyl patch from a home where they had been working the day before. The patch, which Rix said was intended for the homeowner’s dog, contains a powerful time-release painkiller.

‘LIKE HE WAS SOMEBODY ELSE’

Addicts have been known to open the patches and ingest the contents, sometimes with deadly effect. It’s not clear what he did with the patch, although it was opened.

Only after Matty’s death did his family learn more about his need for the drugs. His father found lots of empty pill bottles prescribed to friends and neighbors. A neighbor who has cancer mentioned that Matty had stolen some medication, but that it didn’t seem like a big problem at the time and he didn’t mention it to anyone.

Matt Rix also learned that his son had stolen from his checking account.

“It was like he was somebody else,” his father said.

For the grieving father, his three daughters and his community kept him going. He returned to coaching, and talks to his athletes about drugs and about Matty.

Some kids have reached out for help, including with notes left on Matty’s grave.

To parents, he offers warnings: Lock up your prescription drugs. When children get a painkiller, give them the pills one at a time and don’t hand over the whole bottle.

And know that no town or family is out of reach of drugs.

“The pills are so easy to get,” he said. 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com