Everett family opens up about son’s addiction, overdose death

EVERETT — In many ways, it was an idyllic upbringing.

Before he could walk, his parents carried him on their backs along mountain trails.

As soon as he grew out of diapers, he learned to ski.

He brought home arm loads of books from the public library. Highlights of his day were shared with family over dinner in a century-old home on Rucker Avenue.

Summer was savored, fishing, swimming and building forts on the beach at Mutiny Bay on Whidbey Island.

Most of elementary school was spent in “Highly Capable” classes for academically gifted students.

He attended a small Christian middle school where his eighth-grade yearbook listed him as most likely to stand up for a friend and to make people laugh.

At Everett High School, he lettered in basketball and cross country. Seven years of middle and high school Spanish classes served him well on trips to Mexico.

He became an Eagle Scout, earned his SCUBA diving certificate and made sure to make time for baking pies with Nana.

Friendships came easily and were enduring. He always had a soft spot for the little guy.

For all his good fortune and his gregarious nature, Corey Lee was alone when he overdosed in his dorm room at Eastern Washington University in late November.

Addiction isn’t picky about social class, but it can be better concealed. It is not always the panhandler at the freeway exit with the soggy cardboard sign or the Latchkey kid or the dropout or the gangster.

Corey was a high-functioning user, a polite, funny and well-spoken business major. He was a fraternity pledge with leadership ambitions.

He hid his drug use from many of those who knew him.

“It was almost like two different people,” said Trinity Chanel,one of his close friends.

Sharing grief

David and Cathi Lee hadn’t intended to open up their private world as they kept vigil at Corey’s bedside.

By then, they were trying to cope minute by bewildering minute.

Instead of celebrating Thanksgiving with their two boys in Everett, they found themselves at Deaconess Hospital in Spokane getting updates from doctors working to keep Corey alive.

Corey was on a ventilator. His liver, kidneys and heart were failing. There was liquid in his lungs.

Their son was brought there the day before Thanksgiving. That morning he’d called his parents to say he’d overslept and missed his ride and might need to stay in Cheney for the holidays. The Lees didn’t know he’d relapsed. They urged him to find another way home.

They tried to be optimistic as they waited for news. Corey was a fit and active young man, At 6 foot, 2, he could dunk a basketball.

At the hospital, the Lees kept a tight rein on their inner circle of family and closest friends visiting Corey. Then their cellphones began to buzz with texts and voice mails. Word was out that he’d collapsed. The reaction was overwhelming.

The Lees waited for the brain scans to come back.

When they did, they were devastated by what they saw.

“We realized that Corey wasn’t there,” Cathi said.

His body was a shell of their beloved first born. The child they had wanted so long to conceive was gone.

Arrangements were made to move Corey to hospice.

In their anguish, so raw and deep, the Lees did something remarkable. They decided to let others, including young people they’d never met, join them at their son’s bedside. Perhaps, they reasoned, seeing Corey would help his friends make better decisions in their own lives. He could become their inner voice that says, “No, there’s another way.”

Seventy people paid their respects. Twenty were there when Corey was read his last rites.

Corey died Dec. 8. He was 20.

He couldn’t beat it

It is hard to estimate how many people attended Corey’s memorial on Dec. 28. The 300 programs printed for the occasion disappeared in about 15 minutes.

Fellow Boy Scouts, cross country runners, basketball teammates, fraternity brothers, neighborhood chums and classmates from way back filled the pews at Immaculate Conception Church in north Everett.

At a reception in the gym next door, a slide show flashed hundreds of images of Corey: the little boy in the red Superman cape, the pumpkin carver, the hiker, the crabber, the diver, the referee, the big brother, the son, the friend.

Michelle Olson, of Stanwood, first got to know the Lees when Corey was brought to the child care center she operates in Smokey Point. With boys of her own, the Olsons and Lees became fast friends and she was like a second mother.

“He was the kid in a large group of kids that all the kids went to say, ‘What should we do?’?” Olson said.

“He was definitely adventuresome,” she said. “He wanted to know anything and everything about anything and everything. He had all these wonderful experiences and wonderful people in his life and at the same time he was battling such a tough thing on the inside.”

Chanel first met Corey at Northshore Christian Academy in the sixth grade. He was the new boy with the long lashes and baby blue eyes.

“Corey was literally friends with everybody,” she said. “He could fit in any social circle you could think of.”

Daniel Olson grew up four blocks from Corey. They attended kindergarten together. Later, they would backpack in the Olympics, exploring tide pools on the coast and the lush forests.

“He was the most easy-going kid you will ever meet,” his friend said.

The Lees first realized Corey was smoking pot his freshman year of high school. Over the next few years, they would get him treatment and counseling and talk to people at his school, hoping something would work, only to watch him dabble anew.

At some point, marijuana graduated into a mix of prescription medications and street drugs.

He earned his associate’s degree from Everett Community College and was accepted into Eastern for the fall quarter.

Last summer, it seemed, he’d turned the corner, his parents and friends said.

Chanel remembers long conversations with Corey, how he talked about getting better and making his parents proud.

His new surroundings across the mountains and all the freedoms that came with it proved too much.

Police are investigating his death as a controlled substance homicide. Preliminary toxicology tests found cocaine and Xanax in his system. More testing was expected.

“To see it spiral so fast in such a short amount of time, that’s what is so scary,” Chanel said.

Helping others

The sympathy cards outnumbered Christmas cards at the Lee’s home in December.

As the holiday approached, David and Cathi opened their home to talk about their son and lessons learned about addiction.

“It’s not like a flu shot,” Cathi said. “It’s ongoing forever.”

The family cat climbed into Cathi’s lap and curled into a furry ball. When Corey was younger, he and two friends celebrated their birthdays by asking for money to donate to a shelter. The cat somehow came home with Corey and was named Kiki.

At the memorial reception, the Lees were joined by their youngest son, Cameron, a college swimmer back from Colorado. Each smiled often as friends shared hugs and condolences and anecdotes from better days.

These days, the Lees are creating a nonprofit foundation in their Corey’s memory to help others. They sense there are many families out there in similar situations with sons and daughters secretly struggling with addictions and falling through the cracks. More information can be found at choicesforachange.org.

The Lees now openly share the story they once wanted to hide. Their hope is to spare others heartbreak.

They figure Corey, the child once deemed most likely to stand up for a friend, would have wanted that.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

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