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For a N.H. mother who’s battled addiction, this might be her last chance

  • Ashley Demello reflects on her past of drug abuse, a past that included losing her daughter Serenity. She shows some of the areas where she would she shoot heroin. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ashley Demello has fought back from years of drug abuse and a difficult childhood to get sober and get her daughter back. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ashley Demello greets her daughter Serenity after she returns from school Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. She has been reunited with serenity since Christmastime. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ashley Demello reflects on her past of drug abuse, a past that included losing her daughter Serenity. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ashley Demello greets her daughter Serenity after she returns from school Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. She has been reunited with serenity since Christmastime. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ashley Demello greets her daughter Serenity after she returns from school Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. She has been reunited with Serenity since Christmastime. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kyle Longfellow gets a kiss from Ashley Demello as her daughter Serenity looks on after getting back from school. Longfellow said he had a giant crush on Demello dating back to their high school days, adding, “That crush has never gone away.” GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff



Monitor columnist
Monday, January 15, 2018

She opened the door with a smile, welcoming strangers into her home and into her mind.

She admitted things, dark things. Most centered on her drug addiction and how she chose Percocet, heroin and crack cocaine over her first daughter.

And then she chose them again, over her second daughter. Then she did it again.

Some will read Ashley Demello’s story and loathe her, because, let’s face it, Demello has screwed up. Badly. Who’s to say this won’t happen a fourth time?

Others will read this as a tale of triumph and redemption – about staying clean and getting another chance to raise her younger daughter after losing her first daughter – and think, “You go, girl.”

“I lost custody of my first daughter and chose drugs over her,” Demello told me last week. “I was going to be damned if I was going to let that happen with my second daughter.”

Her second daughter is named Serenity. She’s 5, and her name reflects what her mother has chased for many of her 28 years. Demello wants to stay clean. She wants to raise Serenity, shield her from harm, watch her grow, build a home, build a legacy, build something that is good and pure following her own self-destructive behavior.

But there’s more to Demello’s downfall than simply bad choices. There’s the sexual abuse Demello endured from her mother’s ex-boyfriend, and there’s the physical abuse at the hands of her own ex-boyfriend, who happens to be Serenity’s father.

For this column, Demello set the ground rules early, asking if I’d leave Serenity’s father’s name out. She wanted to tell her story, hopeful it would help others, but “I don’t want to throw him under the bus,” she told me, adding that his own drug-addicted life now includes cancer.

We sat in her living room, where she lives with her sister, Heather Marsh, who’s 10 years older, and whose name is the one actually on the lease. Marsh is raising her own three children and is the office manager at Village Street Garage in Penacook.

She’s seen Demello’s struggle. Remaining in her sister’s corner proved hard. At times, in fact, it proved impossible.

“I walked away for quite some time,” Marsh said. “All different times. I could not have that around my family. When (Demello and her ex) lived with me, they stole money, and it was part of the drug thing, and when I finally realized, I shut it down completely.”

The early days of trouble

Tracking Demello’s experiences involves more detours than a massive construction zone. Linearly speaking, we can start when she was a middle school student in Concord.

That’s when her mother’s boyfriend – also unnamed and since deceased from brain cancer – began cornering and touching her. Later, to retaliate, Demello says, she’d steal money from the guy to feed her drug habit.

Demello also said the sexual abuse – she said she was not raped – continued for years, until she grew strong and aware enough to thrust her knee forward and upward, striking a particularly sensitive spot on her attacker’s body.

“No one believed me,” Demello told me. “My mom brushed it off.”

This topic is often a tricky one, the one about the mother who wore blinders while her boyfriend reportedly abused her daughter. It usually requires newspaper columnists seeking the truth to navigate the self-conscious pushback of people who know they’ve done wrong, of mothers who’ve done wrong by their children.

But this mother, Demello’s mother – Connie Comire, who recently moved to South Carolina – put up no such fight.

“Go for it,” Comire told me, giving her blessing to document these personal, disturbing facts. “This is her story, and I’m okay with that if she’s okay with it. This is to help others who are in that situation and help them realize they are not alone.”

And the sexual abuse was certainly part of Demello’s story. It pushed her to seek an alternate state of consciousness, she said. The Percocet she used to limit pain after a kidney infection 10 years ago made her feel warm and comfortable. It made her forget her mother’s old boyfriend, who turned out to be a monster.

But the sexual abuse, along with the ensuing drug addiction, led to the obvious question to Comire about her failure to listen to what her daughter had been telling her about her then-boyfriend.

“I regret not acting when she brought it to my attention,” Comire told me. “I try to see the good in everyone.”

Another daughter?

Soon after she started using Percocet, Demello told me, she gave birth to Autumn.

Autumn?

By this point in our discussion, at least 45 minutes in, there had been no mention of another daughter, no hint that the nightmare Demello was painting needed a larger canvas.

Autumn?

Demello swiped through her phone and pulled up a photo of a little girl on a couch, and a dog on the girl’s lap. She’d had a child, but, at the time the photo was taken, drugs had become her baby, and that wasn’t going to change, at least for a while.

That’s why Autumn, now 7, lives with her father and his girlfriend in California. It’s why Demello hasn’t seen Autumn in four years, and it’s why Demello writes letters to her daughter, then tosses them into a “memory box,” where they sit in darkness, perhaps forever.

“I know if I send them to her they will just get thrown away,” Demello said.

She posts notes on Facebook and texts Autumn now and then, but that’s a waste of time as well. There’s never a response, and Demello says she’ll never try to get any closer than those empty letters and posts and texts.

“She’s progressed long without me,” Demello said. “When she’s ready, if she wants to come find me and hear me out, I’d be willing to tell her I was a terrible person and that I chose drugs over her.”

It’s hard to ignore the parallel between Demello and Comire – both choosing something comforting yet tragically dangerous over her own child’s well-being.

The sins of the mother visited upon the daughter.

No end in sight

Even with the shock and sorrow of Autumn’s exit from her life, Demello’s erratic behavior continued.

Her story moved her around a lot, from drug-fueled capers in the Concord and Manchester regions to Florida with Serenity’s father.

She’d used a few methods to keep her high, like stealing clothes from Walmarts around New Hampshire and returning the merchandise for gift cards, which her dealer accepted in exchange for heroin. To avoid detection, she recruited others to do the job for her. Or maybe she’d move on to another Walmart for a while, in Laconia, Manchester, Milford, or Massachusetts.

Another strategy involved driving a man to Walmart, who’d fill his cart with Xboxes and TVs and computers and walk right out the door.

Then, it was off to a barbershop in Manchester, where customers would buy the merchandise from the guy, who would then give a cut to the outlaw couple so they could buy drugs on their way home to Concord.

“It was easy,” Demello noted.

Her eagerness to establish a flow of information spilled out, as though the process was cleansing.

“I was in the Patch,” she told me, referring to an online news blog. “Anyone who types in my name can see my god-awful pictures.”

The photos were there, showing her tousled hair, expressionless eyes and a laundry list of arrests for stealing and breach of bail.

Her travels also took her to south, to Florida, where she begged for money on the streets of St. Petersburg, where she got evicted for not paying rent, using her money for drugs instead. Her boyfriend worked while Demello milked the system.

“My money was coming from the state and going to drugs,” she said.

She took some of the blame and passed off some to her boyfriend.

“I wanted to change him and look at the good in him rather than take all the bad,” she said, again making it hard to ignore the parallels with her mother. “There was more bad than good. We were like drug buddies. It was toxic.”

Finally, freedom

Toxic. That adjective was used a lot by Demello, her mother and her sister, describing a relationship that lingered like a poisonous gas in an airtight room.

Finally, in 2015, Demello had had enough, she told me after taking another detour during our conversation.

She’d endured physical abuse at the hands of her unnamed ex-boyfriend. She told me about the shoving, about the punching, about the choking.

Still in Florida at the time, she called her mother and cried, desperate for help. Comire jumped in the car and drove south, nonstop, for 23 hours, the adrenaline fueling her trip as much as the gas in her car’s tank.

“I went because my daughter called me from Florida in dire straits,” Comire told me.

She drove Demello back to Concord, and it didn’t matter that this meant leaving Serenity behind in Florida, in the care of that state’s child protection services. Demello wanted out, and if there was any way she was going to pick up the pieces of her fractured life, she had to suffer the consequences of her behavior.

Then came the tough talk, the lectures – mostly from mom to daughter, because Marsh had lost faith in her sister.

“My mom told me to do the right thing to get my kid back,” Demello said.

So she did. She took the classes, did the rehab, stayed clean. She stayed out of the Merrimack Correctional Facility in Boscawen, where she’d been sentenced to weekend duty once before.

Serenity was returned to her “on March 10, 2016.” Demello knew the date like she knew her own birthday, the start of what she hoped was a new beginning.

Demello and her mother rented their own apartment in Concord and cared for the little girl, who was 3 at the time.

So now we get a lesson in human flaws and the addictive power of drugs, because Demello reconnected with Serenity’s father and let him stay at the apartment, starting at the holiday season, 2016.

Seriously.

Another downward spiral

By now, you’re shaking your head, right? Demello went back to Serenity’s father, the abuser, the monster? Let him move into her Concord apartment? After more than a year of sobriety? After regaining the trust of her sister and mother?

Yes, she did. And wouldn’t you know it, the boyfriend got fired from his job.

“March 14, 2017,” Demello said, the date, once again, flying from her mouth.

He came home and wanted to get high, and Demello thought it was a good idea. She’d been clean for so long. What could go wrong?

They found heroin on The Heights and snorted it, and the boyfriend overdosed. Demello said she heard the “death rattle” coming from him, a breathing sound that combines with secretions or saliva in the throat and upper chest.

“I said, ‘f--- this,’ and called the cops and told them my boyfriend was overdosing,” Demello said. “I was not going to let him lose his life.”

Child protection services came and took Serenity once again, this time in New Hampshire. But not before Demello had bathed her, fed her, then put her to bed.

“I don’t have to sit here and make excuses, but I always put my daughter first,” Demello told me, unaware of the irony in her words.

Another chance

Demello did all the right things after that, just as she had done once before. Serenity came home from foster care last month, four days before Christmas. There was a Christmas tree waiting, and presents.

Marsh opened her home and her heart, although she said a tinge of skepticism remained, as it does today.

“This time feels different,” Marsh said. “She has my place to call home, and if she goes back, she will be thrown out.”

So now you know. You know that a local woman, a Concord High graduate, is battling her demons as she raises one daughter and regrets losing another.

But Demello also wants you to know that she’s been clean since last spring. And she wants you to know she’s with a 29-year-old man named Kyle Longfellow, who has a steady job, who’s sober, who had a giant crush on Demello going back to their high school days, and who told me, “That crush has never gone away.”

“She is wonder woman,” Longfellow continued. “That is all I have to say. She is the strongest woman I have ever known.”

Demello told me she’s grateful for another chance. She, Longfellow, Serenity and Marsh’s daughter Alyssa had a snowball fight the other day out in the driveway.

She wanted you to know that, too.

“I like to share my experiences with people so they don’t make the same mistakes,” Demello said. “It’s not that often that someone can lose their child twice and get her back.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)