LEWISTON — There was a time when it looked like Michelle Olds might at last kick her addiction. There were rehabs and detoxes and long stretches in jail. Each break offered hope.

Sometimes Shelly, as everyone called her, would put her head down and try to do it at home — the safe and quiet home on Sabattus Street where she lived with her mother.

“She’d say to me, ‘I’m going to be withdrawing, Ma. I’m going to be in bed. Just leave me alone until I’m done,'” her mother said. “It would be two or three days of vomiting, diarrhea and leg pains. When she was ready to come out, she’d come out.”

But her sobriety never lasted and Rachel Olds would continue her vigil. In many ways, Rachel said, she knew her daughter was doomed.

“It’s a nightmare. It’s like someone has died and the body is just waiting to catch up,” Rachel said. “I told her that one day. I said, ‘Shelly, you’re dead. I don’t know where you went. You’re somewhere, but you’re not here.’ I knew she was going to go real soon. I knew she didn’t have much longer. It was not a surprise.”

Addicted to heroin and other opiates for more than three decades, Michelle succumbed earlier this month, dying of a heroin overdose in her mother’s bathtub at the age of 50.

Rachel, who stood by her daughter from the beginning, was many things. Mostly heartbroken, she said. And in a strange way, relieved.

“I had reached a point in my journey,” Rachel said, “knowing that there was nothing I could do about it. Everything I thought I could do to help her didn’t work. I don’t know if it’s acceptance or complacency or apathy. Call it what you want.”

Tough love

When she was 10 years old, Shelly lost her older brother to a freak accident. The loss shook the girl, her mother said. Shelly entered a dark place.

“When Michael died, she fell into depression. The whole family did. We all kind of died,” Rachel said. “Everything just kept falling apart, falling apart, falling apart. After Michael died, she thought nobody wanted anything to do with her. She fell into depression and never came out.”

When she was older, Shelly joined the U.S. Air Force, where she served as a medical technician and an EMT. It was a proud and successful career, her mother said, but in the service, two significant things happened in her life.

She was raped, which only deepened the darkness inside her, Rachel said. And she was prescribed Stadol, a synthetically derived opiate, for migraine headaches.

Shelly took to the painkillers immediately, her mother said, and her love of opiates was established.

“Of course, she loved it,” Rachel said. “When she got home, she was hooked on it. She was running to the hospitals all the time. It went downhill from there.”

Shelly, described by her friends as charitable and compassionate, found herself on a predictable course. From Stadol, she graduated to Vicodin. Soon after, she discovered oxycodone, which was suddenly the most popular opiate on the market.

Shelly was addicted through and through. When changes in the law made prescription drugs harder to get, Shelly did what thousands of others had done: She made the leap to heroin.

“I can’t tell you how many cars she wrecked, the money that was spent,” Rachel said. “I can’t tell you how many times she went to jail.”

There were stretches when Shelly would remain clean, her mother said, but sobriety was always fleeting. Meanwhile, Shelly’s alcoholic father died in Florida before she could get down to see him one last time. It had always been a difficult relationship, Rachel said.

“She wanted to make her peace with him,” she said.

Shelly continued to descend into despair and Rachel had a front-row seat. Her house on Sabattus Street is quiet, immaculately clean and peaceful. Shelly had a section of the apartment to herself, a retreat from the ugliness of the world outside — the world of addiction, drug-running and desperation.

“She felt safe here. It was said that I was killing her by allowing her to stay here,” Rachel mused. “I thought, it’s going to kill her if she goes out on her own, too. It’s not going to change anything, this tough love stuff.”

Crime and punishment

The chaos continued. In 2007, Shelly was with a Winthrop woman who died after overdosing on OxyContin and fentanyl, a synthetic opiate said to be 50 times stronger than morphine.

Police charged a 71-year-old Lewiston woman with providing fentanyl to 47-year-old Lisa Nicholson, who died of the overdose. They were also interested in Shelly Olds as their investigation continued.

According to Rachel, guilt over the death of Nicholson ate at her daughter, to the point where she admitted her involvement to police.

“She copped to it. She says, ‘Ma, I can’t keep lying like this, it’s driving me crazy.’ Shelly had a conscience, a very strong conscience.”

Shelly Olds and 71-year-old Lucille Russell were convicted of aggravated furnishing of fentanyl in the case.

“That was her first felony,” Rachel said. “I think she spent two months in jail. It was all over but the shouting. That got to her because where do you go as a felon? You don’t go far. You can’t do anything. She couldn’t even volunteer at the SPCA. They checked their records and told her, because of her record they couldn’t take her.

“She ruined her life,” Rachel said. “To me, it was a ruined life.”

Shelly continued to use drugs and to run them for local suppliers. Now and then, she would run into trouble. She often got caught shoplifting, Rachel said, another habit Shelly couldn’t break.

“She liked the excitement of it,” Rachel said, “because she felt dead inside.”

There were times when Shelly would try to get clean. She once lasted more than a year, her mother said, but then she had back surgery. Her physician prescribed painkillers and back to the junk Shelly went.

The downhill trajectory quickened its pace.

“Shelly was beautiful,” Rachel said, “but she was looking awful. When she used heroin, oh my God. She’d just nod off all the time.”

One evening in early March, she was taken to a hospital by ambulance after overdosing on heroin. Rachel only learned of this later. When Shelly eventually made her way home, she didn’t mention the overdose, the ambulance or the hospital.

One evening later, Shelly came home to the cozy, quiet house on Sabattus Street one final time.

Rachel remembers that evening vividly.

“I had gone to bed around 9:30 that night. Shelly said, ‘I’m going to take a bath, Ma, my back is killing me.’ I went to bed. When I came out around 11, I said ‘Shelly, are you all right?’ She said, ‘Yup. I’m fine, Ma.'”

Rachel went back to bed. This was an old routine for mother and daughter, decades in the making. They’d try to stay out of each others’ way, for the most part, but Rachel would always check on her daughter from time to time.

“When I got up again at 3 a.m., I yelled, ‘Shelly! Shelly!'” Rachel recalled. “I banged on the bathroom door. I hollered. I thought, oh, my God. I couldn’t open the door. I called the Police Department. They banged the door open and there she was. I couldn’t see her like that. I had to look away.”

‘End game’

Rachel Olds makes no apologies for her daughter’s habits. She never tries to gloss over the ugliness of the world in which Shelly Olds resided for most of her life. One veteran drug investigator familiar with the Olds family said it’s always been that way.

“Rachel is a strong woman,” he said. “A very straight-forward and honest woman.”

That straight-forward honesty can be found in the very first sentence of the obituary Rachel wrote for her daughter.

“Michelle ‘Shelly’ Olds, 50, died in her home Thursday, March 3, of a heroin overdose, the end game of an addiction she had battled for years.”

About a month later, Rachel is still mourning the loss of her daughter. She has room in her heart for a little anger, as well. She resents the out-of-state dealers who bring dope into Lewiston and cause chaos without compunction. She’s frustrated that there isn’t more help for the addicted. She’s angry at the drugs themselves, and the heartbreak they cause in families across the land.

Meanwhile, her world has become quiet. Other than the occasional barking of her dog and the low hum of traffic outside, the house on Sabattus Street is serene and still. There is no more daily drama for Rachel; there’s only silence.

“There is some relief,” she said. “I just wish I had a strong faith that there’s life after death, but I don’t. I don’t know what happens when we die. Nobody knows. I know what all the churches say and all of that. But I’d like to think that she’s with her brother. That’s what I want to think.”

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