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RUMFORD — Dale Korhonen Sr. was sitting in prison, anguished that he couldn’t be with his little girl as she battled cancer, when it hit him: He had to stop using and selling drugs.

If he didn’t, he’d never be there when his family needed him.

It wasn’t easy, of course. “Easy” has never been said about addiction. But in the almost six years since, Korhonen has gotten clean, gotten work, gotten a network of support.

One of his proudest achievements: paying to fix his mother’s car using money that came from his two jobs, not from selling cocaine.

“I had to be the one to straighten my life out,” said Korhonen, 49. “I had to do it for my family, do it for me.”

Ashley Morissette was arrested for drug trafficking five years ago on New Year’s Eve day. The police came at 9 a.m. as she, her boyfriend and their 14-month-old daughter, Payton, slept.

Morissette was relatively new to selling drugs but not new to taking them — first drinking in middle school, then smoking marijuana and popping pain pills in high school, then shooting heroin while pregnant. Her arrest didn’t make much of a difference; she kept using.

It wasn’t until she was about to lose custody of her daughter that Morissette decided something had to change. She got clean, got her daughter back, started to plan her future.

“I see, like, me and Payton in a house together somewhere, decorating our house, having a little garden in our yard. Keep making memories,” said Morissette, 27. “Keep staying sober.”

Hopeful personal stories are few when it comes to drugs. In 2017, drug overdoses killed a record 418 people in Maine — more than one person per day — and 2018 is not far behind.

The number of babies born drug-affected dropped for the first time in more than a decade, from 1,024 in 2016 to 952 in 2017, but the number remains dramatically high considering that 201 Maine newborns were affected by drugs in 2006.

Amid the opioid crisis, uninsured and rural Mainers have struggled to find help for addiction, more children have entered foster care, and drug dealers seem to outnumber treatment options in some parts of the state.

But while hope can be hard to find, it’s there.

Two Rumford residents agreed to tell their stories.

‘I WANTED TO BE COOL’

Growing up in Rumford, Korhonen was part of a family and group of friends who liked alcohol. He was 12 or 13 when he started drinking and smoking pot.

His drink of choice: Budweiser or coffee brandy.

“I wanted to be cool like everybody else. I wanted to be like everybody else,” he said. “It was easy for me to get, so I was getting it.”

At school, he found himself in trouble a lot — though he can’t remember if drinking and smoking caused that trouble or whether he drank and smoked because he was having problems in school. He does remember letters home referred to his “bad attitude.”

Korhonen said he was kicked out of school in the sixth grade. He tried night school, “but I couldn’t do that, either.”

He wasn’t, though, a slacker. As a child, he hustled to make money for himself and his large family by shoveling driveways or selling Kool-Aid on the side of the road. As a teenager, he worked at a local convenience store, where he’d sneak a couple of drinks as he filled the coolers out back.

By the time he was old enough to drive, Korhonen was a full-blown alcoholic. At 16, drunk and high, he rolled his car while driving with his brother and a couple of friends. Later, he thought it would be a good idea to drive with just one eye open so he could focus without the double vision that came from being drunk.

“It was still scary. I hit a parked car while drinking,” he said. “I hit a couple of parked cars, actually.”

Still, Korhonen never had a problem getting alcohol, even when he was years younger than the legal drinking age. People at the local bars knew him.

“They knew how old I was,” he said. “They believed I was old enough.”

He was also old enough to find a new way to make money. Long gone were the days of selling Kool-Aid on the side of the road. He began selling marijuana, then pain pills. Then cocaine.

“I just started trying it,” he said. “So, I figured if I was going to start buying it, I was going to sell it.”

He snorted cocaine. Then smoked it.

“I was freaking out because I was on probation when I was doing it,” he said. “I got nabbed plenty of times.”

Korhonen’s 58-page criminal record starts with arrests for assault and disorderly conduct just after he turned 21. Within a few years, he began a cycle that would last for more than two decades: get arrested, violate bail, get arrested, violate probation, go to jail, get out of jail, go back to jail. Charges included, but were not limited to, drug trafficking, drug possession, terrorizing and assault — including assault on an officer.

Then, in 2010, police arrested him for selling drugs in a school zone. Korhonen was sentenced to 11 years in prison; he would have to serve about half of that.

“I acted up, caused trouble. I didn’t really care if I got out,” he said.

He didn’t care, that is, until he learned his young daughter — the youngest of his six children — had been diagnosed with cancer. That news hit him hard. She was in pain, she needed him, and he couldn’t be there.

“They sent me pictures of her with her hair bald and wires and everything around her, up her nose,” he said. “I thought I was going to have to go in handcuffs and shackles to say goodbye to my daughter.”

He came to a decision.

“My daughter was sick and I just said, ‘Enough is enough. Time to straighten out and get out there and take care of your family,’” he said.

Staying behind bars helped. For a few years, Korhonen had little-to-no access to drugs, so he got clean. To stay that way, he attended support group meetings and found a mentor. He watched other guys try and fail to beat their addiction, and he resolved not to be one of them.

Out of jail, he stayed clean, but it wasn’t easy. Two of his brothers and his step-father — all alcoholics, he said — had died in recent years. He regularly attended support group meetings, but he sometimes had to hitchhike to meetings in Farmington because he lost his license. He was arrested twice more, once for domestic violence stemming from an altercation with a former girlfriend over his son and once for disorderly conduct for what he called “mouthing off” to someone he worked with.

Korhonen worked, but permanent jobs weren’t always easy to come by, especially with his history. Then, earlier this year, someone asked Roger White, owner of White’s Yardworks, to hire Korhonen. At first, White balked. Korhonen was well-known in Rumford and not for anything good.

“I was like, ‘Hell, no!’” White said. “They said, ‘He’s straightened out.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, what, for a week?’”

But White agreed to call Korhonen’s last employer, just to hear what he’d say. The man gave Korhonen a glowing reference.

“He goes, ‘Roger, I’m telling you, you will not be disappointed if you hire him,’” White said.

White decided to take a chance. He hired Korhonen to join his landscaping crew this past spring. He quickly became a supporter.

“I’ve had so many jobs this summer where the homeowners come out and say, ‘Jeez, he’s a really hard worker,” White said. “I worked on one job where this guy actually went to school with Dale. And when I showed up with Dale, he kind of looked at me. I said ‘No, Dale’s a good boy now.’ We were only at the guy’s house  two days and when we were done he comes over to me and his exact words were, ‘Holy shit, Dale’s a hell of a worker, huh?’ I said ‘Yes, he is.”

The job gave Korhonen not only an income but a sense of camaraderie.

“They’re awesome guys. We all get along pretty good,” Korhonen said. “And Roger’s a really good boss, the best boss I ever had. He jokes around with you all day long, buys you coffee, takes good care of you.”

With the money he’s earned at White’s Yardworks and in a second job with a butcher, Korhonen started setting aside a little money each month for his kids and grandkids. He’s renting to own his home. He’s helped family.

“My mother’s car just broke down and nobody had money in my family,” he said. “So I went out and spent $200 or $300, because I had that money.”

His relationships have gotten better, including with his youngest daughter — who recovered from cancer and now, at age 10, sees him regularly. He’s also looking to mentor other recovering addicts.

Korhonen feels lucky that his past mistakes weren’t much worse.

“I could have sold somebody bad cocaine. They could have died from my drugs. I could have killed somebody,” he said.

In jail, he used to curse God for putting him behind bars. Now he is thankful.

“I just feel like God helped me, saved me, saved my life, brought me back to a better person,” he said.

Life isn’t perfect. Korhonen has friends and family who are battling addiction, and that’s hard for him to watch. Landscape work dries up in the winter, so his income has taken a hit. Korhonen sometimes deals with depression.

But, while relapses are common in alcoholics and drug addicts, he can’t imagine going back. For one thing, he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t live through it.

“Like I tell everyone, a cat has nine lives. I feel like I’m on my last life if I were to go out and do drugs or drink again. I don’t think I would make it,” he said.

He decided to tell his story for one reason: to help others in the same situation. He knows they’re out there.

“I want them to know there’s a better life than doing drugs and drinking out there,” he said.

‘IT WAS BLACKOUT OR NOTHING’

Growing up, Morissette was her family’s golden child. She did well in school, played sports, liked to keep things tidy. Mental health problems and addiction ran in the family, but they didn’t seem to touch her.

“Ash was always so awesome,” said her father, Chuck Morissette, who raised three children as a single father after their mother left. “Ashley I didn’t have to worry about so much.”

But in middle school, Morissette began drinking with her friends.

“I don’t know how we would get it. I remember me and my friend, Courtney, at one point would steal it from her mom. And my dad’s not a drinker at all, but he always had, like, a bottle of wine or something that we would just take from. Stuff like that,” she said. “But I was always the one to get blackout (drunk). I think it started then.”

By high school, parties were all about drinking, and Morissette was always happy to indulge.

“I was always the one blackout, waking up the next day and never remembering what happened and everybody’s telling me what I did. I just feel like I’ve always had, I don’t know if it’s an addictive personality or what,” she said. “But for something that can be so normal for some people, go have some drinks at a party, it just never turned out normal for me. It was blackout or nothing.”

She also began smoking marijuana, which turned into “an everyday thing.”

She was a senior when she tried Percocet — a mix of oxycodone and acetaminophen — when the guy she was dating introduced her to his friend who sold drugs. She fell in love, not with the guy but with the pills.

“Back in high school I always compared myself to people. I was like, she’s so thin, she’s so pretty,” she said. “And all my friends were from, like, families. Two really good girlfriends (were) from not-broken homes, made good money, never struggled to get by. I just always felt the need to fit in kinda.”

Percocet made her stop caring.

“I don’t know. I just felt carefree and good,” she said.

She needed that relief for other reasons, too.

When Morissette was 16, her mother tried to come back into her life after a 12-year absence, but Morissette refused to see her or speak to her. Two years later, when Morissette was 18, her mother was killed in a car accident. The two never reconciled.

“There’s all that regret of wishing you would have tried,” Morissette said. “That was right around the time I started using.”

Morissette graduated from high school and went to the University of Maine, where she continued to drink and smoke pot. On visits home to Rumford, she picked up pills to take back to school.

After a year, she was thousands of dollars in debt, had no idea what she wanted to do with her life and was deep into addiction. She dropped out of college and moved back home.

“I was lost,” she said.

Her father watched her deteriorate from a scholar athlete to a college dropout, but he chalked it up to teenage laziness. He didn’t suspect drugs.

“Ash up all night, sleeping all day, getting lazy, getting unkempt — and I am still blind to all of this,” he said. “Myself, having used drugs myself in my youth in the past, should have seen what I didn’t see. Had I been paying more attention like I did to the other kids, I would have.”

Morissette got a job at a local convenience store. She left when her employer discovered she was stealing money.

That cash had helped Morissette pay for the six or seven Percocets she was taking each day. She soon found a new way to get pills: She dated a dealer.

“We weren’t together very long, six months maybe, until I found out I was pregnant,” she said. “I was sick. I was not happy. I don’t even know if I had morning sickness as much as I was just sick. I knew this was not a good situation to bring a child into.”

By then, she’d started using other drugs, including heroin. Miraculously, she said, Payton was born with no signs of withdrawal.

“The second after we had her, we went in the bathroom and were shooting up and stuff, right there in the hospital,” Morissette said.

She can’t imagine how no one noticed.

“They’re drawing my blood and I had track marks all over my arm, but nobody ever said anything. Looking back at it now, I’m just like, why?” she said. “I should have had (the Maine Department of Health and Human Services) involved in my life the day my daughter was born.”

The department got involved 14 months later. That’s when police kicked in the couple’s door looking for drugs.

“I knew that was it for that because I knew what they were going to find in our house,” she said.

Even then, she grabbed some pills and hid them in her bra so she could take them with her behind bars.

Payton went to family. Morissette and her boyfriend went to jail.

She was released on bail and received supervised visits with her daughter, but she continued to use drugs. She went to rehab for 30 days but continued to use drugs.

Morissette was ultimately given a choice: Go to jail for a few years or go through drug court. She chose drug court.

She continued to use drugs.

“At that point they were cutting off even supervised visits with Payton,” she said.

As Morissette failed drug test after drug test, both family and the department grew frustrated. She was told she was about to lose custody of Payton.

That made her pause.

“I cannot not see my daughter. I cannot have my daughter feel about me the same way I feel about my mom. That was my thought process,” she said. “I grew up kind of hating my mom. I knew I didn’t want Payton to feel that way about me.”

She detoxed on her own — a potentially dangerous process that medical professionals warn against. She sequestered herself in her father’s house, got rid of her phone and cut herself off from social media so she wouldn’t be tempted to reach out to anyone who could get her drugs.

It took her about a month.

“Even after I had the sweats and the shivers, your mind’s gone,” she said. “It’s a long process to get yourself better.”

Morissette started to take drug court seriously. She went to parenting classes. She submitted to — and began to pass — drug tests. She started to see a counselor.

“I loved her. I told her everything,” she said. “At that point I didn’t feel like I could tell my family anything because they didn’t get it. My dad would just always look at me and be like, ‘What is wrong with you? Why?’ They didn’t get addiction back then. (The counselor) got it.”

Slowly, Morissette began to rebuild her life. She got her first driver’s license and found a job as a waitress. She regained visits with her daughter.

“When I hit my first year it just was like, holy shit, did I just make it to a year without using?” she said. “Then I got unsupervised visits and the feeling of being able to walk down the street with Payton was like her being reborn almost. It was like one of those milestones.”

None of it was easy. Even after she got clean, it took a couple of years before Morissette felt like she wasn’t struggling every day.

“That’s why I say thank God for drug court because it kept me accountable. If I wasn’t getting the urine tests randomly, weekly, like I was and if (a bad test) didn’t result in me losing time with my daughter, I would have kept using,” she said.

She eventually regained custody of Payton.

The change in her was obvious.

“To me, this is the girl I raised from birth to 14 years old. To me, she’s back,” her father said. “She became clean and neat about herself, clean and neat about her surroundings. Everything became about her daughter.”

Today, Morissette lives with her daughter in an apartment in Rumford and works as a waitress at a local restaurant. She uses social media not to set up drug deals but to share her story of battling addiction.

“I just want people to see that no matter what happens, you can have a good life. You can have happiness,” she said. “I want to help people. That’s why I’ve never wanted to keep any of my stuff a secret.”

Like Korhonen, she has friends and family who are still addicted to drugs or alcohol. She finds it painful to watch.

She agreed to tell her story so she could encourage people to reach out for help.

“Everybody deserves to have a good life, no matter what you’ve been through or what you’re hurting over,” she said. “Everybody deserves a good life, a happy and healthy one.”

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