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Ashley’s Story: Hartford Family Shares Pain of Daughter’s Struggle, Suicide

  • Tanya DeMond curls up on her daughter Ashley’s bed at home in White River Junction. DeMond said that, since Ashley took her life earlier this month, she often goes into her daughter’s room to rest quietly. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Tanya DeMond curls up on her daughter Ashley’s bed at home in White River Junction. DeMond said that, since Ashley took her life earlier this month, she often goes into her daughter’s room to rest quietly. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • An undated family photograph shows Ashley DeMond in front of her home at Northwoods in White River Junction.

    An undated family photograph shows Ashley DeMond in front of her home at Northwoods in White River Junction.

  • Art work that Ashley DeMond did this year hangs in her room along with sympathy cards that were sent by her classmates. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Art work that Ashley DeMond did this year hangs in her room along with sympathy cards that were sent by her classmates. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • Jimmy DeMond leans over his mother, Tanya, while Jessica, the youngest in the family, shows her mother a book of stickers. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Jimmy DeMond leans over his mother, Tanya, while Jessica, the youngest in the family, shows her mother a book of stickers. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • At their home in White River Junction, Jimmy DeMond watches his sister Jessica make toast. At right is their father, Kelly. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    At their home in White River Junction, Jimmy DeMond watches his sister Jessica make toast. At right is their father, Kelly. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • Tanya DeMond curls up on her daughter Ashley’s bed at home in White River Junction. DeMond said that, since Ashley took her life earlier this month, she often goes into her daughter’s room to rest quietly. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • An undated family photograph shows Ashley DeMond in front of her home at Northwoods in White River Junction.
  • Art work that Ashley DeMond did this year hangs in her room along with sympathy cards that were sent by her classmates. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Jimmy DeMond leans over his mother, Tanya, while Jessica, the youngest in the family, shows her mother a book of stickers. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • At their home in White River Junction, Jimmy DeMond watches his sister Jessica make toast. At right is their father, Kelly. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Hartford — The music, country and pop, mostly, was almost always playing in the tiny bedroom on the apartment’s second floor. It was as if Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood and Selena Gomez lived in that room. Or at least, it sounded that way.

Occasionally, neighbors in the Northwoods apartment complex, which sits on a hill above downtown White River Junction, rapped on the front door. “Can you turn it down a bit?”

On June 7, shortly after 6 a.m., Kelly DeMond passed his daughter’s bedroom on his way out of the apartment to drive his school bus route. The door was closed, but he heard the music coming out of the small stereo hooked to his daughter’s iPod.

She must already be awake, he figured.

Twenty minutes later, after her husband had left for work, Tanya DeMond peeked inside the bedroom to make sure her daughter was getting ready for school. Her daughter’s back was to the bedroom door, giving the appearance that she was looking into the closet.

“I figured she was getting dressed,” Tanya said.

Tanya nudged the door open a bit more. She glanced down. Her oldest daughter’s feet weren’t touching the floor.

Tanya frantically punched the numbers into her cell phone: 9-1-1. She followed the dispatcher’s instructions. But her daughter was beyond help. There was nothing Tanya — nor the paramedics who arrived minutes later — could do.

In an obituary notice that appeared in this newspaper three days later, Kelly and Tanya shared what had happened and gave readers a glimpse of their daughter’s all-too-short life:

“Ashley Ellen DeMond, 14, took her life early Friday morning. ... She loved to sing and really liked country music. Ashley was a high-energy person, who liked being a ‘life of the party’ kind of girl. Even though she struggled with depression, Ashley tried her hardest to always be upbeat.”

The Valley News doesn’t often write news stories about suicides or report how the person died unless the death occurs in a public place. Kelly and Tanya DeMond, however, shared the details of their daughter’s death because they believe it is important that the facts get out. They want people to know that drugs or alcohol didn’t cause their daughter’s death.

By the time Ashley was 10, Kelly and Tanya recognized their daughter, the middle of their three children, needed outside help. Some days, she refused to get on the school bus.

“It depended on her mood that morning,” said Kelly. At school, she threw chairs and hit teachers. Once, after arguing with a teacher, she ran outside and climbed a tree. She didn’t come down until police arrived.

“She just got angry very easily,” said Kelly.

She struggled with schoolwork. On the roughest days, when she’d burst through the front door in a rage, her parents tried to reassure her that everything would eventually be OK.

“We love you, Ashley,” they’d tell her.

She didn’t respond. Mental health professionals told Kelly and Tanya that their daughter suffered from bipolar disorder, which the National Institute of Mental Health describes as a serious brain illness that causes children to go through unusual mood swings.

Ashley underwent several years of counseling outside of school and was prescribed medications. Still her struggles persisted.

“There were times that she’d just shut down,” said Tanya. “She’d go to a corner or somewhere that she could be alone.” After her outbursts, she’d immerse herself in a book. One of her favorite authors was James Patterson, whose best-selling young adults series, Maximum Ride, is about a group of “genetically mutated kids who are part human, part bird.”

While Ashley was drawn to books about a fantasy world, the financial ups and downs that her family wrestled with in recent years were all too real.

Tanya, a housekeeper, stopped working so she could take Ashley to counseling appointments during the day and be home after school for all three of her children. (Jimmy is two years older than Ashley; Jessica is two years younger.)

In 2000, Kelly sold the pizza parlor that he had started 10 years earlier in Canaan. The family moved west, giving Arizona a try before settling in Montana. Kelly was a food services manager at Montana State University, but after three years they returned to their roots. (Kelly grew up in the Keene area and Walpole, N.H.; Tanya is from Falmouth, Mass.)

“We’ve moved around a lot,” said Kelly. “We were trying to find a place we could afford to live.”

Which wasn’t easy. When work was hard to find and their money ran low, they lived at a campground. Twice, they moved into the Haven, the homeless shelter in Hartford, while they searched for affordable rental housing. “The kids have been through a lot with us,” said Kelly. “We’ve dealt with a lot of financial hardships, but we’ve always tried to put our kids first.”

In the summer, they’d go fishing, or pack a picnic lunch and drive to the beach in Maine. On the way home, they’d stop at McDonald’s. “Nothing fancy,” said Kelly.

The DeMonds lived in North Pomfret for a while and Ashley attended Woodstock’s junior high school. Her emotional issues grew. In seventh grade, police were summoned to the school after she threatened — if you could call it that — the principal with a thumbtack.

Shortly thereafter, Ashley transferred to the Wilder School, which is for children who have been diagnosed with severe behavioral disabilities. The alternative school is operated by the Hartford School District, but accepts students from other Upper Valley communities.

Ashley wasn’t long for Wilder. When her emotional issues worsened, the Hartford School District paid for her to enter a therapeutic day school, known as the Bridges program, run by the Brattleboro Retreat, which specializes in mental health and addiction treatment. (In interviews, Kelly and Tanya stressed that their daughter didn’t have trouble with drugs or alcohol. Her problems stemmed largely from a long battle with depression.)

For most of two school years, Ashley took a bus to classes and counseling sessions at Bridges. Medicaid, the government health insurance for the poor, covered much of Ashley’s mental health treatment. When summer came, Kelly drove her to Brattleboro nearly every day for classes and counseling. After making the 60-mile drive, Kelly often brought a book and spent the day in a Brattleboro park while his daughter was in school.

“We worked hard to get her the help she needed,” said Kelly. “We didn’t stop fighting for her.”

Jessica Shepley, coordinator of the Bridges program, spoke at the memorial service held for Ashley at Quechee Community Church. Ashley arrived at Brattleboro Retreat a “rough-and-tumble kid,” Shepley said.

Ashley was so combative that she “wouldn’t accept responsibility for knocking over a water glass,” Shepley recalled.

Over time, however, Kelly and Tanya noticed small breakthroughs. One day, Tanya was in the kitchen when Ashley came home from Brattleboro. Without saying a word, Ashley threw her arms around her mother and gave her a long hug.

Tanya thought to herself, “Is this my Ashley?”

For the first time in years, Ashley appreciated her parents’ small gestures. The night that Kelly brought home chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, Ashley’s favorite, his daughter came into the kitchen. “Thank you so much, dad,” she said. “I love you.”

Kelly was thrilled when his daughter asked to come along on the bus when he drove school teams to games and field trips. For the last year, “she came here all the time to see her dad,” said Carla Benson, manager at Butler’s Bus Service in White River Junction. “They had a very good relationship.”

Last summer, the DeMonds’ fortunes seemed on the upswing. Kelly was getting more steady work with the bus company. They found a three-bedroom apartment at Northwoods, a modern apartment complex run by the Vermont State Housing Authority, which provides rental assistance to low-income families.

Progress was also being made on the Ashley front. Her teachers and counselors agreed she was ready to give the Wilder School another try.

“It was apparent from the first day (back) that Ashley had changed,” said Roisin Viens, director of the Wilder School, during her remarks at the memorial service. After returning to Wilder School as a ninth-grader last fall, Ashley excelled in her academic work and made honor roll, said Viens.

When she brought home her much-improved report cards, her parents bought her iTunes gift cards. “We were doing a little better, financially, and we wanted to reward her for her hard work,” said Kelly.

Ashley enrolled in a community college course designed to teach teenagers how to apply for college and find scholarships to pay for their higher education.

In the first step of her gradual transition from Wilder School to Hartford High, she was allowed to take an afternoon class at the high school. For her public service requirement, she volunteered at a town library.

Ashley thrilled her parents by announcing her desire to participate in the high school’s big talent show. They beamed from their seats in the school auditorium as she belted out her solo rendition of Stand Out, a song by Keke Palmer, a 19-year-old African American pop star.

At the memorial service, Shepley said of Ashley’s singing, “The voice was always there. The courage behind the voice wasn’t always.”

This spring, Ashley joined the Hartford High junior varsity softball team. At practices, she was the first in line for sliding drills. “She was a very coachable kid,” said assistant coach Walter Muzzey, who came to Ashley’s memorial service with some of her teammates.

But beneath the surface something was amiss.

Splitting time between Wilder School and Hartford High, she bridged two worlds. Not everyone on the Hartford High softball team was always supportive, said Kelly. “Why are you playing?” a teammate asked. “You don’t go to school here.”

Inside and outside school, Ashley didn’t always respond in the healthiest of ways, her parents acknowledged. “If you were mean to her, she was going to be mean to you,” said Kelly.

She also was dealing with the stigma that can come with living at a place like Northwoods. The complex of more than two dozen apartments was built 10 or so years ago, but some people still haven’t forgotten what used to be there. Templeton Court, which was demolished to make room for Northwoods, was Hartford’s scaled-down version of an inner-city project.

When kids find out where you live, the word can spread that “you don’t want to hang out with that girl,” said Kelly.

“School isn’t like it’s portrayed by Hollywood,” he added. “If you’re not part of their group or from their area, kids don’t always make it easy on you.”

The adjustment from Brattleboro Retreat to the Wilder School was hard at times, too. The teachers and administrators had different styles, her parents said. In Brattleboro, if Ashley lost her temper or became upset, “they’d back off,” Tanya said.

At Wilder School, some of the staff leaned toward being confrontational when Ashley behaved badly, her parents said. After a chair-throwing incident, the school called Hartford police. Ashley was admitted into a court diversion program, which allowed her to avoid a potential criminal charge.

This spring, her school troubles escalated. She was found with some of her mother’s prescription sleeping pills, which she had taken from a kitchen cabinet without her parents knowing.

After being notified by the school, Kelly and Tanya began locking the prescription meds in a safe.

Ashley received a five-day suspension from her afternoon class at Hartford High. Her parents said they were informed the punishment would stretch into this fall. Ashley was scheduled to attend Wilder School in the morning before moving over to Hartford High for lunch and afternoon classes. But school officials indefinitely suspended her Hartford High lunch privileges.

Viens, who heads the Wilder School, declined to comment. She referred questions about Ashley and Wilder School to Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi. Last week, DeBalsi didn’t respond to email and telephone messages left at his office.

After the Wilder School punishment was handed down, Kelly and Tanya talked with their daughter about her options. They asked if she was interested in home schooling. After giving the idea some thought, she told her parents, “I want to be in school with other kids.”

Said Kelly, “She wanted desperately to be at the regular high school.”

Ashley seemed to shake off the setback. She looked forward to summer vacation. She was turning 15 in July — old enough to get her driving learner’s permit. “You can start driving me around,” her father joked. A Wilder School counselor had also encouraged her to apply for a job at the Co-op grocery store in downtown White River Junction. She wanted to learn to play guitar, too. She told her parents that she wanted to be a songwriter and music teacher when she grew up.

Only a few school days were left.

On Thursday evening, June 6, Ashley tossed a football in the parking lot in front of the family’s apartment with her 16-year-old brother. Jimmy, who stands more than 6 feet tall and weighs 280 pounds, laughed when she put on his shoulder pads. She dared him to stop her from running for a touchdown.

After they finished playing, Ashley went inside to take a shower. A little while later, she asked her mother for envelopes before heading off to her bedroom.

“Good night,” her mother said. “I love you.”

Before heading to bed, himself, Kelly heard the music playing in his daughter’s room. He knocked. She was on the bed with a pen and notebook.

“What you writing?” he asked.

“Love letters,” she replied.

He didn’t pry.

The next morning, after police had arrived, several notes were discovered in Ashley’s room. She had written letters to five friends and placed them in sealed envelopes. She left instructions that the letters were only to be opened by those to whom they were addressed. Police read them, but her parents didn’t. The resealed envelopes were later given to Ashley’s friends.

Another note was addressed to her parents. She hinted that she had recently started experimenting with over-the-counter cold medication to “ease the pain of what she was going through,” her father said. She went on to thank Kelly for being a “funny dad” and wanted her mother to know, “You were the greatest role model. (Most of the time.)”

Last week, as she recalled the words in parentheses, Tanya smiled at the thought of the way her daughter used humor.

“That was an Ashley move,” she said.

On the note to her parents, Ashley drew a smiley face. “I will be watching over you,” she wrote.

The day after Ashley’s suicide, Kelly and Tanya sifted through her backpack, where they found a notebook that they hadn’t seen before. They flipped through the blank pages. Then they stopped. Hidden deep inside the notebook was a paragraph written in Ashley’s meticulous penmanship.

“I’m lacking sleep. My head hurts. These nightmares won’t stop. My heart races out of control. My face turns pale. I’m crying and shaking from the fear of these nightmares becoming reality. Someone please help me.”

It’s been two weeks since Ashley’s death. Each morning, Kelly and Tanya make it a point for one of them to enter the empty bedroom. They turn on their daughter’s iPod or radio and leave the room.

Life ends. But the music doesn’t stop.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@Valley.net.

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