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Ashley Messier on the cycle of poverty and abuse, and the challenge of getting out without resources

A selfie of a woman in glasses with her hair pulled back and wearing a red sweatshirt. She's standing in the woods.
Ashley Messier says she was told she could be whatever she wanted to be, but without resources, it was hard to dream up how to get there.

Ashley Messier is the co-chair of the Corrections Monitoring Committee in the Vermont Legislature, and she’s the reentry services program manager for Vermont Works for Women. She grew up in Essex with an abusive father and with little money, and she found herself repeating the cycle in early adulthood. This is a story about multigenerational poverty and abuse, and the temporary relief of opiates.

"What class are you?" is an occasional series from Vermont Public reporter Erica Heilman. In it, she talks with people from all sorts of backgrounds about money and class and privilege.

Find the other installments of the "What class are you?" series here.

This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity. And a note: This story contains a mention of suicide.

Ashley Messier: My mom was fairly young when she had me, you know, barely in her 20s. My dad was horrifically abusive, even while I was in utero, you know, he pushed her down the stairs. My father would never keep a job, he would always get fired or lose his job. And then when I was 5, my dad assaulted my mom and really almost killed her. And that's when she decided that she was going to leave him. And so my dad had to move out. And when I was 7, my father hung himself. Best thing that man ever did for me and my mother.

And so then it was, you know, living solely on Section 8, Reach Up and food stamps. And, you know, my grandmother tried hard to supplement if I wanted to take gymnastics lessons, you know, but I could only take like, the cheapest version, and I couldn't do it as much as the other girls. So I wasn't as good as the other girls. Or I would get picked on because my mom couldn't give me the name brand stuff. So you know, as I got a little bit older, and could really start to realize — because my mom didn't talk to me about money — but it's really easy when you're a kid walking through the grocery store with your mom, and you get to the line, and you're in the checkout, and you hear the comments, you know, things like, "Oh, God, here we go, she's gonna have to rip out all those food stamps one by one."

Now, like all other kids, I was told that I could be whatever I want to be. But how was I gonna get there? If I can't even go to a grocery store and get one extra pack of cookies when I'm 8 years old that I want? Because we just don't have it. How am I ever supposed to dream that I can go to Harvard? How am I supposed to dream that I can be a lawyer and go to four years of law school on top of the four years of college?

So, you know, that that then creates that dynamic about who you hang out with. And so the people that I became friends with were people in similar situations. We all had some trauma or came from these kind of difficult traumatic childhoods. I mean, we were still kids. Well, we know, especially in adolescence, that if everybody in your friend group’s getting high, the odds are you're gonna start getting high, too. If you have a group of kids that all have trauma, broken homes, addiction, alcoholism, poverty, abuse, lack of resources, they're going to try to fill that hole somehow.

So we see, you know, you're sneaking out, and I mean, wealthy kids do this stuff, too. But the consequences change. If I'm with my friends, and I'm 16 and we're drinking and we got caught driving, well, the wealthy people can afford the fancy lawyer and their kids gonna get probation. It’s going to get wiped off the record. Because you know, "If that stays on his record, Your Honor, it'll destroy his chances of getting into that Division I college." You know. "He has a bright future ahead of him. He's sorry he did what he did. But you know, we don't want to ruin his future over a childhood mistake."

But the other 16-year-old, who doesn't have those resources, gets a public defender — who, in Vermont, and everywhere else, they are underpaid and overworked. Maybe your parents can't be with you with all the meetings, or they don't have the resources to understand the law, or what even all the options are. And so they just go off what the lawyer says. And the judge says, "Well, we need to make an example of you. You know, if I just let you get off on this, you know, nobody's gonna learn their lesson, you and that group you hang out with." So then he makes the example of you and you do get it on your record. And everybody does know. And now you can't work that little part-time job you were working at 16 to try to help out, because you’ve got to go to community service instead.

That was exactly what happened for me. And so, you know, I basically got married very young, like I said, same age as my mom. I got pregnant with my oldest daughter, and he was horrifically abusive towards me. He was relapsing on drugs. So you know, money would come up missing, he would come to my job and take my paycheck from me before my shift was even done on pay day. And so what happened is, I was perpetuating that cycle of poverty, lack of resources. And because I didn't have the resources, I didn't feel like I had a way out.

You know, we had an apartment, I had a car and I had a job and I was just trying to get through. And so I became trapped, trapped, you know? Even the attempts to reach out to law enforcement, even when that neighbors, for example, would call the cops to my house, I didn't feel like I could tell them the truth. I didn't feel like I could press charges, because I knew from what my mom went through interacting with the legal system, that it's horrific for victims. And if they said I needed to move for my safety or any of that, where was I going to go? Where was I going to go, I had no money. I was just barely, you know, being able to take care of what was in front of me. And so I was looking for any way to survive what I was going through. That's where the drug addiction comes in. That's where me being an addict came in. Because when I was told, it works faster, it gives me energy and it kills all my pain. Sign me up.

Erica Heilman: Did it work?

Ashley Messier: Yeah. I snorted the pills. And when it flowed through my body, went into my nose and into my brain and body, it was literally like the clouds parted and the sun came out.

Erica Heilman: OK, but Johnny Boozer, who got off when he was 16 and went to Harvard, is hearing it and he says, "You just didn't work hard enough."

Ashley Messier: Well, it's really easy to say when you haven't experienced those things, when you are not living a life that was almost predetermined for you to continue this this generational cycle of poverty and abuse. I didn't know anything else. If you don't know anything else, if you haven't been exposed to resources, if you haven't been shown that there are other options, how am I supposed to know they're there?

Had I have had the dollars in my bank account, I could have bought my escape. If I had had a bunch of money, maybe I could have left the husband, because I would have had money to go get another house. I wouldn't have had to worry about taking care of the kids. I could have hired a nanny if I needed extra help. I could have bought another car. I could have hired a fancy lawyer. I could have gotten better therapists for my postpartum depression.

Right? All these resources — they all cost money.

Here are some resources if you or someone you know is considering suicide:

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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