I took my first pill at 13

I came from a broken family, and in that fracture, we made a significant move from Louisiana to Dallas, Texas, when I was nine years old.

My life was completely different. My stepdad insisted that I was going to play football, which wasn’t a good sport for me because I didn’t have a fighting bone in my body.

But I joined an excellent football team and we made it to the state championship playoffs when I was 13.

I was very nervous. I was still apprehensive about the game. The fear of failure and the fear of leaving my team was very real, and I was physically sick. My soccer coach innocently offered me a pill to help with nausea, nerves, and anxiety.

It gave me superpowers. I was unstoppable on the field. I didn’t care about being scary, I just cared about being unstoppable. I scored three goals in that match, and I became the most valuable player.

My life took a significant turn that night because, with that pill, I regained something I had lost: self-esteem and self-worth. But it started a longing to never lose that feeling again, which led me down a dark path for a long time. This pill was Valium.

Rhonda Bear (pictured) is the founder of SheBrews Coffee and Transition Program, and a board member for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. He is a former prisoner and an advocate for incarceration reform.
Rhonda’s bear

My teacher had pills, so I started stealing them from his medicine cabinet. I even befriended kids whose parents had Valium in their medicine cabinet, and their kids brought me. That’s how my addiction continued for so long.

Even when my mom finally divorced my stepdad and we moved two hours east of Dallas, I made new friends, and my new friends’ parents had Valium in their medicine cabinets, so I was able to keep my addiction

My mother found out and tried to help me, but I would run away from the house at night. I’m not going to stop using drugs at that point. So, my mom gave me an ultimatum.

I could either live in the house or move out, but I definitely wasn’t going to live in his house and do drugs. She thought I was choosing to quit drugs, but all I did was walk out the door and not come back. I was 14 and a half years old.

My drug addiction increased because I was introduced to more pills. I had to get creative to maintain this addiction, and I lied a lot. I worked hard to maintain my addiction, which meant I had to go into prostitution, trade my body for money to buy drugs, and trade my body to doctors for free prescriptions.

I would lie and tell men I was 18 when I was 15 or 16. Sometimes, they would hire me to work in their nightclubs and bars, and after finding out my real age I would eventually have to produce an ID. . So, I would have to go find another connection, which lasted for a long time.

At 19, I was so strung out on pills and cocaine that I ended up in a year-long treatment program in Mississippi. So I went to Oklahoma with a clear head on my shoulders to be returned to my mother after the program was over, and I ended up getting married.

My husband at the time was doing over the counter speed pills. He told me that if I did it with him, he wouldn’t let my drug addiction get out of control. It was a lie.

I was such a severe drug addict that there was no control over the monster in me when he woke up. I had three children with him and he raised them in chronic addiction, but I did not do drugs when I was pregnant.

I had all three children through natural childbirth because I did not want to introduce my children to drugs, even through delivery. But shortly after they were born, he would turn to drugs again.

I am at home for a few days, and then disappear for days until finally, the father of my children told me: “Your drug addiction is out of control. You are not coming back here.”

He wouldn’t let me see my children. I thought: “I will start selling drugs, and then I will earn enough money to corrupt the justice system. I will corner the judge with money from drug sales, and I will get my children back.”

It was a very unfortunate situation because I was with a very violent person, and I always stopped. On Thanksgiving Eve 2000, I walked into a casino in Oklahoma and noticed that the security guard knew me.

I ran into an open field with a large brush pile and crawled into it. The police were everywhere. I could see the lights from their cars. They brought dogs and there was even a helicopter. They were after me because I had been arrested in both Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Fortunately, an incredible rainstorm suddenly came. I remember thinking, “Thank God it’s raining because now the dogs can’t pick up my scent.”

But the rain soon turned to ice. Freezing rain and fog began, and eventually, after hours, the search was called off because the weather had become so bad.

I lay at the bottom of this brush pile on this creek for four hours. I remember praying to God, saying: “If you give me the courage to change my life, I will do it. But I can’t go back now. I want to see my children.”

I called the guy I was with at the time and told him to drop me off at a detox center. I told him it was time to let me go because of how mentally unstable I was.

I said, “If you don’t let me go, it will be a murder-suicide.”

I felt sad because I didn’t want to leave him without someone to watch his back, but I knew I wasn’t the one for him anymore because he was in such a bad place.

After spending three days in that detox center, I called the district attorney and said, “I’m going to go back.”

I told all the accounts that were looking for me and said: “I need you to get a package. I’m not going to fight. I’m just going to pray without competition. But I want to see my children, and not I want no one to arrest me in front of them. It will already be traumatic enough that I tell them I’m going to jail.”

I got out of detox on December 7, 2000, and I went to my children’s house and spent the day with them. On December 8th, in the morning, I went to the school bus, and I told them that I was going to prison.

My daughter, who was eight years old, told me: “I can’t even cry because I’ve cried so many times, Mom, saying please, don’t leave me, and you’ve always left me.”

These were sobering words to hear from an eight-year-old boy. I got a ten-year sentence, but the judge said that if I did a twelve-month drug program, he would suspend my time and let me out after the drug program was over.

It was a good thing he did for me because I didn’t deserve it. I was appreciated. It took me nine months to get to a prison that had a twelve-month drug program, and when I finished, the judge kept his word and let me out.

When I came out, my husband left my children. He took care of them while I was in prison. For many years I went into their lives.

With the help of mentors around me, I began to learn how to be a mother. My kids and I are going to counseling so we can heal. I wanted them to be willing to give her another chance to be her mother because it had hurt her so deeply, but it was a long journey.

It honestly took about 20 years to heal.

I remarried and had grandchildren. It seemed like I was living the dream. But my husband said to me one day: “I want you to pray because I believe there is something in you that you need to do.”

That’s when I realized that I wanted to help other women who were in a similar situation to me – mothers who couldn’t see their children because of their addiction.

I asked my husband if we could buy a house to integrate women into the community. The plan was to hold recovery meetings and help these women get their children back. And so we did. Things were going pretty well, and I was able to go into prisons and jails, taking people out and bringing them home.

However, getting these women into employment was slow because of how much their addictions impacted their lives. And so our coffee shop was born.

I wanted to create jobs for these women. What made the cafe successful was that five women in the community got together and took my vision to hire other women who had just come out of prison to work in the cafe.

We started expanding our coffee shop in our small community of Claremore in 2012. In this process, in 2019, the governor pardoned me, which expanded my reach in Oklahoma in 2020.

So the governor ended up appointing me to the board of directors of the Department of Corrections, and he also appointed me a few times to sit on his criminal reform team.

I feel like I’ve made a big mess of my life. But in turning my life around, which I believe God had a big part in, I was able to grow and expand and help other women, especially women in our state who have been affected by addiction.

Without the support of the mentors I met in prison, my story would have looked very different. They gave me a responsibility – something I had never had before. And they encouraged me to keep pushing through treatment for recovery.

We can all be like that for someone.

A person might face a difficulty or problem today, but this does not mean that his situation will be permanent.

We should never underestimate the influence of a mentor or a spouse – they can help us discover inner strength, especially when the person is not aware of himself.

Rhonda Bear is the founder of SheBrews Coffee and Transition Program, and a board member for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. A former prisoner herself, Rhonda is now an advocate for incarceration reform and programs for individuals, especially women, returning to their communities after a prison sentence.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s.

As told to Newsweek associate editor Carine Harb.

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