I took my first pill at the age of 13

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

My life was completely different. My stepfather insisted that I go play football, which was not a good sport for me because I didn’t have a bone to fight in my body.

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

I was very nervous. I was always afraid of the game. The fear of failure and the fear of letting my team down 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 scared, I just cared about being unstoppable. In that match I scored three goals and became the most valuable player.

My life took a major turn that night because with that pill I regained something I had lost: self-esteem and self-esteem. But the desire to never lose that feeling began, which had led me down a dark path for a long time. That pill was Valium.

Rhonda Bear (pictured) is the founder of the SheBrews Coffee and Transition Program and a member of the Oklahoma Board of Corrections. She is a former prisoner and advocate for prison reform.
Rhonda Bear

My teacher had pills, so I started stealing them from her medicine cabinet. I would also make friends with kids whose parents had valium in the cupboard and their kids would bring me some. That’s how my addiction lasted for so long.

Even when my mom eventually 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 could keep my addiction at bay .

My mom found out and tried to help me, but I would sneak out of the house at night. I wasn’t going to stop using drugs at that point. So, my mom gave me an ultimatum.

I could either live at home or move out – but I’m certainly not going to live in her home and do drugs. She thought I was going to decide to quit drugs, but all I did was walk out the door and never come back. I was 14 and a half years old.

My drug addiction escalated as I was introduced to more pills. I had to get creative to keep that addiction going, and I lied a lot. I worked hard to maintain my addiction, which meant I had to engage in prostitution, trading my body for money to buy drugs, and trading 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 they would find out my age later because I would have to show ID at the end. . So I would have to find another relationship, which took a long time.

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

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

I was such a heavy drug addict that I couldn’t control the monster inside of me when it woke up. I had three children with him and 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, not even through childbirth. But soon after they were born, I’d be back on drugs.

I’d be home for a few days and then disappear for days until finally my kids’ dad said, “Your drug addiction is out of control. You’re not coming back here.”

He didn’t let me see my children. I thought, “I’ll just start selling drugs, and then I’ll make enough money to bribe the justice system. I’ll bribe the judge with the money from the drug sales and get my kids back.”

It was a very unfortunate situation because I was getting along with a rather violent person and I was getting arrested all the time. On Thanksgiving Day 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 pile of bushes and dove into it. The police were everywhere. I could see the lights from their cars. They took the dogs out, and there was even a helicopter. They chased me because I had been arrested in both Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Fortunately, an incredibly strong storm suddenly came. I remember thinking, “Thank God it’s raining because now the dogs can’t smell me.”

But the rain quickly turned to ice. Freezing rain and sleet began, and eventually, after several hours, the search was called off because the weather had gotten so bad.

I lay at the bottom of this pile on this stream 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 give up right 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 the detox center. I told him it was time to let me go because I was mentally unstable.

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

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

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

I told him to all the counties that were looking for me and said, “I need you to get me a package deal. I won’t fight it. I’ll just state that I have no dispute. But I want to see my children, and I don’t want someone to arrest me in front of them. It will be traumatic enough to tell them I’m going to jail.”

I came out of detox on December 7, 2000 and went to my children’s house and spent the day with them. On the morning of December 8, I walked them to the school bus and told them I was going to jail.

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 always left me anyway.”

Those were the sobering words I could hear from an eight-year-old. 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 at all. I was grateful. 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 gave up on my children. He took care of them while I was in prison. For many years I slipped in and out of their lives.

With the help of mentors around me, I began to relearn how to be a mom. My children and I went to counseling to heal. I wanted them to be willing to give me another chance to be their mom because I hurt them so deeply, but it was a long road.

Honestly, it took about 20 years to heal.

I remarried and had grandchildren. It seemed like I was living a 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 addiction.

I asked my husband if we could buy a home 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 to prisons and jails, get people out and bring them into the house.

However, employment for these women was slow due to how much their addictions affected their lives. And that’s how our cafe was born.

I wanted to create jobs for these women. What made the cafe thrive was that five women in the community came together and caught my vision to hire other women who had just been released from prison to work at the cafe.

We started expanding our coffee shop in our small community of Claremore in 2012. As part of that process, in 2019, I was pardoned by the governor, which expanded my reach in Oklahoma in 2020.

The governor then appointed me to the board of directors of the Department of Corrections, and also appointed me several times to sit on his task force on criminal reform.

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

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

We can all be that for someone.

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

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

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

All views expressed in this article are those of the authors.

As told to Newsweek Associate Editor Carina Harb.

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