In her own words, Tonya “grew up rich.” She married (fairly early, by today’s standards) to a man who already had two kids of his own. They added five more to the family, for a total of three girls and four boys, separated by 10 years from youngest to oldest. As her family grew, Tonya lived a normal life. She worked hard, sometimes at two jobs, and the was very close to her mother.
As it turns out, it was that close relationship – or, rather, the end of it – that began the long, downward spiral towards a 16-year jail sentence.
The word “spiral” is all too commonly used in describing how a life goes from “fairly normal” to complete brokenness and a jail sentence. However, as I listened to Tonya tell her story, spiral is exactly how she told it. She held her grandson, whose mother (Tonya’s daughter) is addicted to heroin, as I listened to how the changes in her life went around and around and around, affecting not only her family, but her co-workers, extended family, and people she met along the way to redemption and restoration.
The journey started when Tonya was 32 years old, and her mother died of breast cancer. At the time, she was married to her second husband, and, as previously mentioned, they had seven children. When her mom died, Tonya simply checked out. That decision led to a 13-year addiction to cocaine and crack, and a long history of physical abuse.
At that time, her husband Gary was an enabler. He would later become her biggest helper in times of need, but during the early years of Tonya’s addiction, Gary fed that addiction, making it easier for Tonya to get the coke and crack and helping her to function at work when she was high. But after a time, Gary saw the damage being done, and he left Tonya to deal with her addiction and the kids on her own.
She couldn’t do that on her own – who could?!? – so she met and married Joey, a successful house painter who was doing very well. Tonya continued her work and cleaned houses on the side while also helping Joey with painting when he needed it. They made good money. But Joey made even better money dealing drugs. So much so that when he thought Tonya was getting in the way of his money making, he tried to kill her. He tried to kill her three times by giving her an overdose of drugs. On the way to the ER the final time he tried to kill her, Tonya’s heart stopped beating three times.
But she kept going back to Joey. That’s what addicts do. She went back every time until she was diagnosed with cancer, and Joey physically kicked her out, dropping her off in the middle of nowhere with nothing. Gary picked her up, and returned her “home”, but he continued to enable her addiction. To make things worse, when she returned to work, one of her co-workers was a dealer. “It wasn’t like before,” says Tonya, “but it was easier because I could work all day and then get my fix as soon as I clocked out.”
Tonya’s addiction now began to take its toll on her own money, rather than Joey’s. She wrote bad checks for food, electricity, water…everything except the drugs. She paid cash for the crack. When the arrest warrant was issued for her bad checks, Gary removed her from the situation again, and for a while, she was clean, not using.
While she was clean, she met and befriended a man whose wife was not able to bear children. Tonya offered to be their surrogate mother, but right after she made that offer, the friend’s wife successfully gave birth to a baby boy, who subsequently had to undergo two cardiac surgeries to correct several congenital defects. When the boy was four years old, he was with his mother when she was killed in a car accident.
At age four, this little boy, whose life was already tough enough, told Tonya, “I saw angels come take mommy away.”
The drug use returned, and Tonya was now in a relationship with the little boy’s father, but this father had also turned to drugs and abusing Tonya after his wife died. After the first time he hit Tonya, she left, but returned when he promised never to hit her again.
[Tweet “If he hits you once, don’t ever believe the promise that he won’t hit you again. It’s a lie. “]
She did go back, and the last time she was ever abused or did drugs was the day that he dragged her up their driveway by her hair in broad daylight in front of all the neighbors. Tonya has been clean ever since that day, Thanksgiving Day 2007.
But that day was not yet the bottom of the downward spiral.
The very next day, Tonya was at her job at Waffle House, relating her story to her co-workers and a local preacher who came to the restaurant every morning. As she told the tale, she told them of all her dreams as a girl, and a wife, and a mother, everything she ever wanted in life, but couldn’t have because of her choices which led to her addictions.
As she told them what happened, Danny Long, a visitor from Florida, intervened and said, “I’ll give you all those things. No strings attached. But you have to come with me and leave now. Tonight.”
She went. Tonya took the clothes on her back, and left Birmingham and went to Florida with a man she had never met in her life. The preacher had said to her, “Perhaps God has sent you an angel.”
Danny was wealthy. He did indeed give her all those things she dreamed of. She lived in a beautiful house, had a brand new car, and a business of her own. Danny even paid for her children to come visit her on holidays, and went so far as to buy two of Tonya’s kids cars of their own. No strings attached.
Danny had been abused in his childhood, sexually abused. Drugs and alcohol were not his issue. Pornography was. After a year of living with Danny, he broke it off. “We can’t live together anymore.” No strings attached, Danny gave her everything he had ever bought her, and, once again, Gary came to bring her home, this time to Atlanta, where Tonya was immediately confronted with her daughter’s addictions.
Tonya’s daughter had lost several children, but was pregnant again, and addicted to cocaine. Just before giving birth, Tonya’s daughter robbed her boyfriend’s parents home of jewelry and a gun. The daughter had no valid ID, so she couldn’t even pawn the gun, but Tonya could. Against her new, better judgement, Tonya pawned the gun, and was promptly arrested, and put in jail for the first time in her life, not only for pawning a stolen gun, but for all the bad checks she wrote years before.
During her seven-week stay in jail, Tonya was strangled and beaten by another inmate. When she gets out, she misses her court-mandated payment on the bad check debt by one day, and is returned to jail. This time, her sentence is nine months of probation. “I was so happy! I knew I deserved more.” Tonya never left the property. She was arrested immediately following her sentencing for again missing the court-mandated payment on her bad check debt.
The judge sentenced Tonya to sixteen years in prison. Tonya had reached the bottom of her downward spiral.
In prison, Tonya began attending AA and going to the church services. Every day she tried to call her family to get help, but they never answered. On the verge of giving up hope in her friends and family, “God told me, ‘call just one more time.'” She called her brother, and told him everything that had happened. Two hours later, Tonya says she heard God’s voice again, saying, “You’re going to hear something.”
She still owed outstanding debts from when she wrote the bad checks so long ago. On a regular basis, Tonya would be called into court to try to settle the debts from those checks that she kited so she could have her cocaine. After speaking with her brother, and clearly hearing God tell her something would happen, she was called into court again to settle the debts. Finally, knowing she had no money, Tonya offered $100 to settle everything.
The judge accepted the offer.
After 4 months in prison on a 16-year sentence, Tonya was released, free of all charges. “I don’t know why,” Tonya told me. The judge had reduced her sentence to time served.
Now Tonya was homeless. She applied to be accepted into the Atlanta Mission’s My Sister’s House, and entered the Personal Development Program on December 14, 2013. Tonya graduated 13 months later, and, through the Atlanta Mission’s job attainment program, she had a job waiting for her when she graduated.
Tonya’s new job required her to bend and pick up items all day every day. Tonya has fibromyalgia, so while she had a job, she was in constant pain. Tonya applied for, and got another job, but when she arrived to start work at that new job, she felt the downward spiral poised over her head, ready to collapse her life again.
“They didn’t call you and tell you? I’m so sorry, but your background check did not meet our criteria.”
Tonya was crushed. “The old Tonya,” she told me as she hugged her grandson, “would have run to the nearest dealer and got a fix. The new Tonya said, ‘God will provide.'”
And so God did. Tonya returned to her previous position, despite her fibromyalgia pain, and also applied to another part time position at a sign shop. This new part time job required Tonya to work three hours a day. On her first day, she had been there an hour, when her new employer asked her, “Do you have another full time job?”
“Yes, I do,” Tonya had responded.
“Well, you need to quit that job. You’re hired full time.”
Tonya now runs that shop, and is studying to become a graphic designer. She is married to Darrell, also a recovering addict, and is the full time caretaker to her grandson, whose mother is heading towards the bottom of her own downward spiral on heroin.
Tonya’s grandson kept us both entertained as she told me her story. “He had no prenatal care at all. They said he would have this issue and that, but he’s perfect.”
As we finished our time together at My Sister’s House, Tonya’s phone rang. “That was Gary. He’s on his way to pick us up.”
Gary. The same Gary. No longer enabling, but helping Tonya rebuild her life.