Barbara at work at the Center for Women in Transition
Barbara at work at the Center for Women in Transition

My childhood in St. Louis, Missouri was a happy one. My mother had seven sisters, and when they began to have children, they continued to live at home with my grandmother.   Four of my first cousins and I grew up together. We were normal kids who played and got into trouble sometimes, and when we got out of hand, my grandmother was the one who punished us.

The first school I remember attending was Laclede Elementary, which was in walking distance from our house.  In third grade, I got suspended because I hit another student when she refused to give my cousin a piece of candy. I was afraid to tell my mother, so I left for school  the next day as I normally would and walked around the neighborhood. This lady asked why I wasn’t in school, so I told her what had happened. She offered to write a letter to get me back in school, and I left her as happy as I could be. When I got school, though, I found out she had written that she did not know me, but I had been walking around outside by myself, and she was concerned. Of course the principal called my mother and told her to come pick me up. I can’t remember if I got a spanking, but I do know I was glad to return to school.

I liked school, but I couldn’t resist being the class clown and getting into trouble, even knowing that my mother would whip me for it. As a young child, I liked to skate, run, dance, play baseball and volleyball, and meddle with adults. Why, I don’t know, but upsetting them made me laugh. At any given time, I always had a bag of something sweet, mostly candy. In fact, looking back, I realize candy was my first addiction. If my mother or someone else in the household did not give me money for candy, I would steal the change laying around the house, or I would cry and throw a fit until I got it.

When I was 11 or 12 years old, my mother met a man who would later become my step dad. I did not like him and did not want him as part of

Pruitt Igoe Projects, St. Louis
Pruitt Igoe Projects, St. Louis

our family. Although he was a good person, I did not realize that until many years later. He worked hard to support us, but I wanted nothing from him. To this day, I do not know why I did not like this man, except that he and my mother moved us to the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects. I fought tooth-and-nail to stay with my grandmother, but in the end, I had to go with my mom.

In time, I grew to love the projects. I met other teens who were as confused about life as I was. Around the age of 16, my friends turned me on to cough syrup with codeine and weed. I loved the way I felt like I could take on the world if I wanted to, and we could just walk into any drugstore and buy this cough syrup. Then the FDA began to require a prescription to buy it. I guess I was about 18 when this happened, and someone suggested we get some heroin because they said the high was the same as the syrup. Like a fool, I tried heroin and my life was a roller coaster from that day on.

Addiction caused me to be in and out of jail until I was about 45 years old. Drugs had such a grip on me that sometimes when I got locked up, I would be relieved. I was caught in a revolving door where I would get out of prison, get a job, get a house, get my children back, and then relapse again.  I wanted to be drug-free but had no idea how to make it happen. Treatment was not talked about at that time. The mindset was that addicts chose to use drugs, so they had to suffer the consequences.

In my mind, I was not a bad person because I did not steal from my family. I had given myself permission to steal from stores, my rationale being that stores were insured, so no one got hurt.  After going to prison for the third time, I started to look at myself, but I still had no idea that I was an addict or what I needed to do to change.  When I went back to prison for the fifth and last time, I knew I had to do something different.

The day I had been arrested, my family was in the process of moving on a Saturday morning. While my son and daughter, who were living with me at the time, went to get the second load of belongings to take to the new house, I decided to run downtown to Macey’s. I was dope sick and could hardly help with the move, so I had planned to steal something quickly, so I could get my fix.

But I got busted.

inside prisonMy daughter had no job to support her two small children. When she came to see me in jail, I told her that I had violated my parole and would not be getting out. I could see the fear and hurt in her eyes. She didn’t know how she and her children would survive. The pain in her eyes that day, along with my desire to escape from the revolving door, finally got me to seek the help I needed.

I wanted to change and make a better life for myself.  My daughter and grandkids were also a big factor as well as the prison warden. I worked in administration as the Institution Activities Clerk in the same building as the warden’s office, across the street from the prison.  She and I would talk about my life, my children, and my addiction to drugs. She respected me and the way I carried myself while I was doing time.  We met the first time I landed in prison. She was about 5 feet tall, very intelligent, and she dressed smart. She talked to me plainly so I would understand in lay terms what she said to me. Don’t get me wrong. I was not a goody-two-shoes in prison, but I kept up the appearance that I was.

The last time I got high was in prison, and that is where I made the final decision not to get high again, and to this day I have not. I made this decision because I was on work release and close to getting my good time to get out in three years rather than seven. Then me and two other women had used heroin and crack on a Friday, and the next Tuesday I was asked to give a drug test. I prayed as hard as I could asking God not to let those drugs still be in my urine. Cocaine and heroin can clear in 72 hours if you just use them once. Well, I did not drop dirty, and I was grateful.

I had told my roommate I was never going to use again when I got to the streets, but after risking four more years of incarceration, I told her I was not using again in prison either. When drugs came my way, I passed them on to another friend. Had I known what I know today about addiction, I would not have given the drugs to anyone else either.

I came home October 3, 1995. My family would always welcome me back with open arms each time I got out of prison. Like so many families, they hoped I would stay away from drugs. Before this, their dreams had always been dashed when I had gotten involved with the same old people, places, and things. But they never gave up on me. They always did what they needed to do for my children. When I disappeared, they hoped and prayed that the phone call they would get would be that I was in jail and not dead.

That October in 1995 began a new way of life for me, though, because I joined a support group called Let’s Start which is dedicated toletsstart_logo assisting women in transition from prison life to society. I began to find out what I needed to do to stay clean, and I learned about myself and my addiction. I finally let go of those old people, places and things. No one besides positive people and family members knew how to get in contact with me.

After eighteen months of sobriety, my family gave me a birthday party. A woman in my support group had told me to stop counting the days, so I had not realized that I had been out of prison for that long. The most painful thing about getting clean was to learn that my children had suffered the most from my addiction and incarceration. My son is a heroin addict, has been to prison, and is now on probation. My daughter stayed away from drugs, but she struggled as a young single parent who could not depend on her mother for help in any way.

For the first two years, I had an apartment out in the country, so none of my old influences would find me. After I felt people knew I was serious about changing my life, I moved back into the city. During that time, Let’s Start taught me how to approach judges, legislators, probation officers etc. I had no idea how I was going to use any of this information at this stage in my life. I was just desperate to stay clean and out of jail. My way of life had never worked for me, so I listened and took suggestions. I’d always known the God of my understanding had a plan for my life because I survived two overdoses, so there must have been a reason for Him to keep me around.

Then I was hired by the Center for Women in Transition and was given an opportunity to use my past to help other women struggling withlogo-side-gold3b addiction and advocate for alternatives to incarceration. I did not come out of jail with an ideal that I was going to work with other women who had been in my situation, nor that I would become a role model for them. I am so comfortable in this job. This had to be God’s plan for my life. No one could have told me that I would have judges calling to ask my advice about clients, or that judges would reschedule clients’ court dates to accommodate my busy schedule. The God of my understanding has blessed my life so much. I could not be here without His grace and mercy.

My future goals are to live a simple life and be there for my grandchildren. I can’t get back the special times and events that I missed in my children’s lives, but I can give back through my grandkids. I turned 64 at the end of April and am getting close to retirement, however, I still plan to continue to help women get their lives back on track. Supporting other mothers in recovery means that fewer children will have to go through what my children experienced with me drifting in and out of their lives.

“My motto is: A closed mouth don’t get fed.”

             My Advice: If you or a family member struggle with addiction, don’t hesitate to ask for help. I don’t care how well you know a person, when their addiction is active, you are not dealing with or talking to that person. You are talking to their addiction, and it won’t hear you. You have to be ready to show tough love. Don’t get caught up in the fear that if you put them out of the house, they will die out there. If you let them stay and they continue to use, one thing will surely happen: death, jail or another institution. Addiction affects the whole family, but the fact that someone in your family uses drugs has no reflection on you. We can give our children the best upbringing possible, but we have no control over the paths they choose. Tough love is not saying, “I don’t love you.” It is saying, “I’m here to support you in getting help, but I will not watch you DIE.”

If you are using and trying to stop, it can happen, but there are things that you must do.

  • Get involved in some type of support group.
  • Change people, places and things. You can’t have a relationship with anyone who is still using. You won’t get them clean. They will get you high.
  • Go to treatment and get a sponsor.
  • Seek out the help you need.  Look up resources on the Internet.
  • WE DO RECOVER.

In working towards your goals, no matter what they might be:

 

The links in this article provide lots of great information and resources. We’d love to hear your thoughts and welcome experiences you’d like to share. Your comment could be the tipping point in someone seeking help in dealing with a loved one or setting personal goals to recreate their own lives.

14 thoughts on “Former Prison Inmate, Barbara Baker, Helps Women to Recreate Their Lives

  1. In a recent interview, President Clinton said of “3 Strikes” that it went too far; it created a mass criminalization of poor communities. There was no money left for true rehabilitation and training, hence the huge recidivism rate and hopelessness. As we know, prisons created jobs in failing small Midwest towns and big bucks for the corporations that own them. It seems to me there are few programs like Let’s Start to help people get back on their feet and make a new life for themselves. Thanks for this story!

    1. Lets Start was my starting point but like they say it takes a village to raise a child so does helping addicts returning to our community. Center for Women in Transition is the glue that gave me an opportunity to keep my addiction in front of me with the clients I work with and the trust they put in me.

  2. Your powerful story should well inspire others in their own journeys toward recovery. Your family’s lengthy forbearance was and is a precious gift. Thanks for sharing a tale that reminds us all not to abandon the addicted to the ash heap of society. Recovery can and will happen!

  3. Yes, Barbara, I like how you put it: It takes a village. I still believe that, I guess because I’m from the optimistic ’70’s. More resources have to be allocated to create the opportunities for those villages of transformation/transition to develop–and for folks like you to do your healing work.

  4. Yes they do but that won’t happen until us as taxpayers take and stand about how our tax dollars are being spent. addiction is a illness and must be treated just as you would any other illness.

  5. It’s amazing how many people still think addiction is a conscious choice rather than a mental, physical, trecherous yet treatable disease. Taxpayers would save by allocating funds for treatment rather than prison terms for drug charges.

  6. I agree with both of you. I have friend who has been advocating for very sick people with Eating Disorders to have insurance pay for lifesaving treatment, but many just waste away or die of sudden heart failure; addicts OD or waste away, too. Neither is a disease with huge fundraising campaigns. As neuro-scientists testify to what constitutes an illness and people of goodwill take a stand, it will happen. Do you suggest celebrities, politicians, or other grassroots leaders as main spokespersons for this kind of movement? I am on Obamacare right now and feel damn lucky. In my state of TX they want to repeal it rather than fortify it.

  7. This story is an amazing one of hope and encouragement. Thank you so much for sharing it – I’m sorry I just read it!!

    1. Don’t be and please share also if anyone wants to ask questions or talk to me I am happy to do so. Change is possible with support and hard work

  8. The grassroots movement is surging, and together we will reach a critical mass to make changes as to where our tax dollars go. Just look at the Supreme Court rulings today on upholding ACA and the Fair Housing Act. There are the fear-mongers, bigots, and reactionaries who oppose humane programs, take life, and try to go back to “the good old days” of discrimination, but progress is being made!

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