PRISON BEYOND BARS: Addict, Prisoner, Survivor, Mother

Miwaukee mother of seven works to stay clean and earn the respect of her children

[Image] PRISON BEYOND BARS: Addict, Prisoner, Survivor, Mother


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By Lyndsay Thomas

Marsha, 43 years old and mother of seven children, remembers the day she became a crack addict.

Never having done drugs, never much of a drinker, Marsha went out with friends to celebrate her birthday. Later in the evening, Marsha said, the friend “just put the pipe in my mouth.”

Marsha’s friend told her it would make her feel better. From then on, Marsha was addicted to crack.

“It was kind of a crazy feeling. I didn’t know where to buy drugs. I didn’t know anything like that. I looked forward to seeing her on the weekends.”

Before her addiction began, Marsha had three children and was overwhelmed. When she was eleven, an acquaintance molested her.

She didn’t tell anyone because she thought they would blame her. At the age of 14, she went seeking companionship from older men. By the age of 15 she became pregnant with her first child and got pregnant again at 17.

Her father, who owned many houses throughout Milwaukee, told her that if she was going to have children like an adult, she needed to live like an adult. So he moved her and her 30-year- old boyfriend into one of the houses.

Jumping into another relationship, Marsha became pregnant with her third child. Marsha says this relationship was very abusive. 

“He would mentally and physically abuse my older son and would lock him in closets.” She said that she stayed in that relationship until she couldn’t take anymore. She remembers calling her mother and saying, “I need to come back home.”

During this time, Marsha was going to work at Walgreens, attending Milwaukee Area Technical College and trying to take care of her children. She would see her friend on the weekends to get high.

“Every time it seemed like I needed more and more money to give my friend,” Marsha recalled. One weekend, her friend was gone.

Weeks later, Marsha found out that her friend checked into treatment. Looking for a fix, Marsha headed to a crack house. Marsha never got high at home, so she agreed to go with a man she just met at the crack house. They got high at his apartment. Since she didn’t have a ride home, Marsha accepted his offer. In the car, he raped her, holding a wire hanger to her neck.

As she was putting on her clothes she flagged down a detective to report the incident. Marsha recalled with tears in her eyes how he treated her.

“He was so mean to me,” she said.

The detective asked her if she wanted to go to the hospital. She declined. She felt so violated. After that, Marsha went home and scrubbed her body over and over.

“You know when you see women in movies who are raped and they go home and scrub their bodies? That is what I did,” Marsha said.

The young mother wanted more drugs but needed more money.

“That is when the prostitution began,” Marsha said.

With a chuckle, she said, “It was like training for a real-life job.”

Streets as home

Marsha stopped going home. Sex for drugs was more important. Not wanting Marsha’s three children to enter the child welfare system, Marsha’s mother took them in.

Marsha became pregnant again shortly after she began prostituting.

“I ended up having my baby early at 7 months and she was a breach baby, because of the drugs.” Marsha said. She remembered she didn’t stay in the hospital long enough to get the staples out before using drugs again. She left the baby with her mother and went back to prostitution. 

“It was just easier with prostitution,” Marsha admitted.

Pannillia, Marsha’s oldest daughter, says she always wanted her mother in her life.

“I couldn’t understand how she could do this to her kids. She let us down a lot,” Pannillia said.

She said her siblings would be excited when their mother came home, but then Marsha would leave again. Pannillia said she spent a lot of time crying.

In 1992, Marsha was pregnant with her fifth child. She admitted to using drugs the whole nine months of her pregnancy. She remembers leaving the crack house to have her baby. Marsha smoked in the hospital bathroom, fanning the smoke into the fan.

In 1993, her mother retired early from nursing to take care of the children. Marsha was in and out of jail many times on drug and prostitution charges. The following year, Marsha had her sixth child. To lighten the load on Marsha’s mother, her aunt agreed to raise Marsha’s baby boy.

“1995 was a dark time for me,” Marsha said.

She was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing money from one of her ‘customers.’ Her mother brought the children to visit her in prison.
Tuning point?

Marsha was always a smart girl, but after her addiction began she said she wasn’t herself. Marsha recalled, “For the first two years all I did was watch the Young and the Restless. I didn’t learn anything.”

Marsha found herself going back to some of her old ways. “I got my high school diploma in two months,” she said.

When she was finally released, the court helped her find a job at Adelman’s in Milwaukee. Marsha received the rising star award.

“I did really well there,” she said.

But while Marsha was succeeding for the first time in her life, her oldest son was getting in trouble. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Tears running down her face, Marsha recalled, “I thought it was my fault.”

Overwhelmed, Marsha quit her successful job at Adelman’s and returned to the streets.

In 1998, Marsha learned she was pregnant with her seventh child. During that time she got arrested again. She was sent to Horizon House, a half-way house for women offenders in Wisconsin, where she graduated from a 90-day program saying, “Ask me what I did there and I can’t even tell you.” She went back to work at Adelman’s and gave birth to her first clean baby in years. Her family thought she was healed.

Later in March, Marsha wanted to throw her mom a birthday party. “I wanted to do something to say thank you for the things she had done for me.” At the time, Marsha was raising all of her children for the first time and planning a real party. She said she felt stressed out and had few parenting skills. She felt like she was going crazy.

On the night of her mother’s party, she went back to using drugs.

When Marsha went to court for the last time, she begged the judge to get her help. She had seen an ad in the paper for Meta House, a facility that helps women fight addiction. They offer classes and housing for those who qualify.

When the judge gave her the opportunity to go there she said, “That is where my life began.”

When she began the program at Meta House she said she didn’t know who she was and that she had no parenting skills but added, “I wanted to learn so much.”

When she told her daughters of Meta House and how she was getting help, they didn’t really believe her. They had seen her come home and leave again too many times. How would they know that she was really serious?

Pannillia, the oldest daughter, told Marsha, “We have catered to you hand and foot and you are on your own.”
Time for a change

Marsha said that comment inspired her to change. She knew she had to change avoid repeating words if she had any chance of being in her children’s lives. Pannillia saw that Marsha was taking her treatment seriously, and allowed her to stay with her and her two boys. Marsha’s daughter even set her up with a job at Metro Market, where she worked.

Marsha spent her days going to work, then to Meta House. This was her new life. Marsha took parenting classes as well as classes avoid repeating words to fight her addiction.

Marsha did so well during the programs at Meta House and could relate well to the other women, so they hired her as the, Consumer Peer Specialist. Marsha now has contact with all seven of her children, including her oldest son who has seven months left of his 15-year prison sentence.

In a recent note, he said that he blamed her for a long time but is beginning to forgive.

Whenshella, Marsha’s third child, grew up mainly with her father but longed for a mother. She is in college at St. Louis University and says that she tells her friends never to take their mothers for granted.

Whenshella said she still holds a grudge but isn’t sure why. She knows that her mother has been through a lot and though she hated her for a long time, she says, ‘I am really rooting for her!”

Pannillia adds that it is nice to have a grandmother for her children. She said it is good to hear her boys say, “I want to go to grandma’s house.”

“I take care of my mother now.” Marsha said of her mother who now suffers from stage two Alzheimer’s disease. “I take care of her everyday. I get her up, fed her, get her dressed and I have got her hooked up in an adult daycare,” Marsha said. 

After work Marsha picks her up and makes her dinner and goes home to take care of her own children. In a sentimental voice Marsha mutters, “I am just trying to give back what somebody gave to me.”

“And I haven’t looked back,” Marsha said.

Marsha is looking forward to a milestone next summer.

“June 28, 2011 I will be clean for five years.”

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