The Courage to Change: An Interview with Tia Lewis

by Karen Welch


Tia Lewis is a mother of five, grandmother of one and a peer support specialist at the Mental Health Peer Connection in Buffalo, New York.  She provides empowerment and support to individuals who need employment and who are hard to employ.  Tia recently sat down and discussed her long road to recovery from alcohol and drugs with Mental Health World. 

“I first became involved with Mental Health Peer Connection through drug court.  I have been in and out of the penal system since the age of 11.  I am now 48 years old.  I have spent about 20 years of my life incarcerated, give or take a year.

“I was in and out of the court system quite a bit.  I became a ward of the state.  I lived in many group homes.  I did this until my mother gave me to a member of our family who was a madam.  I was sixteen when I got involved in a life of prostitution, pimps and drugs. At the age of seventeen, I eventually ended up robbing a bank for a pimp.  I was caught and sentenced.  I had to serve four years in the JFK Federal Youth camp in Lexington, Kentucky until I turned twenty-one.  I did manage to get my GED in the camp.  I was able to get something out of this experience.

“When I got out, I went right back into the same lifestyle that I had been living before.  At that time, I thought it was glamorous.  I grew up with a lot of glamour.  My mother was a hostess of exotic dancers.  We had a dancing group in our family.  So I was always around lights and stages and stuff like that.  When I got out, I picked up the same lifestyle.  I started traveling extensively, performing exotic dancing and working with an escort service.  At that point I was not involved with any more pimps.  I was handling a lot of money.  Eventually, I met a guy and he introduced me to crack cocaine. 

“My addiction took off in 1984.  I also was drinking.  From there, it was all downhill.  All of the glamour, all the money, all the diamonds, everything was gone.  Everything was gone from using drugs. 

“After 1984, I started spending a lot of time in jail.  I went to Montreal and lived there for three years.  My daughter was born in Montreal and I did time up there.  I stayed in jail everywhere that I went.  I became careless.  I was engaging in more criminal activities so that I could get money to do my crack cocaine. 

“Eventually, I wound up in drug court in Buffalo, New York in 2000. That is where I met my peer Mona White.  I would lie to her.  I would get out of jail and she would take me home. I would go in one door and when she left, I would go out the other door.  She let me bump my head.  She did not force me to do anything.  She tried to empower me. 

“I eventually got caught and went back to jail and did my year. I got reconnected with Mona and she started working with me.  I finally had had enough.  I got involved with another abusive man and I had two children with him.  He was very, very abusive.  His abuse of me led one of my older daughters to kill him.  My daughter is now in jail serving twenty three years. 

“After this happened, I began having these experiences that made me feel as if I was floating out of my body. I wasn’t clean yet but I was close to it.   I started praying a lot.  I would be sitting out on the stoop on Genesee Street and I would be praying.  Sometimes, it was even praying for the drug, ‘God give me one more, and I will go to rehab.’ 

“I played that game for a while.  I would wake up and say, oh, I promised God I would go to rehab.  Always, in the back of my mind, I had a conscience about God.  So I would go.  But I would never stay. 

“Eventually, one time, I did go to rehab and I stayed.    I was really angry. My daughter was locked up.  Also, even though my significant other was abusive, I still loved him and he was dead.  At the rehab, the counselors had a bet I would not stay.  I think I stayed this time to prove them wrong.  

“After rehab, they suggested I go to a halfway house so I went to Casa de Vida , a halfway house for women recovering from substance abuse. I remember the counselors there were peeking out the windows watching me walk off thinking what would they do with me.  Casa de Vida is where my spiritual awakening happened. 

“I was back in drug court.  I had turned myself in.   Because I was with my peer Mona White, the judge did not lock me up.  Mona spoke up and encouraged the judge to give me another chance and he did.  I worked closely with Mona.

“Casa de Vida staff saw something going on with me.  I could talk about the incident with my daughter and significant other in a very detached way as if  I was in another realm.   When I was done talking about it, I would be focused.  I showed no emotion and I was clean about six months.  The staff at Casa de Vida asked me to complete a mental health assessment.  I did and I was diagnosed with severe depression.  My recovery really took place when I dealt with my mental health and drug issues. This was painful but it was okay. 

“I also had to go to grief counseling.  Getting through this grieving process was a miracle.  Sometimes, I still don’t think I have completely grieved, but I am okay today. 

“I eventually started working. It was against Casa de Vida’s suggestions.  I sold newspapers and began cleaning houses.  I would knock on strange people’s doors.  Casa de Vida staff thought that was dangerous.  My peer talked to me too. 

“I worked for Group Ministries as a peer for HIV/AIDS.  I relapsed twice when I was in that job but they took me back.  Group Ministries is the foundation of my life.  That is where I have always gone for support, for mentoring, for everything.  It will always be in my life.

“At one point, I  was working at a clothing store.  My peer rolled up in her car and asked me if I would be interested in the type of work that she does.  I said sure.  She asked me if I thought I was ready.  She said that she saw something in me that needed that added push and I did not look back.  She felt that working with consumers would really push me into my recovery.

“Mona introduced me to my current supervisor.  The three of us went out to lunch.  I interviewed for a job with Mental Health Peer Connection that I did not get.  I hugged everyone in the room at my interview so they thought I had a problem with boundaries.  I was used to hugs from being in the program.  I thought everybody hugged. 

“Another position became available a short time later.  I interviewed for it and I got it.  I didn’t hug anyone at that interview.  My hugging has been a running joke around here.  I have been working at Mental Health Peer Connection for four years.  In May, I won the Employee of the Year award.  I also have my own cleaning business.  Cleaning is a stress reliever for me.  When I have mood swings and I am really up, I clean. 

“Working has really helped my recovery.  I feel a sense of responsibility.  I feel a sense of pride.  My self-esteem increased immediately.  I did not have to depend on the streets for anything.  When I lived on the streets, I did not pay any bills.  Today, I pay my bills. 

“Today, my children are proud of me.  They call me a good mother, even though sometimes I don’t feel like I am.  My children encourage me.  Sometimes they give me a hard time.  I have a twenty-two-year old who just moved back in with me.  She has a lot of anger.  Those are her issues.  I forgive me and God has forgiven me.  She has to work on her stuff. 

“Some days I am really sad, but it is okay.  I do not have to drink or drug .  I have the tools to work with my issues today.  I also spend a lot time with my nieces and nephews.  On any given weekend, I might have seven or eight kids around.  We have a good time.  I take them to church.  The people at church call them my entourage.  

“I love my job. I work with a lot of people.  I have a caseload of fifty although I am closing some cases now.  These are folks who need employment and are hard to employ.  They might need other linkages and natural supports and I help these individuals with that.  I try to be as supportive as I can.  I try to be an example that recovery is possible and that it is an ongoing process, mentally, physically and spiritually.  I show them that I fight my battles and my demons one day at a time.”