From addict to educator…Sandra Braithwaite is a ‘Special Person’
Pull Quote: “Every time I tell my story, it’s like I am in a therapy session.”
By Neil Marks
“Y’all ever see a junkie?”
That’s the question Sandra Braithwaite has for a group of Grade Six students at the Mocha Primary School, East Bank Demerara.
“I know one!” one student shouts from at the back of the classroom.
“How they look?” Sandra shoots back, and the answer comes back immediately, “dutty and stink.”
She knows the story all too well.
Nowadays, Sandra travels around the country talking to young people. She is on a mission to get them to stay away from drugs and from the addiction that paralysed her life for 17 long years.
“You go to hell before you die,” is what she tells them about persons who are addicted to drugs, including alcohol.
She trembles at times and has a handkerchief ready in case the tears flow as she tells her story.
“Do you find it difficult to talk about this?”
She nods in agreement, lips clenched, eyes to the heavens.
She pauses for a moment and looks you straight in the eye: “This is therapy for me. Every time I tell my story, it’s like I am in a therapy session.”
This week, Sandra was in one of those therapy sessions. Along with two other recovering drug addicts, she told her story at the Mocha/Arcadia Primary School. Some of them admitted gambling out their lunch money, or drinking beers, or a cup of cherry wine. Her message was that becoming an addict starts with a little and then “graduates” into an unforgiving craving that consumes one’s life.
But Sandra wanted them to know one thing: “You have a choice.”
“In my time, I didn’t have anyone to tell me about drugs,” she told the students. But she hopes her life story would help to save them from the disease that overtook her life.
Sandra was born to Miriam and Hensley Tuesday back in 1953. The first place she called home was in Cowan Street, Kingston.
She was the third of six children born to her mother, who moved to Tiger Bay while Sandra was yet young. Her mother and father separated and she went off to live with her father in Laing Avenue, West Ruimveldt. From there she attended St Stephen’s Scots Primary School.
She subsequently returned to live with her mother in Tiger Bay and attended high school from there.
In August of 1968, aged 15, Sandra wanted to go to Berbice with her friends, but her mother would not tolerate it. As a result, the determined teen secretly made her made to Berbice, and ended up staying there for six months. Her friends’ relatives were into business, and Sandra worked in their ice-cream shop.
During that time, she met a young man and became pregnant. Full with pregnancy, she returned to her mother’s house in Tiger Bay.
“The belly didn’t showing and my mother did not even think I would do something like that,” she remembers. But, as she reflected “the “kochore” neighbours start talking”, insisting on the mother that Sandra was pregnant. Her mother doubted until Sandra “tek in” right at home.
Her mother was livid, but that was covered by the sheer joy of the birth of a beautiful baby girl. In fact, it was Sandra’s mother who ended up naming the baby Michelle.
“The baby was her eyeball,” Sandra explains.
Six months later, Sandra’s mother died, and she had to deal with the torment of those around her blaming her for her mother’s death.
With a six-month old baby and the accusations that she had stressed her mother to death, Sandra moved to Plaisance, East Coast Demerara.
She moved in with a young man for whom she had amorous affections, but his family disliked her. So when her aunt, Jean Brandt, offered her a place at her home in Albouystown, Georgetown, she jumped at the opportunity.
While there, she started knitting, selling clothes and styling hair to make a living. But she had another unique job, that of “picking the fur” of Clarks desert boots men wore.
Using an ingenious technique with needles, she would have the Clarks looking “fluffy and nice.”
With her income, Sandra put food on the table and supported her party girl image.
Almost every night she was at one “picnic” or the other, moving around town and even to the East Coast at the popular Carib Front, just opposite what is now the Ocean View International Hotel.
In time, Sandra came to have a total of four other children – Carletta, Colleen, Honey and Jermain.
But during the day, Sandra acted as mother and teacher to many other children.
“I would help them out with the ‘long division and the ‘decimal sums’ that they just could not understand,” she remembers.
Thankfully, it would be one of those grateful little boys who would rescue her from her wretched life many, many years later.
On a fateful Saturday night 21 years ago, Sandra and a relative were approached by a man who said that he had a parcel to take to Suriname. He offered Sandra and her relative a taste of what he was taking. He rolled up two ‘black joints’ – a mixture of marijuana and cocaine.
Sandra succumbed to the temptation and in that moment her life spiraled out of control.
From that one joint, she developed an insatiable appetite for cocaine and did all that she could to sustain her addiction.
The gold jewellery that she had acquired was the first to go, and then she started stripping her children of the gold that she had bought for them.
Next, it was time for the furniture.
“You would believe that my house was Courts and I had a big blowout sale!”
She sold everything, including the bed her children slept on.
“Everything was gone in the blink of an eye.”
Her children found refuge in the home of one of her sisters, and in time, they moved on with their own lives. She did not even know when her son was taken away by his father to the United States.
Sandra was now a “full-blown junkie.” She had made her resting place the “block,” the place where she could get her supply of cocaine. She did everything she could to survive, including stealing.
She always had with her a knife, a bottle and a cutlass. The implements acted as protectors. But the cutlass helped her find work “weeding yards and so on for a small piece” so she could add it up at the end of the day and buy the cocaine.
She still feels the effects of a broken arm after she fell from a mango tree while stealing mangoes to sell on rainy day. And her left eye is damaged from a fight she ended up in.
“The things I was doing was full insanity,” she recalls.
She was a popular junkie, everyone knew her.
“I was a stick wrap-up in cloth,” she said, describing her stature during that period.
Her family, however, did not give up on her. They would keep her away because of her stealing habit, but they made sure she had food to eat.
Just up the road from the cocaine yard she spent her nights, Sandra knew she could go to the home of her little sister to get a meal.
Every morning, she would check in for a full breakfast and a meal later on. One day, while her sister was busy frying the plantains and egg, she noticed the cupboard “ram pack.” There was everything in it – from bottle jams and corned beef to peanut butter.
Sandra loaded up her bag well, forgot about the breakfast, and headed for a sale.
At times, persons were skeptical to buy from her, knowing they were buying stolen goods.
At one house, one woman asked her where she stole the things from. Sandra insisted that she had not stolen anything.
As the woman picked up one of the tins, at the bottom of it she found Sandra’s name written on it. Apparently, her children and other relatives would send supplies so that the sister would prepare meals for her.
“It turns out that the things were indeed mine. I just didn’t realize I was stealing from myself.”
In time, Sandra became self-centred and selfish about her cocaine. She did not want to be bullied into having to share her cocaine, so she moved from the “block” and started living in the cemetery.
“That’s the place where nobody would come and bother me.”
Seventeen years into her addiction, Malcolm Ferreira, one of the children she used to help, returned home from abroad.
Ferreira, now a popular broadcaster, went looking for “Grams” as she was fondly called. He got the shocking news that “Grams” was now a junkie.
He went in search of her. He found her and continued to visit her from time to time, even in the cemetery. She was always happy to see him, as he would bring a “fine change” for her. Not surprisingly, she took it and bought more cocaine.
In the meantime, Ferreira looked for ways he could help Sandra and one day decided to ask her directly if she would accept help. She said yes, and that was all that was needed for her to begin the process to recovery.
The then Minister of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, arranged for a six-month sponsorship for Sandra with the Phoenix Recovery Project, a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts that opened in August 2008. Sandra was fortunate to squeeze in as the last person of the first batch of inmates. She remembers the day she entered as if it was written in the palm of her hand – September 9, 2008.
A lot of the inmates would escape from the home, but Sandra says that she never did, not for a single day.
“I realized I had a choice. Life is about choices. I decided to stay in the rehab centre and turn my life around.”
When the six months was up, her eldest daughter, Michelle, who was then in the United States and kept in touch with her, agreed to pay for a further four months in rehabilitation.
After ten months, Sandra was now ready to live a new life.
She sought a house she could rent and her relatives helped pay for it, her daughter Michelle in particular.
In time, Sandra returned to Phoenix Rehabilitation Centre as the “Home Mother” looking after the new drug addicts who have decided to make a turnaround.
Every time a new woman enters, Sandra is reminded of the life she once lived and she is determined never to go back to that life.
“I couldn’t look at myself in a mirror.”
Now, Sandra is employed by the Ministry of Health as part of the “edu-tainment” team. She leads a team throughout the country finding fun ways of educating children about the dangers of drug abuse.
She tells her story without any hesitation. She goes into the gory details to really let the children know the grubby life of an addict.
In her days as a youth, she said she had no one to educate her. If she did, perhaps she could have been spared. But now, she wants no one to make the mistake that she did.
September would mark four years of her recovery, and she wants to spend another year at Phoenix to ensure her full recovery.
“They say that it is only after five years at Phoenix that you really start to feel and think as a normal person again; I want to experience that.”