How a Homeless Addicted Prostitute Turned Her Life Around

By Cathy Cassata 01/05/15

After 83 arrests and the loss of four babies, Tonier Cain found redemption and purpose.

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tonier cain
Tonier Cain

For nearly 20 years, Tonier Cain was homeless on the streets of Annapolis, Maryland, where she spent her days and nights prostituting and desperately feeding a crack and alcohol addiction. She endured rapes and beatings regularly, and had four children taken away by Social Services. 

In 2004, with 83 arrests and 66 convictions to her name, Cain found herself back in prison and pregnant, yet again. This time was different though. This time her life changed in a way she never imagined possible. 

“I had been to so many treatment programs that I lost count. Nothing seemed to help, so here I am pregnant again in prison again and terrified about how I’m going live through having another baby snatched from me. The thought of it made me suicidal,” she says. 

You see, my turnaround has changed the course of my daughter’s life.

When on the streets, drugs and alcohol were Cain’s way of coping, but in prison, she had nothing to numb out the pain until she was given the opportunity to enroll in a community program called T.A.M.A.R (trauma, addictions, mental health, and recovery), which was established based on the notion that a sizable percentage of adults and children in the prison or juvenile justice system have trauma histories involving violence and victimization that may include sexual abuse, physical abuse, severe neglect, loss, domestic violence and/or the witnessing of violence. During the program, Cain received mental health, substance abuse, and trauma treatment.

“Up to that point, I felt that there was no hope for me. When I heard that the program would help me with the trauma in my life, I didn’t know what that meant. I thought trauma was when you got hit by a car or came back from war. I never thought that trauma was being sexually abused or having abandonment issues or being beat by men who told me that they loved me,” she says. 

In the program, therapists trained in traumatic recovery helped Cain uncover her trauma. She revealed how she lived with an alcoholic mother who neglected Cain and her 9 siblings, how she was sexually assaulted by neighborhood men, and that she began drinking at nine years old, becoming an alcoholic by 15. 

“I thought these things were supposed to happen because where I came from all that was the norm and happened to everyone. It was generational, and you didn’t question it,” notes Cain. “But I experienced trauma my whole life and throughout the correctional system I came across so many people who really didn’t understand someone with trauma history. No one focused on what happened to me. I was always asked what was wrong with me until I went to T.A.M.A.R.”

Cain agreed to attend the program because she thought doing so would allow her to keep her fifth child. “I didn’t believe it would help me at the time. I just thought it might buy me time with my baby once I gave birth to her. I thought ‘maybe, just maybe, if I could hold this baby for more than three hours things will be different this time.’ It turned out to be the program that changed my life and so many others that I’ve touched as a result.”

Healing Others

After completing T.A.M.A.R. in 2004, Cain was sober and able to keep her child. To give back, she volunteered to work at the program. After three months of volunteering, she was offered a permanent job there. She received promotion after promotion until she eventually became the executive assistant to the co-founder of T.A.M.A.R.

Around that time, a friend of Cain’s who was creating a film about T.A.M.A.R. asked to feature Cain. She agreed, and went on to travel with the producers to speak about her experiences. So began Cain’s crusade. Today, she is the subject of her own film Healing Neen and author of her memoir Healing Neen. 

In 2006, T.A.M.A.R. had to close its doors due to lack of government funding, yet Cain continued her crusade. She worked for the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors for five years as the team leader and was team leader for the National Center for Trauma Informed Care. Today, she speaks all over the country with women in prisons and hospitals, as well as speaking to people who come in contact with trauma victims, such as mental health and substance abuse providers, correctional officers, police officers, parole and probation officers, healthcare providers, university officials, and people in the community. She has spoken to the Agency on Sexual Assault, Department of Social Services, Child Protective Services, as well as superior court judges. Cain also plans to open her own trauma-informed care clinics throughout the country.

“Advocacy kind of fell into my lap, but I believe it’s my propose to bring awareness and understating of how trauma affects individuals. Up to 90% of people in the prison system are traumatized. I spread awareness on how trauma can prevent a person from living a healthy lifestyle. When we bring them into the system, we need to understand that we can’t have the traditional treatment plans or settings because they’re not going to work for the trauma survivor,” she explains.

Healing Neen

Cain’s book, Healing Neen, is a detailed story about her life on the streets, her recovery, and healing process. She dedicated a chapter to those who are suffering, another to providers, and one to religious leaders.

For those suffering from trauma and addiction, Cain hopes the book brings hope. 

“For me and for a lot of trauma survivors, we got addicted to a substance to help numb out the pain. Everyone talks about recovery, but what we really need to talk about is why people start using in the first place and how they can heal from things,” she says.

Cain’s book reveals many dark moments, such as when she was seven months pregnant and prostituting, her water broke during sex. With the 10 dollars she was paid, she went to a shooting gallery before going to the hospital. 

“The reason I talk about shameful things like this is because shame has stopped a lot of us from healing since we don’t want to talk about those deep, dark secrets. Sharing my story shows that despite all of the awful things I’ve done, there is hope,” says Cain.

The book also explains the many times Cain believes the system could of intervened, but failed to. 

“In the book and when I speak to providers, I tell them ‘I know your work gets tiring and overwhelming especially when you have to deal with people like me who come back 83 times, but don’t give up, I was eventually helped,’” she says.

Cain addresses religious communities, as well. “There were so many times when I was sitting on the front steps to a church, feeling hopeless, and people would just walk right by me or push me aside. No one asked me to come in or if I needed help,” she says. “Finding a connection with God was a big part of my recovery, and I believe there are ways churches can help those dealing with trauma.”

Stopping the cycle

Cain says there’s a bigger picture behind sharing her story that involves breaking generational cycles. Although four of her children were taken from her and adopted by families, Cain is raising her fifth child.

“She doesn’t know what it’s like to be hungry, not to be loved, or protected. She goes to a great school and she’s involved in healthy things like afterschool plays and yoga. You see, my turnaround has changed the course of my daughter’s life. She won’t grow up in poverty or a challenging area. What she knows she’s learned from her environment and me, and that has decreased the chances of her being in the correctional system,” Cain says. "I believe all the work I do not only affects individual people, but society as a whole.”

Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about addictions to sugar and tanningConnect with her on twitter—@Cassatastyle.

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Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She is a regular contributor to Everyday Health and Healthline. View her portfolio of stories at https://cathycassata.contently.com. Connect with her on Twitter at @Cassatastyle.

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