For more than two decades, Tonier Cain lived a life of addiction and near-constant abuse. While she once found herself trapped in a cycle of repeated incarceration, with more than 80 arrests and 66 convictions, she now works to help those going through similar circumstances.
Cain spoke last week in Texoma as the keynote speaker of the Community Behavioral Health Conference in Denison. The annual event brings together mental health advocates, service providers and other community stakeholders to discuss the state and needs of area mental health services.
Cain previously worked as the team leader with the National Center for Trauma-Informed Care. In addition to her work in advocating for trauma-informed care, Cain is also a published author, entrepreneur and soon-to-be television show host.
“Trauma-informed care is when we start to look at what has happened to a person rather than just looking at what is wrong with them,” Cain said. “Trauma has impacted their life to the point that they cannot live a healthy lifestyle or make good decisions.”
Cain estimated that about 92 percent of all women who are incarcerated have experienced some form of trauma.
Cain was the oldest child of a poor family and spent much of her childhood in Annapolis, Maryland looking after her younger siblings, thanks to her mother who was both neglectful and abusive, she said. Cain joked that at age nine, she had eight-and-a-half siblings because her mother seemed to be perpetually pregnant.
“I knew that some people lived in those wonderful houses on the hill and had these families that hug them, love them, and protect them,” Cain said. “Some lived in an alcoholic abusive household like mine, and that’s where you stayed.”
Cain’s experiences with sexual assault and addiction started at about age nine. Despite being victimized, Cain said she began to internalize the abuse she received, and at times, she felt that she deserved it.
“I thought maybe bad things just happen to bad people,” she said. “Maybe I am just a bad child, and these things are supposed to happen to me.”
At a young age, Cain said she formed a compulsion and obsession with brushing her teeth that came directly from her abuse.
“I brushed my teeth not because my mother told me to brush in the morning, after every meal, or at night,” she said. “I brushed my teeth so hard because I though, ‘If only I could brush away the smell of the men when they used to force themselves in my mouth, around my face’. No matter how much I washed my face, no matter how hard I brushed my teeth, that smell would still be there.”
Cain began drinking at about this time as a way of coping from the abuse she received. Cain said her mother was an alcoholic and would often host late-night parties in their apartment.
“I would wander into the living room after the last night’s party and I would find these half-filled cups still sitting around and I would start to drink these half-filled cups,” she said. “What I realized was when I drank these half-filled cups … it just didn’t feel as bad any more.”
Cain was separated from her siblings soon after when they were removed from her mother’s home by Child Protective Services. In her case, Cain was placed with an older cousin who gave her some level of stability. However, her mother came back into the picture a few years later and asked her to come home.
Cain agreed to move back in with her mother and two new siblings, however, the relationship with her mother had changed very little. Within a week, her mother began beating her again.
“I realized she didn’t want me back because she loved me — she needed a babysitter,” she said.
At age 15, Cain was married with consent of her mother to a man who was eight years older than her and was a frequent drinking buddy of her friend. At first, she thought that her new husband could protect her and provide her a stable home, but instead he proved to be abusive.
“When someone came to me at age 19 and said, ‘Try this,’ it was crack cocaine,” she said. “It was the answer to all of my problems. When I did this drug, you know that smell that wouldn’t go away — it went away.”
The addiction led Cain to live on the streets for several years.
In that time, she was arrested on a series of charges including possession of a controlled substance, prostitution and theft. Over the years, she would go through more than 30 court-ordered substance abuse programs, but none of them showed long-term results. In one case, she said she was raped by a male substance-abuse counsellor while getting a ride home from after-care treatment.
Despite the years of abuse, the one pain that Cain couldn’t dull using drugs was the loss of her children. Over the years Cain said she had four of her children removed from her care and put through the foster system. Two of her children were taken from her and adopted out at the same time in the early 90s.
Cain recalls seeing them one last time while on the other side of a one-way mirror with their new parents. Despite being only feet away, Cain said she felt world’s apart from them and was unable to hold them one last time.
“I got used to the abuse,” she said. “What I couldn’t get used to was someone taking my children from my arms and turning their back, walking away from me, never to see my child ever again.
“There are no drugs out there that can take away that pain. I can assure you of this — I tried them all,” she said.
On Mar. 15, 2004, Cain was picked up by a group of bounty hunters and turned over to law enforcement. At the time, she was pregnant again.
Out of fear of losing yet another child, Cain looked for treatment and other programs that would allow her to get sober while still caring for her baby. It was during this time that she learned about treatment that would allow her to stay with her child while focusing on trauma-based care.
Unfortunately, Cain learned that she would not be eligible for the program as she did not meet parole requirements and her time in jail was not long enough for the program. This led Cain to ask a judge for more jail time to allow her to go through the program. The judge ultimately gave her a two-year sentence on what would have been a fineable offense.
Cain’s speech was the latest keynote speech for the annual event in Texoma. In 2018, Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt on the Golden Gate Bridge, spoke at the conference while noted interventionist Candy Finnigan served as the keynote speaker for 2019.
If you or someone you know is looking for help with substance use, call the National Drug Helpline at 1-844-289-0879 or visit http://www.drughelpline.org.