by Susan Brown
From the crack house to the White House, Tonja Myles’s life is a parable of redemption. “I wake up every day like I’m on a mission: Don’t give up, recovery is real!” Her remarkable path from addiction and near-death to a national platform for recovery is recounted in a forthcoming book, “Rock Bottom and Back – from Desperation to Inspiration.” The book, written by The New York Times best-selling author Susan Mustafa with Earl B. Heard, chronicles the lives of 22 people who have used their experiences to reach out to others in similar situations.
“I didn’t think I’d live to be 21. With everything I was doing, the odds said I should have been dead, but by the grace of God I’m alive today,” Myles said. After a near-fatal overdose, she made a vow to God that if he gave back her life and set her free from addiction, she would help others. Now, she spends every day working to eradicate addiction. “I wake up every day in that mode like today is the day.”
For Myles and her husband, Darren, that means taking the message of faith plus hard work everywhere: to street corners, families, prisons and politicians. They founded Set Free Indeed ministries through Healing Place Church. “I took God at his word,” Myles explained. “‘So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,’” (John 8:36).
When Myles’s story of addiction and recovery caught the eye of the Bush administration in 2003, she was among those recognized during the State of the Union address. To her surprise, Myles was invited to sit with first lady Laura Bush at the Capitol as President George W. Bush pointed to the Set Free Indeed ministry as an example of successful faith-based addiction initiatives. The president proposed a $600 million program to provide addiction treatment, adding that “the miracle of recovery is possible, and it could be you.”
“Afterwards, I went to meet him and said, ‘Thank you for the shout-out, Mr. President,’” Myles said. Subsequently, Darren was appointed by the president to serve on the National Drug Policy Board. They established a close friendship with Jim Towey, director of the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. They regularly met at the White House to work on addiction-related issues, and traveled with the Bush administration to design and foster policy changes.
Faith Plus Hard Work – What?
The concept of faith-based licensed treatment facilities was so new, so different and so unfamiliar to standard addiction treatment that “people told me that was never going to happen,” Myles said. “But I believed God.” She drafted friends with expertise in the field and wrote a curriculum detailing a model program using best practices while applying the Word of God, and they began establishing more licensed, faith-based treatment centers. “Many are still open and running and doing well,” Myles said, including the original site the couple sold in 2009.
“A lot of times people say, wait a minute, you’re giving money to faith-based organizations – that’s government money,” Myles said. “Well, first of all, it’s not government money, it was your money, it’s your tax dollars at work, so you have a right to say what you want that money to go towards.” Many have opted for faith-based treatment. “They knew that our primary goal was to tell people about the love of God, the power of God and the Word of God, but also give them some best practices – evidence-based treatment.” Louisiana bought the curriculum. “It was a win-win for everybody,” Myles said.
Getting to the Heart Issue: Tonja’s Early Story
There is no one-size-fits-all way to address addiction, Myles cautioned. An addicted person’s life may be a perplexing combination of both wholesome and unhealthy experiences. Rather than ask an addicted person, “What’s wrong with you?” Myles said it is helpful to ask, “What happened to you?” As a young girl, no one asked that question. The result was confusion, self-blame and a dangerous, downward spiral.
“I came from a pretty good family, a loving family,” she said. “I was raised in the church and my parents made sure I stayed in school and graduated. My dad was an amazing guy. He was like a drill sergeant.”
At the same time, there was another, secret scenario. “When I was 7 years old, I was molested,” Myles said. “By the time I was 10 years old I was sexually active. I’ve been raped. I was a cutter. You name it.” She developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Her mother had destructive issues of her own, including alcoholism.
The inner turmoil led to challenges in the classroom. Her mother was constantly called to the school. “I was a smart kid. People always told me that I had this great calling on my life, but I just had a behavior issue,” she said.
“I was a little girl who had dreams and aspirations of singing on Broadway and doing something great. The whole molestation robbed me of that because I thought all my hope was gone, that nobody would ever marry me, nobody would ever love me. Back in the day I didn’t think anybody was going to believe me. And I thought it was my fault.”
“What was done to me was horrific; they were older than I was and they knew what they were doing. Have I forgiven them? Absolutely,” she said. “I had to forgive them because I grew up hating them and hating myself. There was so much hatred inside of me that made me become destructive.”
Eventually, she began to funnel that hatred into addiction and revenge. She began sleeping with men to get money for drugs. “You had to be married and have a lot of money,” she said. “I was going to destroy men by making them more vulnerable to me. I thought I was taking their power, but they were taking my power.”
Out of Control – Into Grace
“I went to LSU first and then got kicked out because I was using drugs,” Myles said. “Then I went to Southern where I met a guy who ended up being a drug dealer, and that’s when my drug addiction got really bad.” She dropped out of school, tried to kill herself and went to a mental hospital for 30 days. When her parents found out she was using their money for drugs, not tuition, they drew the line.
“They were like, ‘You know what, we’re done with you. If you want to go to college you’re going to have to find it the best way you can.’”
“So I said, ‘Forget you, okay I’ll do it.’” She decided to join the Louisiana Army National Guard, a step that helped save her life. She served for nine years, including work in the military police.
“It taught me the structure that I needed – the discipline,” she said. “I excelled really fast, and that’s when I realized I needed to do something different with my life.”
“I tell people the last time I tried to kill myself, I died a spiritual death,” she said. For the third time, she had taken a near-fatal dose of drugs. But she discovered that she didn’t want to die, she wanted to live. She was afraid no one would find her in time.
“I made a vow to God that day. I said, ‘If you help me, if you would really give me my life back, if you would give me dignity, if you would give me my self-respect back, if you would give me a good name, I would serve you and I would tell people about your goodness,’” she said. “The old Tonja died and the new one was resurrected.”
She found her way to her grandmother, Alberta Watson (nicknamed MaDear after the movie character Madea). “It was my grandmother, I know, that kept me alive on her knees. She prayed me through a lot,” Myles said.
“I went to my grandmother’s house and I said, ‘Dea, he’s trying to kill me.’ And she said, ‘Who?’ I said, ‘The enemy.’ She told me if you give your life over to the Lord, he will give you the desires of your heart,” (Psalm 37:4).
“I took her at her word because I was at death’s door. I was so close to dying and going to hell,” Myles said. That night, she prayed a prayer of faith, asking Jesus to take over her life.
“I woke up the next day and I was truly set free. Don’t get me wrong. I had to walk it out every day. There was temptation still coming my way because I was a chief sinner,” she said. “’The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly,’” (John 10:10).
Stepping Into a New Life
“I had to learn how to eat different, talk different, walk different. People, places and things had to change in my life,” she said. “The Bible says, ‘Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind,’” (Romans 12:2). She found a church that taught the Bible on a practical level. She read everything she could find on treatment and counseling to fulfill her pledge to help other addicts.
“I’m crucified with Christ and so every day I have to tell myself that my life is not my own … that I no longer live, but Christ lives in me,” (Galatians 2:20).
“I’m telling you, once you surrender to God and you put those principles into place, if you do the work there are rewards,” she said. “‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you,’” (Matthew 6:33).
“Who knew that a person like me would coach thousands and thousands of people to get their lives in order and help thousands of people get saved? Nobody but God could have done that.”
Don’t Give Up
“After I got clean, I was able to help my mom [Hattie Richard] get clean,” she said. It was tough on Myles, especially at the age of 19.
“One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was when my mom was about to burn down the house,” she said. “I had to go to the coroner’s office and say my mom was going to kill herself and sign those papers.” The next day the authorities put her mom in the back of a police car and drove her to the Tau Center.
“The next day I took her some clothes, and she said she didn’t want to see me ever again,” Myles said. Thirty days later, however, her mother said it was the best thing that she could have done. Richard spent the remaining 25 years of her life helping other people overcome addiction through O’Brien House.
Myles finds it most rewarding to work with families whose children are struggling with addiction and destructive behavior. “You can’t give up. I know it’s hard. You have to see that this is not my child. This is the addiction that is plaguing my child,” Myles said. “Through all the mess, find where your kid is [emotionally] and just begin to speak to that. The Bible says there’s death and life in the power of the tongue. Every day speak life.”
Some four years after being set free from addiction, Tonja met her future husband, Darren, at Christ the Deliverer Assembly, a small church in north Baton Rouge. “My husband just came from a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ kind of life,” she said. “I’m the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to him.”
They shared a passion for reaching the lost and helping people through recovery. “If the drug dealer is on one corner, I want to be on the other corner telling them that God has a plan for their life,” she said. “And so I connected with him.” Together, they ministered in prisons and nursing homes.
Today, 28 years after her life-change, Myles helps families “from the curbside to the country club” achieve healthy recovery. “A typical day for me starts with my phone ringing off the hook with some parent saying, ‘my child is in crisis.’” Myles is a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist and serves as a peer supervisor with Capital Area Human Services and at a therapeutic group home with the Department of Children and Family Services. She and her husband are committed to ongoing work in prison, and with inmates re-entering society.
After hosting a television talk show for seven years, she recently began a community radio program that airs every Saturday at 10 a.m. on Heaven 1460 WXOK and Sundays at 10 a.m. on Max 94.1. In the face of escalating community addiction, her goal is to inform and empower others.
“I’m amazed every time God opens a door for me,” she said. “I’m so grateful to share my story of hope in this book, “Rock Bottom and Back.” It’s going to be amazing to see stories of God’s of help, hope and healing. And that’s what I tell people: If he can heal me, if he can deliver me, if he can set me free, he can do the same for you. Recovery is real.”
Editor’s note: “Rock Bottom and Back” tells the stories of 22 people who overcame devastating circumstances to find recovery and success, often using their experiences to help others. A companion DVD is available, co-produced by BIC Media Solutions, Mission Media and YASNY Entertainment. For more information visit www.rockbottomandback.com.