Updated: Jan 12
This State and our people know struggle well. We know economic and labor exploitation. We know water that is toxic and undrinkable. We know addiction. Tressie Jean’s story is one of struggle, hardship, and fierce survival. It’s a story that demonstrates what struggle looks like in West Virginia. It describes hardship and resilience in ways that many people in this State and region know well.
As we work to build a future that works for everyone, we have to move past demonizing folks who struggle. People in this world struggle. People in this world fall. For all of us to thrive we can’t marginalize folks who are struggling. We can’t keep taking away our people’s health care and food and expect our communities to thrive. We can’t keep locking our people in cages and expect our communities to heal. We have to build structures and communities that understand that people struggle, people make mistakes, but that people also grow and change. If our communities are going to thrive, everyone has to be supported. Our people struggle. Our people are strong and resilient. Our people deserve support and care.
Thank you to Tressie Jean for sharing your story. Thank you to Kandi Workman for interviewing, listening, and sharing with us.
Tressie Jean, Age: 23, Boone County, WV
What’s your story, Tressie Jean?
Well, I was born here [WV], in Charleston, and I think my mom said I was close to 8 months when we moved to Olympia, Kentucky. We move to Kentucky because my dad went pretty crazy on my mom, so she left to get away. She ended up meeting this man from Prenter [Boone County]. They never got married, but he raised me. I knew him as my dad. They decided we was going to go up to Kentucky to have a better future for us. I'm not sure what he did whenever I was a kid, but I remember him getting a job when my little sister was born--the day she was born. He still has it today. They live over there.
Tressie’s mom and her boyfriend split while living in Kentucky. She sent Tressie and her older siblings back to West Virginia.
My mom didn't come back here with us for a year. I have three older sisters and two older brothers in my family. Not many of them is doing too well now, but most of them live here. I've never grown up with really any of them. After we come here [from Kentucky], everybody was just split. My mom had her third overdose and she didn't know who any of us was, so they sent us throughout the community to whoever was willing to help. I got into a lot of trouble back then. I was just raising cain with all the boys, turned into a tomboy. Really, we [mom and siblings] moved everywhere. I can't tell you exactly how many places.
My Papaw raised us for a while. He used to be in the coal mines. He also did the drag racing for when I was a kid. He didn't work for [the mines] then; he was on disability, some type of something like that. He was in the Army whenever he was really young, got out and went to the mines. He's really our uncle.
We bounced around a lot, so I grew up pretty much all around. My mom, she worked two sometimes three jobs, and she’d usually do all of them on the same day. At one point she was working at Wendy's in the morning and Hardee's at night, and then she still couldn’t make rent half the time. She was addicted also, so we had a lot of that in our lives. She did a lot of other stuff on the side throughout the night. She wasn't really ever home. We grew up with a lot of babysitters and bounced around, place to place, usually in the Van area at that time. I remember her being at parties all the time. She decided to straighten up her life when someone threatened to burn her house down. We moved again.
In ninth grade I was taken away from my mom and sent to South Carolina to live with her dad. My step-dad [mom’s ex-boyfriend in Kentucky] wanted to get me, he said, but they was never married. He had no say over it. I wasn't allowed to make that choice, so they sent me there [South Carolina]. I lived there for a year. [My grandfather] had PTSD and depression and all this stuff. It was pretty bad there, real bad, so after a year they sent me back to Kentucky to live my aunt. It was rough.
My aunt wanted me to hold up the expectations of her son, who's super smart. I was going to tutoring, ROTC, and all that stuff to live up to what his grades were whenever he was a kid. But, growing up here [WV], the school standards were seriously a joke. Whenever I went to South Carolina, they were doing stuff that I had never touched on--never. I had to be in tutoring and take extra classes just to get caught up on what they was doing, and I still didn't do too well. Then, even from South Carolina to Kentucky, I still wasn't caught up with what they was doing, and they was below the school that I went to in South Carolina. I failed a lot of stuff there because I had no clue what was going on. They sent me back here [WV] whenever I was sixteen. It was in the middle of my 11th grade year. I was getting mixed up in some stuff.
At that time, I didn't care what was going on. My mom didn't give a poop for any of us. She was addicted. She didn't care at all about my family. I was crawling into the windows of her place just to check her breathing, and she accused me of stealing stuff. I was like ‘all right, well, I'm just going to go and do it.
Then I met a guy. We got together right before my 18th birthday.
He was addicted.
He did cocaine and Xanax. I was on everything. I was a full-blown alcoholic. Cocaine 24/7. Xanax is 24/7. Neurontin. Klonopin. Lyrica, even, which is ridiculous, but everything from that to air dusters, huffing gas and stuff, which is really dangerous. I never got to shooting up even with my second round of addiction. I actually overdosed three times in one day. We started dealing because nobody could find work and it just went downhill from there.
He kept saying he's going to kill himself if I didn't get with him. I tried to fix the whole problem, overdosed three times within about a day and a half on coke. I was like ‘maybe this is God’ so I went home with him and we stayed in a bus for a year-and-a-half and we got clean immediately. I don't know how we didn’t.
We moved up to Williams Mountain, near my mom. He was really possessive. That was pretty much the end of everything. I wasn't allowed to leave the house, had zero friends, no contact with anybody. It was a constant fight. Whenever I was 19, I got pregnant with Lacey, and at 20 I had her. By that time we had a trailer given to us. He wasn't working so we hardly ever had power. We hardly ever had water. You know, he just didn't want to leave because he was scared I was going to do something while he was at work. He didn't want me to leave that trailer at Williams Mountain.
We had the trailer, had a huge garage, and I thought we had it made. But he let everything slip. The trailer started falling apart. He finally got a job at Giovanni's in Van when Lacey was born and would stay gone two or three extra hours after work. He was never really home, but I wouldn't lie and leave because he would know and flip out. Then he got a job in Virginia. Whenever he left, I started leaving to visit my mom. Eventually, it all ended up getting really physical. I found my way to Drawdy, got a job, and was enrolled in college. Soon after, though, I lost the job and had to drop out of college to get a full time job to support Lacey.
I started drinking again. Moved to Newport in Danville. It was hard to find a place and that was my only choice. In that place there’s a cycle you get in and don't come back out of it. The people there, they get stuck in the cycle of buying their drugs. There's some really good people up there. Some people aren't drugs. Some people have actually been able to cope with how it is there, but most people are dealing or addicted or both--usually both. The law doesn't come up there. Like, you can call and call, but unless you threaten to kill somebody or there's a fight going on that involves weapons, you won’t see them there. It's a whole different world up there. I wish I never moved there.
There, I tried to help somebody I who was addicted to meth. I was really close to him, and he destroyed everything--my heart, my soul, my house--everything. It went downhill. He stole everything off me, took all my money from my last check, took all the money that I got from income taxes. We were living with no power, no food, not even a generator because he was getting high and didn't care about anything else.
I just didn't care anymore.
I ended up addicted again. What was supposed to be one night of getting high to escape my problems, to go somewhere else…
Scar-flecked fair skin with a square of 50+ horizontal straight lines adorning her left bicep--war scars of her much too early transition from innocence to experience in Appalachia.
And then I have all these [scars], and even though they're healed now, a lot of people won't hire you because of it. I guess they see a mentally unstable person when they look at me. I can't really cover it up.
Every one of them was Fight For Life, pretty much.
Every time I’d do that, I would want to commit suicide. Now, I look down and I’m like ‘I didn't die. I'm alive.’
I doing good. Fifty-four days clean. I'm here, you know.
Then other times, I look at them [the scars] and I don't think I can do a lot of the stuff that I plan to do.
I was five and a half years clean whenever I relapsed.
I ended up trying meth. I always said I would never touch it because it was what destroyed our childhood, had a massive impact on our lives growing up, as well as ruining my life. But I did touch it because it was what I was around. It’s flooded this place. If you get to that low point in poverty and can't see a legitimate way out of it, then 9 times out of 10 nobody is going to give you a chance because of what you’ve done, even if you’re trying to do better.
I’m back in college. I’ve got plans. I want to get resources here, let people know what’s available to help them. Life can be better.
July 3, 2019
Note: During my interview with Tressie, which lasted an hour and a half, we sat at a table in her church on Main Street in Madison on a Wednesday night, after church. Pastor John Miller made arrangements for us to use this space so that Tressie felt comfortable. She had two friends with her, two young guys who listened, patiently, respectfully, intently, as this young woman divulged her experiences to a near stranger. With courage, she went through the outline of her young life, her voice a little shaky at first, her hands fidgety, eyes toward the low ceiling so she could access scenes from her past.
And with as much as Tressie confided that night, it was merely a recap. Reading between the lines, gauging her voice and body, I can only imagine the depth of movement from innocence to experience in each one of the scenes that she captioned. She moved me.
As a mother to a daughter who is just three years younger than Tressie, at one point, I was flush with the great urge to reach across the table and grab both of her hands in mine, wanting to give her any sort of comfort or strength that I could pass through the laying on hands and touch. I didn’t, though. I wasn’t sure how she would react, and I certainly didn’t want to cross any lines or frighten her.
There was so much left unsaid during the interview, so much dwelling inside, waiting to be healed. The scars on her arm--her war scars--are a representation of the layered cross-hatching of scars on the inside. Those internal scars were inflicted upon her; she is not to be blamed for her childhood experiences; however, as with many youth who have experienced trauma brought on by adults, Tressie, too, is judged unfairly for the conditions of her life.
It was a privilege to spend time with Tressie. She gifted me with her presence, her story, and her trust. She has entrusted in me the sharing of her story, stating, “I am not proud of my past, but I’m not ashamed. My story is my testimony.”