Opioids in New Hampshire: Jaye Brewer, a recovering user, shows the power of connectivity
She tells a story that goes beyond metrics and statistics.
By Anthony Tone Payton/Nashua Digital
Jaye Brewer looks tired during a Zoom meeting with me, tending to her newborn son, Chozen.
The chips have been stacked against her from the very start.
In 1992, she was born in a Massachusetts state prison to a single mother who sold and used drugs throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Her home life consisted of moving around with her mother and younger sister.
“Pretty much, I was involved in the fast life at a very early age. I would be with my mom as she made pick-ups and drop-offs. I remember her renting out rooms to drug dealers. That was normal for me as a child.” Jaye says.
At 10 years old, Jaye says she knew enough to hide crack pipes and drug paraphernalia when police knocked at their door.
Although her mother was involved in the drug trade, she always instilled that Jaye do better, to be better.
Nevertheless, Jaye remembers two of her sisters being taken by the state and put into foster homes. Her mother eventually left Boston for fear that the state would take Jaye and her remaining siblings.
Despite everything, Jaye believes she had a good life as a child.
Jaye’s relationship with her father was spotty at best. Their relationship mainly depended on him giving her money.
Jaye bottle-fed Chozen as she thought about her dad.
“OK, I’ll say this. Sometimes, I feel as if I were the product of prostitution. My father was decades older than my mom. My dad was 89 when he died, and he was about 50 years older than my mother. I guess he wanted to marry my mom, but she was too involved in the fast life.”
In 2004, Jaye, then 12, was in North Carolina with family, and her mother was in a Virginia prison. It was in North Carolina when she began hanging out on the streets with her cousins.
It was there that she began her first use of marijuana and running the streets, and she started to love it, she says.
Her mother began calling from prison only to find out that although Jaye’s dad would send money to Jaye’s caretakers, the money was being used for the caretaker’s children and not Jaye. She was shipped to New Hampshire to live with an aunt, who Jaye disliked.
Jaye recalled the abuse. “We were not allowed to take showers, only baths. I was in 6th or 7th grade, and I knocked something over in the house and was beaten with a broomstick. I walked to school with a bloody lip — I wasn’t allowed to take the bus.”
She says the transition was rough when her mother was released from prison and returned to New Hampshire. While in 7th or 8th grade, Jaye remembers walking a dark Manchester street, calling for her mother in front of groups of homeless people. Jaye’s younger sister was scared, but Jaye didn’t care — she just wanted to be with her mother.
After months of off-and-on sobriety, Jaye’s mother got pregnant with her youngest and felt she was too old to be a mother. Jaye begged her mother not to abort the pregnancy. In 2008, now 16, Jaye swore that she would be there for her sibling, ultimately taking on a maternal role.
But at that same time, Jaye remembers drinking heavily, using marijuana, and often blacking out.
She says her feelings toward her mother were, at times, hateful.
“I hated her for leaving. I remember asking her why she didn’t snitch so she didn’t have to go to jail,” Jaye said.
Jaye’s mother had to tell her the realities of street code and that her snitching could ultimately put her children in danger from people who’d want to harm them.
Jaye was nearly 21 when she tried Percocet at parties. After a good friend of hers overdosed, Jaye noticed that she was the only one in her friend group still using drugs. A few weeks after using Percocet, Jaye made the climb up the opioid ladder and wound up experimenting with heroin, snorting it. Her mother, an intravenous drug user, made Jaye promise not to ever use needles like her. Jaye would keep that promise, only snorting or smoking heroin. Jaye had watched her mother inject heroin-filled liquid into her arms long enough to understand.
Together, they’d both smoke crack, use heroin, and sell drugs.
Jaye’s mother died in 2015.
Around the time, Jaye spent three months in jail for stealing a pair of socks to keep her cold and wet feet warm.
After an eviction, with her 8-year-old sister in tow, Jaye began a life of prostitution. After the first time selling her body, Jaye broke down in tears and showered. At that very moment, she didn’t care about getting high or being sick. She knew that she’d crossed a line.
One that was hard to return from.
But Jaye was sick of it.
The fight for wellness
Naive about the world of detox and mental health counseling for substance misuse, Jaye believed that her fate was sealed. But her aunt, who lived in Boston and also struggled with substance use, told her about a drug program in the Mattapan section of the city.
Before heading there, she sent her younger sister to stay with her other sister.
Jaye left New Hampshire, and all she had was the clothes on her back and a purse.
With no health insurance, Jaye had to bounce from clinics to programs to sober houses.
After nearly four years of sobriety, while living in Lynn, Mass., Jaye’s sister called her from New Hampshire, saying that she was going to send their younger sibling into foster care because the responsibilities of caring for that child were overwhelming. Jaye relapsed and began running the streets of Lynn and Chelsea.
She eventually made her way back to New Hampshire. Believing that she was sick from opioids, she went to a hospital and wound up in ICU for five days. Her lips were purple, she couldn’t move, and she says it felt like she was on her deathbed. It turned out that Jaye was suffering from DKA — diabetic ketoacidosis.
After being treated, Jaye ended up homeless and prostituting again in Manchester. She’d lost her younger sister, she was urinating and defecating outside of her dealer's house, and she was in and out of John’s cars all day and night.
Jaye remembers being on the street when her sister walked up to her with their youngest sister and dropped her off to Jaye. Jaye continued her life of prostitution and drugs with her younger sister by her side. Her dealer ultimately let her stay there to sleep on the couch with her sister.
Another hospital trip showed that Jaye had a kidney infection. There for 15 days, she detoxed for a bit but then returned to what she knew.
Jaye would have visitors sneak heroin into the hospital, and all the while, hospital staff believed she was sober. But after getting COVID-19, the nursing staff stopped her visitors, and Jaye was in trouble.
With no one able to smuggle heroin into the hospital for her, she had no choice but to get sober.
They tried sending Jaye home, but she didn’t want to. She knew what she’d do. The hospital was trying to get her into treatment.
At 29, she eventually wound up in in Bonfire, 30-day substance use and behavioral health program program in Dover.
“I focused on the goal of improving my mental health there. I felt like it was mental health issues that always brought me back to using,” Jaye said.
“That program forced me to find out who I was. I had to make the program work for me. It was there that I believed that I could stay sober. I don’t have to use — I don’t have to sell my body.”
Kali K. Guilmet-Talbot is the executive director of Bonfire Behavioral Health, which offers outpatient services, individual therapy, and group therapy. Their aftercare helps their caseload get into sober living, additional programming, and wraparound support. Kali believes this work is important and also believes in the role that stigma plays.
“They don’t see the value of self and continue to suffer,” Kali said.
A lot of the staff at Bonfire used to be in recovery themselves, and this helps them with authenticity and making strides, Kali said. Their patients can see that life changes are attainable.
“We try to give people a concept of life after use and what recovery looks like. This way, it’s easier to move towards it. They can see that change is possible,” Kali said.
Jaye completed and graduated from the Bonfire program, immediately going home and getting rid of all of the drug paraphernalia from her home. Still, she struggled with thoughts of relapse and decided to get prescribed Suboxone for maintenance.
After five months of sobriety, she found out she was pregnant.
“I didn’t want to continue taking Suboxone and pass it on to my baby. But medical staff told me that I needed to continue for the sake of her child.” Jaye said
She and the father of the child had a volatile relationship, and one of Jaye’s biggest fears came true. She knew she’d wind up as a single mother.
“Everyone in my family is a single mother. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a lot of struggle. But at that point, I didn’t care — I didn’t want my baby to grow up in a toxic environment, seeing me being abused.” Jaye said.
Although her child’s father had a rough relationship with Jaye, she didn’t think that she’d be approaching motherhood all alone. At 29, Jaye says that she was lonely.
“I felt like everyone walked out of my life. No one stayed. I was in relationships where I was giving people all of my time, money, and energy. And they’d just walk out. When there was nothing left for me to give — they’d be gone.”
That’s when Jaye decided that she wanted to have a child, even as a single mother.
“I wanted someone who’d choose me all of the time. Someone who’s not going to leave when they felt like it or when things get hard,” Jaye said.
Jaye’s present and future
Today, Jaye, who always loved reading and writing, is working towards her bachelor's degree in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University.
“I want to continue telling my story. When speaking at meetings or in front of crowds, people always come up to me and say that my story was impactful and that I’d changed their lives somehow,” she says.
And these days, she is being the best mom she can be while continuing her sobriety and education. Jaye has joined the news site Nashua Digital, where she has begun a blog, “One Hell of a Mother.”
I asked Jaye what it takes for her to navigate sobriety successfully.
“Support ... and I need to surround myself with sober people. I want to continue to level up in life, and I need to have my goals set and work towards a career. Something to leave my son.” Jaye said
I asked Jaye where she saw herself a year from now.
“I want to walk across the SNHU stage with my son. I want to be a published writer. I want to be working on a memoir or my first novel. I want to be a good mom, sober and happy. Whatever that looks like for me.”
She has a more optimistic outlook on life and focuses on creating a better future rather than being held back by her past.
Her social media feed had young Chozen dressed to impress for his first Thanksgiving Day meal with his doting mother. Both are dressed in similar colors. The background photo is a picture of Jaye’s mom holding a small dog with a huge smile on her face.
Jaye believes her mother would be proud of where she is today. “She’d say that I was a good
mother and that she knew I’d be successful,” Jaye said.
This story, part of the series, “Opioids in New Hampshire,” was made possible by a grant from the Center for Rural Strategies and Grist. It is produced by Nashua Digital in partnership with The Granite State News Collaborative.
Jaye Brewer, born in a Massachusetts state prison to a single mother who sold and used drugs, has dealt with the consequences of substance use since then. (Courtesy photo)
Jaye Brewer and her son Chozen. She is now working toward her bachelor’s degree in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University. (Courtesy photo)