Sandra McCord has a lot of gaps in her memory from the years she spent doing drugs — just like that old frying-egg commercial said would happen. Maybe it’s a good thing she can’t remember it all. There was a lot of pain and grief in her 49 years, but it’s slowly getting better with the help of Downtown Rescue Mission.
She grew up in Owens Cross Roads, back when it was still farm country instead of rows of single-family homes with manicured lawns. Her mother abandoned her and her six brothers when Sandra was only 2, leaving them with their father, but she came back eight years later to reclaim custody of Sandra. Sandra moved in with her because she wanted to please her mother.
That’s just how little girls are.
If you can forget about the eight-year abandonment, she was a good mother, always trying to get her daughter a better life. As a self-taught electrical engineer, Sandra’s mother hired on at Chrysler with regular pay increases. Her mother took her to church from the time she was 10 to 15, but by then Sandra said she wanted to stop going because she was bored. Sandra was even baptized as a child, but her faith didn’t last long. She found herself wondering if Jesus had forgotten about her.
Sandra’s teenage years proved to be tumultuous. She started smoking pot when she was 12, and her brothers were doing it.
“I was there, and I wanted to try it,” Sandra said. “They handed it to me.”
She was in a car accident when she was 14, breaking her neck and leaving her in the hospital for months. Although Sandra was always popular at the high schools she attended, she suffered from crippling anxiety around crowds and new people. She used drugs to cope.
Sandra’s childhood overlaps her years as a newlywed. At 16, Sandra married high school sweetheart, Joel McCord, and dropped out of school. Her parents opposed the union, but she told them she would just run away if they didn’t sign the papers. So they signed.
“I thought that was what I wanted to do,” Sandra said of her marriage to Joel McCord.
She had her first child at 17 and her second at 21. Joel was working in construction while Sandra worked as a night manager for a convenience store. Things were fine for a while — Sandra says her experiences growing up without a mother and then having a broken neck and extended hospital stay made her more mature than most — but things didn’t stay fine for long.
The marriage predictably dissolved when Joel wanted to stay out partying all night with his friends, Sandra said. At 24, the two divorced, leaving Sandra a single mother of two young children. Things got even worse when her mother, in a twist of irony, claimed Sandra was unfit to raise the children. She took Sandra to court and won custody of the two children.
“It hurt my heart real bad that she did that to me,” Sandra said.
Sandra soon spiraled out of control, trying to regain the years she felt she lost being a wife and mother instead of an unattached 20-something.
She’d smoked pot since she was a preteen, but she soon got into harder drugs, excessive drinking and one-night stands with men she met at clubs.
“(Drugs were) an escape, I guess,” Sandra said. “I was hurt from life. I was hurt because of my kids … I was hurt because of the divorce, stuff I didn’t get to do because I got married so young … I just went wild once I got the divorce.”
Men and Drugs
The next few years were defined by Sandra’s escalating drug use. Amazingly, she held down a job at a local restaurant, though she’d smoke pot out back between shifts.
When Sandra met her boss’ nephew while he was visiting from Washington, she was smitten — and so was he. Within a few months, he moved across the country to be with Sandra. They were together 13 years before they broke up.
“He was tired of my drug habit, and I was tired of his drinking,” Sandra said.
By then Sandra had started using a certain kind of crystal meth, something they make by putting chemicals — mainly drain cleaner, lye and the inside of lithium batteries — in a cooler and burying it for a while like some kind of toxic pig roast. She blames peer pressure for some of her drug problems and her anxiety for the rest.
When the restaurant closed, Sandra moved back in with her mother and children. Her drug habit, however, didn’t let up. Sure, she tried to quit several times, but it never lasted more than a few weeks.
“I’d take a break long enough to let my body recuperate, and then I’d start back again,” Sandra said.
When she met another man, she thought for sure it was true love this time. It wasn’t. They broke up after a few years, leaving Sandra heartbroken.
Sandra remembered her time as a child in church and thought about Jesus.
“I prayed several times for Him to help me. But when nothing happened, I just figured he wasn’t listening to me anymore,” Sandra said.
After the split, Sandra moved in with her uncle and fell into a deep depression. One night, when he wasn’t home, she got a loaded shotgun he kept in the house, took a few Xanax and decided to kill herself.
“All of it came crashing down,” Sandra said. “Everything in my life. I just felt like a failure to be as old as I was and not have anything to show for it — no job, no car, no house, no nothing.”
Her uncle walked in just in time to stop her. They took her to Huntsville Hospital where she spent almost a month in the psychiatric ward. Sandra was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and major depressive syndrome. While the diagnosis was comforting — especially having a name to put with the anxiety that plagued her all her life — it was short-lived.
No one in her family would let her come stay with them because they thought bipolar disorder was contagious, Sandra said.
Sandra bounced around homeless shelters for several months —she lived at the Salvation Army but walked over to Downtown Rescue Mission during the day because the Salvation Army made her leave with all her possessions early in the morning. Getting a job was difficult with no transportation or place to store her belongings.
No job meant no money. And having a drug problem without money meant she had to sell herself to pay for her addiction.
Once Sandra started dating her meth dealer, he gave her free drugs. This wasn’t like you see on rap videos, though, where the dealers are rich and give the women diamonds and high-end goods. Sandra’s boyfriend used his own product, so he was equally poor. They both lived in tents for a while in one of Huntsville’s most dangerous areas.
“It’s a wonder I didn’t get killed,” Sandra said. “That’s a bad neighborhood over there … I would walk through Butler Terrace in the middle of the night … (but) I was never threatened. I was never approached in a threatening way. I had good luck while I was out there. God was looking out for me.”
For the first time, Sandra lost touch with her kids. Up until her time on the streets, she regularly visited them and talked to them on Facebook, although they never saw her when she was high.
Interestingly enough, Sandra describes her time being homeless as her rock bottom rather than the time she tried to commit suicide. One night, when she was out walking, shivering from the cold, Sandra had a moment of clarity and realized her life was going nowhere. She had grandchildren through her son and wanted to be the grandmother innocent little children deserved.
“That’s not a picturesque grandma, someone that is strung out on drugs, living in a tent,” Sandra said.
When she left her tent boyfriend and told him she was leaving to go to Downtown Rescue Mission to join their drug rehab program, he yelled, “You quitter!” as she walked away.
It’s okay to laugh. Sandra does at this point in the story.
In January, Sandra came to Downtown Rescue Mission to get off drugs for one final, lasting time.
About two weeks in, Sandra realized she needed something more than the absence of drugs. She needed God. During the worship service, she went to the altar and fell on her knees, knowing at that moment there was no turning back.
“The first thing you learn is that God is with you all the time, and He’s always there to answer your prayers,” Sandra said. “He’ll help you through anything — change your mind, renew your mind.”
It’s a far cry from those nights years earlier when she thought God wasn’t listening.
This year has been good for Sandra. She graduates at the end of the year. Her son is getting married in March, although she hasn’t picked out a mother-son dance song yet. She’s got a job working at the Downtown Rescue Mission thrift store where she’s stocked up on a small arsenal of toys for her grandbabies’ Christmases.
She’s a new person in more ways than one, and she wants other drug addicts to know there is hope out there.
“If He can save me, He can save anybody,” Sandra said. “That’s what He’s done.”
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