Tracy Brumfield: Rising up from Addiction

Tracy Brumfield: Rising up from Addiction

Interview by Hillary Copsey. Photography by Chelsie Walter.

Tracy Brumfield has stumbled and fallen, but her life is on the rise.

Having landed a People’s Liberty Haile Fellowship, the 50-year-old former heroin addict is creating a monthly newspaper for Cincinnati’s incarcerated population. Called RISE, the newspaper is intended to be a resource and inspiration to people wanting to pick themselves up out of addiction and incarceration.

Starting in August, Brumfield’s newspaper will point current and former inmates toward the help they need to find housing, employment, education, and health care, including addiction treatment.

“This city is resource-rich,” Brumfield says. “We have multiple agencies, funded to the hilt, that will help people willing to put in the work. But they don’t know what they don’t know.”

After years of addiction and relapse, years that had included homelessness and incarceration, Brumfield found herself clean and sober, in a relationship and happy, working and volunteering. Heroin and a felony conviction had cost Brumfield her white-collar job as a communications professional, but she was earning a steady paycheck, working third shift as a patient aide on the men’s ward of the Center for Addiction Treatment.  

“It’s essentially service work,” Brumfield says. “It was paying the bills, and I was working someplace that aligned with my personal values.”

Brumfield had gotten clean thanks to medication-assisted treatment, proven to be a best practice for opiate and heroin addiction. But, she says, “giving back, volunteering is the absolute lynchpin of my sobriety.” She spends every Sunday at the Hamilton County Detention Center, listening to and sharing stories and advice with women in the jail’s recovery center.  

“There’s just that window of time when they need help, and they pick up that phone and it weighs a thousand pounds,” Brumfield says. “The thing I hear over and over from these women: ‘I’m afraid to get out.’ Hitting that door flips a switch. I had one woman use within three hours of getting out.”

Brumfield wanted to help these women rise up out of the mess of addiction, as she had. She wanted to reach more than the few women she spoke to each week. She wanted to reach all of them, men and women, as many as she could, as many as wanted help. She wanted to reach people in jail when they’ve lost the things that mattered – or are realizing the things they never had.

“What if, prior to release, the entire population were to get something that was informational, inspirational, educational? The general population, they get nothing, nada, zip [when they’re released],” Brumfield says. “There’s that window of time when you’re sitting in jail and maybe they’re ready to do something differently.”

The way Brumfield sees it, people in jail fall into two categories: Some, like her, have lost everything; others never had the things they needed in the first place. Either way, when they’re released, people need help to find safe housing, necessary education, steady employment, and good health care.

She knows because she lived it. Brumfield spent more than a year in jail and court-mandated treatment facilities. When she got out, she relapsed and she and her partner were living in a car.

“I was standing on the side of the street with a sign,” Brumfield says. “I felt really hopeless.”

She managed to find employment and her boss helped her find a place to rent. She found a counselor and got her mental health in check. It wasn’t easy, but with help, she worked her way up from the low place she’d reached.

“I come from a relatively affluent background, have a bachelor’s degree, all that – and it was hard for me to navigate community resources,” Brumfield says. “I got lucky. But luck can’t always play a part. How can we even the odds?"

“So, that’s how RISE was born.”

RISE stands for “Re-enter Into Society Empowered.” The People’s Liberty Haile Fellowship provides Brumfield with a $100,000 award, professional support for RISE, and connection to a network of past and former grantees as well as local and national funding organizations. The fellowship means Brumfield has quit that third-shift job and is focused on helping others rise up from addiction and incarceration.

Each monthly issue of RISE will include inspirational stories about someone who has gotten their life together. There will be funny jokes and games people can play in jail, and recipes that they can make. Most importantly, each issue will include a pull-out directory of resources that can help current and former inmates build or rebuild a life away from incarceration and addiction.

All content will have to be approved by Hamilton County Detention Center officials. Brumfield is still working out the details of that process and where and how inmates will access the paper. But the project will continue the work Brumfield has been doing, mentoring women from the Detention Center’s recovery pod.

“I tell so many of them, ‘You already know what you don’t want to be. What DO you want to be?’ And then, we need to help them do that,” Brumfield says. “... People don’t want a handout, they want a hand up. How do you rise up from ground zero?”

*RISE is looking for writers, photographers, and volunteers to join their team. If you’re interested in learning more visit www.riseupnews.org/volunteer/

Words We Heard: 'The 1 percent's doing very well in America.'

Words We Heard: 'We're paying attention to how we can contribute to the greater good.'