Love led couple to end crack habit
A sure sign of a couple in love is when they can’t help finishing each other’s sentences.
“Me and Keith, we’ve been knowing each other since I was 8 …” Tracey Millbrook said.
“No, you were 9, and I was probably 14,” Keith Millbrook interjected.
“Right … well, he was my cousin’s best friend,” Tracey continued, “and we grew up with our own separate issues.” That’s putting it mildly. Mildly, because what the Millbrooks grew up with were more demons than issues.
Tracey, now 48, was molested by a relative – which resulted in the birth of her first child three days after she turned 14. She dropped out of school in the eighth grade to care for her son, and started using crack cocaine not only because others around her were doing it, but to salve her own sense of worthlessness.
“Those years were so horrible, because my peers assumed that what happened to me was consensual,” Tracey said. “But I was put upon by a family member, and so my childhood was taken from me.
“But I had this beautiful son. My family had left me for dead. … I fell into drugs. I didn’t know what I had to overcome the most.”
And Keith, now 51, suffered through a childhood full of violence. He wound up with three sons out of wedlock, spent time in jail and was also using crack cocaine.
Yet while drugs and dysfunction reunited Tracey and Keith as adults, what untangled them from it was the love that they had kindled for each other as children. It put them on a path toward beating those demons and showing others how to do it as well.
Today Keith is executive director of Barron Heights Transitional Center, where he counsels homeless men whose shoes he has walked many miles in. Along with Tracey, who has directed grant programs and other nonprofit efforts, they operate We Are Family – a community development corporation that mentors and distributes food to people in the Glenview Edgewood Manor, Orange Mound and South Memphis areas.
These operations are where they pour much of their passions these days, in quests for funding and in boosting the esteem of those who, like them, needed someone to believe in them.
“They (their mentors) saw the jagged edges,” Tracey said. “And they saw the worth.” But back to the love story. Tracey said that when she was deep into her addiction, Keith would be at the house where she often went to buy drugs.
“He (Keith) would smile every time I came,” Tracey said. “I asked, ‘Why are you smiling?’ And my sister said, ‘Keith likes you.’
“I said, ‘Whatever.’ But he chased me for two years and finally asked, ‘What will it take for you to be my woman?’
“I said, ‘First of all, you’re almost homeless, you and your boys, living with your mama, with no high school diploma and no job. You’re strung out on drugs, so let’s talk about a job first.’ ”
But Tracey couldn’t rid herself of Keith that easily.
“Nine o’clock the next day, he went out looking for a job,” Tracey said. “Three o’clock that day he called me and said, ‘I guess you’re my woman now.’ I said, ‘How?’
“He said, ‘I got a job. And I got you one, too.’ ”
Keith said the feelings that he always had for Tracey, plus a craving for stability, pushed him to meet her demands.
“By that time, when I saw her, there was something in me that said, ‘You need to get a mother for these three boys (he was raising them alone),” he said. “I can’t keep feeding them bologna sandwiches and plate lunches and frozen dinners. …
“It changed the dynamics of my life, raising my three boys. I knew I had to change.”
So they both began working. They also went cold turkey and quit using drugs at that time, Tracey said.
That didn’t last, though. The hard work, the low pay and the feelings of not being able to get ahead pushed them back into using. Sobriety programs didn’t work either, Tracey said.
But in the late 1990s, Tracey and Keith decided to make another try at stability. They enrolled in GED classes.
“There were a lot of learning materials, and the GED instructor was just darling,” she said. “Do you know that in less than six months, we were both walking across that stage?”
After the couple graduated in 1998, the instructor urged them to enroll at LeMoyne-Owen College. It was there where they took another step toward stability: They got married on Christmas Day, 1998.
The couple ultimately graduated in 2005, and have since earned master’s degrees. They haven’t used drugs for nearly two decades now. Their eight children are grown, and they now have 17 grandchildren. As I said, theirs is a love story. Keith and Tracey beat their demons with dreams of a future together; a future that they refused to relinquish to addiction and low self-esteem.
It is that kind of love that should inspire those who are struggling to build stable lives.
No matter if they find that love with another person – or learn to love themselves.
Keith Millbrook, standing, with veterans Larry Owens, from left, Gerald Jerry, Joe Chastain, Alvin Boyce, Chris Westbrooks.