The first time I did heroin, I was 20 years old, working 60 hours a week at three different retail jobs. I would work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., party all night and get maybe 15 minutes of sleep. I was just having a good time—I had no idea I would become addicted to heroin or that it would steal my hopes and dreams.
A couple of years later, when I was 22, I left my abusive boyfriend. I would lie in my childhood bed at my parents’ house and have PTSD flashbacks to our relationship. I would taste the blood in my mouth from his fist. Or I’d see myself on the ground, his knees pinning down my shoulders while his fingers tightened around my neck. I could visualize the individual carpet fibers I’d see as I came to after he’d knocked me unconscious, and I could hear him crying in the corner over what he’d done to me. Again.
After that relationship, I needed an escape from the pain and anguish. On my first date with Richard, I could feel myself falling in love. We did heroin together and I felt connected, euphoric. We were at a party with a bunch of friends, and I watched everyone having such a great time, laughing and being really affectionate. Maybe heroin is actually a happiness drug, I thought. At that moment, it was. All of my problems melted away and there was only love.
From then on, I was constantly trying to recapture that feeling with heroin. But the high fades so quickly, and after a year of using, I was just injecting it to feel normal. It didn’t even matter that I hate needles, which goes to show how the drugs can make you do things you never thought you’d do.
A BIG SURPRISE
Richard and I had been friends since high school, but after that first date, we knew we were meant to be together. Unfortunately, we also got sucked into addiction. I tried to get clean—for three years, I was in and out of rehab (six times!) and AA, but nothing stuck. When you’re using drugs, there’s no planning or future.
One day, I was feeling sick, and I thought I was just coming down from the drugs. A friend suggested I take a pregnancy test. When it turned up positive, I screamed. It was the most terrifying moment of my life. How could I bring a baby into this situation? What could I do? What should I do? I was already 12 weeks along, and having an abortion never crossed my mind.
I knew I couldn’t quit heroin cold turkey. A friend of mine who had tried detoxing herself that way went into preterm labor and the baby died. I was terrified of using and terrified of stopping.
In my drug-addled brain, I decided that pills were better than shooting up, even though your body reacts the same way. During my prenatal doctor visits, I wanted to tell them I was using, but I didn’t want them to take away my baby. I worried that if I confessed, I would never have the chance to get clean and raise my son. I wanted to give him the childhood I’d had.
I grew up in Burlington, VT. It was a really normal, loving childhood. I played sports and made the honor roll. My mom made us three meals a day. My daddy was a free spirit who always played his music loud and drove Harleys. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was an alcoholic. My parents never fought—my father would just disappear to go to rehab for a little while, and I was told he was at a work conference. Eventually he got sober for good and went back to college to be an electrical engineer. He taught me to be a hard worker: You work, you pay your bills and then you let off steam.
I never stopped searching for an answer to my drug problem. I’d sit in the bookstore and pore over self-help and pregnancy books to find the single paragraph on pregnancy and addiction. I would call rehab center after rehab center, only to be told that they couldn’t do anything for me. There are no words to describe the feeling of being an addict and becoming pregnant. The shame and the guilt are unbearable.
Finally, someone suggested I call Diane Smith. I immediately recognized her name—she was my ex-boyfriend’s probation officer. I gave her a fake name, but she knew it was me just by the sound of my voice. She told me that she’d arrange for me to be stabilized on methadone at the hospital the next morning. I knew I was finally on the right path.
The next day I called my mom from the hospital and told her about the drugs, the pregnancy, all of it. My steady, patient, loving rock of a mother didn’t yell. She never told me I was a disappointment or that I’d messed up my life. “Victoria,” she said, sitting at my bedside. “I love you so much, and I want you to succeed. But if necessary, I will raise this baby for you.” When you’re an addict, people tell you you’re worthless every day. I know how lucky I was to have two parents who stood by me through everything.
That morning another angel, Dr. John Brooklyn, came through the door. He’s the head of the methadone clinic. He walked into the room with a kind demeanor and wonderful smile, pulled up a chair and began to educate me about pregnancy and addiction. He told me that methadone had been used for over 30 years to help treat opiate addicts during pregnancy. I literally thought I was the first woman in history to use drugs while I was pregnant. Dr. Brooklyn helped me understand how the medicine would help my son to grow and develop, how it would block my withdrawal symptoms and cravings. He was one of the first health professionals who saw me as a person.
Richard was stabilized on methadone a few weeks before I was, and I believe this was critical to our family success. Being on methadone has given me the opportunity to figure out why I am the way I am. I was a chronic relapser, and it wasn’t about my not having a strong enough will. Heroin changes the chemical makeup of your brain. I continued going to my prenatal appointments, where they’d test me to make sure I stayed clean. As long as the urinalysis came up negative, they wouldn’t call Family Services and report me.
A NEW LIFE
My son was born in October 2003. My mom, my aunt, Richard and three of my best friends were there to support me. We were Team Baby. When he was placed in my arms, the clouds parted, the sun shone down and the angels sang.
My most vivid memory was the night after our son was born. It was just Richard, the baby and me in the room. Richard was holding our son, and it was so quiet and peaceful. I watched him fall in love with this little boy in his arms and I knew we were a family. Every rehab I’ve been to stressed that I couldn’t be with Richard, that addicts can’t be together. And that’s true if the relationship is built on the drugs or abuse. But our relationship is based on love. All that matters is what I do to give that little boy the best life that I possibly can. I consider my son’s birthday my recovery day.
At the hospital, a baby who has been exposed to opioids and who may have Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is checked for signs like crying, sneezing, blotchy skin and diarrhea. Experts don’t know why some babies get NAS and need treatment and some don’t.
My son tested positive for NAS and had to be stabilized on methadone in the NICU. Most of the hospital staff was fantastic, but I came in contact with one very angry and judgmental nurse. I had come to the NICU to breastfeed my son (which is especially important for a baby with NAS), and as she took him out of the incubator, she said, “I have to do my job and give you this baby, but I don’t want to. You don’t deserve to have him.”
I was devastated. Her comment reinforced all of the negative things I had felt about myself. But at the same time I thought, I’m going to prove her wrong. I’m going to show everyone that I can be the best mother possible.
They discharged my son a week later, and Richard and I needed to administer a tiny twice-daily dose of methadone that would help him develop. The thing that really struck us was what a happy baby he was: He never cried. You hear about babies screaming while they’re being weaned off methadone, but that wasn’t our experience. Our son’s first six months was the most magical time of my life—he was constantly held and loved. At the end, he was completely off methadone.
Postpartum is a huge time for women to relapse because of the hormones and emotional changes happening in their lives. I couldn’t have done it without my support system. The recipe for success is medication, therapy and support.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
I’d always wanted to go to college. Once my son was born, I started the process and, by the time he was 9 months old, I had enrolled at a local community college while Richard got a job doing roofing. I completed three semesters there, got straight A’s and then transferred to Champlain College, my father’s alma mater.
If I had gone to college after high school, it would have been more about partying and socializing. But having the structure of classes actually helped with my recovery. I love learning—I wanted to work hard and do well. Most semesters, I would take five classes and I would get mostly A’s. Juggling school and caring for my son made me feel like I was moving forward and becoming the person I was meant to be.
Shortly after I transferred to Champlain, I got pregnant with my daughter. I took a week off after she was born and went back to class the following Monday. I made Dean’s List every semester. I was (and still am) on methadone, but my daughter did not have NAS, so she did not need to be treated. I had a 3-year-old son and a newborn and I was in college, yet I thrived the most during that time of my life. When you have things to look forward to that you know are pushing you in a positive way, it feels amazing.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
A month after I started community college, the women at the neomed clinic asked me to speak at a conference for CHARM (Children and Recovering Mothers). CHARM is a team of doctors and nurses who meet regularly with addicted women and their children to give them support so they have a happy, healthy outcome. The goal is to dispel some of the negative stereotypes and help spread the facts: It’s not the using that may hurt the baby, it’s the detox and the erratic behavior.
I brought my 10-month-old son and told my story in front of this group of medical professionals. When I was done 20 minutes later, I was sobbing, but I felt so good. (For years, I cried whenever I told my story; I continued to cry until I learned to forgive myself. I still sometimes well up when I talk about my son’s birth.)
These people were so moved by my story that they asked me to be CHARM’s parent advisor. CHARM has an 80% success rate, which shows that when you give women positive support, listening and not judging, they want to do well.
Now the main board I’m on is for ICON (Improving Care for the Opiate-Exposed Newborn). For the past 12 years, I have traveled with neonatologist Anne Johnston, nurse practitioner Jerilyn Metayer, and others to all the hospitals in Vermont to educate the health care community about the disease of addiction. I’ve won two awards for the work I’ve done with ICON: 2007 KidSafe Collaborative Volunteer of the Year, and 2009 Holly D. Miller Award for women in Vermont helping to empower and strengthen women. I even spoke at the national NAS convention in Washington, D.C.
It used to be that addicted women who lived 2 or 3 hours from Burlington had to drive here to get the care they needed. But all it really takes is one or two nurses at a hospital to commit to finding these women the help they need. Not long ago, a woman who had heard me speak 10 years ago came up to me. She told me she had been forced to go to the conference where I was speaking, but after hearing me, she realized that being angry at the women wasn’t helping them. Coming to the conference turned it around for her. I helped her see that this is not a moral dilemma, it’s a neurobiological disease—and if it’s treated as a disease, people recover.
In many places, the child of a pregnant addict will be put into foster care. If my son had been taken from me, I would have been in such despair that I would have gone out and gotten as high as I possibly could. My life would have become a million times worse than it already was. I would not have gone to school, I would not have had my daughter, I would not have stayed with my partner, I would not have the self-respect and dignity and integrity that I have today. I would be dead. There would be no reason to go on living.
I’m proud of the person I am today. I am not ashamed of my past. My past made me who I am (the only reason I’m not writing this under my full name is to protect my young children from the stigma). I graduated cum laude, Honor Society. To have my parents, my aunts and uncles, and cousins and friends see how far I’ve come was so powerful and beautiful. I will never forget that day for the rest of my life.
Ultimately, I’d like to spearhead a campaign to pass a bill so all pregnant addicts nationwide can receive the help they and their babies need in a healthcare environment, without the fear of persecution or retribution. I want all pregnant and parenting addicts to get the same chance I did. It is because of Dr. Johnston and Jerilyn Metayer that I was able to even keep my son. They saw the need to help this population and founded a program to help women like me. I did the work and walked the path, but they created the path. I couldn’t have done it without them.
I had a friend who left town when I was at the height of my addiction and came back seven years later when I was graduating. She told me that at heart, I was the same girl I’ve always been. That meant so much to me: to know that despite everything I’d gone through, I was still the same soul, the same person I always had been and was meant to be.