The process of recovery requires courage to face difficult issues and peer support in order to heal and change. Many women could be helped by programs that address the causes and conditions of chemical dependency in pregnancy.
The High Price of Perinatal Substance Abuse
Complications which may result from alcohol and drug exposure during pregnancy include spontaneous abortion, intrauterine growth retardation, placental insufficiency, brain damage and increased perinatal mortality.
Babies born to addicts and alcoholics have a higher incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and are at greater risk for HIV infection. They overwhelm the foster care and educational system with higher incidences of learning disabilities.
Some problems are directly caused by fetal exposure to drugs and alcohol. For example, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation in the United States today. Other problems are indirectly caused by addiction, such as malnutrition, poverty, domestic violence, and blood-borne diseases.
Characteristics of Drug Addicted Women
Their parents and/or grandparents are often alcoholic or drug-addicted, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, and patterns of abuse get handed down from generation to generation. Childhood sexual abuse and rape issues are common. These hurt people continue to hurt people, not because they want to but because they don’t know how not to.
In long term recovery programs, women celebrate anniversaries of clean and sober time. Newcomers feel hope because they see with their own eyes what is possible. They also are reminded of what happens to people who “go out,” losing peers to the disease as frequently as they see friends recover. These are subjective and objective lessons they can apply to their own lives.
Why Don’t More Women Seek Help?
Women fear prosecution and having their babies taken from them. Threats create more fear, more hiding, and fewer opportunities to help these women and their babies. Even if the mother is aware of recovery programs, perhaps because she has prior failed attempts, there are few facilities that admit women with children.
A Window of Opportunity
Childbearing is a window of opportunity during which women may seek care for themselves and public health issues can be addressed. Punishment does little to help. If there were more places for women to get help without being separated from their children, more women would voluntarily seek treatment. If families are separated, support for the mother needs to extend beyond reunification.
Many alcoholic and drug addicted women “hit bottom” and seek help only after they are no longer able to care for themselves or their children.
For the pregnant mother who has recently lost custody of other children, grief and depression compound her problems, interrupting the pre- and post-natal bonding process and making women in early recovery more vulnerable to relapse. Experiencing raw feelings at a time when drinking or drug use only make her feel more hopeless and before she has had time to develop healthier coping mechanisms increases the likelihood that she will go back to the streets.
When Trying to Help
Working with chemically dependent mothers requires compassion, understanding, and a willingness to listen. For non-professionals, the following do’s and don’ts may be helpful:
- Do identify yourself as a concerned person or a person in recovery. Don’t try to be an expert or an authority.
- Do speak from your own experience, strength and hope. Don’t tell the mother what you think she should do.
- Do tell her what has worked for you. Don’t preach at, lecture, or judge her.
- Do observe the mother’s confidentiality. Don’t gossip about her or her problems later.
- Do listen to the mother’s fears and concerns about her baby’s health. Don’t give opinions or advice on the baby’s condition.
- Do allow the mother to feel her feelings. Don’t tell her how she should feel or minimize what is happening to her.
- Do set healthy boundaries for yourself when working with the mother. Don’t make promises to do things for her that she can do for herself.
- Do read “Working with Others” in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.. Don’t forget to work your own program!