The Mom Who Was Pregnant and Addicted to Opioids

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When Desirae was younger, she thought she just enjoyed having a good time. Though she didn’t drink, she liked to use substances, which was something she had in common with the father of her oldest two children. Her first pregnancy was unexpected, but after giving birth to her son, Desirae found she loved being a mom, and about three years later, she gave birth to a daughter. A few years after that, she began to realize that she was a high-functioning addict whose using was nonetheless affecting her parenting. She discusses abusing pain medication during her third pregnancy, entering methadone treatment at 26 weeks’ pregnant, what it was like to get caught stealing in front of her children, and how her relationship to her kids has changed for the better.

On her first pregnancy. When I found out I was pregnant with my oldest child, I was 23. It wasn’t expected at all — I’d been on birth control. But right around that time, I was coming to grips with my spirituality, and I thought there must be a greater meaning behind the pregnancy, so I decided to go through with it. I did question what I wanted to do, though, like any woman who’s young, who’s not married. My son knows that I thought about not keeping him. I’m very honest with my children.

I just fell more and more in love as the pregnancy progressed. When he was born, it was like, this is the reason for my existence. The culmination of everything great in my life, lying right there on my chest.

On her relationship. I was with his dad for four years before I got pregnant, and we were together for about three years afterward. We both struggled with addiction, and he was abusive. I’d been struggling with my addiction even before the pregnancy — try to name a drug you think I haven’t done. I’ve done everything from LSD to ecstasy to DXM to crystal methamphetamine to cocaine to heroin. I tried it all. I did everything but drink, because I grew up around alcoholics. I’ve never been a drinker, but if you could snort it, smoke it, or eat it, I did it.

I tried to tell myself that I was just a party girl, but I was an addict. A functioning addict. Throughout the pregnancy, before and after our first and second children were born, I struggled. We had an altercation when I was seven months pregnant with my second child, and that was one of the first brutal wake-up calls that I needed to start changing my life. We broke up after my second child was born.

On motherhood and illness. My kids were 6 and 3 when I was diagnosed with MS. The day I was diagnosed, the person I looked at every day in the mirror my whole life died. I think I went through a grieving process, in addition to the physical symptoms. I had trouble using my hands, days where I couldn’t see or walk very well. There were days where my oldest child would have to button my middle child’s pants, because I couldn’t use my fingers. I was struggling to get on disability and keep the lights and water on. My oldest calls that period our “dark time.”

During this time, I was taking pain medication and justifying it because it was prescribed. But I was abusing it — the ways I was taking it weren’t ways the doctors were telling me to take it. I was also taking morphine and Percocet, which were not prescribed to me and I got through a friend. There was one day when I was sitting there thinking, My kids are awesome. My boyfriend is awesome. I have a beautiful house in the suburbs. Everything in my life is perfect, except for me.

I knew that if things were ever going to get better, it had to start with me. But I just didn’t know how to do that. I was afraid of what would happen when I stopped. My boyfriend knew that I was struggling with the pain medication, but he didn’t know the full extent.

On being pregnant again. When I found out I was pregnant with my third, I was happy. My boyfriend was a really great guy. He worked all the time, and he really meshed with my kids. In the five years we were together, we never had unprotected sex, except for the one time I got pregnant with my daughter. I didn’t even think I could get pregnant — I’d had to have one of my ovaries removed about a year before. My oldest was 9; my middle child was 6.

Surprisingly, my doctors were more concerned about me coming off my MS medications than they were about me staying on them. They thought coming off might cause a miscarriage, that my quality of life would drastically change and my pain would be intolerable. My obstetrician even took over prescribing my MS-related medication while I was pregnant, and at six months, he actually increased my dosage.

Pregnancy and MS is like golden times, though. Your body lowers your immune system so it doesn’t attack the baby. You’re less likely to have a flare-up while you’re pregnant and breastfeeding. It was the best I’d felt in years — besides horrible morning sickness, pregnancy was wonderful. It was such a happy time. The only thing that took away from it was struggling with my addiction.

On addiction and pregnancy. When you’re on opiates and you don’t have them, it feels like you have the flu, the stomach flu. You have all the symptoms of the regular flu, too: runny nose, aches, chills, muscle pain. You’re all shitting on yourself, and throwing up. Plus, you’re having a massive anxiety attack the entire time. That’s withdrawal. It’s horrible.

I was already worried, but after I got pregnant, it became imperative that I had to do something. I knew another woman who’d been in a really bad accident; she was on the same pain medication I was. Her daughter had been born early and was in the NICU, and one day, she didn’t go visit her daughter because she didn’t have any medication. Later on, her kids needed diapers and she used the money to buy a Fentanyl patch. I just thought, I don’t want to be that person.

And my older kids were suffering. On the one hand, I did always take care of them — they were always fed, clothed. But I was suffering from addiction and untreated mental illness, and I think there was a lot of emotional distance. I’d reached a point where I had nothing left to give. There were times where my kids needed me emotionally, and I just wasn’t there for them. My oldest child and I have talked a lot about how he felt emotionally neglected back then. I’m trying so hard to make up for that now.

So I knew I had to get help, and I talked with my doctor about what steps I needed to take, being pregnant and trying to come off of Fentanyl. With Fentanyl, you need to have it out of your system for a number of hours before you can start taking methadone. I went into treatment at about 26 weeks along.

I didn’t tell my boyfriend what I was doing. He worked out of town a lot; it was usually just me and the kids at the house. There was a lot he didn’t know about. I mean, I never cheated on him, but I was dishonest with him. Things like not paying all my bills so I could buy Fentanyl, then using rent money to pay the light bill. I was definitely hiding it from a lot of people. I got up every day; I made my kids breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I kept my house clean, my laundry done. The days they weren’t I played it off like I was having a bad MS day. It wasn’t like I lived in some kind of crazy drug house.

Once I started methadone, it was such a relief. Even though I had to take medication to avoid withdrawal symptoms, I started to feel like I was back in control of my life. I could focus on what I needed to focus on for the day, instead of worrying about finding Fentanyl.

On giving birth a third time. My daughter came early, at 30 weeks. Right after she was born, we were allowed to look at her and then she was raced to the NICU. I didn’t even get to hold her. There was a lot of excitement and then once she was out of the room and everything had calmed down, it was just my boyfriend and me, and I told him I needed to talk to him about something.

I told him that things had gotten bad again (he knew I’d had problems before), and that I’d been going to the methadone clinic. And he was just like, If that’s what you’re doing to get help, Babe, I support you 100 percent. That’s just the type of dude he was. Is.

My doctors, of course, knew I was on methadone. There was the question of me breastfeeding her, because of it — but they said the benefits would outweigh any downside. Often, women don’t tell anyone they’re using until it’s too late, when their newborn babies are going through withdrawal. They’re afraid of judgment, of losing their kids. But because I let everyone on my team know, they were able to do what was best for my daughter’s health. Initially, I think some of my care team did have some doubts about the quality of care I could provide.

I was reported to child services, though. Anytime a child is born addicted to opiates or narcotics, they have to be called. At the time, I was under the impression that a former friend had called them — but now I know the hospital had to report it. I just said yes, I was on methadone, and gave my doctor’s number. They closed the case.

On committing to change. Things did get a little bit better, after my daughter was born. She was in the NICU for six weeks before I could bring her home. But it really wasn’t until I started to make some serious psychological changes another year and a half later that there were drastic changes.

The one thing I would tell people is that methadone is just one tool in a good treatment center’s tool box. Just like withdrawals are a symptom of addiction, the addiction is often a symptom of untreated mental illness. During that time of my life, I still put so much bad energy out into the universe. I was a shit-talker. I delighted in other people’s misfortunes. I was a thief.

When my daughter was about 18 months old, I got caught stealing at a major retailer. I was with my kids, which I’m still embarrassed about. Since I was no longer using drugs to get high, and since I wasn’t taking my treatment as seriously, I was still looking for a rush wherever I could get it. That day, I stole Legos and a candy bar.

Because my kids were with me, I was released. Soon after, I had an MS flare-up, so I missed my court date. The day after Christmas that year, the police knocked on my door at 3 a.m. and dragged me out of my house because there was a warrant out for my arrest. I was in jail for three or four days. No one would bail me out. Thankfully, I was in the methadone program, so I didn’t go through withdrawal.

My boyfriend had packed up his truck by the time I got home. I spent the night in tears. I knew it was coming after he let me stay in jail, but still. I couldn’t afford the rent after he left, so I was evicted. The kids and I went to stay with a friend. It was a rough time.

I finally realized that I needed to deal with all the fucked-up shit in my head, so I started going to group therapy. Once I did five hours’ worth of back-to-back group sessions. I just realized that I’d grown up in an abusive situation — there was post-traumatic stress, so many things I hadn’t really dealt with. I’d been using drugs since I was 15 — 20 years of abusing drugs. I think my kids had resigned themselves to being passengers on the roller coaster that was my life. Now, I realize they knew a lot more about what was going on than I thought they did. They had moments when they were happy. But I don’t think they were happy with me.

On motherhood now. Life today is still a struggle. But I can finally say that I can create my own happiness. My kids and I really talk now. I feel like I’m moving toward something better every day. I can finally say that every day I do something that will make life better for me and my kids. I used to yell at my kids, but now I have coping skills to deal with my emotions. Instead of resorting to screaming and throwing stuff, now I can step away from a situation and process what I’m feeling. As a mom, I think I’m now able to see what’s really important.

Methadone and the course of treatment I took — I really think that saved the lives of me and my kids. I really hope that any mother — any parent — who’s struggling doesn’t feel as scared as I was to get help. Life is so much prettier on this side.

The Mom Who Was Pregnant and Addicted to Opioids