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Sarah's Story of Addiction and Motherhood

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Jennifer Ginsberg: Self-aware, insightful, creative, and drug-addicted, Sarah has spent the past three decades in the alternate pursuits of getting high and fighting to get clean and sober. Sarah is the mother of Annie, a 2-year-old girl; she is a successful painter and modern artist, and she is a drug addict.

drug deal

After spending the past several years actively battling her addiction, she is now finding herself trapped in the horrific cycle of relapse. Only this time, the stakes are much higher with her daughter in tow.

Sarah's story of chaos began as an infant, when her older brother was the victim of a freak hunting accident that resulted in a gunshot wound to his head. While he miraculously survived, the incident left her parents incapable of devoting any attention to their new baby. Her father emotionally detached to avoid dealing with the trauma, and her mother was absorbed in the care and rehabilitation of her brother. Sarah reflected, "I was raised by an elderly couple that lived down the block -- my mom dropped me off there every day. I hope they were good to me."

Her father was a heavy pot smoker and pill-popper and her mother suffered from major depression. She remembered, "There was always pot and alcohol in my house -- my dad didn't even try to hide it." Her needs were neglected as her parents were consumed by their own addictions and problems. Sarah recalled, "My dad didn't care as long as I stayed out of trouble."

Sarah had no structure, routine, or rules. Her dad began having a series of extramarital affairs, and when Sarah was 6, her mom attempted suicide and had an extended stay in a psych ward. When her mom was released, she and Sarah's father divorced and she abandoned her children. Sarah recounted, "After that I had to fend for myself."

At 8, Sarah was raped by a 14-year-old neighborhood boy. Of that experience, all Sarah can say is, "Where were my parents?" At 12, her dad taught her how to smoke pot, and for the first time in her life, she felt comfortable in her skin. Immediately, her addiction took off, and she began smoking pot, drinking, and taking pills on a daily basis, all of which she found a ready supply of in her home. She remembers going to middle school so drunk she could hardly stay awake.

One afternoon, she and a few other kids were hanging out with a 35-year-old drug dealer that prowled around the school. He offered her drugs inside of his van, then violently beat and raped her. Again, the rape went undetected by her father or any of the other adults in her life, and of course, unreported.

After a few months, she was kicked out of the sixth grade for failing school and getting into fights. "My dad was furious," Sarah recalled. "He didn't care if I ran around or hid in my room getting high, but he hated the public exposure and being called into school." Sarah ran away from home and her dad didn't try to find her.

At 14, Sarah was sent to her first (of many) therapeutic correctional facilities. She also attended her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. "I was already a full-blown alcoholic and drug addict, and I could relate to everything they were saying," she stated. But she was far from ready to get clean and sober.

At 15, she was arrested for possession of methamphetamines. She was sentenced to treatment, and began her cycle of recovery and relapse. She could never pull together more than a few weeks clean, and her addiction progressed rapidly. She began shooting heroin and, as with most heroin addicts, she shared needles at times.

By the time she was 25, she had been in treatment over 30 times. That was the year she was also diagnosed with hepatitis C, a viral disease that leads to swelling of the liver, and commonly affects intravenous drug users. It is safe to say that drug addiction or alcohol abuse can only continue to damage the liver and compromise the immune system as the virus continues. Yet for many hard-core addicts, not even the threat of physical deterioration is enough of a motivation to get clean, as was the case with Sarah.

In spite of her addiction, Sarah began to pursue her only passion besides using drugs, which was creating art. She enrolled herself in a printmaking course and began creating exquisitely beautiful modern paintings. Her talent did not go unnoticed -- she sold many of her pieces and became an established artist in her community. Considering how severe and chronic her addiction was, the fact that she managed to achieve this was an incredible accomplishment.

By the time she was 30, she was completely beaten down by her addiction. She was homeless, isolated, and could no longer work as an artist. She called the one person in her life who could help her -- a local clergy person she had known for years, who arranged and paid for her to enter a long-term residential treatment facility. Sarah believed she had finally hit rock bottom.

In treatment, Sarah worked diligently to face all those issues that led to her addiction. She showed up for her twice-weekly therapy appointments, attended 12-step meetings, and was compliant with her medication. She was convinced that she would never return to a life of addiction.

She became reestablished as an artist and had great success. A curator from a major museum showed interest in her work. She began a romantic relationship with Josh, another resident in the treatment facility. They went to couple's therapy, worked on their issues, and vowed to do whatever it took to stay sober together.

More than anything, Sarah wanted to have a baby, and made a conscious choice to get pregnant. She felt grounded in her recovery after 18 months of sobriety, and felt prepared to raise and nurture a child in sobriety. She believed that becoming a mother would inoculate her from her addiction. "I thought that moms who drank and used were pieces of shit," she said with irony. "When I was shooting up, one of my dealers had a baby and hid the baggies and needles in packages of baby wipes. Her baby was always screaming in another room when I would pick up my dope. I knew it wasn't cool -- I was disgusted. I knew it would never be me."

She consulted with specialists and did research about getting pregnant with hepatitis C. What she learned is that this is generally considered safe, and the rate of transmission to an infant is quite low. She knew she was at risk for some complications in her pregnancy and would have to have a C-section.

During her last trimester, she developed cholestasis, a liver disease that only happens in pregnancy, where the normal flow of bile in the gallbladder is affected by the high amounts of pregnancy hormones, and often affects women with hepatitis C. She developed the usual symptoms of itching, fatigue, and depression. She concurrently contracted MRSA, a serious staph infection, which people with prior liver damage are particularly prone to. At 33 weeks pregnant, she was hospitalized after not sleeping for several days due to the pain and itching.

"I felt so ashamed and guilty because I knew that all of this was because of the hep C -- which I got because I shared needles. What a fucking idiot I was," she said, defaulting to her usual place of self-hatred and shame, emotions that are often as addictive as the drugs that intensify them.

While in the hospital, Sarah was administered sleep and pain medication for her symptoms. Oftentimes, the combination of exhaustion, physical discomfort, and anxiety is enough to trigger a recovering addict into relapse. In Sarah's case, once the narcotic medication was back in her system, the mental obsession with getting high was reactivated.

Once she was home with her baby, the nasty and insidious cycle of addiction crept back into her life. First, it was narcotic pain pills after the C-section. Then alcohol reentered the picture, as well as marijuana. She was fully aware that drugs and alcohol were exacerbating her hepatitis C and further destroying her liver, but she still was unable to stop. Her fiancé, Josh, relapsed into addiction as well, after 18 months of sobriety.

Sarah describes those early months as: "Josh and I would take turns on who could get high and who could watch Annie." Sarah's worst fear had come true -- her daughter was being raised in a home by addicts.

Sarah and Josh decided their problems were geographical, so they moved across the country to Palm Springs. But her addiction tagged along, like a nasty parasite that refused to die in the desert heat. She is now trying to balance motherhood, her career as an artist, and her addiction, which she tells herself is "under control."

People like Sarah drink and use because they like the effect produced by alcohol and drugs. They become physically and psychologically addicted to these substances. The sensation is so seductive that while they can admit it is harmful, they learn to rationalize their drinking and using. Once they are under the influence, all bets are off. Their actions and behavior are now dictated by the cocktail of substances consumed, and they are powerless to change unless they get sober.

The guilt and shame that alcoholic and drug-addicted moms feel is overwhelming. They believe that they are worthless as mothers if they can't even stay sober for their children. But the truth is, addiction doesn't care about one's children, accomplishments, or health. It only cares about getting the addict high, isolated, and alone. That is the very essence of the malady.

While Sarah recognizes that she needs to stop using and drinking for her health, for her relationship with Josh, and most importantly for her daughter, she still has a wall of denial that is fueling her addiction. She tries to convince herself that because she is not living on the streets and using heroin, things aren't that bad. But deep down she knows her only hope for herself and her daughter is to get clean and sober again.

You may be questioning how Sarah could truly love her child and behave so selfishly. It is my belief that it is entirely possible for a woman to both love her children and behave recklessly while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Those of us in the recovery world like to say, "Hate addiction, but love the addict" -- a tough concept for someone who thinks that willpower alone is enough for an addict to stop. Being an addict does not make Sarah a bad mother who needs to get "good"; rather, it makes her a sick woman who needed to get well.

Alcoholism and addiction are a force of evil in the world, but there is hope and recovery. Before we condemn one woman who is caught in the vicious cycle of addiction while raising her daughter, perhaps we can feel compassion for a person who, despite all her best intentions, cannot stop ingesting substances that are destroying her life.

I am certain there are women reading this who can relate to parts of Sarah's story. If you struggle with alcoholism and addiction in your own life, if you look at Sarah and say, "There by the grace of God go I," do everything in your power to confront your illness head-on and get sober.

Whatever it takes.

next: Men Know When They're Aroused, Women May Not
6 comments so far | Post a comment now
ashley January 6, 2010, 5:22 AM

I had trouble with meth for a few years. I never hit rock bottom. I knew when to stop and go to sleep I worked 50 hours a week and have a nice house. But I did meth. Well, I stopped when preggo with my daughter. After my c-section I was taking Lortab and found out they give me the same buzz as speed. Let me tell you, the pills are harder to kick than meth. So it makes me wonder if they can figure out something else to give former addicts after labor that’s not so addictive.

chris January 6, 2010, 5:24 AM

Knowing many of addicts myself and understanding fully how addiction works, I completely feel for sarah but the fact that both sarah and josh are using again, I feel the best option for their daughter is to remove her from the home until one of them can properly care for her. It’s very sad that she is has not stopped the cycle that will continue with her own daughter as it has with her and her parents. I truly wish her the best but my main concern is for her daughter and her having a fighting chance to grow up and sucess in life without the addictions of her parents haunted her.

Heather January 6, 2010, 2:31 PM

Sarah sounds like a brave woman. But I would echo the concerns of the previous commenter; maybe she should focus on one thing at a time and find a way to get clean and sober before trying to raise her child in a home with two addicted parents. Perhaps another family member could help.

tennmom January 6, 2010, 2:36 PM

It is absolutely possible to love your children yet still have a drug/alcohol problem.
After my late-husband died, I had a problem with both. I never neglected or abused my kids, but numbing myself after they went to bed was a habit. It took a year to realize that the pain I felt was normal and something I needed to feel.

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