Broadening Our Perspective About Addiction

Guest post from Eryka Waller, an AFTH social worker who formally worked as Neonatal social worker.

Each day working in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), I would hear codes called whenever a baby was born and would be transferred into our unit. Codes ranged from babies in respiratory distress, a premature baby or a micro preemie (born starting at 24/25 weeks gestational age), and many times I would hear “Baby Girl, Room 2, mom admitted to Percocet use,” “Baby Boy, OR 1, mom in a methadone program,” “Baby Girl, Room 5, mom admitted to Percocet, Xanax, and heroin.” While every code you hear working in the NICU is emergent and truly devastating, hearing the calls about babies being born exposed and addicted broke my heart each time.

Babies born exposed and addicted to drug are sent to the NICU to be monitored for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). NAS is a diagnosis given to babies if their mother used opioids, barbiturates, amphetamines, or benzodiazepines during pregnancy. Babies experiencing NAS can have a large range of symptoms including, tremors, loud screeching cries, rashes, fevers, inconsolability, extreme irritability, loose stools, seizures, and many other things that impede their ability to go home right after birth with their families. While the medical aspects of NAS are very severe, NAS raises the red flag that there are severe social concerns going on in the home as well.

As a social worker in the NICU, my job was to complete a biopsychosocial assessment on each of the parents of the babies in my NICU. I needed to assess the mental stability of the parents, the environment (per parent report), and resources that the baby would have in their life. Whenever NAS came into play, this assessment was even more important. Hearing about a mother who used during pregnancy can cause a lot of feelings which can lead to judgement. Many people judge the character, integrity, and love inside of drug exposed and addicted parents. While those are real thoughts and feelings that many people have, I would like to take a moment and challenge you to shift your thinking in hopes that you would open your mind to a new understanding of these women.

Addiction is a disease. Disease? Yes, it is a disease that people can be predisposed to that sometimes, circumstances in life cause them to succumb to it.  David Sheff, Author of “Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy” said “addiction is a disease and must be treated like we treat other diseases.” According to the Center for Addiction, “Like diabetes, cancer and heart disease, addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental and biological factors.” People do no choose to become an addict in the same way that people do not choose to become a diabetic or to have heart disease or cancer. While life choices may exacerbate the predisposition, we do not judge someone with these diseases even if their life choices caused them.

People who have diabetes get pregnant and have babies just like people with addiction. While yes, the major difference here is a mother’s addiction has an impact on the baby, they do not purposefully use to harm the child. Similarly, a mother and father who both have the sickle cell trait, have a 50% chance of having a child with the disease. Sickle cell disease is a chronic sickness. Do we judge them for getting pregnant with knowledge that the child could be born with the disease as a direct result of the parents both have the trait? No. Out of all the women I have worked with who had babies exposed, never once have I heard a woman say, “I love using drugs” or “I do it because I like it” or “I don’t care about the baby I just care about using drugs.”  Most times, there are things going on in life causes them to try to find a relief, a break from the struggles in life, a break from depression or anxiety.  If that predisposition for addiction is there, and there are no healthy resources or supports, sometimes, these women fall to drug or alcohol use to give them this sense of relief.

Instead of judging, we need to be reminded, that sicknesses take many forms. Instead of judging, remember, addiction is a sickness and must be treatment as one. When we see someone who is sick, we help them not judge them. In adoption, we should always have an open mind. Never judge a birth or expectant parent if their child is born exposed. This is especially important to remember in open adoption. The person suffering from the effects of addiction is not only your child but also your child’s birth mother or father. Compassion and understanding go a long way as does a clearer picture of addiction as a disease and not solely a life choice.

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