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An Ex-Addict Aims for Motherhood

Years after kicking heroin, a Time reporter finds herself injecting again—this time, in an attempt to get pregnant. Her IV-to-IVF twist of fate triggers a rush of reflections on the meaning of addiction, parenthood, and recovery.

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Needle Exchange: A former addict takes a shot at maternity

By Maia Szalavitz

04/01/11

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The last time I gave myself an injection, the needle held heroin. Now, two decades later, I am shooting purified urine—part of my protocol for in vitro fertilization (IVF). To become a mother, I have to use the same spikes that had once nearly killed me.

I’d worried about this moment, fearful that it would obliterate my recovery and take me back to a time when needles were about easeful death, not new life. A time when I injected coke and heroin up to 40 times a day, my arms dotted with angry tracks, recording my self-hatred. Here I have a different type of white powder in front of me.

I can’t help thinking of my first time. In the cluttered midtown apartment where I lived with my drug dealer boyfriend, I’d gotten my wings from a friend who had learned to find even the smallest veins at his job euthanizing animals at a shelter. He pierced mine easily. I saw the needle slide under the skin as if it was happening to someone else. I felt no pain, just curiosity as I watched my blood blossom crimson in the barrel.

Heroin worked brilliantly to ease my social pain. On it, I could be cool—not prey to constant overload. Wrapped in its maternal warmth, I could be safe, not vulnerable. Soon, I was wielding the needle myself, heedless. I didn’t care about what IV drug use meant, only what it did.

Besides, I already thought that my life was over. I was 20; I’d been suspended from Columbia because of my drug problem. I’d worked all my young middle-class life to get to the Ivy League; it was supposed to be my gateway to success, not addiction. Instead, I’d let myself become completely defined by drugs.

Indeed, long before I became a cocaine and heroin addict, I had already given up hope about my ability to love or be loved—let alone be a mother. I was unworthy of that kind of unconditional devotion and incapable of providing it, I thought.

When the needle took me down to 80 pounds, I finally sought treatment. I discovered that it had been those kinds of brutal, self-loathing thoughts that had made anesthesia irresistible. But these weren’t unbending truths, simply falsifiable ideas. To recover, I needed to revise my self-perception—and, yes, still get some chemical help from antidepressants to turn down the volume of my experience and finally connect.

I never suspected that those street works that I dutifully cleaned with bleach to avoid HIV would lead to these sterile, wrapped syringes on my kitchen counter—and drugs far more expensive than what I’d used to get high.

As I write now, the doubts return. Aren’t my genetics dubious, my reasons suspect, and my risks too high? Am I too old to have a child?

But 22 years of recovery have taught me a few things. My nieces and nephew showed me the physical reality of children’s love, its palpable force. My reporting—for example, exposing the child abuse of for-profit “tough love” centers and examining the neuroscience of child trauma—showed me how vulnerable kids are and how much nurture matters. My family and friends encourage me to share my hard-won knowledge with my own child, seeing the maternal side of me that I previously couldn’t recognize. I do have something to give now.

And so, however bizarre this process may be—the hormones derived originally from the pee of peri-menopausal nuns, the hot pink solution that contains the frozen sperm—I’m sticking with it.

It's true that my yearning for a child can feel like an addictive craving—it has certainly driven me to this elaborate medical technology. Still I believe that the reproductive drive itself is the raison d’etre for the machinery of desire that goes awry in addiction. If we weren't able to persist despite overwhelming negative consequences—the essence of addiction—no one would ever have a second child.

Indeed, the brain’s natural heroin-like substances, the endogenous opioids, are crucial for the mother/child bond. But there’s also a critical difference. These days, I am often struck dumb by cuteness, awed by the purity of the happiness I feel just seeing a baby’s face.  When I unwrap the needles this time, my joy comes from the fact that I'm bringing myself closer to the authentic love I have always craved, which no drug can truly replicate.

I find an accessible spot on my belly and swab it with alcohol. I puncture the rubber on the glass bottle of fine white powder and squirt the saline solution into it, then draw it back up. Suddenly anxious, I look at the 2-inch-long needle skeptically, before realizing that I need to use a shorter one for the actual shot. I ping the air bubbles out of the plastic barrel—the only moment that does bring euphoric recall—take a breath and drive the plunger home.

Maia Szalavitz is a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love:  Why Empathy is Essential--and Endangered (Morrow, 2010), and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006).

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