Danielle Kristine Sawyer had been using heroin for eight years when she got pregnant at the age of 25.
“I never wanted to get clean. I was okay with the obsessive compulsion, the feeling good,” she said.
And that didn’t stop when she got pregnant. “I never looked in the mirror. I didn’t want to see the reality of my situation. I basically pretended I wasn’t pregnant,” Ms. Sawyer said. “At nine months pregnant, it was literally I had to stick a needle in my arm to get out of bed.”
“It’s okay,” she said, when a reporter hesitated to write her comments down. “I don’t mind if you quote the bad stuff. I’ve worked through the shame.”
Now, at 28 years old, the Falmouth resident has been clean for two-and-a-half years. She lives in an apartment with her son, a healthy 2 1/2 year-old boy named Gavin.
Ms. Sawyer is a member of the Substance Abuse in Pregnancy Task Force, a group of health care and social service workers that formed this April to address the rising number of babies born to opiate addicted mothers.
Ms. Sawyer recently sat down with fellow task force member Deborah A. Heavilin of Falmouth to talk about the experience of using drugs in pregnancy and the task force’s newly formed support group for addicted pregnant and postpartum women.
During her pregnancy, Ms. Sawyer did not receive prenatal care. “I wasn’t going to the doctor, because I didn’t want anyone to tell me I had to stop,” she said.
“You know what you’re doing is wrong, but you just can’t stop yourself,” explained Ms. Heavilin, who is also in recovery and listened closely while Ms. Sawyer told her story.
Ms. Sawyer said she kept putting off plans to stop using, thinking, at each stage of the pregnancy, that she still had time to stop. Then, one morning, she walked inside from the back yard of her father’s house in Wareham, where she was living at the time, and went into labor.
Reality Sets In
“And that’s when reality started to set in,” she said.
“He was gorgeous, and when I saw him I started crying. I don’t remember this, but my sister said when they put him on me, I said ‘I’m sorry’. ”
Ms. Sawyer’s sister, father, mother and stepfather met her in the delivery room. While in labor, Ms. Sawyer told her family and the attending nurses that she’d used heroin her whole pregnancy. Her family had been unaware of the addiction. “And that’s how they found out,” she said.
“We were all terrified for the baby—would it have two arms, two legs?” Ms. Sawyer continued. Gavin was born July 20, 2011, at 2:46 AM, weighing seven pounds, eight ounces. “He was gorgeous, and when I saw him I started crying. I don’t remember this, but my sister said when they put him on me, I said ‘I’m sorry’. ”
Shortly thereafter, her son showed signs of heroin withdrawal and had to be intubated, Ms. Sawyer said. He was then taken by ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Boston, where he stayed for three months as doctors used tapering doses of morphine to wean him from the addiction he had acquired from his mother.
Ms. Sawyer continued to use heroin for four days after her son’s birth. During that time “I had this very annoying person calling me, and it was Deb,” Ms. Sawyer said, pointing to Ms. Heavilin, who works for a local drug treatment agency and was encouraging Ms. Sawyer to get help.
“She literally harassed me that weekend,” Ms. Sawyer said.
“I did,” Ms. Heavilin said proudly.
The Department of Children and Families (DCF), the state agency charged with preventing child abuse, was also involved in Ms. Sawyer’s case at this point.
Ms. Sawyer said she had a “spiritual awakening” the Monday after giving birth to Gavin on Thursday. She’d just been to see Gavin in the hospital, Ms. Sawyer recalled. He had a morphine IV in his head because nurses had exhausted his arms as a conduit. She then went out to her car and shot up. “And I had this flash in front of my face,” she said.
Ms. Sawyer described the awakening as an out-of-body experience, where she was seeing her life like it was a movie. She saw Gavin in the hospital, connected to myriad tubes, and she realized, “This baby’s fighting for his life, and I’m killing his mother. And that was it. That was the moment. I said, ‘I’m going to treatment’.”
Ms. Heavilin helped arrange for Ms. Sawyer to go to Gosnold’s detox center on Ter Heun Drive near Falmouth Hospital. “I was so sick,” Ms. Sawyer recalled. “The body aches, anxiety, sleeplessness.”
From there, Ms. Sawyer went to Emerson House, a residential treatment facility for women, including pregnant women and women with babies. DCF had taken custody of Gavin at this point. But, Ms. Sawyer said, her DCF social worker told her she had “a pretty good chance of getting him back.”
Gavin went to live with his mother at Emerson House after being released from the hospital at 3 months old. DCF still retained legal custody.
Ms. Sawyer said that the staff at Emerson House helped her work through the “disconnect” she initially felt on being reunited with Gavin. “They taught me how to bathe my child, feed my child, play with my child. They taught me how to be a mom,” she said.
When Gavin was 9 months old, Ms. Sawyer assumed full custody of her son. After working as a manager at a chain restaurant in Hyannis, Ms. Sawyer now works as an office assistant in Falmouth. Ms. Sawyer said she still talks to her DCF social worker and feels enormous gratitude toward her and the counselors at Emerson House. “They saved my life when I couldn’t,” she said.
Ms. Sawyer still attends 12-step recovery meetings several nights a week. “Talking about the dark stuff is what keeps me clean today,” she said.
Ms. Sawyer said Gavin is an intelligent child who is developing normally. She is excited to start the new support group for pregnant and postpartum women.
“I’m a mom today. And girls need to know that’s possible,” she said. “I drop [my son] off at day care, I pick him up, I cook him dinner, I give him a bath. And he calls me ‘mommy’.” Ms. Sawyer began to cry. “I’m his mommy.”
“I want to show women there’s another way,” she said.
“And that someone else understands where you are,” Ms. Heavilin joined in.
Ms. Heavilin, 56, struggled with alcohol and addiction to other drugs prior to getting sober in 1993. But she relapsed with prescription pills during the postpartum periods following the births of her three children. “The level of shame and guilt I felt was devastating,” Ms. Heavilin said. She was able to pull out of the relapses with support from her husband, Emerson House, and especially, she said, her women friends.
Ms. Heavilin’s oldest son is just off to college. “My kids have seen me be a sober mom. It’s the best gift I ever gave my kids,” she said.
Ms. Heavilin said pregnant or postpartum women often feel too ashamed to go to a regular addiction support group. “We want to create a safe place where women can feel comfortable saying anything,” she said.
Ms. Heavilin said she recently received a call from a pregnant woman who was using. “She’s so worried for the baby. She’s absolutely devastated by her own behavior, crying on the phone. And she wants to stop. And those are the people we’re trying to reach,” she said.
The support group will meet Tuesdays from 7:30 to 9 PM, starting January 7 at the John Wesley Methodist Church at 270 Gifford Street. The group welcomes pregnant women, and women with children up to 3 years old. Childcare will be provided through funds from the Coalition for Children.