There are a lot of hot button issues that get talked about in the recovery community. We talk about medical maintenance, we talk about Twelve Step programs. We discuss the pros and cons of psychiatric medications. We debate the differences between enabling and helping an addict. We talk about the dangers of romantic relationships in early recovery. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a huge elephant in the room that we are not talking about that we desperately need to be, and that is pregnancy in early recovery.
I have met countless women in treatment who are absolutely convinced that they cannot get pregnant because there is something wrong with their bodies. They will tell you up and down how they have been having unprotected sex with their significant other for years now and they just don’t get pregnant. Then in the first few months of recovery, they find themselves with child.
These women are right, there is something wrong with their bodies, and in many cases the bodies of their partner. What’s wrong is that they are literally dying from their drug addiction.
The human body is a marvel of biology and is an amazingly intelligent machine. The human body wants to procreate by nature. However, when someone is sick and dying, they are much less likely to conceive a child. How often does someone dying of cancer get pregnant? Yes, it happens, but not very often. People with chronic diseases often struggle to conceive. Women who are overweight, even slightly, are typically told to lose weight in order to increase their chances of getting pregnant. That goes for women who smoke cigarettes as well. When the body is being damaged, it is not a hospitable place to grow another human being.
When a woman is using, her cycle can become irregular, infrequent, and she often loses her period all together. If a woman is not ovulating, she cannot become pregnant. Furthermore, women who do get pregnant often miscarry very early on. They sometimes don’t even realize it’s happening because they attribute the symptoms of the miscarriage to being just another odd period issue. Babies need a healthy body to grow, and that is why women who are addicted to drugs often believe they have fertility issues.
On the male side of the equation, it’s all about sperm count and strength. A dying man is not producing the best quality sperm. Do sick men impregnate women? Of course. It happens. But once again, it is a challenge that many couples deal with when they are trying to conceive on purpose. When a man gets clean, his body also wants to get back to its intended purpose of procreating.
When people get clean, some systems in the body get well faster than others. One of the first things that happens to many women is their period comes back or becomes more regular again. The human body’s main purpose in life is to reproduce more humans. It wants to get back to work on that as soon as possible.
Even though methadone is an opiate, the body gets much healthier once someone becomes established on methadone maintenance. Women in methadone clinics get pregnant very early on in their treatment because their body is becoming healthier and is ready to get back to its purpose of reproduction. The reason this is bad is not because methadone is bad for the baby. While it is certainly not ideal, many women on methadone give birth to perfectly healthy babies. Depending on the dose the mother is on, some babies go through little to no withdrawal symptoms at all. Those who do are treated medically and often remain very comfortable until the issue is resolved. Pregnancy on methadone is a topic for another blog. The reason I’m addressing it here is in the interest of a woman getting pregnant in early sobriety and the issues that brings.
When I talk about early sobriety I’m typically talking about the first year or so. When you are working to overcome an opiate addiction, the first year is no joke. You go through many huge changes and challenges while getting sober. The body goes through tremendous changes. The brain is turned upside down and inside out while it tries to recover. Those with mental health issues are typically getting back on psychiatric medications and dealing with the ups and downs of that, which can take up to a year to get right. Those who choose to utilize methadone spend the first six months or so getting stabilized on the right dose.
Lots of undiagnosed health problems can rise to the surface in the first year. People realize they have liver or kidney issues. Some people find out that they are diabetic. All kinds of health problems that were ignored during the person’s using career can come to light once the body starts getting back to its normal state of being. These issues need to be dealt with and can make an unplanned pregnancy that much more difficult or even dangerous.
There are also the social issues we encounter in the first year. Many people are homeless, living in sober houses, or shelters. People struggle to find a job, and often the first job they get is some kind of “starter job”, just to get them back in the swing of working again. Many people don’t have a car, and if they do, it isn’t very reliable. There’s also the issue of health insurance, which many addicts do not have.
Many of us have a great deal of debt to deal with in early recovery. If we’re not in debt, most of us are dead broke. Raising a child costs a lot of money, and most of us can’t even pay our own bills in the first year.
The first year is not the right time for 99% of addicts in recovery to be starting a family. It is a tumultuous, unpredictable, and erratic time in our lives. We don’t know who we are in sobriety, and we are trying to figure that out. Our lives are unstable, and we often don’t know what our plans are for our futures right away. Our support systems are busy trying to help us stay sober, if we are fortunate enough to even have a support system. It’s not fair to them to have to help us support and raise a baby because we aren’t in a position to support one ourselves.
Many addicts are not even stable enough in their life to even get a job right away, or live on their own, or simply exist as an independent human being. The first year is all about figuring out who you are in sobriety, and who you want to be. You should be able to support yourself, both emotionally and financially, before you take the step to start a family.
The idea that having a baby will help you to stay sober is just as much of a myth as the idea that having a baby will save a relationship or marriage.
Babies don’t fix problems, they exacerbate them. If babies kept people sober, then thousands of grandparents wouldn’t be raising their grandchildren and millions of kids would not be caught up in the foster system. A baby is not going to fix you, and it will not fix your partner.
It truly blows my mind that no one ever talks about this extremely important topic in the addiction and recovery field. Many addicts have never ever heard of this issue of increased chance of conception in early recovery, even those who it has happened to don’t realize the reason behind it. People are extremely fertile in early recovery and it is the worst possible time for that to be happening! I encourage all of my clients to pay close attention to this issue and not only to use birth control, but to double up on your methods.
This goes for the partners of addicts as well. I recently spoke with a woman who herself is not an addict, and whose husband got sober, they got pregnant, and within a month he was out using again. Now she is raising her beautiful daughter on her own. Would she give up her daughter for anything is this world? Of course not. But is the situation ideal? Far from it.
Two women I know have similar stories where they got pregnant in the first month of recovery, not once, but TWICE. No one ever explained to them that they are so fertile in early recovery, and even after it happened the first time they didn’t make the connection. They thought it was a fluke. It’s not a fluke!
There are so many children out there who are growing up without their parents because they can’t stay sober. There are children who are watching their parents die in front of them, and those who have had to bury their parents before they are even old enough to understand what death is. This is not the life you want for your child. There are more stories than I care to remember of terrible situations related to women getting pregnant in early recovery and not being able to stay sober in the long term. Everyone thinks that it won’t happen to them, that they are different, that they can do it, that they can change. I’m telling you that it can happen to you, you are not different, and it will not help you stay sober. Just trust me on this one. In rare circumstances, it probably has helped some people. In rare circumstances, it may have changed some people’s lives for the better. These are not the norm, they are the literal unicorns of the addiction world. No one wants to admit that they wish their child hadn’t been born. It’s a terrible thing to think. But I assure you, I have met MANY women who feel that way. I have met MANY women who are out on the streets, with their child growing up without them, because they got pregnant during a short stretch of sobriety by accident.
Please take this warning and share it with those you know in early recovery. Please understand how real the risk of pregnancy in early recovery is, whether it is the man or women or both partners who are getting sober. It just doesn’t matter. Your past history doesn’t matter. This happens every single day and it’s a source of stress you just don’t need in early recovery. Focus on you and your recovery. Focus on your mental and physical health. Build yourself a life you love and become the person you are proud of. Get your finances in order and pay your debts.
If you need help getting on birth control, please contact your local Planned Parenthood. If you want to help women in recovery prevent unplanned pregnancies, consider donating to our fundraiser. It is part of our mission to educate and advocate on this issue and to scholarship birth control for women in early recovery who cannot afford it on their own.
©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin