Australia: ‘A failure as a mother’, drug detox hope for women with children

“How could a mother do that to her kids?”.

During Anne’s* first stint in drug and alcohol rehab she overheard a fellow inpatient (a man) talking about her.

Anne* who found it difficult to overcome her addiction, got her life back on track after a stay in a mother and baby clinic.
Anne* who found it difficult to overcome her addiction, got her life back on track after a stay in a mother and baby clinic.  Photo: Eddie Jim

The shame was overwhelming; “I felt judged as a woman and a failure as a mother.”

The reality was, of course, far from straightforward. Three months after her son was born Anne – the main income earner – returned to work as a corporate travel agent, clocking up 30 hours a week from home.

But she was dogged by crushing perinatal depression, which stemmed from trauma as a child. She began abusing alcohol and tranquillisers like Valium and Xanax to numb her terrifying anxiety and hallucinations.

Her worried husband tried to help. He’d even sniff her breath when she got home to see if she had been drinking. But Anne was scared that if she revealed to anyone how far she’d sunk that her baby would be removed.

It’s a common fear, says Rose McCrohan, the manager of Victoria’s first mother and baby alcohol and drug withdrawal facility. It officially opened this week in Curran Place, a Uniting Care withdrawal centre in Ivanhoe.

Many women are frightened their children will be removed from their care, but the centre’s goal is to keep families together, McCrohan says.

There are seven existing withdrawal centres in Victoria but none have a specific focus on mothers and babies.

This four-bed unit (which sits alongside a 12-bed adult withdrawal service) offers specialist help for women with “poly drug” use. These include ice, heroin, alcohol and prescription medication, and users have often also experienced mental illness and homelessness.

Childcare workers are on hand to look after the babies, aged up to 12 months, as their mothers go through detox. People detoxing from methamphetamine (or ice), often need to sleep for long periods.

McCrohan describes addiction as a “chronic, long-lasting condition”,and says many addicts won’t fully recover in the week or two they spend at the centre and will often have to visit multiple times. But they will always be given a warm reception.

“When they have anxiety or depression they pick up a substance, and then they get stuck,” she says. “Substance use is not a helpful form of therapy for people.”

The state’s Minister for Mental Health, Martin Foley, said about 30 per cent of children of parents with serious mental illness ran the risk of developing mental illness. This unit would offer the earliest intervention, he told the launch.

Anne finally got into a residential rehabilitation unit called Bridgehaven, where she could bring her children. She stayed there for a difficult four months and learned how to look face-on at difficulties in her life instead of blotting them out.

It wasn’t easy. She endured 24-hour panic attacks, and sitting alongside people in group therapy sessions who vomited with distress.

But she also clawed back her sense of self worth and honed her parenting skills. The new mother baby unit showed desperate women were being taken seriously, she said.

By: Miki Perkins

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