June 20, 2024

Pulse Bliss

most important health challenges

How One Pregnant Mom Battles Opioid Use Disorder With Medication

Jesse C. is a 35-year-old mother of two. After struggling with opioid use disorder, she found medication treatment that worked for her and is now a counselor for other women struggling with the same chronic mental health condition, as well as an ambassador for Shatterproof, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming addiction treatment, ending stigma, and supporting communities. She is also part of the Unshame California initiative, a statewide campaign to destigmatize an opioid use disorder by providing education and sharing inspirational stories from people in recovery.

I can’t imagine life without my kids. I have two sons—a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old—and my whole life is dedicated to them. I think I was just meant to nurture other human beings. Loving something more than yourself is the best part of motherhood—it’s very intense and overwhelming.

When you have kids, you realize that everything is for them now. And I try so hard to guide my children, to nurture and explain things, be there for them, because I didn’t have an adult in my life like that. Together, the three of us do arts and crafts—like making candles—and we love being out in nature.

Right now, I’m 29 weeks pregnant with my third child. It’s been a seamless pregnancy, and this will probably be my last child. I don’t know the baby’s sex yet, but the boys are excited. They put their heads against my stomach and talk to the baby. Recently, the baby kicked against one of their faces, and it made them both laugh hysterically.

I’m super passionate and dedicated to my work, too, because I’ve worked in the field of substance use disorder recovery and Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)—where we do Methadone Maintenance (MM) for those struggling with an opioid use disorder—for the past nine years. I’m a certified drug and alcohol counselor and case manager, often working with moms and pregnant women.

Typically, the women I work with at the addiction recovery treatment center have been interacting with men and medical professionals, people who maybe don’t totally understand where they’re coming from and what they’re going through. They face a lot of stigma and judgment. So, I love being a different kind of provider for them. I love being able to tell them, “It’s okay, you’re doing the right thing,” by coming to the program to get help, because I understand exactly what they’re going through.

I tell them that I know they might wish things were different, but right now, they’re doing what they need to do to keep themselves healthy, which is going to help keep their baby healthy. “You might not be where you want to be,” I say, “and this might not be exactly as you envisioned, but this is harm reduction. This is the next best thing.” I tell my moms, “You’re being treated. It’s going to be okay.”

a group of children and a person

Courtesy of Jesse C.

Jesse spending time outside with her beautiful 3-year-old and 5-year-old sons.

Through all three pregnancies, I’ve taken medication that helps treat my opioid use disorder (OUD).

I have taken buprenorphine, a prescription drug that takes the place of an opiate that a person might be dependent on, for 13 years. I do really well on this medication. Using another drug to treat a drug dependence is called pharmacotherapy. When used within a comprehensive treatment plan—something that likely includes individual or group therapy and the creation of a strong social support system—it can be really effective in treating OUD.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about backlash or stigma because I’m sharing my story with people who might not understand an OUD. My own family even asks, “Can’t you come off that medication?” and “What will happen?” I know they’re saying it out of concern, but for the person who is in recovery, it’s not helpful. Guilt and shaming is never helpful.

Of course, I wish that I was not on any medication, that I could live a “normal life” without this disease. But the fact of the matter is that I can’t—and this medication helps me function.

I do a lot of work with the mothers at the program to break through that stigma and educate them on the background of OUD. I explain to them that it’s a complex brain disease, and that they are taking medication for it just like they would for any other chronic medical condition. It’s something I had to learn myself when I was starting out in recovery, and that I keep repeating to these moms.

Abstinence is always ideal, and we strive for that, but it’s not realistic for everyone. So, that’s what I tell my pregnant mamas: “This is going to help you function; this is going to help you get through your pregnancy without using drugs; this is going to help you take care of yourself and your baby, and make it to the end of your pregnancy.”

I am proof that this works. I have two beautiful sons and will hopefully have a third healthy baby in my arms in March. It’s not my first choice, but it is still okay.

a blue rock with white text

I struggled with OUD for years before finally getting treatment.

I started experimenting with opiates at around 14 or 15 years old. My friend group would get pills, and we’d take them recreationally. There were three solid years, from ages 19 to 22, where I was taking opiates every single day, all day.

I’d usually take OxyContin—this was a time when it was being overprescribed. I reached a point where I was buying and using black tar heroin because it was cheaper. I tried detoxing on my own, but it didn’t work. It felt like the flu, but times 20, and your brain is also depleted of any feel-good chemical, so you get an almost suicidal feeling. I thought, If I’m going to feel this way, I don’t want to live.

But in October of 2010, at age 22, after doing lots of research, I finally started getting treatment at a Suboxone program. [Suboxone is made with a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone.] It gave me my life back.

The woman who ran the program, a nurse practitioner named River Dansing, was an important part of my recovery. River had been working with people struggling with OUD for longer than I had been alive. She completely changed my life.

River was the first medical provider I met who wasn’t judgmental about addiction. She was so nurturing and really cared about me, and we became so close. She was just different from other providers—in fact, she was the one who made me want to work in the recovery field. Now, I try to emulate her, to be that one special person for my clients. Sometimes, I can hear her voice coming out of me. (She passed away in 2021.)

Right now, I’m taking buprenorphine to treat my OUD.

In the past, I’ve also taken another medication, methadone, which is highly regulated. With methadone, which can come in liquid, tablet, or injection form, you usually have to go to a licensed clinic every day to have the medication administered by a professional. It’s a more intense and regulated level of treatment.

Buprenorphine, on the other hand, requires a higher level of responsibility because you pick up your prescription each month at the pharmacy and have to be able to dispense it to yourself. You have to responsibly manage your own medication. You see your provider once a month for a session, and it’s more like a therapy session—you talk to the prescribing doctor or nurse practitioner about how you’re feeling, and then you go pick up your meds. Of course, most programs also encourage you to see an additional therapist or go to group therapy.

When I started taking my buprenorphine medication, I remember feeling pretty normal almost immediately, like I could function again. River called me after my second induction day—she asked how I was doing. I was out riding a bike with my nephew, and I told her I was “okay.” She said, “You’re out riding bikes! That sounds like you’re feeling pretty good.” I was doing something normal. And I felt okay. That was new for me.

By 90 days, your brain adjusts to your new normal. It feels like it rebuilds and starts to repair. You’re smiling again. You’re laughing again.

I’ve tried to taper off completely several times, and 24 hours later, I would just be lying awake in bed. My body would be exhausted, but my insides would be firing. It’s disturbing; that’s the only way I can describe it. My body hurts, and chemically, my brain has no dopamine motivating me to get up and do life. I would never advise someone to just step off like that.

a person looking at a computer screen

Courtesy of Jesse C.

With this pregnancy, I’ve been working with my doctor on my treatment.

I didn’t tell my first doctor that I was on the medication because I was scared. That’s super common for pregnant people not to disclose, because they don’t want a red flag in their chart, or to be seen in a certain way.

When I finally told my old doctor, she was kind of clueless but didn’t make it a really big deal, which is great. My new doctor is super understanding and knows a lot about medication-assisted treatment. I’ve educated him on some things as well. I share articles and studies with him. We talked through tapering my dose with this pregnancy (I also tapered my dose with my other two pregnancies to keep it as low as possible). He’s really proud of me and wants me to be safe and use a comfortable dose for the duration of my pregnancy.

Before passing judgment about opioid or substance use disorder, do your research.

Google it. Watch a YouTube video. It can be really difficult to be empathetic to people struggling with this disease because they have behaviors that are very unlikable, sometimes, and their life is falling to shreds. You might think, No one in their right mind would be doing this and wreaking havoc on their life to this degree, and that’s the whole point. That’s what the disease is. You don’t just start smoking OxyContin all day every day for no reason.

I’m just a normal mom and human who struggles with a complex mental health disease, so I take medication to help me function. You can live a healthy, happy life with Medication-Assisted Treatment, and you can have healthy, happy kids with this medication. We exist. We’re out here. There are many of us, and the more people speak up about it and normalize it, the more people struggling with OUD—and pregnant women—can get the help they need.