It's not easy to admit that I hurt my son. I've stood in front of audiences of more than 900 people and groups as small as eight and told them my story about how drinking alcohol during my pregnancy has affected Zach's life. Reliving the most painful memories of the past 23 years takes every bit of my strength. But it's worth the effort. I know of at least one pregnant woman who heard our story and decided to stop drinking.
I never met her, but I imagine she is young and dealing with her own troubles â€“- just like I was. Back in 1979, I was 18, had moved out of my parents' home in Coquitlam, B.C., and had quit school to work. At 23, after a brief affair, I got pregnant. I was excited about the baby but continued drinking and partying with my friends. I didn't think about the consequences.
My life changed after my son was born. I had nothing more to do with the bar scene; Zach was my priority.
When Zach was a baby, I started wondering if something was wrong with him. He didn't reach the same milestones as other children. He rolled instead of crawled, was uncoordinated when he tried to walk, and by age three his speech was so garbled I couldn't understand anything he said. On top of these struggles, he suffered from various allergies. When he was six months old his asthma was so bad that I had to take him to emergency. The doctors tied down his little arms and legs, and put an intravenous tube into the top of his head and an oxygen tent over his body. I stood by and watched him in distress, unable to help him.
Growing up with fetal alcohol syndrome
Soon after Zach was born, I went back to school and got my high school equivalency, then went on to college and completed a community social service worker program. I was determined to make a good life for us and to be a positive role model for my son. I got a job as a financial worker for the Ministry of Human Resources.
Zach's difficulties continued. In kindergarten he was suspended for two weeks because of his disruptive behaviour. When he played outside with other kids, I would stand at the door and listen for a squabble. Zach's social skills were delayed, and he often had trouble fitting in. He did not get invited to many birthday parties. I wondered if his future would include a girlfriend, wife, children or a job. I had no idea what I could hope for.
By age eight, he was already seeing a psychiatrist and taking antidepressants. His mental and physical health reached a crisis point when he threatened to run in front of cars. He was committed to the psychiatric unit of a children's hospital, where he stayed for seven weeks. I had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), and I suffered chronic facial pain and was frequently exhausted. I was working full time and driving two hours from my office to the hospital to see Zach as often as I could. On days when I couldn't manage, I made sure a family member was there. Still, I felt so awful when I missed a day.
I was always honest with Zach's doctors and teachers about my alcohol use during my pregnancy, but I didn't want Zach to carry the stigma of a label. When he was 12 his teachers told me there would be more funding for his support if he was diagnosed, so I took him to a specialist. He determined that Zach did, indeed, have fetal alcohol effects, which falls within fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
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Children like Zach face huge obstacles on a daily basis. Throughout school, he was teased a lot and had low self-esteem. When he was angry he would leave home and not come back, sometimes staying on the street. It got worse after high school. He was depressed and suicidal, and he would even direct his anger at me. He once threatened to damage my car with a screwdriver.
Like many children affected by fetal alcohol syndrome, he has trouble seeing the consequences of his actions when he lashes out. And he's often remorseful. After one blowup we sat together on his bed crying. “You know, Mom,” he said. “I don't do that on purpose.”
But despite all of Zach's challenges, he always showed a big heart. When I was in pain from MS, he would rub my back for half an hour. Sometimes when I felt ice cold, he would take my blanket and warm it up in the dryer. Even when he found out that his own problems stemmed from my reckless behaviour, he didn't turn on me. I told him how sorry I was and that if I had a chance to do things over I would. I was sobbing. “Don't feel guilty, Mom,” he said. “You were young. I forgive you.” His generosity overwhelms me.
Living a full life with fetal alcohol syndrome
He has also had successes. I was so proud when he received two awards in high school, one for culinary arts and one for citizenship. These were presented by staff who saw his progress in developing relationships and wanted to acknowledge his accomplishments. At 18 he got his driver's licence; he is an excellent driver.
Today Zach lives on his own and works as a part-time supervisor at a fast-food restaurant. Holding this position is an incredible achievement for him. He is responsible with money, although it is stressful for him to manage his tight budget. When I visited him recently at his bachelor apartment, he was just coming back from driving a neighbour to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription. He often helps out neighbours, by driving them to appointments or to the store.
I wish he didn't have constant challenges to face every day. He takes more time than others to complete tasks and has problems with coordination. He often feels disheartened about what he sees as an unpromising future.
I help Zach out in as many little ways as I can, such as sending him care packages and giving him financial advice. But how can I not feel guilty when I know my son lives with heartache? The hardest part is knowing that I can't turn back the clock and give him the life he deserves.
Even with my diagnosis of MS, I feel compelled to speak as a mom to try to prevent other women who are pregnant from drinking alcohol. I've spoken at conferences, to youth teams from the local treatment centre and to parent groups. Sharing my story is emotionally draining, but it's worth every minute.
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