Moms on Drugs: The Prescription Pill Epidemic

In Danger and Denial

An addiction can turn out far worse, of course. At the height of her drug use, Claire was ingesting a cocktail of 20 Percocet (a painkiller), two or three OxyContin, 15 to 20 Soma (a muscle relaxant), and ten Xanax four times a day. This was all while driving her kids, then ages 9, 6, and 1, around. "When I could tell I was high, I didn't drive them," she explains, "but most of the time I felt normal." Unable to get enough medication between visits to her doctor, she'd "find whoever I could think of who knew somebody who knew somebody who had extra," Claire says. She'd even give rides to an older woman who lived on her street in exchange for pain meds.

One day her body rebelled and Claire overdosed at home. Her husband found her and called an ambulance. When she woke up in the hospital -- with no memory of what she'd taken or how long she'd been unconscious -- doctors told her she'd swallowed enough drugs to kill three people. "I was taking ten to 20 times the recommended dosage of all the meds I was on," she says.

Some women pay the ultimate sacrifice for their addiction. Tina Kasper, a 41-year-old mother who lived in the Houston suburbs, went out to dinner with her husband in 2010; the next morning he found her dead in their bed. The cause of death: nine different prescription drugs for long-term medical problems, including an anti-anxiety drug, an antidepressant, and a muscle relaxant, prescribed by two doctors. Her husband knew she took pills but didn't think she was addicted.

This kind of denial -- among both addicts and their loved ones -- is common. So is guilt. "The shame is worse for mothers than for other people," says Dr. O'Flaherty, because they're supposed to be in control and selfless. Claire felt this way: "I thought, 'How can I be the mom I always pictured myself to be, yet at the same time be a drug addict?'"

There's no denying the effect a mother's addiction has on her kids. "They are neglected, if not physically then emotionally, because their mother is not capable of being present and fully aware," says Dr. O'Flaherty. "Even if they can't verbalize what they're feeling, the children know on a subconscious level that something is not quite right."

As Claire's addiction worsened, she went from being what she calls "a Betty Crocker homemaker" to someone who got high all day. "I was out of it most of the time. I would nod off like a heroin junkie," she says. Claire's husband knew she was taking the drugs, but he didn't know she was going through them so quickly and getting them from other people. Her older son was sure there was something wrong with her too, but he didn't have the words for what it was. "I'd considered myself a really good mom, but I look back and I am horrified," Claire admits. "I did what I had to do to take care of the kids, and not a whole lot more."

And at the same time, a mother's devotion to her children can provide the strength she needs to recover. "I had a moment of clarity in that hospital bed after my overdose," Claire says. "I realized that if I didn't stop using drugs, no judge was going to let my kids stay with me." She agreed to enter rehab. "I wanted them to forgive me, and I wanted to be the mom I used to be again." She hasn't taken drugs for two years.

In recognition of the toll that addiction takes on families, most treatment centers have programs for spouses and children. The Betty Ford Center, in Rancho Mirage, California, for example, sponsors group discussions for kids ages 7 to 12 regardless of whether their parents are patients at the Center. "The children learn that they didn't cause this to happen to their parent; they are not responsible," says Dr. O'Flaherty. "This is about the whole family healing."

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