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Maternal Instinct and Addiction Battle for Control

April 04, 1993|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — April Day strapped her daughter in the car seat most mornings and drove from her Irvine tract home to score heroin.

She would park her Jetta and buy on the mangiest streets of Santa Ana littered with junkies, then it was up to her girlfriend's house in Silverado Canyon. For the rest of the afternoon, she and her housewife pals would tie off an arm and plunge hypodermics into their veins.

"We used to joke about the talk shows they should do: 'Heroin Addict Housewives on Geraldo! Domestic Drug Addicts on Donahue! Opiate Addicts on Oprah!' We'd go up there and shoot speedballs and then go home and cook dinner for our husbands," Day said.

"I grew up very middle class in Seal Beach, and I thought it was all really cool, really romantic. We thought we were the only yuppie heroin addicts."

Once pregnant , Day stopped shooting up, but continued taking Percodan--even after delivering her daughter. The day she gave birth, her friends arrived at the hospital with her needles and heroin, although she turned it away for a few more months.

Even though she was still popping pills, she realized she was endangering her daughter through breast-feeding. So she switched to bottles.

"It's a miracle nothing happened to her," Day says now, holding her healthy toddler in her lap. But she only committed to long-term rehab under threat of losing her 18-month-old daughter. "I wouldn't be in a program if they wouldn't let me have her here."

For about a month now, Day has been drug-free at Heritage House, Orange County's only residential treatment center that allows women with children.

There are only 15 beds at the Costa Mesa facility, a grouping of condominiums cheerfully decorated in blue and pink pastels that the women and their children share.

Here, the substance abusers--drug addicts and alcoholics--spend every day participating in group or individual counseling sessions and parenting classes and studying 12-step program material, as well as cooking and cleaning for their children.

There is a two-month waiting list for the six-month program.

Experts in the field advocate prevention and treatment before delivery and say mothers of substance-exposed babies should generally be treated like patients with an illness. The cost of treating newborns with extreme medical problems and, later, children with the lingering side effects of prenatal drug exposure, are ultimately far greater than the cost of pre-birth rehabilitation.

Heritage House costs the county $54 a day per mother or child, whereas care for a newborn with drug exposure problems in one day at a neonatal intensive care unit can soar into the thousands of dollars.

The sound-bite picture of drug moms many people foster is one of poor inner-city women, often black and Latino, rather than your next-door neighbor or grocery store clerk. A visit to Heritage House illustrates the reality: National studies show mothers from all walks of life drink and do drugs while pregnant.

"It's much more prevalent than we think, because it's across all socio-economic strata," said Margaret McMillan, the nurse who runs the delivery room and maternity wing of St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, where more than 5,200 babies were born last year.

Prenatal substance exposure, she said, "is just everywhere, and anyone who thinks they don't have the problem because they're in a nice area, with a nice hospital, is making a mistake. And just like wife abuse and child abuse, the problem doesn't belong to 'them'; it belongs to us all."

*

Day, 31, certainly mocks our stereotypes. She grew up middle class in predominantly white Seal Beach and has a smile like former model Cheryl Tiegs'. She frequently visited her father in Northern California but lived with her single mother, who worked.

At 8, she tried smoking pot; at 12 she drank Old English 800 malt liquor under the Seal Beach Pier. At 17, she dropped out of her junior year of high school and went to work. By age 19 she had married a man she met at a Santa Ana bar.

"I turned 20 July 5, and my daughter was born July 27. I wasn't using then," Day said.

She and her husband split up after a few years, and she moved in with her mother in Irvine. At her job as a dental assistant, she began nicking codeine-laced Tylenol and learned how to forge prescriptions.

"Opiates did it for me; they relaxed me, made me not worry. Codeine doesn't leave a hangover," she pointed out.

She had begun dating and found it nerve-racking, so she began using more codeine.

Some time later, a group of her friends from childhood told her about a guy they'd gone to school with who was then in prison. Day had lost her virginity with him and felt a type of bond with him still, so she wrote him at the Terminal Island prison. Three weeks later she visited, and eventually she learned he was a heroin addict, which drove him to rob banks for his fix.

Three months after his prison release, nine months before they married, Day used his needles to inject herself.

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