Chasing Stigma

I’m no stranger to stigma. In 1969, I was an unwed mother. In those days, a woman pregnant out-of-wedlock brought shame on her family. She was hidden, or sent to a home for unwed mothers until her baby was born and she relinquished her newborn for adoption in a closed system. Her baby was adopted by a deserving infertile married couple. The new non-mother was told to go on with her life and not tell.

On my daughter’s ninth birthday, I take the train to Revere Beach on a coolish Spring day. Through tears, I pick the tiniest shells I can find. Gazing out on the horizon, I suddenly realize her parents probably told her she’s adopted. Not only do I have the agony of not knowing who she is, now she has the agony of not knowing who I am. I live for the day when I find her and tell her I love her.

Later that year, I move to San Francisco and go to the university to finish my degree in sculpture and get into the graduate program. Compelled to finally tell the truth of what losing my baby to adoption means to me, I write a play Pretend It Didn’t Happen. I feel like I will die if I write one more word. I can see myself falling to my left into the fetal position.

I was raped and got pregnant. My parents wanted me to go into a home. I got a job, saved my money, bought a car and headed for Los Angeles from Lynn, Mass. I totaled my car just east of Pittsburgh. I was pinned under the car with a fractured pelvis. I was five months pregnant.

I was in the hospital for two months and then went into a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers. The day I left, a piece of my heart ripped out of me. Giving away my flesh and blood daughter felt like amputation. I was devastated.

After the play’s performance, a friend tells me about an adoption support group. I’m not the only one grieving the loss of her child. I meet adoptees with an insatiable longing to know where they came from — to look at someone, who looks like them. Adoptive parents want to understand why love doesn’t take away their child’s pain of not-knowing. I’m inspired to tell the adoption story from all three points-of-view of the adoption triad in the documentary Unlocking the Heart of Adoption. And I find my daughter.

I’m stunned. The last time I saw her, she was a swaddled newborn. Now, she is a young woman of 19 sitting on the couch next to me. Our tentative reunion is on and off. I cherish the moment of our long hug.

What about homes to help mothers keep their children? I discover residential treatment programs for pregnant and postpartum mothers with substance use disorders. The mothers learn recovery and parenting skills, and start on the path of self-sufficiency. This is my next film.

The documentary On Life’s Terms: Mothers in Recovery follows five women in the Center Point program in San Rafael, as they grapple with substance use disorders and reveal underlying issues of domestic violence, incarceration, prostitution and complex family relationships in a safe environment with comprehensive services. The moms love their children and are determined to turn their lives around and gain custody.

There are less than 150 of these programs in America today. What becomes of mothers, who can’t get into a program? Fear of losing her child can stop a pregnant woman from getting prenatal care. Sixty-six percent of women in prison have a child under the age of 18.

As a rape survivor and first/birthmother, I struggled to overcome grief, guilt and powerlessness. When a mother is overwhelmed by addiction and has her children removed, these unacknowledged debilitating emotions can send her into a downward spiral.

At a recent screening of the film, two mothers on the panel were asked what made them decide to get into recovery. One quickly responded, “It was when I was in the hospital and for the first time, someone looked me in the eye like I was a real person.”

Stigma turns people into objects. It’s a weapon of morality blinding one human being to the suffering of another. As a society we cannot afford to deny the fact that addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disorder and people need treatment. The cost skyrockets when you add up the millions of lost work hours, prisons, foster care, hospital emergency rooms, the list goes on.

The good news is Congress recently passed The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. But a mere $15.931 million was allocated for women and children’s treatment programs. Center Point’s budget for one year is $1.2 million.

The enormity of the human toll cannot be measured. In the film Lisa R’s eight-year-old daughter Casey says, “I’m always sad when I have to leave my mother, because I love her so much. She’s as rare as a rose and delicate as my heart.”

September is National Recovery Month. Host events. Tell your story. Chase stigma out of the room, the building and communities across the country. People recover and lead productive lives. Help the mother. Help the child.