Years after kicking heroin, a Time reporter finds herself injecting again-this time, in an attempt to get pregnant. Her IV-to-IVF twist of fate triggers a rush of reflections on the meaning of addiction, parenthood, and recovery.
The last time I gave myself an injection, the needle held heroin. Now, two decades later, I am shooting purified urine-part of my protocol for in vitro fertilization (IVF). To become a mother, I have to use the same spikes that had once nearly killed me.
I'd worried about this moment, fearful that it would obliterate my recovery and take me back to a time when needles were about easeful death, not new life. A time when I injected coke and heroin up to 40 times a day, my arms dotted with angry tracks, recording my self-hatred. Here I have a different type of white powder in front of me.
I can't help thinking of my first time. In the cluttered midtown apartment where I lived with my drug dealer boyfriend, I'd gotten my wings from a friend who had learned to find even the smallest veins at his job euthanizing animals at a shelter. He pierced mine easily. I saw the needle slide under the skin as if it was happening to someone else. I felt no pain, just curiosity as I watched my blood blossom crimson in the barrel.
Heroin worked brilliantly to ease my social pain. On it, I could be cool-not prey to constant overload. Wrapped in its maternal warmth, I could be safe, not vulnerable. Soon, I was wielding the needle myself, heedless. I didn't care about what IV drug use meant, only what it did.
Besides, I already thought that my life was over. I was 20; I'd been suspended from Columbia because of my drug problem. I'd worked all my young middle-class life to get to the Ivy League; it was supposed to be my gateway to success, not addiction. Instead, I'd let myself become completely defined by drugs.
Indeed, long before I became a cocaine and heroin addict, I had already given up hope about my ability to love or be loved-let alone be a mother. I was unworthy of that kind of unconditional devotion and incapable of providing it, I thought.
When the needle took me down to 80 pounds, I finally sought treatment. I discovered that it had been those kinds of brutal, self-loathing thoughts that had made anesthesia irresistible. But these weren't unbending truths, simply falsifiable ideas. To recover, I needed to revise my self-perception-and, yes, still get some chemical help from antidepressants to turn down the volume of my experience and finally connect.
I never suspected that those street works that I dutifully cleaned with bleach to avoid HIV would lead to these sterile, wrapped syringes on my kitchen counter-and drugs far more expensive than what I'd used to get high.
As I write now, the doubts return. Aren't my genetics dubious, my reasons suspect, and my risks too high? Am I too old to have a child?
But 22 years of recovery have taught me a few things. My nieces and nephew showed me the physical reality of children's love, its palpable force. My reporting-for example, exposing the child abuse of for-profit "tough love" centers and examining the neuroscience of child trauma-showed me how vulnerable kids are and how much nurture matters. My family and friends encourage me to share my hard-won knowledge with my own child, seeing the maternal side of me that I previously couldn't recognize. I do have something to give now.
And so, however bizarre this process may be-the hormones derived originally from the pee of peri-menopausal nuns, the hot pink solution that contains the frozen sperm-I'm sticking with it.
It's true that my yearning for a child can feel like an addictive craving-it has certainly driven me to this elaborate medical technology. Still I believe that the reproductive drive itself is the raison d'etre for the machinery of desire that goes awry in addiction. If we weren't able to persist despite overwhelming negative consequences-the essence of addiction-no one would ever have a second child.
Indeed, the brain's natural heroin-like substances, the endogenous opioids, are crucial for the mother/child bond. But there's also a critical difference. These days, I am often struck dumb by cuteness, awed by the purity of the happiness I feel just seeing a baby's face. When I unwrap the needles this time, my joy comes from the fact that I'm bringing myself closer to the authentic love I have always craved, which no drug can truly replicate.
I find an accessible spot on my belly and swab it with alcohol. I puncture the rubber on the glass bottle of fine white powder and squirt the saline solution into it, then draw it back up. Suddenly anxious, I look at the 2-inch-long needle skeptically, before realizing that I need to use a shorter one for the actual shot. I ping the air bubbles out of the plastic barrel-the only moment that does bring euphoric recall-take a breath and drive the plunger home.
Maia Szalavitz is a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010), and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006).
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