Her 15-year-old son couldn’t read and he couldn’t add.
She knows she caused this.
VANCOUVER—“I binge drank through my pregnancy,” says Janet Christie, matter-of-factly. “I really loved drinking. I knew when I was pregnant that it wasn’t good to drink. I was so ashamed. But I had no one to talk to about it.”
Sitting in a sunlit corner of Vancouver’s Westin Bayshore Hotel, Christie has agreed to talk about being the birth mother of a child with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder on one condition: that she can continue folding brochures throughout the interview, small pamphlets advertising her services in training addiction recovery coaches. With that settled, she launches into the full story of getting sober 23 years ago. “I was one week sober, I’d found a recovery support group, and the phone rang. It was the police. They had caught my son, who was 12, in a crack shack. I didn’t even think he played with matches! This was my introduction to recovery.”
“I had known since he failed Grade 2 that I might have caused his problem. And that’s when things started to go awry. He had undiagnosed FASD. I read the research papers, and I told the principal, ‘I think I caused this.’ He said, ‘Just go home and forget about it’ — as nonchalantly as: ‘There’s a toilet roll that needs to be changed.’ Then he said, ‘I bet 95 per cent of the kids here have FASD.’ I was giving talks at treatment centres, telling my story, and a counsellor said, ‘Tell your son he doesn’t have to live like this any more. Get him diagnosed.’ So, when he was 15, I did. He cried.”
At the time, her son couldn’t read. “He would skip lines and not realize it,” she says. He couldn’t add, and he couldn’t comprehend what he was being taught at school. “He felt put down by teachers, blamed for not trying hard enough. He wasn’t connecting any actions with consequences. He was full of rage. I was worried I would open the paper and learn he had killed someone.”
Christie, who lives in an oceanview house in Sooke, B.C., speaks publicly about her life in an effort to help other women stop drinking while pregnant — and to try to reduce the stigma around the subject of addiction. “The world doesn’t always feel like a safe place when you’re a birth mother of a child with FASD,” says Christie. “This may be the most stigmatized area of a very stigmatized subject.”
Polished and well-spoken, she knows that she doesn’t fit the stereotype of an FASD mom — and this is part of why she’s taken on the role of speaking out. “Because it’s alcohol and it’s a revered substance, it doesn’t get talked about in our society. The myth that this only happens to certain women is wrong. It pushes middle class women even further into the closet. At least the First Nations women talk about it and admit it. White women just pretend their kids have learning disabilities. It’s even more shame-based.”
For years, Christie’s son skipped class, and was kicked out of several schools. Christie joined a parent group for those with FASD children. Her son pawned her jewellery. He had drug debts. She kicked him out. “I tried to do the tough-love thing,” she says. For a while he came back home and lived in her garage, sleeping in her car and cooking on camping equipment.
Over time, with her support, he got on the right track. Today, he is no longer using drugs, is employed in construction and has a stable, loving relationship with his girlfriend. His 10-year-old daughter, whom he sees regularly, is being raised by her grandmother on her mother’s side.
Christie sees his life as a success, although he struggles. “He knows why he struggles,” says Christie. “But he has a great sense of humour and a great outlook on life. And things are gradually turning around for him. I’ve helped him out a lot — helping him keep a roof over his head, helping him buy a vehicle, paying his car insurance.”
Christie’s passion is a program she launched in 2004. Called Moms Mentoring Moms, it was a support group for women struggling with addiction while pregnant, some of whom had lost custody of their children.
“Peer support is really fundamental for anyone wanting to overcome an addiction,” says Christie, and peer support is what the program offered for women who wanted to stop drinking — support without judgment.
Launched with $80,000 from a B.C. non-profit agency and the B.C. ministry of children and family development, the group provided a weekly drop-in for women, as well as a mentor to accompany them to any appointments: navigating the search for housing, dealing with social workers, applying for welfare, visiting the food bank.
Many women found sobriety through the group. The program ended when the funding ran out after a year.
Today, Christie trains volunteers to do the same thing, and is trying to raise funds to relaunch the program. As well, she uses her own website to raise awareness of the dangers of drinking while pregnant.
“Recently, studies have appeared suggesting that women need not worry about consuming low levels of alcohol during pregnancy,” she writes. “I find this very disturbing and question why, as a society, we are spending money trying to prove it is all right to mess around with an unborn child’s human potential.”
Most of all, Christie battles society’s notion that “addiction is a moral rather than a sociomedical issue.” Personally, she says, “I feel blessed to have made it out of that big black hole of addiction. I feel this is my calling, to do this work, and it gives me a great deal of pleasure to see how a little bit of effort can make a big difference in another mother’s life. I have a passion for the moms. In the end, shaming and blaming comes from a place of misunderstanding. It’s a useless waste of energy. It’s so much easier to point a finger than hold out a hand.”