Editor’s Note: The Northern Hoot acknowledges that methadone treatment has been a life changing and life-saving option for many people addicted to opioids. The narratives shared by the three First Nations women in this series reflects a different viewpoint about the methadone option. Their experiences may not speak for everyone who has used or loved a person that uses methadone, but these are their unique stories. *Names have been changed in the interests of privacy and job security.
We are sitting in one of the many crowded coffee shops in the Sault’s east end. Nicole is a 29 year old single mother of two, and a full-time student. She enjoys the simpler things in life, a walk with the kids or a good day of music and domestic pleasures- she loves cleaning. She is a First Nations woman and she’s been trying to kick opioid addiction for about 7 years through methadone maintenance treatments.
With a busy schedule, parental responsibilities and no vehicle, travelling 15 kilometers to get her daily drink when she’s lost her carries is chaotic.
“It just seems like it’s hard to get a carry. In the beginning the doctor wants you clean for two months straight and then you get your first carry- 6 drinks. So in the beginning of the few years I would stay sober for maybe 6 months, relapse, stay sober for 3 months, relapse… It took me a while to even get my first carry because of the two month thing. Then two months would almost come up and you’d use something and then you’d have to start all over. So…I think it took me quite a while to get all 6 carries.
When Nicole was 18 years old she was in car accident. She began buying Percocets off the street to manage chronic back and buttocks pain. One day, when she couldn’t acquire a few percs, oxycontin was offered as a substitute. She was hooked. A few years later she became pregnant with her first child and sought out her doctor who advised methadone treatment as the safest alternative to manage opioid withdrawal during her pregnancy.
Sometimes Nicole loses her carries because she’s used drugs recreationally or to avoid withdrawal when she has been unable to make it to the downtown clinic to get her drink. “I’ve missed on the weekends because they’re only open until lunch. I’ve missed a couple of times and I’ve had to use…because if I’m sick I won’t be able to take care of my kids. I’d probably neglect them if I’m sick.”
Nicole speaks in a very even voice for the most part, but her emotions crack through her leveled veneer when she speaks about trying to be a good mom for her children. “I just don’t feel good when I miss my dose. I just feel like dying. I just don’t like that feeling. It’s horrible. You’d rather die than feel that. I’ve missed my drink –I’ve thrown up my drink while I was pregnant. He’s punished me for that too,” says Nicole of her doctor. “I’ve lost carries from using after throwing up my drink when I’m pregnant. He tells me that if I go through withdrawal I could lose my baby but he gives me shit for using.”
After having her first baby Nicole continued on the methadone program for several years. About 3 years ago, wanting to be rid of her dependency on methadone, Nicole sought out support from a detox clinic. Prior to admitting herself Nicole found out she was pregnant with her second child. Because of the dangers associated with withdrawal during pregnancy, the clinic withdrew the offer of support. On the advice of her doctor and other professionals, Nicole stayed the methadone course.
The effects of methadone on Nicole’s babies were dissimilar. Nicole’s first child seemed fine and she was released from the hospital with her baby after a five-day stay. However, Nicole’s second child was extremely effected by methadone. “He was in the hospital for a month and he was put on morphine and weaned off.”
Nicole is unsure if exposure to methadone has had any long-term effects on her children and says that her children’s doctor does not feel it has, though she does wonder. “My six year old has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I don’t know it it’s because of methadone. My youngest is pretty excited all the time but it’s hard to tell with the ‘terrible twos’.”
Nicole has asked her doctor to help her taper off methadone and admits that she does relapse once in a while. “The doctor thinks I should be sober 2 to 3 years before I’m weaned off it. It seems like he’s making aim for perfect …and relapse is part of recovery.”
A few tears roll slowly down Nicole’s face, she presses a napkin beneath her eyes. She’s not happy with the methadone lifestyle –missing classes when she’s waiting for her drink at the clinic for a couple of hours, trying to find a ride downtown, always thinking about that drink, feeling like a ‘criminal’ as she urinates before a camera, and the stigma associated with treatment.
“I’ve been on methadone for seven years and I’ve gotten nowhere. I’ve had full carries for over a year and got nowhere. It’s a ball and chain. Ya, it keeps me on sober stretches but they don’t last. I end up relapsing. But I always get back on track. I’ve never neglected my children in the process. I’ve never used needles, never tried.”
Nicole knows about twenty-five First Nations women who are in methadone treatment. “Most of them are struggling to get their kids back. And they’re all good moms.”
Nicole admits that she has felt unfairly treated by the Children’s Aid Society because she is on methadone. “They’re not in my life right now, my file is closed. But they’re trying to weasel their way back in,” she remarked without further explanation.
A qualitative study was undertaken with people using methadone in a First Nations community in New Brunswick. Regarding the impact methadone treatment has upon parenting, researchers summarized, “…the treatment program generally helped improve the parenting abilities of patients with children. Because the money of patients was no longer going toward the acquisition of drugs, participants from the professionals and patients groups felt that participation in the program allowed patients to better care for their children by being able to provide for their basic needs, such as clothing and food. However, patient group participants stated that it was not all positive, given that an adverse effect of their participation in the program was they were drowsier and more absent as parents, suggesting that although they were now better providers for their families, their overall availability to their children was still compromised.”
Nicole has felt scrutinized by medical community, social services, the public at large, and she strongly expressed that she even felt stigmatized by people who work at the methadone clinic.
“I know this clinic is all about money. They don’t give two sh*ts about us. The workers are as rude as f*ck, except maybe one or two, and the pharmacists are all really kind. When I went to the hospital for crystal meth use, the pharmacist from the clinic came to see me. Now how’s that for patient/pharmacist relationship? What the hell does that say about the doctor and his goals or motives?”
Nicole wants to be free of methadone. “But I know I can’t do it cold turkey I know I can’t do it like that. When I went to the hospital they gave me methadone and I felt better so it must have some effect on my body.”
It was a damp, rainy day, and a steady flow of customers were in and out of the coffee shop, seeking a hot cup of something to hold. We had been sitting there for about 40 minutes when Nicole leaned across the table and remarked, “Since we’ve been here I just want to say that I’ve seen four people that I know who are on methadone. Just so you know.”
*Several attempts were made to engage the prescribing medical community though time restraints or disinterest precluded opportunity for discussion. Through social media and through clinics, the Northern Hoot attempted to find candidates to interview who had positive stories about methadone treatment though no one came forward in time for this series.