A Mother’s Journey from Substance Use Disorder to a Career Helping Others
For a woman with an opioid-related substance use disorder, finding out she’s pregnant can be a terrifying and confusing experience. The Brandywine Counseling and Community Services Perinatal Program offers treatment, counseling, and advocacy to support healthy deliveries and successful parenting. We’re pleased to share Jessica’s journey from substance misuse to healthy motherhood and a career helping others.
As with many who suffer from the disease of substance use disorder (SUD), Jessica Gerber’s recovery was not a straight trajectory. Jessica previously tried Medication Assisted Therapy (MAT) – a combination of medications that reduce cravings and behavioral counseling – but wasn’t at a stage where she could stay with the program.
That all changed in late 2020 when Jessica found out she was pregnant. “I realized that this is now completely out of my control,” she said. “I realized I was in a real crisis. I was terrified. I was overwhelmed with guilt that I had done this to my baby. It was my first pregnancy, so it was even more scary for me.”
Another person with SUD who was going to Brandywine led Jessica in the direction of BCCS and the MAT program. At that point, Jessica had no plan but was open to the support BCCS offered. One of the first things she learned was that stopping cold turkey could harm her child, and she would need methadone.
A welcome calm, the support of shared experiences, and accountability
She was told her recovery would be a process. Still feeling rudderless, it was what she needed to hear. “I didn’t know the services BCCS offered,” she said. “I just knew I was getting methadone until I could figure out the next step.” When referred to the Perinatal Program, though, Jessica felt a welcoming calm, especially when speaking with Perinatal Clinical Supervisor April Cecil.
Undergirding their relationship was a shared experience. As someone who also went through a recovery journey, April is also a peer counselor. “I relate first-hand to substance use disorder, and that can really help,” said April.
“That’s the first thing we connected on,” said Jessica. “April suffered from what I suffered from. That gave her credibility.”
Jessica also connected with Perinatal Case Manager Rosario Hernandez. April and Rosario formed a support structure for Jessica. Perinatal caseworkers and peer counselors also help clients through the maze of social services, transport them to medical appointments, and ensure they have everything the infant will require. The support lasts through the child’s first two years.
The case workers and counselors also provide the accountability that is critical to successful recovery. “Every time I came in for my medication, they were very supportive, but they were also, ‘get a game plan,’” said Jessica.
Jessica remembers the exact date she turned the corner: “It was May 27, 2021. I remember going outside. It was a horrible morning. I was looking up and realized I couldn’t do this anymore. I prayed. And I will never forget the warmth I felt on my face. I texted my BCCS counselor, ‘I’m done. I surrender.”
“I was heading in the right direction, but April and Rosario made sure I got the support I needed,” Jessica said.
Advocacy and guidance
That support, said Rosario, includes advocating for the women who are often stigmatized for their SUD, even by some medical professionals. Rosario witnessed that level of support and advocacy while working on a different BCCS program. When a position in the Perinatal Program opened up, she transferred. “I just love the support given to the women, guiding them through the whole process and helping them keep track of their progress so they can see they’re achieving something.” The clients, said Rosario, “are also very grateful that you’re there to go with them [to appointments] and advocate for them.”
“There is often a lot of prejudgement when it comes to someone who is using, especially the types of substances that the clients we treat are using,” said April. “There’s a stigma that comes with that. Because they’re pregnant and mothers, they’re judged even more harshly. They need someone to advocate; they need someone with a professional background because they’re not being heard.”
In August of 2021, Jessica – now sober – delivered a healthy child. April and Rosario were among the first to visit mother and daughter in the hospital. They were also there when Jessica faced her next challenge: proving to the Delaware Department of Family Services that she was a fit mother who deserved to keep her child.
“When you have a child, and you’re on MAT, the state of Delaware has to go through a protocol until they can verify with Brandywine that you’re following everything you have to do,” said Jessica.
It’s a system of checks and balances. “There’s often a lack of understanding of SUD, and it’s hard for people who don’t understand the disease to make decisions for the child and the mother,” said April. “We advocate for the best result for the child in every situation.”
Gratitude and a desire to make a positive impact
Jessica was a mother, but she was also a changed person whose recovery had a positive impact beyond herself and her child. “My addiction affected everyone around me, so I make sure my recovery does, too,” said Jessica. “My life is not perfect, but it’s better than any high I’ve ever felt.”
The gratitude Jessica sensed set her on a career path that brought her back to Brandywine.
“When I started coming out of the postpartum fog, I came back to reality,” said Jessica. She started volunteering to help others find their way to recovery. “Then I wanted to do that as a career, and April mentioned that BCCS was hiring.”
April, Rosario, and others at BCCS had no doubt Jessica would be a good fit. As a volunteer, she was providing care to people suffering the horrific wounds caused by the drug xylazine, which, like fentanyl, is often mixed into street opioids. “There are so few humans on earth who can do that and do it nonjudgmentally,” said April. “I just knew she’d fit in.”
“Before my addiction, I was in nursing school,” said Jessica. “I’ve always had a passion for the medical field. When I got sober, I started [volunteering to do] wound care. It was a great fit.”
Jessica is now an Outreach Coordinator for BCCS’s Continuous Care Community Mobile Treatment services program. The new and innovative program provides behavioral and medical health care and integrated services to Delaware’s most underserved and vulnerable populations.
Rosario said Jessica is just one example of the Perinatal Program’s success stories. “It gave me the chills,” she said. “You see these women at the beginning, and you see the outcome, and it’s so beautiful.”