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What can't be undone

Julia O'Malley
Kristin Alexander visits with her son, who lives with his paternal grandparents, at her mother's home in Chugiak in March.
Marc Lester
Kristin said she wanted to establish a relationship with her son in the weeks after being released from prison.
Marc Lester
Kristin heads to an appointment at the Office of Children's Services in March.
Marc Lester
"Even when I was a heroin-addicted hooker, I'd look at women who (used while they were pregnant) and say, 'How can you do that?' Kristin said. "Then it was me."
Photos by MARC LESTER / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS

Kristin Alexander's baby boy took stiff-kneed steps across the carpet. I could see her reflection in his gray-blue eyes.

Of all the wreckage Kristin left behind in five years of heroin addiction -- losing her job and her house, ruining her relationships, risking her life -- this had the biggest consequences. An accidental pregnancy. A baby she exposed to heroin in her womb. A baby she couldn't care for. She couldn't change this part of his story. She would always be an addict. He would always be her son. She couldn't catch up on the things she'd missed.

Photographer Marc Lester and I drove out to Chugiak for her first visit with the baby after getting out of jail. It was late March. The baby lived with his paternal grandparents, but Kristin's mom, Kathleen Stevens, had him on Friday afternoons. The baby's father couldn't care for him. He and Kristin didn't talk anymore.

Kristin sat cross-legged on the floor surrounded in plastic toys. Her compact, strong baby boy was almost a year old, an adept walker. He toddled up to me and fell into my lap, grabbing my notebook and my pen. As I held him, I had a hard time not judging Kristin. She injected heroin while she was pregnant. How could she have been so blind and self-centered? How could she risk so much?

Kristin made me think a lot about choice. Heroin addiction causes strong physical and psychological cravings. It messes with the ability to think clearly and make good decisions. People said it was a disease, like cancer, but it wasn't exactly, because using heroin wasn't like having a tumor, it wasn't totally outside of her control. Every time she shot up, no matter how strung-out she might have been, she was still making a choice to pick up the needle and put it in her arm. Addiction drove her decisions, but they were still her decisions. Part of being clean would be learning to live with what she'd done.

Once when Marc and I visited Kristin's apartment, she showed us a picture of herself in a short leopard-print skirt and a low-cut top, with kinky, bleached hair. Her eyes looked hollow. She used the photo for posts on Craigslist in the escort section. She was two months pregnant when it was taken, but she didn't know it at the time.

By then, she'd burned every healthy person who had tried to help her. She lived with a guy, not the baby's father, who told her he was going to marry her and wanted a cut of what she got from selling herself. But she didn't give it to him. Everything she earned went to drugs.

The pregnancy test came back positive as she was trying one more time to get into detox. The program wouldn't take her. Withdrawal causes miscarriage, they said. She considered having an abortion, but decided against it.

"I didn't think it was right and I wanted to change," she said. " I just wanted to stop."

She went to the methadone clinic. But the clinic was full of other pregnant addicts, more than 70 of them. She told herself she would only shoot up until she could get methadone, but once she got into the clinic in the fall of 2008, she relapsed. She stopped using after she started a treatment program a few months before he was born in May 2009.

"Even when I was a heroin-addicted hooker, I'd look at women who (used while they were pregnant) and say, 'How can you do that?' she said. "Then it was me."

She didn't have an excuse, except that when she used, desperate selfishness took over and logic didn't apply. Now she saw it all clearly and it haunted her. But she couldn't change it, she said. All she could do was stay clean, people in recovery told her. All she could do was keep showing up for her baby. She tried not to think of him of a reminder of all the ways she'd failed. Now he was the reason she wanted to stay clean.

Sometimes she Googled "effects of opiates on a fetus." There isn't a lot of information about what heroin exposure does to children over the long-term. Doctors say drug withdrawal in the womb and after birth is most damaging. Her baby was born at a normal weight, she told me as we watched him bang on a plastic piano. His development was on track, she said. But even as she said those words, I could hear her uncertainty and her guilt.

"I could be an awesome mom," she said.

If she had a job. And a place to live. If she could stay clean. She fell on her back, holding the baby up in the air above her. He cracked up. Musical baby laughter. Tears trailed down her cheeks.

I went into the kitchen to see Kathleen. Kristin was doing well, I said.

"She's working really hard," Kathleen said. "I want to hope it's going to be different. But I know better. We've been here before."

The baby needed a diaper change. But Kristin didn't move. Kathleen got the diaper bag and changed him. When he was up and walking again, Kristin called to him in a soft voice. He didn't look her way.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.

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WHAT ADDICTION COSTS:: Children of addicts in the system. Join the discussion on Julia's blog adn.com/jomalley


By JULIA O'MALLEY
jomalley@adn.com