“I’m strong enough to share my story, knowing that I’ll be judged, and I’m O.K. with it,” said Lisa Lawley from her Kermode Friendship Society office on Park Street.
Lawley runs a program called Circle Of Life and has been at the forefront helping women whose children are diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) – which is associated with alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
FASD is a type of complex developmental behavioural complex (CDBC) that can affect an individual in multiple areas of functioning, such as learning, mental health, behaviour, adaptive and social skills.
But while FASD is a condition that sweeps across, race, class, ethnicity and social status – literally anyone who has consumed alcohol/substances during pregnancy – there are still multiple layers of stigma surrounding it, especially for women.
“It’s not easy as a mother to see your child struggle with FASD,” she said about her own personal experience. Three out of Lawley’s six children were diagnosed with FASD in their childhood.
Lawley, who is Tahltan, was living in Dease Lake and working on a pregnancy outreach program when she first started learning about FASD.
“As I learnt more about the topic, I realized that I was drinking during my pregnancy too.”
She moved to Terrace in 2000 to join the Kermode Friendship Society and her children were diagnosed in 2004.
“I struggled with so much of shame and guilt,” she said about the aftermath of the diagnoses.
“We mothers live with guilt everyday, I have to forgive myself everyday.”
A lot of service providers speak from their head but not from their heart. This is problematic according to her because when most people talk about FASD they are not “trauma informed.” This led to a lot of women being judged with terms such as “alcoholic mothers” or “brain damaged babies.” It made it harder for them to heal.
Lawley is passionate about sharing her story and speaking up about this issue because according to her, even if one person in the crowd can relate and reaches out for help, it means getting to help out one family.
“I know what I experienced as a mother and I don’t want them to go through the same.”
Lawley, who is now 52-years-old, has spoken extensively about FASD through the lens of her own personal experience at various national and global conferences. She has also co-authored research papers with other trailblazers in her field such as Michelle Stewart, Rachel Tambour and Alexandra Johnson.
Over the past 21 years she has worked extensively with women from around northwest B.C. who struggle with alcohol/substance use while pregnant or during their child bearing years. One of the biggest learnings that she has had is “to be present, listen and be their cheerleader.”
As a service provider she patiently walks through the process with the women who come to her for help.
“If a person is using substances during pregnancy, you can’t just say stop or don’t do that and expect it to work,” she said.
“It’s about gradual changes and looking at different ways to reduce the substance use … so we talk about harm reduction methods, like having a glass of water and hydrating, or having a healthy meal in place of alcohol,” she said.
There’s no room for judgement and stigma in this process, so ultimately it has also been about creating a safe space for these women.
“If we judge people when they come to seek help, it will just turn them away,” she said. “Instead, when people see such women, they should take time to pause and think ‘what happened to her?’ ‘Why the pain?’ or ‘Why is she self-medicating?’”
Within the last decade, with the opioid crisis intensifying in B.C., Lawley said that the challenge has intensified for service providers – especially with people combining drugs. Sometimes they end up losing the people they are helping.
As part of the job it is very important to be aware of personal triggers as well as that of the team members, she said, because it’s impossible not to feel when you are passionate about the women that you are helping.
“It’s a profession where you inadvertently care for your clients – you can’t be in a social profession if you don’t care for these women,” she said.