Kathy Mitchell’s love/hate relationship with alcohol started in her childhood, but now she’s warning others about the dangers of drinking while pregnant as she cares for her 43-year-old daughter, who has the developmental age of a first grader.
The fifth of seven children with roots in Rockville, Maryland, Mitchell started experiencing blackouts related to drinking before she was 14.
“Everyone else was busy surviving and doing their own thing, and no one seemed to notice that I needed help,” she told the Washington Post.
By 16, Mitchell was a high school sophomore and she became pregnant by her high school boyfriend. She dropped out of school to wait tables and gave birth to her son a month after her 17th birthday.
Mitchell gave birth to her daughter, Karli Schrider, before she was 18.
Mitchell went on to have five more children, but two of them died, resulting in a psychological break. While hospitalized, Mitchell received treatment for her alcoholism and eventually became a certified addiction counselor herself.
In the course of her professional life, Mitchell noticed that the symptoms that many infants in the crack-baby epidemic had symptoms similar to that of her daughter’s.
“I hadn’t used crack cocaine while pregnant with Karli — I’d only used alcohol — so I wondered whether alcohol could have caused her problems," she said. "I’d never heard of that possibility before."
At 16, the same age Mitchell became pregnant for the first time, Schrider was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.
“I thought I would die from the grief and guilt,” Mitchell said. “It was one of the worst days of my life, and at that moment I knew that I had to do what I could to prevent this from happening to another child.”
When Mitchell was having children, drinking while pregnant was largely accepted. Mitchell said people would tell her, “If you want to have a big fat baby, drink a beer a day,” and “Red wine is good for the baby’s blood,” and she drank mostly on weekends with friends.
“The fact is, I had poor nutrition, smoked cigarettes, worked in bars and drank alcohol," she said. "None of this was conducive to a healthy pregnancy.”
Now, Mitchell is the vice president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which helps to raise awareness of the issue, but she hopes to destigmatize the conversation by talking about her own struggles.
“The guilt and remorse are painful, but it’s even worse to think of what Karli might have been — a nurse, like she wanted do be when she was 10, or a wife or mother?" Mitchell said. "She won’t have any of it now, because I drank during my pregnancies. I would never knowingly harm my child, but what I didn’t know ended up robbing her of so much.”
Schrider gets around with the help of an aide. She goes to Zumba and water aerobics classes between working one afternoon a week as a stock clerk and grocery shopping. She sleeps with her favorite dolls in a room lit by a glowing Tinker Bell night light, but many afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome lead far less cushioned lives.
Besides stunted intellectual and motor development, neurological, emotional and behavioral issues, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome also has an increased risk of suicide, according to a study published in 2006 by researchers with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
“I adore my very sweet daughter,” Mitchell told the Post. “She’s a forever innocent child. But not a day goes by that I don’t ask myself, ‘What if? What if alcohol hadn’t been a part of my life?’”