I Went to the Hospital to Give Birth…And Tested Positive for Meth
When the nurse first told me, mid-labor, that there were methamphetamines in my system, I cracked up laughing at the absurdity. When child services showed up, it stopped being funny.
When I wrote this Narratively Classic, I don’t think I had ever been so vulnerable on the page before, which was scary. But putting my experience into the world seemed necessary, and it has ultimately been gratifying. Immediately after the essay was published, in May 2016, I heard from scores of people who had been through similar experiences. This past Saturday was my son’s birthday, making it the ninth anniversary of this incident, and years later, I still receive emails about it every few weeks. While I’m angry that this continues to happen to new mothers, I’m glad this story helps others feel less alone. The messages I receive are often written in the moment, while people are immersed in bleak and frightening situations, and I’m grateful this piece has positioned me to be a tiny light in the darkness for them.
It’s the birth of my first child, and I’m seven, maybe eight hours into labor. Whatever time it is, I’m well past the point of caring about modesty, so I don’t even think it’s strange when a nurse follows me into the bathroom.
“Just so you know, you’ve tested positive…” The nurse pauses there, and shifts her eyes to the floor. My anxiety fills the silence. I expect she’s going to say something about the whirring machines that have been measuring the baby’s heartbeat, my contractions, my blood pressure, any of those things.
Relief floods me, and I explode with laughter. Meth? I didn’t even take Tylenol during my pregnancy.
“Well, I’ve always been a positive person,” I say, because cracking awful jokes is what I do to pave over uncomfortable situations. I smile, and the nurse seems relieved. Clearly, this is a mistake. I offer to give another sample.
The nurse crosses her arms in front of her chest while I squat over the toilet, one hand hoisting my hospital gown up toward my enormous belly, the other dangling the plastic cup in an area I can’t even see. Remarkably, my aim is true.
If there’s one thing I’ve mastered during pregnancy, it’s peeing into cups. My obstetrician’s office required a urine sample at most every visit to check hormone levels. At this point I’m 42 weeks, so I’ve peed into dozens, maybe scores, of sample cups. That’s probably why I wasn’t even aware the hospital administered a drug test when I checked in to give birth. My everyday routine as a pregnant lady involves peeing on demand.
The nurse sends the sample to the hospital’s lab.
When I imagined labor, I expected to pass the time by stretching on an exercise ball or pacing the hospital’s long white hallways. But my doctor is concerned about the baby’s heartbeat — it drops dramatically every time I have a contraction — and so I am confined to a labor bed, an IV of fluids in my arm, an oxygen mask on my face, and belts stretched across my belly to monitor the baby.
So I make do. My doula rubs lavender essential oil on my temples, and my husband plays “Push It,” the Spotify playlist I created for labor and delivery. I have a photo of Beyoncé propped up on the over-bed table, because if anything can inspire me, it’s Queen Bey. Also on the table is my birth plan, which is kind of like a wish list for delivery. That includes modest requests, like keeping the door to my room closed, as well as more imperative things, like, “Please delay all routine procedures on the baby until after the bonding and breastfeeding period.”
Occasionally I convince the staff to unhook the machines and let me move around the room for a few minutes. It’s better that way. Movement helps distract from the contractions, allowing my body to muscle through each wicked snap. But when I’m in bed, I’m hit with the full force of every punch, my vision blurring and sparkling along the edges. It’s like a migraine, but rippling through the entirety of me, and I just have to lie there and take it.
I’ve just done a few stretches and heaved myself back into bed when another nurse enters the room. I snap the oxygen mask back on my face as she delivers her news.
My drug sample is positive for meth. Again. The nurse ticks off a list of everything that’s about to happen: The baby will be tested for drugs. The hospital social worker will meet with me before I can be discharged. Child Protective Services will be contacted to evaluate my fitness as a parent.
“And of course, you cannot breastfeed the baby,” the nurse finishes.
I rip the oxygen mask away. This isn’t a joke anymore.
“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.
“I don’t know.” She looks grim.
“This isn’t right!” My husband is angry. He knows me, he’s seen the way I’ve nurtured and cared for the fragile bud inside me. His voice deepens into a growl as he stabs a finger toward the nurse. “You tell them. I don’t care who you have to call. The lab, the social worker, the doctors. You tell them they’re wrong.”
The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.
My husband and I have experienced loss through miscarriage, so I’ve been especially careful this pregnancy, almost to the point of superstition. No alcohol, no deli foods, nothing raw, undercooked or smoked. The bulk of my produce was organic, my drinking water purified through a reverse-osmosis system. I used clove oil on a persistent toothache instead of visiting the dentist, because I didn’t want any anesthetic to pass through my body and into the placenta. During all 42 weeks, the hardest drugs that entered my body were prenatal vitamins and puffs from my prescription asthma inhaler.
“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.
The contractions are furious. I am furious. I am scared. My husband and my doula both hunch over their smartphones, searching for facts about asthma inhalers and drug tests. In the background, my labor mix plays “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. My birth plan is on the floor, wrinkled, footprints stamped onto the white paper. I want to run away, but I’m belted down to a labor bed and attached to a bunch of machinery, caught somewhere between a sob and a scream.
The nurses, who begin to look alike, are no longer friendly, and we have a lot of conversations that don’t make sense. It’s 4, possibly 5 a.m., but who’s to say? Labor runs on Salvador Dalí time, and I’ve hit that point of sleeplessness where the world doesn’t feel real anymore.
My husband scrolls through pages of information about albuterol inhalers and drug tests. He shows his phone to every nurse who steps foot in the room.
“See,” he points at a page from Drugs.com, then flips to CBS News stories about false positives, archives of reports, message boards with anecdotal evidence.
“Just give me one more test,” I plead. “I’ll prove it.”
I realize how much we sound like the prisoners who argue their innocence or patients in a mental institution who say they’re not crazy. The more I insist I’m not on drugs, the more I sound like I am.
“You can take this up with CPS,” a stone-faced nurse says.
Child Protective Services. A bolt of dread shoots through me as I remember the pregnancy announcement I sent to my loved ones and posted on Facebook six months ago. It seemed innocent enough. Bryan Cranston, the star of Breaking Bad, owns a movie theater in my town. When I ran into him at a film screening, I thought a photo with him would be the perfect way to announce my pregnancy and declare my love for the show, which is about a teacher-turned-methamphetamine dealer.
On the announcement, Bryan Cranston has one hand on my belly. “Breaking Baby,” the card reads in the style of the show’s logo, like elements in the periodic table. The bottom of the card modifies a memorable quote from the show: “I am the one who knocks up.”
In the shadow of my failed drug tests, a card celebrating a morally questionable meth cooker has become one of my most misguided ideas. If the folks at CPS want proof I’m an unfit parent, I’m handing it to them on quality card stock, stuffed inside a pretty envelope.
Eventually the long desert night becomes a smoldering July morning. The baby’s heartbeat drops until it almost stops, and my doctor is summoned. My son is born via emergency C-section at 9:56 a.m. He is whisked away to another room, my husband follows, and for the first time in 10 months, I am alone.