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The sobering truth about the long term consequences of drinking when pregnant.

By MARIO CHRISTODOULOU and DEB WHITMONT

As a young mother Anne Russell knew something was not right about her son Seth.

He was impulsive, depressed and angry. At the age of 10 he spoke about killing himself.

Her search for answers ended when Seth was 17. He had brain damage, and her drinking during pregnancy was the cause.

“I just thought I was a bad parent… I just thought it was me, I thought I was doing something wrong,” Ms Russell says now.

“I didn’t know how to be a good parent, [I thought] I’m not going to make these children into happy productive children who love life — I’m going to destroy them.”

Ms Russell has always blamed herself for the behaviour of her son. She remembers sleepless nights, never quite sure if Seth was wandering the streets.

“I got up in the middle of the night, I’d check his room and he wouldn’t be there, I’d have to go out walking around or driving around in the car to try and find him,” she recalls.

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Anne Russell. Image via Four Corners.

“Every police siren, every time we saw the police go past, every time we heard an ambulance it was Seth. It got so bad that we had this black humour that, you know, ‘what’s happened to Seth?'”

Ms Russell visited numerous doctors looking for answers. When she found them, they came from a specialist on the other side of the world in Canada.

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She was horrified by the news he had Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). During pregnancy she considered herself an average drinker.

“I wasn’t an alcoholic, I definitely wasn’t an alcoholic at the time thinking back, but I did drink socially, a few drinks,” she says.

As Ms Russell learned, alcohol is poison to a developing brain — worse than cannabis, cocaine or heroin, according to experts in the field.

What’s more, it only takes relatively few drinks to cause damage. Seth is now 31. He has come to terms with his condition, but still struggles.

“I’ve been suicidal my whole life,” he explains.

“I look fine, I act fine, I’m well-spoken, but nobody actually knows what goes on in my head. Things that my brain does to me without me even wanting to.”

No-one knows for sure how many people in Australia are affected by foetal alcohol disorders.

Conservative estimates, based on overseas studies, put the number at around 500,000.

That is more than Down syndrome, spina bifida and cerebral palsy sufferers combined.

Claire had ‘no idea’ about harms of drinking while pregnant

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Claire and Brad were horrified to learn their daughter had FASD. Image via Four Corners.

Every morning Claire Holland fights a battle to get her 10-year-old daughter Jaimie to school.

“The main challenge is trying to keep myself calm … I’ve got to guide her every step, one step at a time,” she says.

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As Jaimie was growing up Ms Holland and husband Brad were told she suffered from ADHD, but they suspected there was something more.

“We tried all going to see these different therapists and psychologists and what not, we tried all these different strategies with her behaviour, but it just didn’t seem to work,” she says.

“We knew there was something else, there had to be something else… I just knew as a mother, there was something just not right.”

Claire and Brad were horrified by the answer: Jaimie had FASD.

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Jaimie Holland with mum Claire and Dr Doug Shelton. Image via Four Corners.

“I had no idea of the detriment that drinking does, of the actual brain damage it causes. I was just torn apart with guilt and it was a really dark time,” Ms Holland says.

Drinking was a regular part of her and her husband’s day.

“I guess I’m sort of kind of to blame as well, because I was there during the pregnancy drinking with her,” Mr Holland admits.

“It was never sort of over the top, we were never sort of rolling around blind drunk … for me, I mean like I’d get home from work, have a beer, have another beer, pour Claire a beer.”

Ms Holland says she now has to live with the guilt of her drinking, but hopes her experience can educate others.

“I was just mortified at what I had done and it took a lot, it took a long time for me to really get a grip. I remember sitting there one day and just being so down on myself, self-loathing.

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four corners foetal alcohol spectrum disorder
Claire Holland. Image via Four Corners.

“I just thought, ‘who is this helping? It’s not helping me, it’s certainly not helping Jaimie. Enough is enough, get up, use those energies’.

“I’ll always have guilt, of course I will, but I refuse to sit and wallow, it just does no good.”

FASD a problem ‘for all of us’

Ms Russell has now turned her energies to raising awareness about foetal alcohol disorders.

For her, drinking during pregnancy is not just a problem for mothers.

She see it as a problem for all of us, and a challenge to Australia’s drinking culture.

When she looks at Seth, she says all she ever wanted was for him to be happy.

“I’m afraid I’ve failed. My son isn’t happy, he’s not happy, I don’t see a point in time where he is likely to be completely happy. And that’s all parents, mums want for their children, isn’t it?” she said.

“There is hope, I do believe that there is hope, but it’s a long haul.”

Hidden Harm, reported by Deb Whitmont and presented by Kerry O’Brien, goes to air on Monday 2nd November at 8.30pm. It is replayed on Tuesday 3rd November at 10.00am and Wednesday 4th at midnight. It can also be seen on ABC News 24 on Saturday at 8.00pm, ABC iview and at abc.net.au/4corners.

This post originally appeared on ABC Online.

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