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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Generational legacy: the devastation of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

This is the second feature in CAMH’s series on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). September 9th was International FASD Awareness Day.

Meeting Gladys

Gladys Thompson is 57 years old, a grandmother raising her eight-year-old granddaughter, M. They live in Garden River First Nation, which is about a 20-minute drive from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

When she begins talking about herself, she’s unsure of how old she is. Her clinician, who is sitting in on the interview, reminds her.

“I always knew there was something wrong with me but I always hid behind men. I just couldn’t put my hand on it. I tried to go back to school for college. I couldn’t concentrate and I knew there was something wrong,” says Thompson.

“Every time I talked in conversations everybody would laugh at me. I didn’t understand them when they talked. I couldn’t get along if I tried. I couldn’t get along, I couldn’t.”

Thompson is one of an estimated 350,000 Canadians who fall somewhere on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Symptoms include inconsistent memory, difficulty interpreting and applying abstract concepts like managing money and time and the inability to recognize indirect social cues. These can result in problems later in life, such as mental health problems, poor academic achievement, addiction issues and problems with employment.

Piecing together Thompson’s story is a slow and difficult process, one she began with her clinician a short time ago. What has become evident over the course of their discussions is that Gladys, her daughter and her two grandchildren were all exposed to alcohol prenatally and all likely fall somewhere on the fetal alcohol spectrum.

Piecing together a painful past

Thompson was raised in a foster home in Elliot Lake, Ontario. Her parents, as she recalls, were both alcoholics. “My dad and (mom) never had no education. They can’t even sign their names, they just do ‘x’s. She had to have been drinking with me, there’s no way she wasn’t because she loved it.”

She shares a family history that is scattered and full of pain. There were a number of siblings that all went to live with their father when their parents split. The older children left because of his drinking. At one point Thompson and her father lived out of his car, where he would leave her for long stretches. Other people who saw her would bring her sandwiches. An older sister told her later that there had been instances of incest with members of the family involving her father.

Thompson later moved in with her foster family. “There was no closeness or talk. There was us three sisters and I was the youngest and they made sure we were fed and went to school,” she says. “I just felt dirty around them because I’m Native and I didn’t even know I was Native, I just figured they hated me.” She had difficulty being in a classroom and would spend days in the bush at a time, only coming home when she was hungry. Then one morning her foster mother woke her up and said “you’re going”.

After the foster home came a period of inconsistent housing and schooling, including at a training school in Guelph, which she remembers as being like a prison. She stopped going to school regularly in grade 6.

Around the age of 14, she ran away for good. “I started roaming Garden River and met up with the big drunks on the reserve and started hanging with them and the next thing I knew I was pregnant and I remember still going out until somebody in the bars said ‘you shouldn’t be here, you’re pregnant’.”

She gave birth to a daughter, L. “I wasn’t even thinking about FAS all through that time and when she was born I remember them saying, ‘oh, you’ve got a healthy baby girl’”.

L.’s upbringing was challenging. “I couldn’t get her to listen to me. When she got bigger I tried to get help from the school. I told the counsellor there, ‘I don’t know what to do with her, she’s not coming home no more’. She was just young then, six, seven.” Thompson, her daughter and husband were all living in Toronto at the time. She later discovered her husband, L’s stepfather, had been molesting her.

Eventually L. grew up and had a son, S., who’s now 21, and a daughter, M., who is now 8 and being raised by Thompson. L. drank through both pregnancies. Thompson remembers one incident in particular when her daughter was pregnant with M.

“She was in early months of pregnancy drinking a beer with her girlfriends and I told her ‘you know that’s wrong, you can’t drink when you’re pregnant’. And that girlfriend...she said ‘there’s nothing wrong with that, I drank with all my kids and they’re okay’ and (L.) believed that girl because she wanted to keep drinking”.

FASD in Canada

Living in the present

Thompson and her daughter have struggled over the years, often involving custody of M. But the family, along with S., continue to move forward together. Now that information about FASD has come to light, Thompson and her clinicians are trying to piece together a more fulsome portrait of how alcohol has impacted the family.

And Thompson herself is gaining a much clearer picture of who she is. She knows how old she is now, and is beginning to understand the extent of the dysfunction of her upbringing. “I didn’t think it was tough until now, I started talking about it.”

Thompson also has more support now that she’s receiving services from the Canadian Mental Health Association in Sault Ste Marie. She and M. live in a housing project in Garden River First Nation. She currently doesn’t qualify for the Ontario Disability Support Program because she doesn’t have an official diagnosis of FASD, and with an official diagnosis in the future her circumstances may change. She has diabetes and uses visual diagrams to remember to take medications. She’s learning about how FASD, trauma and foster care have shaped who she is and the information is starting to empower her.

“Now I’ve got my spirits looking up.”

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