Article by Alynie Hudson | Photography by Jessica Dekhart | Owl Staff
Helen Simpson had never been more scared. After days of tearful practice, she was about to stand in front of her class and deliver a speech about her personal experience with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (also referred to as FASDs or simply FASD). Despite her fears, however, this talk became Simpson’s first step toward a life of service and advocacy.
Simpson was diagnosed with FASD when she was 11 years old. These disorders stem from the mother’s consumption of alcohol during pregnancy, and can lead to abnormalities in facial features, cognitive ability, and behavior.
Simpson’s birth mother struggled with substance addiction and mental health issues. Simpson states, “Not only did my birth mother abuse drugs her whole pregnancy, but she couldn’t care for us. We were taken from her when they found us homeless on the streets. I was three months old.”
Soon after, Simpson was adopted by her parents, who had already taken in and supported seven other children with special needs at that time. Her now-retired father was a minister and her mother, a nursing student, quit her job to care for Simpson and her siblings.
Simpson says, “When you’re adopted, you grow up automatically with a sense you weren’t enough, you weren’t loved or good enough. My parents combated this war in our precious minds and souls everyday.”
Her parents also made sure she had a strong foundation of faith and morals growing up. Simpson says, “Growing up, they taught us that faith in being a good person, being a compassionate person, and showing every person on this planet love is what faith truly is.”
However, when she was 17 years old, Simpson began to experiment with various drugs. During her 20s, she struggled with her own addictions to cocaine and methamphetamine.
“It started out as once a week. I convinced myself I was more creative when I used…I had extremely poor impulse control, which is a common behavior of FASD and was only made worse by the addiction,” she states.
She also experienced mental health issues in her adulthood. She recalls, “I was so depressed. I was tired of using but there was no reason to stop.”
A significant point in Simpson’s life was during her speech class at HCC, where she gave a speech on FASD. She had struggled to speak clearly throughout her life and was terrified prior to the speech. In spite of her fears, she stepped up and delivered it.
Simpson’s professor, Claudia Brown, was inspired. Professor Brown approached Simpson afterward and mentioned that Laura Hutton, another HCC faculty member, had an adopted daughter who also had FASD. Professor Brown had never met anyone else with FASD, and suggested Simpson could be an advocate for those struggling with the condition.
Simpson recounts, “Here I was after doing the scariest thing of my life to date, and one of the smartest and most wonderful people I had met was telling me I had given her hope. She instilled in me direction and hope that I could take my diagnosis and bring happiness to people.”
With the help of two HCC professors and the support of her loved ones, Simpson began to transform her diagnosis into something positive.
“Professor Brown and her sister, Professor Hutton, took time out of their crazy lives to mentor me. Had I not taken that speech class, I never would have taken this amazing path of advocacy.”
Simpson’s life took another turn for the better when she met her husband, who was himself a recovering addict. Looking back, she says, “We held each other accountable. We openly talked about our addictions, our struggles and our weaknesses.”
After finding out about Simpson’s struggles, her parents still supported her. In her most vulnerable moments, they showed her unconditional love.
“When I finally got clean and told them, my dad said he wanted to know more. He wanted to understand it. There was no shame from them, or anger,” Simpson says.
When she became pregnant, Simpson and her husband knew they wanted to show their chlld the same love. “My husband and I have decided we will always be open about addiction and will not hide it. We will also spend our lives giving him a childhood he does not have to recover from.”
Simpson’s mission to end the cycle of addiction led her to act on the ideas that first began to take shape in her speech class. Now, years later, Simpson has worked with foster parents, counselors, and the Department of Human Services to promote awareness and understanding of FASD.
She also speaks at FASD-focused conferences across the country. Simpson still acknowledges the impact Professor Brown had on her life.
“I have been gifted so many beautiful opportunities because of the door she opened. Who knew one door opened by one woman would lead to this great adventure?”
Simpson went on to author a children’s book called The Way I Am is Different: A Children’s Book About a Boy with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. She remembered her childhood feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem and sought to connect with young readers feeling the same way.
Simpson wants everyone to remember addiction is a disorder rather than a choice. Accordingly, people with addictions need to be treated-not blamed. “People don’t abuse substances because they are happy. People abuse these things because there is trauma, there is pain, there is hurt, there is sadness, grief, depression, or anxiety.”
Simpson firmly believes women who use during pregnancy need to be helped, not degraded, saying we should “support them in being mothers so they can get their children the help they need, and be the best they can be for themselves and their children.
“To this day, Simpson continues to act as an advocate for those struggling with FASD and addiction. Despite the challenging nature of her work, she maintains a positive outlook.
“I have seen so much progress and healing already in the FASD and recovery communities. I have witnessed miracles of love and light. I am blessed enough to kiss one of those miracles every night.”