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West Virginia Mom on Her Struggle with Opioid Addiction While Pregnant: ‘It Was Frightening’

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At nearly a year old, Emma Hernandez has a mouthful of teeth and she doesn’t walk — she runs — sometimes while yelling “Mommy!” or “Uh-oh!” or another word in her toddler vocabulary.

“She’s extremely developed for her age,” says her mom, Amber Clements, 30, of Huntington, West Virginia.

Pretty great for a little girl who began life affected by neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which occurs when babies have been exposed in the womb to opiates and other drugs. Clements was in recovery from opioid addiction — via methadone — when she became pregnant with Emma. Methadone is an opioid that is used to reduce withdrawal symptoms in people addicted to heroin or other narcotics, minus the high associated with addiction, and often is used with opioid-affected newborns as well.

Watch the full episode of People Features: Lily’s Place: Babies Born Addicted now on the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN or download the PEN app on your favorite device.

Pregnant women usually are advised by doctors to continue their methadone treatment throughout pregnancy to decrease the risk of relapse and miscarriage. Emma was born with opioids in her system.

Amber Clements and her daughters, Emma and Isabella (left)
Ali Smith

“It was frightening and depressing,” Clements says, “like you’re being punished for doing better. I tried everything to come off of the methadone because I just didn’t want to have a baby like that. If you quit the methadone while pregnant you can get in trouble, but if you have a baby on methadone then you still get looked at. It’s just a struggle mentally and physically.”

Clements’ personal struggle began at age 19 with pain pills she was prescribed after hurting her arm. “I grew up in a Christian family and went to a Christian school,”Clements says. “I just got mixed up with the wrong people, and it all went downhill after that.”

For more on Amber Clements’ powerful story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Months of opiate use turned into years, and Emma was born in early 2016. After the baby developed the symptoms of NAS, Clements decided to transfer her to Lily’s Place — the nation’s first comprehensive facility for babies with NAS and their families —where they both would be helped. Emma’s sister Isabella — a surprise baby born in December — also manifested with NAS, a testimony to Clements’ continued success in recovery in the methadone program.

“Even though having a baby on methadone is not something you’d ever want to do, the people at Lily’s Place have helped me to look at it a different way,” says Clements, who plans to go back to her waitressing job very soon. “I’m doing good and staying clean. It’s going great.”